Uniting African-Americans and Immigrants
By David Bacon
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Friday 26 August 2005
If you listen to President George Bush, the only way Mexicans can avoid
the deadly and illegal trip across the US border is to come as guest workers -
temporary contract laborers for US industry and agriculture. The 12-14 million
immigrants already living in the US without visas, he says, must become guest
workers themselves if they want to get legal documents.
While the president's proposal is the most extreme of those before
Congress (and hasn't yet been formally introduced), all the other bills that
would reform US immigration law also have some temporary contract worker
proposal attached to them. All except one.
This spring, Houston Congress member Sheila Jackson Lee introduced the
most comprehensive immigration reform proposal so far, HR 2092, "Save America
Comprehensive Immigration Act of 2005." It not only has no provision for
temporary workers - she scorns the whole idea, particularly the Bush approach,
as a "flat earth program." Jackson Lee instead proposes to legalize
undocumented people who have lived 5 years in the US, have some understanding
of English and US culture, and have no criminal record. "These are hardworking,
taxpaying individuals," she says. "My system would give them permanent legal
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."
The Jackson Lee bill is unique for another reason. Most of its
co-sponsors are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including
California's Barbara Lee and Michigan's John Conyers. For many years, the
Caucus has been outspoken on other areas of social policy - every session, it
outlines an alternative Federal budget prioritizing social goals like
eliminating poverty, reducing military spending, and protecting social services
and benefits. This is the first time, however, that Caucus members have taken a
pro-active approach to immigration.
Jackson Lee's bill is not the only effort to find common ground between
African-Americans and immigrants. Another is a unique union proposal in the
current contract negotiations in San Francisco hotels. UNITE HERE Local 2 added
new language to its existing contract proposals on immigrant rights, and the
hotels agreed. But the Multi Employer Group didn't accept a new related
proposal asking the hotels to set up a diversity committee and hire an
ombudsman to begin increasing the percentage of African-American workers.
The proposal stems from an effort by the union to address the changing
demographics of the hotel work force. In the city's hotels, the percentage of
African-American workers is falling as employment continues to grow.
African-Americans now make up less than 6% of the San Francisco hotel work
force, a number that has declined in each of the past five years but one.
In San Francisco, this issue has a lot of history. The Sheraton Palace
Hotel was the scene of the city's most famous civil rights demonstration. In
1963, civil rights activists sat in, and were arrested, in the hotel lobby, as
they demanded that management hire Blacks into jobs in the visible
front-of-the-house locations, where the color line had kept them out. Richard
Lee Mason, an African-American banquet waiter at the St. Francis, remembers,
"African-Americans had been kept in the back of the house for far too long.
People wanted to be in the front of the house, and rightly so."
Employment prospects improved for Black workers for some years, but the
situation changed by the 1980s. Hotels hired increasing percentages of
immigrants, in a move they hoped would create a less demanding and expensive
"I suspect that because the industry had had a great struggle with
African-Americans, they thought we were too aggressive," Mason speculates. "A
lot of us had come out of the civil rights movement, and we were willing to
fight for higher wages and to make sure we were treated fairly." Steven Pitts,
an economist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University
of California in Berkeley, says Mason's experience was not uncommon. "This
perception by employers of African-American workers is true nationwide," he
says. "Blacks aren't perceived as compliant, and therefore when many employers
make hiring decisions, they simply don't hire them."
If the hotel industry hoped their new immigrant work force would be more
compliant, however, those hopes were not realized. Immigrants proved to be as
militant as the workers who came before - all the city's big hotels were struck
in 1980, and smaller strikes took place in the following two decades. But Black
employment fell nonetheless.
Today, this economic history shapes the political terrain of cities like
San Francisco and Los Angeles. Black workers make up only 6.4% of the present LA
hotel work force, for instance. Clyde Smith, a houseman at the Wilshire Grand,
remembers that when he was hired 35 years ago, African-Americans worked in
virtually all areas. "There are significantly less today," he says, "often only
one or two in each department, and sometimes none at all."
