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"Needed: More Emphasis on Politics"

September/October 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

by Cathi Tactaquin

When I fast read Changing Relations, I found myself pleasantly surprised that I could actually agree with most of the assessment and recommendations. The report's emphasis on "intergroup cooperation" versus just "harmonizing" relations that never really address the sources of conflict between new and old residents is a good, basic approach to social change. At the same time, I was disappointed that the report, based on research launched in 1987, could not capture the incredible surge of tension and antagonism surrounding the issue of immigration today, especially over the last few months. In particular, the report does not adequately deal with the overt political maneuvering taking place among various forces over this issue - the rising influence of conservative, racist and restrictionist voices, through the media and directly with policy makers, and "official" scapegoating of immigrants for local, state and national economic problems. Any attempt to foster inter-group relations today will face a dangerous tide of racially-motivated nativism and official policies further delineating "us" from "them."

The main thrust of the report - that we need more opportunities for positive interaction between new and established residents-is very important and, indeed, bears on public opinion. Most surveys have shown that when established residents are asked questions about immigration in the abstract, the answers appear much harsher than when people are asked questions concerning their own interaction with immigrants in their communities. I would emphasize or introduce to the listed opportunities for shared interaction a few more important areas: unions, ethnic-based political and community organizations, churches, and civil rights organizations.

A significant vehicle for advancing intergroup relations should be unions, where historically people of various races and nationalities have come together for their common good. Of course, unions today have declined in members and influence, and many are not very well integrated racially. But it is also true that some unions have increased their organizing among immigrant workers, and in many areas workplaces and unions are about the only places where people come into contact with someone of a different race or nationality. The potential certainly exists for unions to be an important source of interaction and common empowerment, where the common economic interests of immigrants and established residents are on the table.

The report seems to imply that in talking about "established residents" we are generally talking about the established white or non-immigrant-community residents. For the most part, however, the established residents that many newcomers encounter are people of the same national or ethnic heritage, especially as newcomers move into or near established neighborhoods.

An important bridge between new and existing residents are the more established immigrants and the second and third generation U.S.-born members of immigrant-based communities. They often still live in the same neighborhoods and attend the same schools and churches. They may interact in the same community organizations, although in some communities new immigrants are not included in these groups or may be excluded. These organizations should be encouraged to be inclusive in their membership, to adapt to new populations, to be bilingual and bicultural sensitive, etc. They can be key to easing transitions, to articulating new community needs and concerns, and to working to empower future members of the community. Similarly, churches may be vehicles for encouraging intergroup relations.

The relative silence of civil rights organizations about attacks on immigrants today may bespeak a particular problem within the civil rights community itself - that these organizations themselves are still "separate," representing the established but not the new residents. There have certainly already been tensions, particularly over perceived conflicts between African Americans and new immigrants over job opportunities. Anti-immigrant organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) have recently sought to exploit this issue with radio ad campaigns appealing to the African American community to support a moratorium on immigration. But there certainly seems to be a willingness to address the tensions. The NAACP, after consider-able debate, agreed to support repeal of employer sanctions, the controversial 1986 provision outlawing the hiring of undocumented immigrants, noting that any discrimination is intolerable. New president Rev. Benjamin Chavis is also reaching out to Latino and Asian communities to join the NAACP - a step which I believe is the kind of aggressive leadership needed to help unify-not just mediate-constituencies that are a target of the renewed nativist campaign.

I certainly endorse the Changing Relations project recommendations against "get tough" immigration policies, for an extension of legalization, and consider-ation of local voting rights to permanent residents (all residents, regardless of status, may already vote in some school district and other local elections). But these recommendations are, in the end, hotly contested political issues and will need much more than public festivals if they ever are to gain credibility even as a proposal. We will have to fight for opportunity and equality in many spheres. We will need bold political leadership, common commitment, as resources. The Changing Relations project has made some sound recommendations, and I hope that the philanthropic community is listening. We need to build bridges, and to unify our population on the basis of opportunity and equality for all in this global era of unparalleled economic change and democratization.
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