Blacks vs. Immigrants Is a Zero-Sum Argument

Fairness and Equality Are at the Heart of the American Journey

Immigration reform opponents want to pit black Americans against the undocumented, but Sam Fulwood and Henry Fernandez show it’s not working.

Attendees at a rally for immigration reform are seen through an American flag. (AP/Jae C. Hong)
Attendees at a rally for immigration reform are seen through an American flag. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

The zero-sum argument that pits black Americans against undocumented workers is a false premise.

At the heart of this specious challenge to fairness for all U.S. workers is the idea that blacks resent undocumented Latino immigrants for taking away jobs that would rightfully belong to them. Restrictionist opponents to immigration reform seize on this line of attack and exploit it to drive a wedge between the two racial and ethnic communities.

It’s not working.

Don’t take our word for it. Ask Jose Luis Marantes, an immigrant rights activist in Washington, D.C. who has found some of his most ardent supporters from within the ranks of some of the nation’s most frightened future workers: students on black college campuses.

Marantes, a youth organizer for the Center for Community Change, said that a recent encounter on the Howard University campus convincingly demonstrated to him the divide-and-conquer strategy’s failure. He was attending an Africana studies class to discuss impending legislation to change the nation’s immigration policies.

“One student stood up in the class and challenged me [on immigration reform],” he said. “This student said he was from Los Angeles and that where he came from Mexicans were the enemy because they took work from black people. ‘So why should I listen to anything you have to say?’”

Marantes recalled the air in the room getting thick with tension. But that moment passed as quickly as it came when a second student spoke up to denounce his classmate’s comments as uninformed.

For a remarkable hour, Marantes sat back as the predominately black classroom debated immigration policies and U.S. history. The students talked about how blacks were denied worker rights, how some of their ancestors were shut out of jobs and opportunities, and how today’s laws cripple a fresh generation of workers. Some students argued that it’s unfair—“like slavery”—for contemporary immigration laws to break up families and pit one group against another for seeking a better life.

“That class taught itself,” Marantes said. “They were curious about the issue and hungry for information. Once they got the right information, it was clear that the old arguments didn’t seem right.”

Marantes said he didn’t challenge the first student—one of his classmates did with accurate information. That changed the whole mood in the class.

“From that point on, it wasn’t about blacks,” he said. “It wasn’t about Mexicans. It was about employers undercutting workers and when they understood that, it was, like, ‘Ah! I get it!’”

The debate and the class eventually ended. And that’s when the most remarkable thing happened, Marantes said. One student approached him and said the class discussion opened his eyes. He wanted to know what he could do to help push the immigration effort at the university. That student was joined by others on the Howard campus, which has a long history of student activism for progressive causes.

So when this weekend’s march in Washington takes place, some 85 black students from Howard University will be among the activists calling for comprehensive immigration reform for new American families and economic justice for all American families.

They will join tens of thousands of diverse Americans from around the country who will listen to black leaders such as Marc Morial of the National Urban League and Ben Jealous of the NAACP, who both have prominent speaking roles.

They’ll groove to the truly American band Los Lonely Boys, whose music is a combination of rock and roll, blues, soul, country, and Tejano. And they will hear from Esther Lopez of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which fights as hard today for black, brown, and white workers as it did generations ago for Polish and Italian immigrants.

The students will also march with those who don’t have great titles or the blessings of a college education, but have figured it out. Low-wage black workers from places like New Haven, Connecticut and Milwaukee, Wisconsin are marching because they know their economic futures rely on a fair playing field for all workers.

This requires comprehensive immigration reform that makes undocumented workers legal residents so they can join with black, white, Asian, and Latino workers to bargain fairly for wages, organize unions, and stand up for basic workplace protections. The simple dignity of a hard day’s work for a fair day’s pay in our shared American journey has built not just a country, but bridges between communities.

Sam Fulwood III and Henry Fernandez are Senior Fellows at American Progress.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

Henry Fernandez

Senior Fellow