"There is little question that the current immigration debate, though coded and contrived otherwise, is entirely about race. Yet, the framing made popular by immigrants and their advocates is so hostile to Black people and our American experience that it seems impossible for us to stake a claim with this movement. Today's immigrants will find that without Blacks, and a commitment to challenge racism beyond the reach of immigration policy alone, their movement will lose both its moral authority and the practical victory it hopes to achieve.
The language of today's movement directly evokes a painful history. Immigrants who laid claim in the past to this re-imagined American dream colluded with a system of racism that made the hope of health, safety and happiness an empty promise for Black people. Immigrants on the march today threaten to go the way of the Irish, the Italian and the Jewish: they may pay the price of the ticket for American citizenship by yielding to a racial hierarchy that leaves Blacks at the bottom.
Immigrants and their advocates have gained attention by evoking the narrative of hard-working immigrants making good in the land of opportunity - the American Dream redux - with its attendant contradictions and contrivances. With cries that 'immigrants built this country,' a favorite calling card, this burgeoning movement at once revoked the history of slaves and their descendants and obscured important truths about power, migration and social mobility in this country. For my great-grandmother, and generations of Black people in this country before and after her, this lie is worse than silence. It is a critical and strategic omission that adds Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans to the annals of American history while relegating Black people to its shadows.
The narrative of the immigrant as the symbol of hard work that leads to opportunity can mean nothing but alienation for Black people precisely because we know this myth is false. Without our labor - not immigrant labor, but slave labor - in the fields and on the march there would be no market brimming with wealth and economic opportunity, nor a tradition of civil and political rights readily available for appropriation and exploitation.
So, listening to the language of immigrant rights in 2006, a sensible Black person might respond with ambivalence. It is difficult to take the cause seriously, much less call it our own. Immigrant rights advocates have the potential to speak broadly, and Black people more than any other group might champion an extension of human rights denied to those on the margins. But instead we are displaced from this movement by coded messages that celebrate a history of anti-black racism. "
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