Immigration Activists Court African Americans
ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon and this is News and Notes.
As we pointed out earlier on today's program, immigration rights advocates are working to broaden their movement to include African Americans. But activists say that forging a common agenda is proving difficult. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:
Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, says he was touched when he read that marchers in Mississippi sang, We Shall Overcome, in Spanish. He kept thinking back to the impact of Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel, Invisible Man, that exposed the indignities of the African American experience.
Mr. WADE HENDERSON (Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights): And now you are seeing, an undocumented immigrant community--that has been largely invisible to most Americans--asserting themselves, having their voices heard in the political process, and making known, their circumstance to American citizens.
LUDDEN: But on the airwaves of Washington DC's WPFW, it wasn't all warm and fuzzy on a local call-in show.
Mr. RON PINCHBACK (Host, Community Comment, WPFW): Good morning.
Unidentified Man: Hi, good morning, Ron. This word, immigrant. For those of us who are descendants of African-American slaves, we know what that word is. It's a slap in the face to us, because everybody knows that we weren't immigrants.
LUDDEN: Whites, he says, who came here in the 18th and 19th century were immigrants, we got kicked to the curb then and we're getting kicked again, he says, because the newest immigrants have a lock on all the entry-level jobs.
Unidentified Man: And we're the ones that get labeled. We get labeled as lazy, don't wanna work, and all we been doin' since we got here was work. But then once we get to the point, we ain't gonna work for slave wages no more, then this is what the game is.
LUDDEN: Wade Henderson acknowledges the perception that Latinos are taking jobs from blacks is widespread. But he says it's wrong, according to a recent report on the plight of African Americans.
Mr. HENDERSON: And none of the studies that were cited in any way listed immigration issues as a factor in determining the circumstances of black men in poverty. I think it's often used as a way of, you know, stirring the pot.
LUDDEN: Or, put another way, a tactic of divide and rule. Hilary Shelton of the NAACP says African Americans need to recognize this and remember history. Back in the 1940s, he says corporate America used black workers as scabs to undermine efforts to unionize. Only by joining together did the working class make gains and Shelton says the same is true with today's illegal immigrants.
Mr. HILARY SHELTON (Director, NAACP Washington Bureau): If we had a program that documented workers, it would create a scenario in the country in which all workers would have that equal protection. That equal protection means that they can begin to organize as laborers, to collectively bargain for better wages and for health insurance, and to be paid a living wage so that they can even plan for their own retirement. That's a big deal.
LUDDEN: And that's exactly the message Jaime Contreras is trying to get out to both communities. Contreras is with the National Capital Immigration Coalition. He's been trying to get black churches and civic groups to support the rallies. And Contreras has made the rounds of schools, telling Latino and black students about their common interests.
Mr. JAIME CONTRERAS (National Capital Immigration Coalition): Why do people still have to live in poverty? Why do people still have to live without health insurance or health benefits? And why do people have to be pushed out of communities? And so those are issues that affect both Latino or immigrants in general, and affects the African American, and affects working people in general.
LUDDEN: To do something about those issues, Latinos need political power. That means votes and that may be the most important help sympathetic African Americans can give.
Jennifer LUDDEN, NPR News, Washington.