The union has asked companies to commit to a hiring ombudsman and a
Diversity in the Workplace Taskforce, to reach out to African-American
communities that need jobs and eliminate any hiring barriers. "Some people
would try to pit one race against another, especially Blacks against Latinos,"
Smith says. "I think we shouldn't blame any race or culture."
While demanding progress toward ending this de facto color line, the
union has proposed new protections for the job rights of the immigrants who
make up a majority of the hotel industry work force. The union proposal
strengthens an important ruling won four years ago by HERE in San Francisco,
when an arbitrator held that immigrant workers couldn't be fired just because
their Social Security numbers were in question, a problem faced by many
immigrants. Then in 2003, the union organized the Immigrant Workers Freedom
Ride, a national demonstration for immigration reform joining immigrants with
Black veterans of the original 1960s freedom rides.
Both UNITE HERE and Jackson Lee envision a new civil rights movement,
geared to a changed world of globalization. The key is prohibiting
discrimination - against immigrants because of their status and vulnerability,
and against displaced workers, by enforcing job creation and affirmative action
as national policy. Both proposals also share the same assumption that unions
and high wages are the best protection against job competition.
Jackson Lee is careful to note that she doesn't want her bill viewed as
just an African-American proposal, but her voice nevertheless carries a note of
pride in referring to her co-sponsors as "the conscience of America, the
conscience of the Congress." Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica Forum and
former education director of the AFL-CIO, rejects the idea that the changing
demographics of the US population are not a concern for African-Americans. He
recalls a time when even liberal politicians reacted to criticism by Black
political leaders who condemned the Vietnam War or widespread poverty in the
US, saying they should confine their concerns to civil rights in the South. "We
don't want to just react to demographic changes," he asserts. "As
African-Americans, we're saying that we have something to contribute to this
Today a growing number of labor, immigrant rights and Black political
activists recognize the similarity between the denial of civil rights to
African-Americans and the second-class status of immigrants in the US. Jackson
Lee looks at the situation of immigrants and sees the historic discrimination
against people of color, especially Black people and women.
"I had the benefit of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the 1964 Civil
Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the executive order signed by
Richard Nixon on affirmative action. Without them, I would never have seen the
inside of the United States Congress," she declares, while cautioning, "the
rights of minorities in this country are still a work in progress.
Nevertheless, someone recognized that the laws of America were broken as they
related to African-Americans - that we had to fix them. Now we have to fix
other laws to end discrimination against immigrants."
The Jackson Lee bill therefore prohibits discrimination based on
immigration status and makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer to
threaten workers with deportation if they invoke their labor rights or worker
protection laws. It would also require the Secretary of Labor to conduct a
national workplace survey to determine the extent of the exploitation of
Jackson Lee opposes temporary worker programs because she believes they
inevitably result in second-class status, in which workers can't enforce labor
rights or use social benefits, if indeed they're entitled to them at all.
Fletcher agrees, and to those who assert that legislation expanding temporary
worker programs can also protect workers' rights, he answers: "maybe I'm from
Missouri - show me. If it's possible to protect their rights in real life, I
haven't seen it yet."
According to Jackson Lee, temporary status not only encourages abuse of
workers, but also has a high social cost. "Who pays for their housing and
healthcare?" she asks. "Do they pay into Social Security, or are they denied
benefits? What rights do they really have?"
The social cost of guest worker programs can also include the impact on
the jobs and wages of other workers. Here Jackson Lee and Fletcher are stepping
off into a political mine field, because of a widely held perception that Blacks
and immigrants, especially Latinos, compete for jobs. "Certainly you're made to
believe that," she says, "that one group hinders the other. That's absolutely
wrong, and I believe in fighting against it."
The heart of her bill makes a direct connection between immigration and
jobs. It would grant permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants who've
lived 5 years in the US, and have a basic understanding of English and US
culture. The money paid in application fees would fund a job creation and
training program for unemployed workers.
Creating jobs for the country's 9.4 million unemployed would require
more resources than this. But the bill recognizes that the issues of jobs and
immigration don't have to pit immigrants and native-born against each other.
