A few months before the 2004 presidential election, Project 21, a Washington, D.C.-based group of conservative Black businesspeople and professionals, called George Bush on the carpet for his conflicted immigration reform proposals.
The group railed that if Congress enacted Bush's reform proposals it would flood the country with hordes of illegal immigrants, speed the deterioration in public education, further bulge the prison system and undercut American workers' wages.
But Project 21's biggest fear was that illegal immigration would have dire impact on Black workers. It claimed that illegal immigrants depress wages, elbow Blacks out of low-paying and unskilled farm and manufacturing jobs and snatch vital services from the Black poor.
This is the worn argument of conservatives and fringe anti-immigrant groups such as the Minuteman Project. Other studies show that illegal immigrants pay more taxes, spend more consumer dollars on goods and services and receive less in benefits from government agencies than any other group.
Project 21's leap on the anti-illegal immigration bandwagon was predictable. It is following the lead of its ultra-conservative GOP boosters, who have pounded on Bush to take even harsher steps to shut down the border.
During the past two decades, the illegal immigration debate has stirred doubt and conflict among Black liberals and Democrats. In the 1980s, the Congressional Black Caucus staunchly opposed the 1984 immigration reform bill. The bill called for tougher sanctions against employers that hired illegal immigrants, tighter enforcement controls at the border and an English language requirement to attain legalization.
But that was an easy call then for the caucus. Those were the Reagan years, and Black Democrats and civil rights leaders waged relentless war against Reagan's domestic policies. In 1985 and 1990, the caucus opposed other reform measures that were pretty much a carbon copy of the earlier proposal.
The Black caucus took its cue from the Hispanic Caucus and continued to oppose tougher punitive measures on immigration. But the sharp jump in the number of illegal immigrants; new polls showing that significant numbers of Blacks opposed increased immigration, bi-lingual education and driver's licenses for illegal immigrants; and rumbles from constituents that illegal immigrants were grabbing jobs from Blacks made some Black Democrats pause.
In 2003, civil rights groups backed the Freedom Ride bus campaign to lobby Congress for amnesty for illegal immigrants and stronger labor protections. The NAACP and Urban League, though, took no official position on the Freedom Ride.
A year before the Freedom Ride, the NAACP invited Hector Flores, the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, to be a featured speaker at its convention. Flores and the NAACP mostly skirted the issue of immigration. It was only one of several policy initiatives — including affirmative action, tougher hate crimes legislation, health care, elimination of racial profiling, voting rights and greater public education funding — that the two groups agreed to work more closely together on.
The illegal immigration controversy is not going away. Civil rights leaders and Black Democrats must and should not pander to the anti-immigrant hysteria that has gripped many Americans — including many Blacks. They must continue to call for an equitable immigration reform measure that safeguards the rights of undocumented workers and the job security of Black workers.
That's a tall order, but it's one they must fill.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.BlackNews.com.