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Immigrant Crusade Enlists Few Blacks

Though they have sided with Latinos in the past, African Americans have not gotten involved in this debate. One reason is competition for jobs.

April 10, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Najee Ali, an African American activist, tries to turn out for as many civil rights rallies as he can. But on the day that hundreds of thousands of Latinos marched through downtown Los Angeles for immigrant rights, he had no idea it was happening until he turned on the TV.

"They didn't call us; they didn't need to call us," Ali said of organizers of the march last month during a recent dialogue between blacks and Latinos about immigration. "Once I saw the half million, I felt fear, in a sense, that [blacks] might be marginalized in the future when it comes to jobs and political empowerment."

Ali's fears underscore the complex sentiments many African Americans feel about the surging number of immigrants who have transformed their neighborhoods and schools, the workplace and the political arena.

The majority of blacks sided with Latinos and Asians in supporting bilingual education and opposing a 1994 statewide initiative that, had it not been overturned in court, would have denied benefits to illegal immigrants. Yet many say they also feel an acute sense of encroachment and at times competition from the newcomers.

So far, African American voices have not been featured in the national debate over immigration reform, even though some believe they have the most at stake.

"In this era of mass immigration, no group has benefited less or been harmed more than the African American population," said Vernon M. Briggs Jr., a Cornell University labor economist who has studied the effect of immigration on blacks for more than three decades.

In a 2004 book, "The Impact of Immigration on African Americans," Briggs and other scholars charted myriad effects, including lower wages for less skilled and less educated blacks and their substantial displacement from the job market, with many dropping out of the labor pool entirely. In education, they found that providing remedial resources for immigrant students cut into resources for native-born students and that immigrants modestly displaced blacks from affirmative action programs.

But they also found some positive effects: The larger number of low-skilled workers, for instance, helped push better-educated blacks up the occupational ladder, enhancing their managerial opportunities.

Briggs said the effect is strong because both African Americans and Latinos tend to cluster in the same urban areas and lower-skilled labor markets.

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The transformation of Central Los Angeles neighborhoods from majority black to majority Latino has stirred complex feelings of pride for Randy Jurado Ertll, 33, a Latino educational consultant, and a sense of pain and loss for Kimela Santifer-Berry, 48, an African American woman studying for her license as a real estate agent.

Ertll, an American citizen of Salvadoran descent, moved into the largely black area around Hoover and 41st streets in 1978 and recalls black gang members robbing immigrant children, including himself, of their lunch money and bus passes. By third grade, however, Ertll's best friend was black, as were most of the customers at his aunt's market and mother's beauty salon.

Today, as the neighborhood has become dominated by Salvadorans and other Central Americans, Ertll said he wanted to bridge the gap between Latinos and blacks and to encourage "power sharing."

"I think the lack of jobs is what creates so much despair and hopelessness," he said. "Elected officials have to find a way to create jobs for both African Americans and Latinos in South-Central L.A."

Santifer-Berry, who voted for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, says she also would like to see reduced tensions between the two groups. But she said it bothers her that so many of her neighbors cannot speak English. In her job last year at an importexport firm, she said, most of the drivers who picked up and delivered goods spoke only Spanish.

"Why should we have to learn Spanish when this is America?" she asked.

Santifer-Berry agrees with Ertll that jobs are a major flash point. To illustrate, she recently took a visitor through her neighborhood near Overhill Drive and Slauson Avenue, just north of Inglewood. She stopped at one restaurant and retail outlet after another to count the number of black employees.

"Five customers, all black. Four workers, all Latino," she said at one fried chicken restaurant. "Now, is that right?"

She went on to an African American friend's home on Avalon Boulevard and 74th Street, west of Florence. Regina Atkins, 56, shared her family's tales of hardship.

Atkins said her 17-year-old daughter has unsuccessfully applied for at least eight jobs in the last year at fast-food restaurants and failed to land any of them, even though most of her Latino friends have found work. Her son, Atkins said, applied for a job at a paper goods store but was told by the black owner that he had to speak Spanish.

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