Children in cages, children held by our government without access to soap, baths or toothbrushes, children caked in filth and excrement — and administration lawyers defending it all. These are not mistakes, but official policy as offered by President Donald Trump. Bizarrely it is also part of Trump’s political strategy, not just to engage his most steadfast supporters, but apparently to reach out to African American and Latino voters.
Flanked by flags and military badges, Trump gave his first prime time television address on Jan. 8. In his opening remarks, he stated that “Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration. It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages. Among those hardest hit are African Americans and Hispanic Americans.”
Three weeks later, administration mouthpiece Pastor Darrell Scott, who is black, argued that black people are harmed by immigrant labor, crime, and gang violence. He went further: “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would certainly agree that a border wall is necessary to protect the black community from the ravages of illegal immigration.”
Scott is no doubt wrong about King, who never once blamed immigrants for Jim Crow laws or poverty. Scott is also wrong about immigrants. Most researchers find that immigration improves the economy for all workers, and have consistently shown that immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Yet these false narratives, intended to drum up conflict between blacks and immigrant Latinos, persist.
But how do African Americans really feel about immigration? Just prior to Election Day in 2018, the African American Research Collaborative (along with Latino Decisions and Asian American Decisions) polled large samples of black, white, Latino and Asian American voters in competitive House districts. We found that black voters overwhelmingly oppose Trump on immigration, with 74 percent choosing “Immigrants just want to provide a better life for their families, just like you and me. I support legislation to make America more welcoming to immigrants” over “America has too many illegal immigrants, they hurt the economy, bring crime and gang violence to our cities. We have to crack down on illegal immigration.”
This was not surprising: In a July 2018 poll, we specifically tested opinions regarding building a wall, and 77 percent of African Americans opposed it — higher than any other racial or ethnic group. Similarly, we have found African Americans have the highest support for the DREAM Act which provides a pathway to citizenship for people brought to the United States as children. Black voters are also the most opposed to Trump’s policy of separating children and parents at the border.
Why? Because black people perceive that anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy is just as much about race as is Trump’s failure to disavow white nationalists. Ultimately, they see immigration as part of a broader civil rights agenda.
This is the case for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for which immigrant rights has become a core issue. Similarly, black legislative caucuses across the country have blocked punitive immigration legislation at the state and municipal level. Recent scholarship suggests that black-Latino alliances are increasingly widespread at the same time that black elite public opinion grows more sympathetic to immigrants. An analysis of black newspapers in four Southern states found that immigrants are portrayed far more positively than in the mainstream press. Latino immigrants interviewed for research in North Carolina frequently described positive relations with black neighbors, friends, and community leaders; recounting being invited to meals, offered support in church, and advocated for in the state legislature. Their descriptions revealed anti-immigrant sentiment among blacks as more extremist fantasy than fact.
When African Americans see children separated from parents, ICE agents at schools and workplaces, and Latinos referred to as criminals, gang-bangers, and rapists, they hearken to historic and current parallels. Black people know what it’s like to have their communities terrorized, to feel fear when pulled over by police, and to fight to keep their families together.
This is the lens through which African Americans view Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants. Trump’s calling predominantly black countries “shitholes” and his attempts to end temporary protected status for Haitians and Sudanese people, lend credence to this view. Perhaps this is also why we found that when given options on how good or bad Trump is for the black community, a third of black voters think Trump has a negative impact, while an additional 46 percent consider Trump “a racist whose policies are intended to hurt African Americans.”
Frederick Douglass, whom Trump once seemed to imply might still be alive, may have said it best when defending immigrants in a speech in Boston in 1867: “I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of cold and selfish expediency. There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are eternal, universal and indestructible.”
Efforts to pit blacks against Latinos and immigrants are not only failing but finding a wall of resistance.
Henry Fernandez is CEO at the polling and research firm African American Research Collaborative (on twitter: @afamresearch). Jennifer A. Jones is assistant professor of sociology & Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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