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Immigration Forum Gets Intense

A discussion at L.A.'s Leimert Park about illegal migrants and their impact on blacks escalates into a shouting match over jobs, housing and schools.

April 24, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Reflecting intense passions over illegal immigration, a Los Angeles outdoor forum about its impact on blacks quickly became a screaming match Sunday between those urging a crackdown on undocumented migrants and others counseling tolerance.

The gathering at Leimert Park in South Los Angeles, which eventually involved about 100 people, was aimed at publicizing what some blacks believe has been illegal immigration's negative effect on their neighborhoods, housing, schools and jobs, said Ted Hayes, founder of the Crispus Attucks Brigade, an African American group newly organized to fight the influx of undocumented migrants.

"Illegal immigration is the greatest threat to African Americans since slavery," Hayes said, before stepping onto a park bench and leading about 30 people in chants: "We're fired up! We can't take it no more!"

But no sooner had Hayes begun to speak when a handful of other blacks approached him with their own loudspeaker, yelling a counter message of unity in Spanish and English.

"The people united will never be divided!" yelled Julia Wallace, an African American member of the Progressive Alliance, as a handful of her supporters waved signs urging worker unity.

Hayes' supporters were later challenged by a few Latinos who wandered into the park and ended up in face-to-face debates over jobs, lawbreaking, the Mexican economy and a host of other hot-button issues.

When Terrance Lang, a 41-year-old African American, complained that Latino immigrants were taking jobs from blacks, Jose Haro, a 21-year-old Mexican American, retorted that maybe blacks weren't looking hard enough for them.

"It's so easy to find a job anywhere!" Haro said. "I find one in one day: moving companies, offices, anything. These people are lazy," he said, referring to blacks.

As the decibel levels rose and the two groups pressed closer to each other, police separated them with yellow tape.

The raucous debate, coming as Congress returns this week from recess to resume work on immigration reform and President Bush plans a speech on the issue today in Irvine, underscored the growing tensions in some black neighborhoods over the influx of immigrants. Some African Americans allege they are being shut out of jobs and housing by Latino supervisors and landlords; others say their children are shortchanged in schools that once were predominantly black but now cater to Spanish speakers. Violence between blacks and Latinos in schools and jails has increased.

Several studies have shown that the large influx of immigrants in the last 20 years has significantly expanded the nation's labor pool, allowing employers to depress the wages of the least-skilled and least-educated workers.

At the forum Sunday, many blacks said they bore no ill will toward immigrants in general but were alarmed by their seeming impact on their lives.

When Sean Jourdan, a 33-year-old African American born in Los Angeles, began work as a satellite TV installer in 1995, he said, most of his colleagues were black and all made more than $1,200 a week. That was enough, he said, to comfortably support a family.

Today, he said, only two of 75 workers at his firm are black -- the rest are Latino -- and wages have plunged. Desperate for supplemental income, Jourdan said, he recently bought a hot dog cart.

"I don't hate Hispanics," he said, "but I shouldn't have to compete like this when my people fought and died for this country. This is my birthright: to work, not to beg, for a living wage. They tell you to go to school and follow the laws of the land and you'll rise up. I've done that, but I'm being undermined."

As he listened to Jourdan's laments, Juan Santos, a self-described Chicano activist and writer, said he was sympathetic. But he said the problem was not Latinos, it was the nation's "capitalist class" that had shipped good jobs overseas, imported cheap labor and was now trying to pit workers against each other.

"It's the system that's at fault, not Mexicans," Santos said.

Hayes said his new group plans to organize a protest march through downtown Los Angeles to City Hall on May 21, invite gang members to join border patrols to stop illegal immigration and visit African American elected officials to demand to know how they plan to address the issue.

He added that he has written to Pope Benedict XVI, asking him to "rein in" Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, who has actively advocated for legalizing illegal immigrants and other reform measures.

Hayes is also an advocate for the homeless and helped to found Dome Village, a downtown experiment in alternative housing.

The forum drew an eclectic crowd that included African American members of the Minuteman Project, which sends private citizens on border patrols to stop illegal immigration; a Latino carrying a sign saying that America was actually Mexican territory; and one man wearing a Malcolm X cap and a "Bush-Cheney" political button.

When Hayes and others praised the Minutemen as patriotic Americans, other blacks screamed back that they were similar to the vigilantes who hunted down escaped slaves.

"Shame on you!" yelled Betty Jones, a Los Angeles resident.

But as the debates raged on, at least one person seemed pleased. Surveying the crowd, Santos, the Chicano activist, smiled and said:

"This debate is beautiful. These people are honestly trying to sort through all of these conflicts and contradictions."

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