Donna F. Edwards, a Democrat, represented Maryland’s 4th District in the U.S. House from 2008 to 2017.
I remember during the late 1980s, following my grandmother’s death, our family’s complete surprise when we discovered food, clothing and a clean bed for an immigrant from Central America in her basement. She was part of a network of church communities offering temporary refuge for those fleeing the civil wars and turmoil raging in that region. It was a dramatic introduction to the hardships faced by people desperate for a new life in the United States.
My grandmother’s reaction was a powerful lesson in kindness for the stranger. President Trump has a different reaction in mind. It was no surprise to anyone that fear played a larger role than truth in the president’s address to the nation Tuesday night in defense of his border-wall proposal. Fear of rapists, fear of murderers and fear of drug traffickers. Before that, it was fear of thousands of terrorists pouring over the southern border, an argument that had to be abandoned once the fact-checkers debunked it.
And if those fears don’t move the needle, the president stokes the fear that immigrants are taking the jobs of African Americans.
This was not the first time we heard the president using the cover of African Americans to make his case for a border wall and other hard-line immigration proposals. Recall that on the campaign trail in 2016, candidate Trump promoted his “New Deal for Black America” by declaring that “illegal immigration violates the civil rights of African Americans.” African Americans rejected him then, but he keeps trying.
“It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages,” Trump declared from the Oval Office. “Among those hardest hit are African Americans and Hispanic Americans.” Nothing like the tried-and-true strategy of pitting one disenfranchised group against another. One group of black and brown people against another. One group of low-wage workers against another.
In fact, Trump is reaching into an old playbook of black anti-immigration groups that emerged back in 2013 as proposals for comprehensive immigration reform were abuzz in Congress. Many of those “grass-roots” organizations were revealed to be supported and funded by the right wing. I remember listening to the anti-immigration rhetoric that filled black talk radio. At about the same time, however, a consensus began to emerge among organizations representing the membership of thousands of black congregations and many others that the immigration fight belonged to African Americans, too. A united front of black congregations of the National Baptist Convention and the Progressive National Baptist Convention urged President Barack Obama to hasten family reunification for Haitians and to extend temporary protected status to Haitians and Liberians.
More recently, black clergy and civil rights organizations have walked in unity with immigrant rights organizations in support of deferred action for the “dreamers” and a more compassionate and theologically based approach to all immigrants who cross the southern border. This unity was never more evident than the collective outrage last year at the administration’s policy of separating immigrant families. If anything, Trump’s rhetoric and actions over the past two years — his disparaging African nations, offensive comments about black immigrants, and clamping down on Haitian and African immigration — has only served to seal the views of African Americans opposing him on immigration.
Besides, on the facts, the president’s pitch simply doesn’t match the reality of the job market. African Americans are not dying to pick up and move to Maine or Washington state to harvest apples. Numerous economic studies have shown that among low-wage workers, the newest immigrants and the undocumented are the ones who will go where these jobs are located. This pattern is no different from the migration patterns that have always existed for U.S. immigrants, documented and not. Moreover, African Americans overwhelmingly support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals and do not see themselves as being in competition with these workers. African Americans understand all too well the dangers posed by employers who hire under the table and take advantage of vulnerable workers.
So, when you hear Trump waving a flag of concern for African Americans in his attempt to fund his wall, beware. African Americans do want good jobs where they live, with higher wages, affordable housing, health care, safe communities and better services. They just don’t buy the argument that building a wall, shutting down the government and harming immigrants is the way to achieve those goals.