WASHINGTON -- No sooner did President Barack Obama and a group of senators separately outline proposals to revamp the nation’s immigration system than the phone lines on several African-American-oriented talk radio shows heated up with callers blasting the plans.
“Amnesty,” complained Frankie from Maryland recently on the nationally syndicated “Keeping it Real with Al Sharpton.”
A political payback to Hispanic voters that does little or nothing for African-Americans, reasoned Sam from Milwaukee on Wisconsin’s 1290 WMCS AM’s “Earl Ingram Show.”
“Our issues are not being highlighted and pushed, and things like gay marriage and (immigration) are being pushed to the forefront,” the caller said. “Hispanics are effectively organized. For us not to be organized and for us not to hold our leadership accountable is disheartening.”
Although the civil rights establishment, from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to the Urban League and Sharpton, squarely back Obama’s desire to tackle immigration, the president’s call has reignited complaints within the African-American community that he is addressing the specific needs of almost all major voting blocs – Hispanics, women, gays – except for the African-Americans who gave him 93 percent of their vote.
Obama is expected to address the immigration issue again Tuesday in his State of the Union address and when he travels to Asheville, N.C., on Wednesday and visits Chicago and suburban Atlanta on Thursday to sell his second-term agenda.
“There (are) clearly different views in the African-American community around immigration,” Sharpton said on his radio show last month. “Some have said they’re (illegal immigrants) taking our jobs, they dilute our strength. Others have said we’ve got to have rights for everybody or we don’t have it for anybody, and this is not just a Latino issue because immigration laws cover the Caribbean, cover Africans, cover South Americans.”
Some angst over Obama addressing immigration and other issues so soon in his second term has boiled over into public criticism of the nation’s first African-American president by many African-Americans, from the grassroots to the political levels.
Bernard Anderson, an Obama supporter and a former assistant labor secretary during Bill Clinton’s presidency, recently told an African-American economic summit at Washington’s Howard University that African-Americans should no longer give Obama “a pass” on dealing with issues that directly impact their community.
“He is not going to run again for anything. He does not deserve a pass anymore,” Anderson said. “Let him not only find his voice but summon his courage and use his political capital to address racial inequality. He owes that to the African-American.”
Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus are quietly seething because Obama hasn’t met with the 42-member group since May 13, 2011. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., vented to the National Newspaper Publishers Association last month. He said the black caucus sent the White House the names of 61 potential candidates for positions in a second-term administration that already is coming under fire for being heavy on white males.
“Not one of that 61 was selected – not one,” Hastings told the African-American newspaper publishers at a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., conference.
Obama administration officials reject assertions that the president is race-adverse. Obama has consistently said he takes a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach to governing and that his policies benefit all Americans, not just one group.
“I think comprehensive immigration reform is not about a specific community, it’s about a problem that we need to address as a whole,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said last week.
But some African-Americans view Obama’s immigration drive as an overture to Hispanics who helped power his re-election in November with 71 percent of their vote.
“The amount of blacks who are impacted by this legislation is so small it’s infinitesimal,” talk show host Earl Ingram said. “Minuscule.”
A 2009 report by the Migration Policy Institute found that black immigrants from all regions of the world accounted for just 9 percent of the overall immigrant population in the United States.
However, a 2011 report by the same group discovered that blacks from Africa, though just 3 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population, are among the fastest-growing immigrant groups in this country.
From 1980 to 2009, the number of African blacks in the United States has swelled from 64,000 to 1.1 million, according to the 2011 report.
If that growth trend continues, Africa will supplant the Caribbean as the major source region for the U.S. black immigrant population by 2020, the Migration Policy Institute study concludes.
Still, Ingram says many of his listeners see Obama’s attempt to push forward on immigration as a reminder of what the president hasn’t done to improve economic conditions for African-Americans.
“I would say a bulk of my listenership is anti-immigration,” he said. “You have to understand that in the community in which I live the percentage of African-Americans who are unemployed. They look at what’s going on with immigration as an affront to African-Americans who can’t pay their mortgages because many of the immigrants come here, they are hired at less than minimum wage.”
The African-American unemployment rate is at 13.8 percent, according to recently released government figures, nearly twice the 7 percent jobless rate for whites. The nation’s overall unemployment rate is 7.9 percent. For Hispanics, the rate is 9.7 percent.
A 2009 study by George Borjas of Harvard University, Jeffrey Grogger of the University of Chicago and George Hanson of the University of California, San Diego, looked at 1960-2000 Census data and found that as immigrants disproportionately increased the supply of workers in a particular area, wages of African-American workers in that area fell, the employment rate declined and the incarceration rate rose.
“Our analysis suggests that a 10 percent immigration-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced the black wage by 2.5 percent, lowered the employment rate of black men by 5.9 percentage points, and increased the incarceration rate of blacks by 1.3 percentage points,” the professors wrote in the study.
Todd Shaw, a political science and African-American studies professor at the University of South Carolina, believes “the concern that African Americans are hostile to immigrant workers is a bit overplayed.”
“It’s more a concern about the opportunity ladder than it is the perception that African-Americans don’t think there should be economic fairness to other groups,” Shaw added.
Many civil rights leaders also believe that African-American concerns about the White House and Congress pushing for new immigration laws are overhyped. NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said, “Four out of five black voters are in support of immigration reform.”
But some polls tell a different story. A Pew Research poll released in January found that 56 percent of African-Americans feel there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between immigrants and people born in the United States. But perceptions may be improving –January’s figure is a drop from 61 percent in 2009.
A different Pew Hispanic poll found that while all groups of workers have seen gains in employment, Hispanics and Asians have experienced a faster rate of growth than African-Americans and whites.
Hispanic employment increased 6.5 percent between 2009 and 2011, compared with a 2.2 percent increase for African Americans and just 1.1 percent for whites.
The sensitivity of the immigration issue within the African-American community isn’t lost on African-American and Hispanic leaders who are striving for a unified front.
Sharpton and Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, an immigration advocacy coalition, walked together to their seats at Obama’s second inauguration ceremony last month.
Murguia has made strengthening ties with the African-American community a key component of her leadership. She was the first Hispanic leader to give the keynote speech at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Breakfast in Birmingham, Ala. She marched arm in arm with Sharpton, Jealous and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at last year’s Selma-to-Montgomery march, which focused on voter rights and anti-illegal immigrant laws like those in Alabama.
“I think they see echoes of their own civil rights movement in the struggle to bring equity and dignity to people who are in the shadows,” Murguia said of the black leaders.
They also see political opportunity, said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo.
“African-American leadership understands, and I understand this clearly, that we must come together with the Latino community and help them address some of their issues so that down the road they help us address ours.”