African Americans Propose Immigration Reform

By DAVID BACON Pacific News Service
Friday July 23, 2004

OAKLAND—If you listen to President George Bush, the only way Mexicans can avoid the illegal and sometimes deadly trip across the U.S. border is to come as guest workers—temporary contract laborers for U.S. industry and agriculture. The 14 million immigrants already living in the United States without visas, Bush says, must become guest workers too, if they want to get legal documents.  

The president’s proposal, which hasn’t yet been formally introduced, is viewed as extremely pro-industry and anti-immigrant by immigrant advocates. But all the other bills before Congress that would reform U.S. immigration law also have some temporary contract worker proposal attached to them. All except one.  

In March, Houston Congress member Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a far-reaching proposal with no provision for temporary workers, who are vulnerable to abuse by employers that may pay illegal wages and use blacklists and deportation threats to stifle protest. 

Co-sponsored by nine members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including California’s Barbara Lee and Michigan’s John Conyers, the bill would legalize undocumented people who have lived five years in the United States, have a basic understanding of English and U.S. culture, and have no criminal record. 

“These are hardworking, taxpaying individuals,” Jackson Lee says. “My system would give them permanent legal residency.”  

Bush proposes that immigrants come for three or six years and then leave. “But people are human,” Jackson Lee explains. “They might have married, invested or tried to buy a house. They might have children and roots here. It’s very difficult to imagine that a person with a three-year pass would voluntarily leave, particularly if they faced an oppressive situation where they came from.”  

“Our immigration policy is racist,” says Bill Fletcher, former education director of the AFL-CIO and president of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on U.S. policy toward Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. He and Jackson Lee point to the huge backlog of applicants waiting for visas in Third World countries, while many European countries can’t even fill their quotas for visas. “But the system’s also driven by politics,” Fletcher says. Cubans become legal residents as soon as they step onto U.S. soil. Refugees from Haiti, on the other hand, are picked up by the Coast Guard before they get to the Florida beach. If they somehow reach U.S. shores, they’re held behind barbed wire as illegal refugees. 

The Jackson Lee bill takes on some of these inequities, winning it the support of other Congressional Black Caucus members, whom Jackson Lee calls “the conscience of America, the conscience of the Congress.” Fletcher calls that sponsorship a new step for African-American legislators. In the era of the Vietnam War, criticism by black political leaders of U.S. foreign policy was met with a “mind your own business” attitude.  

“Today, as African Americans, we’re saying that we have something to contribute to this debate,” Fletcher says. “We won’t just react to demographic changes.”  

Jackson Lee and Fletcher have stepped off into a political minefield because of a widely held perception that blacks and immigrants, especially Latinos, compete for jobs. “Certainly you’re made to believe that the number of immigrants or undocumented people has an impact on others,” she says. “We’re made to believe that one group hinders the other. That’s absolutely wrong, and I believe in fighting against it.”  

Fletcher, while criticizing President George Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for using that fear for political advantage, cautions that some job competition is real. Black janitors and hotel workers in Los Angeles saw their percentage in the workforce plummet in the 1980s as employers replaced them with immigrant workers who they hoped would accept lower wages. This new immigrant workforce eventually became the backbone of new unionizing efforts, which helps push up wages for all workers. But the change in demographics was already a fact.  

“But it’s like an urban legend,” Fletcher says, “which sees competition taking place everywhere. If African Americans were moving from lower to higher level jobs, there would be no reason for fear. But that’s not the case.” Black workers are not the only ones trapped in temporary, low-paying, no-benefit jobs, he adds. 

Employers argue that they need workers to fill the labor shortages to come, and immigrants are the answer. Jackson Lee’s bill tries to balance these interests. For U.S. citizens and residents, she proposes retraining and jobs programs funded by fees paid by undocumented immigrants applying for legalization. For the immigrants, besides legalization, she proposes new legislation to protect against discrimination based on immigration status, and threats of deportation intended to stop worker protests. Jackson Lee compares this to the civil rights legislation needed to stop discrimination against African Americans, other minorities and women.  

Pressing for legalization instead of guest worker programs “would give industry a pool of legal permanent residents or those seeking that status,” Jackson Lee says. “Most work is not cyclical—restaurants don’t close in the fall. They stay open. They need people in permanent jobs, not temporary workers.”  

The country should welcome immigrants while attacking the poverty and oppression that forces people to migrate, she concludes. “We would do better to build the economies of countries like Mexico, so people can live their own dream in their own nation. For immigrants here we need an orderly system that allows them to do their jobs and build the American economy, and U.S. workers to have jobs and do likewise.” 


David Bacon is a freelance writer and photographer who writes regularly on labor and immigration issues.›