Black lawmakers fight for immigrant rights

As the Republican extreme right is pushing an anti-immigrant agenda at federal and state levels, African American legislators – most of whom are Democrats – have been increasingly prominent in upholding the rights of immigrants.

At a Congressional hearing last month, U.S. Representative Emmanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, sharply criticized Republican members of the House of Representatives for trying to “manufacture tension” between African Americans and immigrants. “It seems as though they would like for our communities to think about immigration in terms of ‘us versus them,’ and I reject that notion,” he said in a statement.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who called attempts to pit African Americans against Latino immigrants “so abhorrent and repulsive,” joined Cleaver in those concerns.

A number of state legislatures have also had anti-immigrant measures on their legislative agendas this year, including those modeled on Arizona’s draconian SB 1070, which would make it a state crime to be without immigration documents and would give police the right to detain anyone suspected of being undocumented. In the state context, too, Black lawmakers are demanding fair treatment for immigrants.

In an article posted last week,  Marcelo Ballve of New America Media pointed to a “deepening alliance between pro-immigrant lobbyists and black lawmakers” which he said “has begun to transform state-level politics around immigration.”

Ballve noted this year, 19 state legislatures have considered “copycat” bills patterned on SB 1070. Ten were defeated but others are still pending in states including South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma.

Among examples he cited:

  • In Mississippi, the Black legislative caucus helped stop a 1070-like bill, and 22 other anti-immigrant measures.
  • In Nebraska, state Sen. Brenda Council, an African American labor lawyer representing a largely Black district in Omaha, introduced a resolution emphasizing that immigration is a federal policy issue. Though her resolution died in committee, so did a 1070 copycat bill, which she strongly opposed during a committee hearing
  •  In Georgia, though a 1070-like bill did pass both legislative houses, Black legislators helped mobilize grassroots opposition and were able to weaken some especially harsh provisions. At rallies, civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., joined Black and Latino state legislators in denouncing the bill. The measure has not yet been signed into law, though Gov. Nathan Deal has indicated he will probably do so.

Early last month, in Montgomery, Ala., Black legislators joined a statehouse rally that denounced a 1070-type measure, holding signs proclaiming, “Stop Juan Crow,” and “Don’t Spend My Tax Dollars on Your Hate!” The legislators reminded protesters that Montgomery was a central battleground in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and warned that the bill would promote racial profiling. House and Senate have now passed similar measures that must be reconciled. Opposition continues, including concerns about effects on the business community.

Members of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators have been highly vocal in their opposition to similar bills before that state’s legislature. Speaking before a committee hearing last month, State Sens. Arthenia Joiner and Oscar Braynon II, and Rep. Dwight Bullard – all Conference members – warned that the measures were diverting attention from the state’s economic crisis, would lead to racial profiling, and would surely meet the same legal and constitutional challenges as Arizona’s law.

Late last year, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators passed a resolution saying SB 1070 “is oppressive in nature and promotes racial profiling and separatism similar to the Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany, Jim Crow laws of the former Confederate States, and the apartheid laws of South Africa.” The resolution expressed support for enforcement of current federal immigration laws, and urged that police not be required to take on the role of immigration officers.

Photo: Pepe Lozano/PW.



Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.