Black Community Debates Impact of Illegal Immigrants

In Los Angeles, huge immigrant rallies and this week's boycott have drawn a mixed response from African-Americans. Although some black leaders support the protests, many African-American residents say that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from their community.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The workers are back on the job, the businesses are open, and the process of assessing yesterday's day without immigrants is underway. By most estimates, hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out in cities large and small. Some marches were very well attended. Others were not.

Today we're going to take a look at two issues surrounding the marches. We'll talk with a business owner who relies on immigrant labor in a few moments. First, we're going to go to Los Angeles.

SIEGEL: In L.A., Mexicans and Mexican Americans made up the majority of the marchers yesterday. Meanwhile, African Americans have been divided on the issue of illegal immigration.

As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, the conflict is over jobs and what some African Americans see as their civil rights legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMMIGRATION PROTEST)

GREG BUTLER: Good afternoon everyone.

INA JAFFE: As the city was gearing up for yesterday's massive immigration marches, Greg Butler and a couple of dozen supporters held a news conference in a south L.A. parking lot to announce a new African American organization.

BUTLER: The We Want to Work Campaign. Since this whole illegal immigration issue has come up, we've been hearing everybody throw the word around, that there's some jobs that nobody else wants. Well, in our community, we want you to show us where those jobs are because there are black men walking around who can't find work.

JAFFE: And when they do, Butler says, they don't make a living wage. Studies have shown that immigrant labor has depressed wages for low-skilled workers, though how much is still debated. But the concerns here went deeper than that. Ted Hayes, a longtime L.A. political activist, said that African Americans, who are just 10 percent of the city's population, are in danger of being overwhelmed in every way by the rapidly growing immigrant community.

TED HAYES: It's bad enough they take our houses. They take our employment and reduce it down to substandard. It's bad enough they take over our schools, our hospitals. It's bad enough they beat up our children. But they've taken our civil rights, they're doing the name of Martin Luther King.

JAFFE: Groups opposed to illegal immigration have been reaching out to African Americans in recent months. Ilene Olsen (ph), and a couple of friends read about this gathering on the web. She'd never been in South L.A. before and drove two hours from her home east of the city to get here.

ILENE OLSEN: I wanted to support the blacks. I think that they're being hurt. And I want to give them any kind of aid that I could, you bet.

JAFFREY: Olsen said she was especially concerned about the growing prevalence of Spanish. That bothered South L.A. community activist Lyda Heron (ph), too.

LYDA HERON: That's another thing that locks me out of the labor market, I only speak one language. Okay, see and if you only speak one language, we're clearly at a disadvantage in this.

JAFFE: In fact, there was much derision here about the Spanish version of the Star Spangled Banner and that erupted into a spontaneous rendition of the original.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROUP SIGNING STAR-SPANGLED BANNER)

JAFFE: But yesterday, there were some African Americans who were marching to a different tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHERS CHANTING IN SPANISH)

JAFFE: The man with the bullhorn, urging the marchers on with shouts of si se puede — yes, it can be done — was Najee Ali, founder of Project Islamic Hope, a local civil rights organization.

NAJEE ALI: Our ancestors, Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, they were at the forefront and laid — and gave birth to the civil rights movements, which young leaders and activists like myself have inherited. So we've got the baton now. So we're joining forces with our Latino brothers and sisters to help them in their struggle for social justice.

JAFFREY: Nearby was Marqueece Harris-Dawson, executive director of the Community Coalition, which has both black and Latino members. It's not the fault of Latinos, he said, if blacks are underpaid or underemployed.

MARQUEECE HARRIS: Workers don't set wages. Workers don't decide who gets the job and who doesn't. Employers decide that and employers need to be held to account for the way that they handled employment in Southern California, but throughout the country.

JAFFE: African Americans are always among the most exploited workers, said Harris-Dawson, so it's best, he believes, to raise the bar for everyone.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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