Where Are You, Now That We Need You, Booker T?: Black Leadership and Immigration Reform

By Otis L. Graham Jr. on March 16, 2012

Arguably the last and least publicized social reform movement of the 1960s-1970s took organizational form in 1979 as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The Washington-based group was created to work toward smaller and better-selected immigration flows than had been authorized by the carelessly drawn immigration law of l965. The talk among the organizers quickly turned to potential allies to strengthen this smallish organization. Most FAIR board members were environmentalists, and expected many greens to sympathize with the effort to curb immigration and thus the growth of the American population. A friendly shoulder was also anticipated from organized labor, as well as – for very different reasons – the patriotic societies.

But could an ally also be found in the largest reform cause in modern America with the deepest reservoirs of moral capital: the civil rights movement? There was reason to be hopeful, grounded in history. As America rapidly industrialized in the latter half of the 19th century, prominent Negro leaders, as they were then known, responding to grassroots African-American concerns, repeatedly complained to white Americans that growing numbers of European and Asian immigrants were pushing Negro Americans aside in the competition for the jobs being created in the nation's growing cities. "Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place," wrote black writer Frederick Douglass in an 1853 article.

Douglass spoke often on this theme, and had company. "To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongues and habits", said Tuskegee educator Booker T. Washington in a speech in Atlanta in 1895, "I would repeat what I say to my own race" in the form of a story of a ship lost at sea whose crew had run out of water. They signaled a nearby vessel and were repeatedly told to put a bucket over the side. When this was finally done fresh water came up, as they were in the wide mouth of the Amazon River. "Cast down your bucket where you are", Washington urged his bi-racial audience. "Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know ... who have, without strikes and labor wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, built your railroads and cities."

Other black leaders in the era of "the Great Wave" of European immigration urged a similar restriction on importation of foreign labor – among them writer W. E. B. Du Bois, "Back To Africa" movement founder Marcus Garvey, and railway union leader A. Philip Randolph. (The Center for Immigration Studies published a compact sampling of African American writing on immigration issues in "Cast Down Your Bucket Where You Are: Black Americans on Immigration" as well as "'Immigrant Indigestion': A. Philip Randolph: Radical and Restrictionist".

We immigration reformers were dimly aware of this history and impressed that black leaders of that earlier day, unlike many of their white counterparts, had grounded their objections to mass migration not on worries about cultural "inferiority" of immigrants but almost exclusively on labor market competition. Washington himself had expressed respect for the work ethic of most immigrants, whose numbers he nonetheless wished to limit. With rising hopes, FAIR's new leadership searched for high-level contacts with today's black civil rights leadership, where we hoped to find or cultivate allies in the effort to reduce the four-fold increase in the flow of third world labor into the U.S. that the immigration law of l965 had permitted.

How to gain an audience with a national civil rights organization such as the NAACP? My civil rights activism had been modest, but I had come to know Atlanta liberal Harold Fleming who had founded the influential Washington-based civil rights stronghold, the Potomac Institute. At my urging, Harold made a door-opening phone call, and the national leadership of the NAACP agreed, reluctantly, to a meeting with Harold's friends. I think the year was 1982, in the autumn.

We met on a Sunday afternoon in the Potomac Institute's high-ceilinged mansion in northwest Washington. FAIR's founder and Michigan doctor John Tanton brought with him Grand Rapids environmental lawyer Roger Conner and this California history professor. We were instructed to enter from one end of the great hall, and through the opposite door came the NAACP's Benjamin Hooks, Clarence Mitchell, and a third man whose name I cannot recall. Segregated entrance gave way to seats on separate ends of a long elegant table. The atmosphere was frigid. "Who are you guys?", one of them said, to get things started without pleasantries.

John Tanton began our response: We are ordinary citizens, mostly environmentalists in our volunteer and civic lives, who just recently came together to form a new organization to lobby for fundamental changes in the nation's immigration law and policy. A major flaw is a recent large expansion in legal immigration, while illegal immigration runs out of control. This large and growing influx of third world labor brings job competition to working-class Americans, including and perhaps especially African Americans. We know that this must concern you and your members, and have come to seek common ground.

Or something like that. The three black gentlemen across the large table frowned all the way through John's brief statement and Roger's impassioned few sentences assuring them that we were not racists. If I said anything I cannot remember it.

