Why African Americans Should Support Immigrant Rights

15 Aug Why African Americans Should Support Immigrant Rights


By Gerald Lenoir and the Rev. Kelvin Sauls

Gerald Lenoir and the Rev. Kelvin Sauls

This past spring thousands of African Americans and Latino immigrants came together to march from Selma to Montgomery in commemoration of the historic journey led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965. The focus then was voting rights. This time participants demonstrated for voting and immigrant rights, both of which are under attack in Alabama and other states.

It was a powerful display of solidarity between two groups that have been pitted against each other in the competition for jobs, education and housing. The march also pointed to the significant moral, economic and political reasons why African Americans should support immigrant rights.

First, it is the right thing to do. African Americans, as victims of discriminatory practices, have a moral obligation to speak out against the nakedly racist attacks on immigrants of color. The racial profiling and mass incarceration policies that have so affected African-American communities are now being inflicted on immigrant ones in the form of widespread detention and deportation, and laws such as Arizona’s SB1070 which has, in essence, legalized racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.

Secondly, it is in African Americans’ economic interests to join with immigrants to demand economic justice for all. Our government policies and economic system serve the interests of corporate powers and devastate communities of color domestically and internationally, whether in the U.S., Mexico, Haiti or the Congo.

In South Los Angeles, we know all too well what that looks like. In the 1970s and ’80s, corporate giants such as Goodyear, General Motors and U.S. Steel closed their factories in our community and in other major urban areas to avoid high wages and labor and environmental regulations. Between 1978 and 1982, South L.A. alone lost 70,000 jobs when plants moved overseas.

African-American workers have never fully recovered and many remain locked out of the formal economy. Immigrants, on the other hand, are locked into an super exploitative labor arrangement as low-wage workers in industries such as agriculture in which an estimated 90% are undocumented, according to the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.

Policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which allowed U.S. businesses to dump their agricultural products on the Mexican market at reduced prices, have destroyed the livelihood of millions of Mexican farmers, forcing them to migrate to the U.S. Since NAFTA went into effect in 1993, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has surged from 3.9 million to 12 million.

Our communities need real jobs with living wages, health care benefits and worker protections. And we’ll never get that until we stop believing that immigrants are why African Americans don’t have such jobs.

Finally, until African Americans and immigrants unite around a common economic and racial justice agenda, right-wing conservatives and Republicans will continue their assault on immigrant and civil rights, rolling back the gains that so many of us fought for more than three decades ago.

Of course, work must be done in Black and immigrant communities. As Alberto Retana of Community Coalition said, “For our communities to thrive, none of our communities can be left behind. Latinos and immigrants must come together with African Americans with a racial justice agenda, not just an immigrant rights agenda.”

The bottom line is that immigrants of color and African Americans have common interests. Building a multiracial, multinational movement for social and economic justice can be the ticket to a better life for both of our communities.

Gerald Lenoir is the executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. The Rev. Kelvin Sauls is the senior pastor of Holman United Methodist Church.

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