Blacks Worried of Immigration Bill's Impact on Wages

The men stood just a few hundred yards away from each other in the busy hardware store parking lot, but their lives were far apart.

On one end, Oscar Bautista of El Salvador leaned against a low stone wall, hands shoved deep into his jeans pockets, and said he had been waiting more than three hours for a job. Across the lot, Art Jackson loaded potting soil into his Dodge Durango. Gesturing toward Bautista, he complained that immigrants are making it harder for Americans to keep good jobs, especially blacks.

"You need to take care of home first," said Jackson, an African-American phone salesman from northern New Jersey.

Blacks and Latinos each must fight racial bias, and they're often united on social and political issues. But they often differ when it comes to immigration.

As Congress tussles with immigration reform, many African-Americans worry that more undocumented workers would make it tougher to earn a good living — and to close stubborn economic gaps between blacks and whites.

Newcomers make black progress harder — they're "taking us back, us black people," said Wesley Crawford, who works at Source of Knowledge, a bookstore and gift shop in Newark. "It's a misconception that they're taking jobs we don't want. If you give people a good job, they will work."

While hundreds of thousands of Hispanic immigrants and their supporters protested possible anti-immigrant policies in recent weeks, the nation's most prominent black leaders were elsewhere. Jesse Jackson and the presidents of the NAACP and National Urban League have all been to New Orleans to try and stop the upcoming local election, which they say is unfair to the tens of thousands of blacks uprooted by Hurricane Katrina. Shortly after the storm, Jackson and others publicly complained that Latino workers seemed to have more access than blacks to rebuilding jobs.

Bruce S. Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a telephone interview that African-American and Latino bonds are strong and that his "spirit was there" at the immigration marches.

While he empathizes with blacks who fear heavy immigration, Gordon said the real barriers to progress are discrimination, mediocre schools and not enough good jobs, among other things.

"People are yielding to the temptation to pit black against brown," he said. "This has existed for years, but it's deceptive."

Most of the immigration protests have focused on a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would make illegal immigration a felony, and all but one black voting member of Congress, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee, was against it, according to the Congressional Black Caucus.

Immigration experts disagree sharply over whether the newcomers help or hurt the American economy, especially black workers, but there's general agreement that low-skilled immigrants drive down wages for all native-born laborers who didn't graduate high school.

More than one in five blacks are high school dropouts, Census 2005 estimates show, and that number doubles for Latinos. Some say this shows blacks are actually unlikely to compete with Hispanic immigrants for jobs — and the groups can be allies.

"The Mexican who arrived last month is more often in direct competition with a Mexican who's been here five years than with an African-American who was born here," said Frank Sharry, executive director for the National Immigration Forum, which pushes for easier legalized immigration.

Still, many blacks feel threatened, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black writer and activist in Los Angeles. "The civil rights leaders say we're all united, but the average (black) person on the street is taking great offense at this group coming in and essentially taking over," he said.

Nearly half of Los Angeles residents are Latino, many born in Mexico and Central America. About one in 10 are black. As the size and influence of Latino community has grown, long-standing black neighborhoods have become Latino and a Mexican-American mayor was elected last year. In recent months, violent Latino-black turf battles have erupted in area prisons and schools.

The tension is not isolated. Officially, Latino Baltimore grew nearly 50 percent between 1990 and 2003 to about 11,300 — but Raphael Regales of the mayor's Office of Hispanic Affairs, puts the number closer to 40,000. Some blacks have complained about new services for immigrant day laborers: "People say, 'We need jobs, too,"' he said. "It's not all rosy and beautiful all the time, but in the end the communities will see it's best to work together."

Some hope that will happen in Newark, too. The city has long been about one-third Latino, mostly Puerto Rican, but communities of Ecuadoran and Dominican immigrants are growing fast. Meanwhile, El Club del Barrio, a nonprofit Latino social services agency near downtown, serves a growing number of blacks.

On Newark's Broad Street, Elizabeth Varner, a retired educator from East Orange, relaxed outside the Source of Knowledge store and said she welcomes the newcomers. "If people are here working, they should be given the chance to stay. As African-Americans, who are we to say, 'Send them home."'