Reduced to its very essence, the contention over immigration reform is about numbers, meaning how many immigrants of color will further alter the complexion of America and how they might vote. For that reason, African Americans should care about the outcome of the current debate in Washington, D.C., because it is about their political survival.
House Speaker John Boehner announced recently that the Republican-led House of Representatives would develop its own immigration reform bill. As it stands, Congress is at an impasse over the issue because House Republicans will likely not approve a bill that allows the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States – 75 percent of whom are Hispanic – a path to citizenship. The Senate bill, approved earlier this month, includes a path to citizenship, with eventual full voting rights.
So if you have yet to see the writing on the wall from Boehner's Republicans – keeping millions of new immigrants from voting – let that be a reason to tune in.
Here's another reason: According to the 2011 U.S. census, there are 44 million blacks and 52 million Hispanics. Although white Hispanics are the most visible, many immigrants from Mexico, Cuba, Columbia, Peru and other Latin countries are now self-identifying as black.
Hispanics, Africans and Caribbeans, who have overlapping identities, have all contributed to the "browning" of America, in which half the children entering kindergarten this year are people of color. These immigrants and their first- and second-generation descendants will help make up the racial and ethnic majority by 2050, according to census reports.
Meanwhile, research shows that this new demography and other factors are likely to benefit Democrats. Just this week the Pew Hispanic Center released a study that found that of Latino immigrants who are not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents (and therefore likely unauthorized immigrants), "some 31 percent identify as Democrats and just 4 percent as Republicans." Indeed, the impending immigration bill by House Republicans may very well be about reversing the trend toward an increased Democratic base.
While digesting that possibility, it is important to know that America has always had voluntary black immigrants alongside forced migration of Africans, which made blacks the majority in the South. Besides internal and external pressures, there was the belief in the 1800s that "the increase in Africans would be injurious to the white race." The Atlantic Slave Trade ended – in part – because of this fear.
Freed blacks continued to migrate across the Atlantic, including John B. Russwurm from Jamaica. In 1827, Russwurm co-founded the first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal. Prince Hall, another early black immigrant from Barbados, founded the Prince Hall Freemasonry. Additionally, Homer Plessy from Haiti was a catalyst for the 1896 lawsuit Plessy v. Ferguson, which established racial segregation in America. All in all, these men highlight the migratory pattern that continued into the 20th century, most notably after Sen. Edward Kennedy's 1965 Immigration Act. This act opened up immigration to former colonized countries and ushered in more blacks and other nonwhites to the U.S.
This new wave of immigration, and migration from the South, also gave rise to a black majority in many cities that saw their first black mayors between 1967 and 1990. Of course, much of this nuance is missing from public discourse because historians often conflate "black" with "African American," erasing geopolitical identities and rendering an incomplete narrative of Africans in America.
Why is this untold history important to know? And how is this relevant to the current immigration debate?
Facing a 13.7 percent unemployment rate, most African Americans falsely believe that the absence of foreigners who "take jobs" will benefit them in the current labor market, perhaps unaware that the black unemployment rate since 1970 has always been twice that of their white counterparts. Very often African Americans have adopted the attitudes of early-19th-century whites who wanted to send Africans back to Africa. But instead of worrying about immigrants – both black and otherwise – taking their jobs, African Americans should see the benefit of how a broad coalition of immigrants – Caribbean, African and Hispanic – can strengthen their voting power.
This disunity portends a loss to black political representation across America. Now the Congressional Black Caucus is boasting its largest membership since its formation in 1971. However, many representatives sent to Congress by black-majority districts are beginning to see a demographic shift and might not return to Congress after the next two presidential election cycles.
Furthermore, many African Americans have failed to realize that the current bipartisan immigration reform agenda is seemingly about a move away from blackness. Hispanics – who are viewed as "not quite white" by those who police the boundaries of whiteness – are perhaps collaterals in this ideological warfare. That many African Americans are not interested in "(blacks) here and there," as one African-American historian puts it, is disturbing and unfortunate. This moment in history – in the wake of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and its aftermath – is undeniably one of the lowest points for the black community since the civil rights movement. During that era, it was necessary to find commonality with people of different races and ethnicities who powered that social movement.
Perhaps it's time again to expand the notion of blackness and embrace the hallmark of the civil rights movement: solidarity.
(Ann-Marie Adams, Ph.D., is the founder of the Hartford Guardian. Follow her on Twitter.)