The Immigration Divide

Why has the current debate on immigration reform incited so much passion and become the new “third rail” of politics?

Perhaps the sheer number of illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S. is the cause of the increased heat. In 1986, when immigration was last reformed, there were roughly three million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Now there are approximately 12 million—maybe more.

Additionally, the promises of tougher enforcement that were part of the 1986 amnesty agreement never materialized, and many people no longer trust their representatives in government to follow through on their promises.

However, I believe that at the core, the immigration debate hinges on two primary factors. On one level, the debate is about race relations, and on another level it is naked partisan politics.

On the political level, most Democrats seem to be in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. A small group of Democrats, however—including many black leaders—are opposing reform. Without a doubt, most of the illegal immigrants in question would likely vote for Democrats if allowed to vote, which means additional help for the party in 2008 and beyond. This would seem to benefit blacks, largely aligned with the Democratic Party, which makes their dissent on this issue so unexpected.

Republicans clearly have no incentive to commit political suicide, so why would they support amnesty? Their only motivation is to somehow avoid the “anti-immigrant” label that comes from opposing President George W. Bush, himself a supporter of immigration reform. The partisan squabbling between Democrats and Republicans explains why illegal immigration is so difficult to solve, especially on the run-up to a presidential election.

With respect to the racial dynamic, most blacks in political and community leadership positions are opposed to immigration based on the conventional wisdom that the low-skilled workers coming across the border from Mexico are taking jobs from blacks and the poor. However, recent studies do not support this theory.

Black concerns stem not so much from the current statistics as from the history of American immigration. It is a fact, well-known among blacks, that America’s free-market system has had a long-standing preference for immigrant labor over indigenous black workers, even when indigenous blacks would have cost less to employ. After the Civil War, Booker T. Washington implored the South in vain to hire blacks rather than import immigrants to fill the labor force. Even the Chinese, who were initially kept out of the country by law, were brought in to build the railroads and supply cheap labor in lieu of blacks. Whites overcame their racist objections to the Chinese before they would hire blacks in large numbers, despite the fact that the Chinese arrived without being able to speak English.

The point is that immigration policy has always uncovered a form of discrimination and/or racism, and this present debate is no exception. Now, interestingly enough, we are beginning to hear comments like “blacks and whites will have to band together to protect our country from the immigrants.”

I hate to admit that some blacks are buying into this. One such organizational leader, speaking recently before the Subcommittee on Immigration in the House of Representatives, stated, “The interests of black Americans are clear: No amnesty, no guest workers, enforce the immigration law.”

The solution to black’s economic woes, however, is not turning back immigrants; it is equipping native blacks with the basic skills and attitudes towards work that will enable them to compete. It is truer now than ever before that education continues to be the best road to freedom in our Republic, rather than relying on an abundance of low-skilled jobs.

There was one black leader who found a solution to the immigration issue without marching or waiting for someone else to offer a solution. At the turn of the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington was the largest black employer of educated blacks in the country. He realized he had to find a solution to the problem of unskilled blacks falling behind due to Irish immigration. In a 1912 speech before the National Negro Business League in Chicago he said the following:

“Now is the time—not in some far off future, but now is the time—for us as a race to prove to the world that in a state of freedom, we have the ability and inclination to do our part in owning, developing, manufacturing, and trading in the natural resources of our country. If the Italians and the Greeks can come to this country, strangers to our language and civilization and within a few years gain wealth and independence by trading in its fruits, the Negro can do the same thing.”

That comment by Washington is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. Blacks should not feel threatened by low-skilled immigrants who arrive without even being able to speak the language. If we focus on education and entrepreneurship, we can thrive alongside the immigrants.