Instead they can unite in a common pursuit of jobs, legal status and workplace
rights. And it recognizes that until immigrant workers have legal status and
the security to fight for better conditions and wages, all low-wage workers
will be harmed.
Last year, a study from the Center for Labor Market Studies at
Northeastern University demonstrated just how stark the current situation is -
and why native-born workers feel threatened. Between 2000 and 2004, jobs held
by immigrants rose by 2 million; the number of employed native-born workers
fell by 958,000, and of longtime resident immigrants by 352,000. According to
the report's authors, "the net growth in the nation's employed population
between 2000 and 2004 takes place among new immigrants, while the number of
native-born and established immigrant workers combined declines by more than
Black unemployment nationally has grown at a catastrophic rate - from
10.8% to 11.8% in May alone. Nearly half (172,000) of the 360,000 people who
lost their jobs in June were African-American, although they're just 11% of the
work force. In New York City, only 51.8% of Black men from 16 to 65 had jobs in
2003, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For Latinos it was 65.7%,
and for whites 75.7%. June's overall unemployment rate in 2003 was 6.4%.
Very little of the rise in African-American unemployment is a result of
direct displacement by immigrants. It's caused overwhelmingly by the decline in
manufacturing and cuts in public employment. In the 2001 recession alone,
300,000 of 2,000,000 Black factory workers lost their jobs to relocation and
layoffs. Changing demographics in the workplace became a fact during a period
of massive plant closings that eliminated the jobs of hundreds of thousands of
African-American and Chicano workers in unionized industries. Through the
postwar decades, those workers had broken the color line, spent their lives in
steel mills and assembly plants, and wrested a standard of living able to
support stable families and communities. In the growing service and high tech
industries of the 80s, those displaced workers were anathema. Employers often
identified their race with pro-union militancy, according to sociologist
Patricia Fernandez Kelly.
Today, corporations in those same industries argue they need workers to
fill labor shortages to come, and promote temporary workers as the answer.
Fletcher argues "if there are people in communities destroyed because the
industry that employed them is gone, and a few miles away there are labor
shortages in other industries, then displaced people should fill the void.
Instead, now we're hearing proposals for guest workers. If African-Americans
were moving from lower to higher level jobs, there would be no reason for fear,
but that's not the case."
Giving employers the ability to bring in thousands of contract laborers,
by expanding existing temporary programs or establishing new ones, allows them
to sharpen job competition in areas and industries where workers are organizing
unions, trying to raise wages, or challenging past patterns of discrimination.
Jackson Lee's bill tries to balance these interests. For US citizens and
residents, she proposes retraining and jobs programs, while for immigrants she
proposes legalization and a ban on discrimination. Employers, she says, should
press for legalization instead of guest workers. "That would give industry a
pool of legal permanent residents or those seeking that status," she declares.
"Most work is not cyclical - restaurants don't close in the fall. They stay
open. They need people in permanent jobs, not temporary workers."
Fletcher also prizes unity across racial lines, and accuses President
Bush of playing racial and national groups off against each other to undermine
it. Bush takes his cue from large employer associations, who have been pushing
guest worker programs for years. These include the US Chamber of Commerce, the
National Retail Association (think Wal-Mart), the American Meat Institute and
the National Restaurant Association. Guest worker programs have a long record
of illegally low wages, hiring blacklists, and dangerous working conditions.
Employers particularly want to eliminate the requirement that they hire
unemployed workers before bringing in contract labor.
Immigration is not a conspiracy by employers to drive wages down.
Migration is a global phenomenon. According to Migrant Rights International,
over 130 million people today live outside the countries in which they were
born. The movement of people from developing countries to rich industrial ones
is not only happening everywhere, it is unstoppable. Poverty and war force
people to leave their homes. The deaths every year of hundreds of people trying
to cross the US/Mexico border is bitter testimony to the price paid by families
migrating north, desperate to survive.
Immigration law can't and doesn't stop people from coming, but it can
and does make people unequal here. Undocumented immigrants can't drive a car,
or collect unemployment or Social Security. The Immigration Reform and Control
Act of 1986 made the act of working itself illegal. When working becomes a
crime, workers must risk a lot to protest low wages and bad treatment, join
unions, and assert their rights.
