To see thousands of immigrants and their supporters marching, rallying and standing up for their rights is inspiring. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) was correct when she called immigration the civil rights issue of our time. The organized protests were responding to HR 4437 (and S 2454), legislation that would make every undocumented immigrant a felon and also criminalize organizations and individuals that helped them. The NAACP and other Black civil rights organizations have pledged their solidarity with immigrant rights.
The upsurge of millions of immigrant workers has led some to suggest they pose a problem for Black workers. Black Americans do face a crisis, but immigrants are not the cause.
The unemployment rate for African Americans is two to thee times the average rate for the entire population. More than 40 percent of African American workers work in the lowest paid occupations — janitorial, food preparation, non-professional health care, unskilled day labor, hotel, manufacturing and transportation. Immigrants have been recruited for the same jobs by Corporate America and its subsidiaries, who seek to increase their profits by establishing a permanent group of low-wage workers with no legal rights.
It is not difficult to understand why some African Americans perceive immigrants as “taking our jobs” and “lowering the standard of living for all workers.” African Americans were pushed out of some low-wage industries when they began organizing for better wages. Black tobacco workers in South Carolina were fired when they tried to organize. They were replaced with Latino migrant workers. Undocumented immigrants are super-exploited, forced to work for lower wages and in dangerous working conditions in order to survive. It is Big Business, not immigrants, that controls not only the job market but also government policies.
Why have millions of Mexican workers and others subjected themselves to life-threatening conditions to enter the U.S. to work? Andrew Christie, writing for the Sierra Club, notes that increased migration is caused by free-trade corporate globalization, which has resulted in financial and environmental degradation in less developed countries. The North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the “structural adjustments” required by World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans have caused greater poverty in Latin America, Africa and Asia than the development they have fostered. Immigrants are fleeing these conditions. They are trying to survive. Fair trade, instead of “free” trade policies and corporate greed, would decrease emigration and foster equitable, sustainable development worldwide.
Many African Americans are also trying to survive. As the U.S. de-industrialized and living-wage manufacturing jobs left for “right-to-work” (nonunion) states and then to foreign lands, African Americans have faced a future of low-wage service jobs with few benefits. With public education under attack, few Black students are being educated for skilled trades, high tech or professional jobs that have higher salaries. Black high school students in large cities have a dropout rate of more than 40 percent and college enrollment for Black males has plummeted.
But incarceration rates for Black males have been at crisis levels for over a decade. African Americans comprise 13 percent of the population but 50 percent of the prison population. Prisoners now make circuit boards, valves and fittings, eyeglasses, waterbeds and blue jeans. In California inmates booked vacations for TWA. One million African Americans are in jails nationwide. This is the new slavery. Latinos and whites comprise an additional million-plus prison inmates. Most ended up in prison because of illegal drugs.
The crack cocaine explosion was introduced to gangs in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s by the CIA to raise funds for its Contra War against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The drugs/guns network expanded the production and sale of drugs to every Black community throughout the country. The devastation of Black neighborhoods has been immense. The violent drugs/guns culture has infiltrated all culture — music, video games, clothing, film and language. The American dream has become an American nightmare for too many African American youth. They feel abandoned by government and society.
An immediate infusion of job training and living wage jobs is needed to turn this situation around. A national public works program to rebuild the inner cities of America must be proposed. Congress must be changed in 2006. A larger, stronger labor movement is needed to step up to the plate and build a coalition with all oppressed groups.
The immigrant rights movement has shown us the way: be vigilant and passionate in organizing your forces. African Americans must not let Corporate America win its game of divide and rule. African Americans understand criminalization, discrimination, isolation and separation. They must stand in solidarity with immigrant workers while standing up for their own civil and economic rights. Outreach is needed to build solidarity between the Latino and African American communities.
When oppressed groups cooperate, the entire working class benefits. Unity in California defeated Gov. Schwarzenegger’s anti-labor and anti-public service propositions. Unity saved King-Drew Hospital in Los Angeles. The 1983 election of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago was the result of united forces of African Americans, Latinos and progressive whites. Only an all-peoples front can turn back the dangers we face at this historical time.
Rosita Johnson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the People’s Weekly World editorial board.