Shouldn’t Black Leaders Ask How Immigration Reform Affects Black Unemployment?

Lauren Victoria Burke
Job seekers wait in line at Chicago’s Kennedy-King College to attend a job fair hosted by the city on Nov. 9, 2012.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

How might President Barack Obama's pending executive order on immigration affect black unemployment? And isn't that a question black leaders should be asking right now?

Even if you're pro-immigration reform, the answer should be a full-throated and resounding, "Yes."


Obama's executive order will allow more than 4 million noncitizens previously here without immigration status to obtain work authorization. Meanwhile, though, the black unemployment rate is almost double the national average.

Last month it was 10.9 percent, while the unemployment rate overall was 5.8 percent.

Quite a few black leaders have situated the issue of immigration reform within the broader civil rights struggle, calling it "a defining civil and human rights issue of our time," and saying, "we know that the nation's immigration system is broken and that the status quo does not serve our economic or long-term interests," as Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, argued last year.

But it's perplexing to hear immigration reform described by those in the civil rights community as serving "our economic or long-term interests" before we've had a full-throated discussion about its impact on black employment. The Black Alliance for Just Immigration's Opal Tometi argued Sunday in The Root that undocumented immigrants don't compete with African Americans for jobs, but is she sure?


Advocates are skipping over a difficult discussion about whether African Americans would be competing for the same blue-collar jobs many immigrants are likely to be vying for. Why?

The fact is that immigration activists are lobbying harder on behalf of their constituencies—and their efforts have been more effective—than any black civil rights group has been with respect to the issues and priorities of the black communities that they represent.


Obama's executive action, announced Thursday, is the second federal directive immigration activists have won. Recall that in 2012, the president issued an order, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that halted deportations for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children if they applied for a deferral—and more than 500,000 people did. There wasn't much comment from black leaders in 2012, either.

And in this moment, you have to wonder who black civil rights organizations are fighting for if they're willing to avoid addressing the core issue of black unemployment as it pertains to immigration reform.


Black civil rights organizations have access to the Obama administration, but instead of a continued focus on issues such as black unemployment and how immigration may or may not have an impact, we see NAACP's president tweet:

Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Congressional Black Caucus member and the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, stated that the president's executive order "will help bring millions out of the shadows so they can more fully contribute to our nation and our economy."


"The executive action by the president is a huge step forward for the civil and human rights movement," said the Rev. Al Sharpton in a statement regarding the president's speech Thursday. "This is a constructive way to deal with a human problem in which everyone wins."

But in a supply-and-demand economy with stagnant wages, does everybody win? The fact that there was no mention of black unemployment in any of the statements from civil rights leaders on the president's executive action makes it appear as if black leaders have given up on the issue, assuming that black unemployment will "always be high" because "it's always been high." Either that, or they're focused on other priorities. But jobs in the black community remain the No. 1 issue because it is so obviously linked to economic prosperity.


Consider a recent article on Chicago's black jobless rate by the Atlanta Black Star's Thomas Scott, who highlighted that "an alarming 25 percent of black residents in Chicago are jobless, making it the fifth-highest in that dubious category among the nation's most populated cities."

If you pay attention to discussions going on in black communities, it's clear that this is on people's minds.


So while many civil rights groups appear to be on automatic pilot in their support for immigration reform, they may be out of step with many of the people they say they represent.

Perhaps soon, civil rights leaders will publicly address what the overall effect of granting 5 million more noncitizens the right to work might be on black unemployment.


So far, they haven't.

Lauren Victoria Burke is a Washington, D.C.-based political reporter who writes the Crew of 42 blog. She appears regularly on NewsOne Now with Roland Martin on TV One. Follow her on Twitter

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