With or without temporary programs, migration to the US and other
industrial countries is a fact of global life. The question is really whether
or not the purpose of US immigration policy should be supplying labor to
industry at a price it wants to pay.
Jackson Lee also recognizes that US foreign and trade policy often exert
great pressures on people to migrate, by spreading poverty and war. The country
should welcome the immigrants who continue to arrive, while attacking the
poverty and oppression that uproot people, 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. If we don't help build the economy of the nations
who surround us, we will continue to have people fleeing for both economic
reasons and because they're being persecuted."
Unions have changed a great deal in the way they see immigration, and
are now part of a large national pro-legalization coalition. Fletcher
especially credits the Service Employees and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees
with changing the priority US labor gives to immigrant rights. But today, the
political strategists of those unions in Washington DC are supporting the
Kennedy/McCain bill, which would allow employers to recruit over 400,000 guest
workers each year and would strengthen employer sanctions, the provision of
immigration law that makes it a federal crime for an undocumented worker to
hold a job. Sanctions have led to the firings of thousands of immigrants in
recent years, and been a powerful tool by employers fighting unions. These
operatives argue that guest worker provisions and increased sanctions, while
violating the AFL-CIO's pro-immigrant program adopted in 1999, are necessary to
win employer support for immigration reform in a Republican-controlled Congress.
There's a disconnect, Fletcher asserts, between advocacy for immigrants
and looking at the role US policy plays in creating the poverty which makes
migration necessary. "There's very little understanding in the labor movement
about why people migrate. We don't look at the role of US foreign policy in
particular as an essential cause - the way the war in Central America forced
the migration of Salvadorans, or the Vietnam War the migration of people from
Southeast Asia. When we don't speak out on foreign policy, we don't anticipate
the human cost."
While the Jackson Lee bill doesn't address foreign or trade policy
directly, it does seek to correct some of the inequities created by an
immigration policy that often is used as an instrument of political reward or
punishment. The Congresswoman points to the huge backlog of applicants waiting
for visas in Third World countries, while many European countries can't even
fill their quotas. For Europeans, whose standard of living is often higher than
that in the US, there's very little pressure to use up their visa allotment. But
from Latin America to Africa, the poverty created by war and neoliberal economic
policies produces far more applicants than there are visas available. Jackson
Lee's approach is a diversity proposal that would take those differences into
She further seeks to help refugees from two countries, Liberia and
Haiti, whose refugee status is imperiled or denied, and whose cause the Black
Caucus has championed in the past. Liberians were allowed to come as refugees a
decade ago as their country was engulfed in civil war, and her bill seeks to
give them permanent rather than temporary refuge. Haitians are victim of a
double standard that allows Cubans to become legal residents as soon as they
step onto US soil, while the Coast Guard picks up desperate refugees from
Haiti, fleeing repression in tiny boats, before they get to the Florida beach.
If they somehow reach it, they're held behind barbed wire as illegal refugees.
"There is an inequity between those fleeing from one island and those fleeing
another," the Congresswoman comments dryly.
Jackson Lee is the granddaughter of Jamaican immigrants, and sees in
their effort to build a home in the US the same daily struggle carried on by
the many immigrants in her own Houston district. But unlike her grandparents,
today's immigrants face a system she condemns as broken, and often pay a
painful price. She cites especially post-9/11 discrimination against immigrants
from the Middle East.
"Families are torn apart," Jackson Lee laments bitterly, "and we're not
adding to our security, but only to the misery of human beings who want to give
their best to this country. We have a system that's not helping anyone. It's not
helping to build the economy - it's helping to tear it down. For immigrants
here, we need an orderly system that allows them to do their jobs and build the
American economy, and allows US workers to have jobs and do likewise."
David Bacon is a west coast writer and photographer, and former factory
worker and union organizer. His book, The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the
US/Mexico Border, was published last year by the University of California
Press. His photodocumentary project on immigration, Beyond Borders,
Transnational Working Communities, is due next year from ILR Press/Cornell
This article also appeared in the Summer 2005 print edition of The Black