Immigrant groups reach out to blacks

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010

Organizers of a march for immigrants' rights in Washington on Sunday are reaching out to African Americans, hoping to bring the two communities together around an issue that has been a wedge between them.

The campaign includes ads for the march on urban radio stations along the East Coast, asking for listeners to lend their support. "Everyone has been hurt by the economy, especially African Americans and immigrants. The truth is, together you can demand real change," the ads state.

The effort is part of a broader strategy among Hispanic, black and Asian civil rights groups to unite on areas of common interest and to get Congress and the Obama administration to enact major legislation on jobs and immigration -- even as the nation's political leaders are focused on health care.

"It is a reflection of a much deeper connection between African American constituencies and immigrant constituencies," said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, which is helping to plan the march. "In the last year, there's been a ton of work done on the ground where immigrants and African Americans have worked together on a range of issues, from the jobs crisis to the foreclosure crisis."

The coalition-building approach is a shift for immigrant rights groups, which held similar marches in 2006 and 2007. Then, disparate Hispanic groups spurred a large protest movement to push for citizenship for the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants, relying little on organizations outside the community.

The idea of a racial coalition aims to push an overhaul of immigration law as an "American issue, not just an immigrant issue," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "Up until at least two years ago, the discussion was really being had amongst ourselves."

Immigration activists took flak, even from supporters, after thousands marched on the Mall to demand U.S. citizenship while carrying flags from their countries of origin. This time, organizers want to send a different signal, tying their pursuit of a wholesale overhaul of immigration law to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

"The immigrant community really holds a great deal of respect and admiration for the work that the African American community has done in the civil rights movement, and that movement is an inspiration for the immigrant rights movement," said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of the National Council of La Raza's immigration campaign.

Cabrera said his group spent October and November going to Sunday services at black churches across Los Angeles, sharing the stories of illegal immigrants, and they've begun sending news releases to African American newspapers and radio shows in California.

"We don't get a lot of media requests from them, but we know that they are listening, and we know that they are getting our information," Cabrera said. "We are pushing against the conversation that we are taking their jobs."

But the issue of job competition remains, said Vernon Briggs, a professor emeritus of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University who favors low immigration rates.

"What we have got here is people using immigration as a political issue to unite certain segments of the population, regardless of the economic and labor market impact," Briggs said. "In my view, African American workers are the most adversely affected of all groups, but many legal immigrants in the Hispanic community are also severely impacted because they are disproportionately in the low-skilled labor market where the illegal immigrants compete."

Leaders of black civil rights groups push back at that idea. NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and National Urban League President Marc Morial will speak at the rally Sunday in support of providing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

"This new generation of leaders recognize the need to build stronger coalitions," Morial said. "It is very important that the nation's communities of color do not simply see themselves as groups competing for crumbs."

Jealous said he plans to talk Sunday about ways that overhauling immigration law will help all workers. "There is a need for a floor for how all workers are treated," he said. "There is a need to ensure that nobody in this country can be forced to work in near-slavery-like conditions. So much of the black experience has been about us fighting over centuries to be part of this country, and for Latinos it's a similar story."

Last year, La Raza and the NAACP launched their first joint ad campaign in support of overhauling the health-care system. The Urban League joined with La Raza and the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development in a program to stem home foreclosures in minority communities.

A similar level of cooperation is happening in North Carolina, where the state NAACP and the immigration rights group El Pueblo have formed an alliance in Raleigh. "We found that the same forces that fight changing the laws to help immigrants also fight civil rights, they also fight health-care reform, they also fight educational reform," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

Tony Asion, executive director at El Pueblo, put it this way: "If we don't stick together, then we both lose."

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