One of them – Hooks, I think – made a brief reply to this general effect: "Every year at the NAACP annual meeting we have to put down a small rebellion about 'too many immigrants' among our younger members, mostly from the southwest border states and also the eastern cities", he said. "They complain about job, wage, and housing competition. We tell them that this organization's leadership has a pact of cooperation with the Hispanic leadership from La Raza and MALDEF, the 160-member Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and on Capitol Hill. This alliance of racial and ethnic minority civic groups shares many similar problems and members have sworn that we will never become divided but will present a united front against the forces of discrimination. We have to explain this every year to some of our hot-headed young members. We are going to hold to that policy today and tomorrow. We have no advice for you, nor any business to transact."

We thought their brief argument against even exploring common ground because of their "pact" with Latino leadership made no sense. They had conceded that their members had immigration-related grievances. We were eager for further discussion of the benefits of smaller immigrant intake. But, to our astonishment, the meeting was essentially over. They cut off our request for an extended or subsequently scheduled conversation by coming to their feet to see us out.

* * *

Thus began our hard lessons on the complex politics of immigration reform. We had no way to know that the venerable NAACP in the early '80s was no robust potential partner, but had since the late '60s been floundering toward a near-suicidal period of executive corruption, declining membership, and programmatic irrelevance. The institution's governing structure almost guaranteed unimaginative performance – 1,700 local branches made up of elderly members (75 percent were 65 or older) ratified the decisions of a sclerotic board of 64 directors who ceded power to a series of executive directors whose average tenure in office was 20 years. The NAACP by the '70s was "falling short" of its admittedly formidable assignment of carrying forward the pursuit of racial equality energized by Martin Luther King, Jr., a "marginally relevant" institution which "did not have much of an effect on the quality of life in the black community", in the judgment of historian Robert C. Smith, who published We Have No Leaders in 1996.

But even a flourishing NAACP would probably have ushered a mostly-white restrictionist group to the door, given decisions they had already made. NAACP leadership well knew that economic studies tended to confirm that blacks nationwide were losing jobs and in some cases entire industries to Hispanic and Asian immigrants. They cannot have been surprised when polls showed strong black support for California's 1994 referendum on Proposition 187 to curb the delivery of taxpayer-funded social services to illegals. Yet the Hispanic-Black political alliance in Washington, strained by workplace and neighborhood tensions at the grassroots, was held together by the decision of both brown and black Washington-based "leadership" cadres to cooperate on a game they could win – the lucrative pursuit of federal spending and preferences in contracting and employment. The NAACP briefly supported and then retreated from firmer border controls and interior enforcement built into early versions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. To the NAACP leaders we met, a mostly-white immigration restriction group talked the same language as much of the NAACP rank and file – "the hotheads" – and it had to be shown the door for the same reasons.

* * *

Fortunately, African-Americans as individuals have taken up the critique of large-scale immigration that Frederick Douglass and Booker Washington initiated and that the NAACP has shunned. Speaking out as writers and in congressional testimony, Duke sociology professor Jacqueline Jackson, Morgan State University administrator Frank Morris, and President of the Miami Urban League T. Willard Fair – to mention only a few – have urged an immigration policy responding to the interests of black (and white and all other) unemployed Americans rather than to the cheap labor appetites of employers. Much more needs to be done than immigration reform. What immigration policy can do for blacks and other economically pressed Americans is fairly simple. First, tight labor markets. Last, brain drain other countries.

One Barbara Jordan, former congresswoman from Texas, knew these things and expressed them, assuming leadership in the form of chair of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, established by Congress from 1994 to 1996. Jordan's Commission recommended a reduction of legal admissions by one-third and an end to illegal immigration. "Those who should get in, get in. Those who should be kept out, are kept out. And those who should not be here will be required to leave", was her uncompromising language.

President Clinton seemed to endorse the commission report, then dropped it from his agenda upon Jordan's death in l996. That was almost exactly a century after Booker Washington received (at least some) national attention with a speech asking American employers to turn away from the temptation to prefer immigrant laborers over former slaves, even as he urged Americans of his (or any) race to match and exceed the work ethic of foreign populations.

Leadership not to be forgotten.