New York - As immigrant advocates battle hardline immigration bills in state capitols across the country, they’re receiving crucial support from caucuses of black legislators.
Black politicians have come out in defense of immigrants, questioning the morality and wisdom of tough immigration legislation in states from Nebraska to Georgia, where “copycat bills” are being modeled on Arizona’s immigration enforcement legislation, SB 1070. That bill ignited a national debate last year on whether states should take immigration matters into their own hands. The fact that federal courts have blocked many parts of Arizona’s law from being implemented has not deterred the copycats.
Nineteen state legislatures have considered Arizona-style proposals this year, according to Suman Raghunathan, Immigration Project Coordinator at Progressive States Network, a New York City-based nonprofit. Ten of these proposals have been defeated, but they remain alive in several states, including South Carolina, Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma.
Black legislators have been vocal in warning that, if approved, these bills could have unintended consequences, including damage to local economies, racial profiling, and diluting the federal government’s constitutionally-granted authority over immigration matters.
In the face of an ongoing backlash against immigrants, this deepening alliance between pro-immigrant lobbyists and black lawmakers has begun to transform state-level politics around immigration.
In Mississippi, the black legislative caucus was instrumental in sinking a get-tough immigration measure that had seemingly unstoppable momentum and bipartisan support. The bill would have required Mississippi law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of people detained in any “stop, arrest, or detention” and created a state offense for failure to carry “an alien registration document.”
“There wasn’t any wavering from the black caucus” in our opposition to the immigration bill, Mississippi Rep. Jim Evans said in a phone interview this week from Jackson. “More importantly, there wasn’t any moral wavering.”
Evans, along with other members of Mississippi’s legislative black caucus— such as Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Edward Blackmon Jr.— were instrumental in organizing the delaying tactics that held up the bill, which finally failed in conference, after versions passed both the House and Senate, when legislators could not agree on a final version.
Evans also said Mississippi’s black caucus also helped defeat 22 other immigration-related bills in Mississippi this year, which proposed, among other things, that Mississippi public agencies offer services and materials in English only and that license plates be offered only to drivers with proof of citizenship.
Evans characterized the proposals as “more venom and more hatred.”
“Immigration is a federal policy issue between the United States government and other countries, not Nebraska and other countries,” read a resolution introduced to the Nebraska Legislature by Sen. Brenda Council, an African-American labor lawyer who represents a 70 percent black and four percent Latino Omaha district.
The resolution also asked the federal government to act on immigration reform so that states wouldn’t be pushed into considering counterproductive policies.
Though Council’s resolution did not make it out of committee, neither did LB 48, a proposal that echoed many of the Mississippi bill’s provisions, which Sen. Council vocally opposed in a March 2 committee hearing: “Let me make the record clear so there's no doubt in your mind or anyone else's mind, I'm one of those who believes that LB 48 promotes racial profiling.”
Across the country, black legislators — nearly all Democrats— have framed immigration in the language of civil rights and have sought to restrain lawmakers from taking too-hasty or draconian action on immigration.
But they were not successful in all states. In Georgia last week, the Republican-controlled state house passed an immigration measure that, among other tough provisions, encourages law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of suspects and allows officers to detain people in the country illegally.
Even if the Georgia legislators’ pleas for restraint were partly brushed aside, they had a demonstrably moderating impact on the legislation and a galvanizing effect on grassroots opposition to the bill.
Members of Georgia’s legislative black caucus played a leading role in spearheading amendments to water down the harshest parts of the bill, HB 87.
In rallies at the state capitol, African-American civil rights leaders like U.S. Rep. John Lewis joined black and Hispanic legislators in attacking the bill as an unwelcome reminder of a divisiveness Georgia should have kept in history’s dustbin.
In one speech on the floor of the State Senate, Sen. Emanuel Jones asked legislators to remember that “it wasn’t that long ago when vigilante groups, militia groups … routinely rounded up citizens just to exact their own form of vigilante justice.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is expected to sign the Georgia bill into law despite the lingering opposition of many immigrant, business, and religious groups.
Of course, not all black political leaders agree with the parallels between immigrant and civil rights, and some worry about immigrants competing with African-Americans for jobs and wages. In Georgia, Willie Talton, a black Republican, voted in favor of HB 87.
In Alabama, Democrat Barbara Boyd, a Democrat, voted in favor of a similar bill, though other black legislators such as Laura Hall have been noteworthy opponents and voted against it.
But even in states historically welcoming to immigrants, it is now African-American lawmakers who are beginning to take the initiative on immigration issues.
In New York, it was a black lawmaker from Harlem, not a Latino legislator, who introduced a bill last month that would allow undocumented immigrant students brought to the country illegally by their parents the ability to obtain driver’s licenses, in-state health benefits, and financial aid help while they study at state universities.
The bill is a scaled-down state version of the federal DREAM Act— offering a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant college students— which failed in the U.S. Senate last year.
Sen. Bill Perkins said he expects interethnic political alliances to become more frequent as African-American politicians explore the broad common ground uniting Latino and traditional black constituencies.
“We’re a natural ally, and very often have the same issues,” he said in a phone interview.