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"Immigration and the Civil Rights Movement's Response,"

by Bill Tamayo March/April 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

The civil rights movement in the United States is currently confronted by numerous social issues of unprecedented complexity: concerted attacks on affirmative action, increasing racial violence and hatred, questions about the "genetic ability" of African-Americans to excel, and the lack of political leadership in government to address these issues.

Passage of California's Proposition 187 (the so-called "Save our State" initiative) in November 1994 drove home the message that immigrants, like many others in America, are a drain on society. The public's perception of this community-nonwhite, undocumented, criminally bent, welfare abusers -was fueled by public officials and the media. Not surprisingly, while African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans voted against 187, whites voted for it

The general alignment of all civil rights groups in California against Proposition 187 was positive. However, that alignment does not yet reflect a common view on the broader questions of undocumented immigration, immigrants rights and immigration policy overall.

As recently as Spring 1990, the NAACP supported the employer sanctions provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which bars the hiring of undocumented persons and requires some verification of work authorization. While IRCA was being debated in Congress, Latinos, Asians and members of the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses condemned the measure as discriminatory. But the NAACP's Washington lobbyist in 1985 asserted that because of job competition between the undocumented and African-Americans, the organization supported sanctions. And the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights-the nation's premier coordinating mechanism for civil righjis advocacy before Congress and the Executive Branch, representing some 185 national organizations-did not oppose employer sanctions because of sharp division in its ranks.

A 1990 GAO study confirmed the predictions of discrimination in its finding and found that nearly 20% of employers admitted discriminating against Asians and Latinos (citizens and lawful permanent residents) because of IRCA Armed with this evidence. Latinos and Asians,joined by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and many others, convinced the NAACP to revisit the question. Then NAACP Director Benjamin Hooks successfully urged his membership to reverse its position. The Leadership Conference eventually came around, but only after Latino groups publicly voiced their consideration of withdrawing membership.

Immigration - Bashing = Racism

Racism has dominated and continues to dominate immigration policies in the United States and other Western nations. As recently as 1993, in response to a World Bank report that over 100 million people have left their home countries and to a related report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the G-7 countries (United States, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Japan and Great Britain) adopted policies to restrict immigration and deny quick access to asylum. These efforts were designed to stem immigration from Africa, Latin America and Asia. The racial component of these policies was vividly illustrated as immigrants from Turkey, the Middle East, Africa and Asia were victims of racial violence throughout Western Europe in the early 90s.

In the United States, these policies translated into proposed curbs on the political asylum process, rapid deportation, increased border enforcement (without provisions for oversight) and efforts to deny undocumented immigrants public services, a la Prop. 187. In 1993, California Governor Pete Wilson proposed denial of citizenship to U.S.-born children whose parents were undocumented. Wilson chose to turn back the clock to an era when U.S-born African-Americans and Native Americans were denied citizenship by law. While this effort was unsuccessful, Wilson touched an extremely hot button and realized that fanning the flames of xenophobia was not only popular but provided the key element for his re-election.

The recently introduced Personal Responsibility Act sponsored by Republicans would deny legal permanent residents over 40 social services and benefits, including SSI, AFOC, Medicaid and representation by Legal Aid lawyers funded by the Legal Services Corporation.

The Task for Civil
Rights Groups

What should the civil rights movement do amidst this cacophony of hate, racism and nativism? Foremost, the movement must draw out the commonalities among the communities it seeks to represent and on whose behalf it is advocating. Allowing to go unchallenged the pattern of blaming similarly situated victims of racism for one's plight would be a striking setback. If anything, the current heightened racialized climate serves as a painful reminder that many of us are in the same boat and need not blame each other for being there. Even perceptions that nonwhite but nonblack minorities who may or may not be citizens should not be at the table of civil rights debate do an injustice to the vision of civil rigbts leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others who approached the issue of civil and human rights with a global and internationalist perspective.

While the history of the movement has been inconsistent on the issue of immigrants' rights, there have been proud moments. The ACLU was formed out of challenges to the roundups and deportations of immigrant labor activists during the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920 and continues to represent immigrants in civil rights matters. In 1915, the NAACP successfully defeated a Senate amendment to deny admission to persons of African descent, and in 1952 argued for defeat of the dangerous McCarran-Walter Act, which maintained the racist national origins quotas in our immigration laws. During the Proposition 187 campaign, the Urban League, NAACP LDF, Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund, and Asian organizations vociferously opposed the measure. These experiences lay the foundation for a more concerted effort to protect the rights of immigrants and beat back the racism that underlies anti-immigrant measures. More important, that joint practice serves to build a common vision about who is responsible for this climate of hate and racism, and leads to a decrease in interethnic hostilities.

Civil rights groups have an important mission in this period. They must be able to more forcefully articulate the issues of the immigrant population, including the undocumented, and assert that this community is part of the civil rights community. They must assert that working together and drawing the lessons are the main ways in which we can survive this period of vitriolic scapegoating and "racialized patriotism" in which nonwhites and noncitizens are being jointly demonized without mercy.

Bill Tamayo , a PRRAC Board member, is Managing Attorney at the Asian Law Caucus (468 Bush St., 3rd flr., San Francisco, CA 94108; 413/391-1655).

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