Seeking Black Leadership on ‘Immigration Reform’

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By Otis L. Graham, Jr., Ph.D.

Otis is an historian of modern America, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a CAPS Board Member. He is the author or editor of 19 books and numerous articles on the history of the United States, with a focus on American reform movements, political economy, environment and immigration.

The writer's views are his own.

January 30, 2014

The 50th anniversary this past August of Martin Luther King’s “March on Washington” speech seemed a prime occasion (his birthday just passed this month was another) for the nation’s self-appointed civil rights leaders, as well as journalists and academic pundits, to express illuminating opinions on pending legislation affecting African-Americans, if there was any.

Apparently, there was not, as these two Op-Ed and speechmaking occasions produced only platitudes from the Black (and other) memorializers of King. But surely there was pending legislation in Washington in 2013 that the African-American community and like-minded allies could have been spiritedly for or against?

Indeed, there was a serious proposal with major negative implications for Blacks (and all Americans), one going back every year of the Obama and Bush II presidencies. The media called it “Immigration Reform,” which seemed odd to those educated about our history.

Black leaders in the late 19th century and into the 20th century had been fervently for what was then called “immigration reform,” meaning a substantial shrinkage of the incoming numbers, so as to open up jobs for America’s former slaves. Booker T. Washington, of the last generation of black leaders born into slavery, in 1895 urged white employers to hire blacks in preference to foreigners.

Black writer, statesman and social reformer Frederick Douglass wrote in 1853, “Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant.” Similar views were expressed by historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights leader and organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters A. Philip Randolph and Texas Congresswoman and civil rights leader Barbara Jordan, among many others of many colors.

Restrictionist “reform” was finally enacted in the 1920s. Then an open-the-door law in 1965, sponsored by employers and immigrant advocacy groups, greatly increased the immigrant flow and again spurred another restrictionist reform movement in the 1980s that has continued. This time, Open Door advocates held off restrictionist reforms through the 1980s and 1990s, but it was a battle, and they turned to brand theft.

They stole the “reform” word, with its reasonable ring, to make their Open Door position seem, well, reasonable. Both Bushes liked the term “immigration reform” and the cheap labor flow it promised, and this immigration reform of the “give-up-enforcing-the-law” sort has been on the agenda of both of the last two presidents, more than a decade in the wings. This time, it’s a wrong-headed and nation-weakening bad idea.

Clarifying this muddle so that Open Door Reform is distinguished from Enforce the Law Reform is a good assignment on King Days – for Black leaders, friends of labor, heirs to that gutsy opponent of open borders to Mexico (Cesar Chavez) and whoever else wants a sustainable country. Without clear labels we are at risk of making things much worse.

It is encouraging to remind ourselves that there was once a Black and allied-to-Black leadership pressing for environmentally sustainable, population-limiting reform. Until they didn’t.

Where are you when we need you again, Booker T?

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