The forum seemed tailor-made for Ted Hayes, the Los Angeles homeless activist who has become one of the nation's most visible African Americans raising a ruckus about illegal immigration.
A mostly black crowd had gathered at Bethel AME Church in South Los Angeles for a debate about illegal immigration's effects on the African American community. When Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and others called for black-brown unity, they drew boos and yells of dissent.
"Illegal immigration is wrong! They have no business being in this country!" shouted one audience member, drawing applause.
But Hayes was nowhere near the podium. He sat in the church's back pew, silent. He had not been invited to speak. In fact, he had been rejected because organizers felt he lacked legitimacy, according to one of them.
And therein lies a conundrum. As immigration becomes a red-hot issue in the presidential campaign, it is stirring volatile sentiments among a sizable number of blacks who believe illegal immigrants are threatening their jobs, housing, healthcare and educational benefits. But no one has been able to unite them and effectively push for their interests.
Certainly not Hayes. Since last year, the 56-year-old lean and lanky activist has tried to rouse blacks against illegal immigration with fiery appearances on national TV, protest marches, civil disobedience and leadership of Choose Black America, an anti-illegal immigration organization launched and financially supported by the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
"Illegal immigration is the greatest threat to blacks since slavery," Hayes said at a recent Choose Black America meeting in Inglewood. "Immigrants got our jobs, the hospitals, the schools. Black folks can't compete."
So far, Hayes has failed to gain traction. His events go mostly unattended. His organization has managed to recruit only about 50 members nationwide. An Internet appeal for support netted only about $500, at last count.
A huge misstep, said commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, was Hayes' decision to align himself with the Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal immigration group viewed as extremist by many people, including blacks. Founder Jim Gilchrist, who calls Hayes "spectacular," sharply disputes the charge and said Minutemen are patriots of all races who do not engage in violence.
The Minuteman taint continues to reverberate, however. It's one reason the Community Call to Action and Accountability's executive committee rejected Hayes as a panelist for its recent immigration forum, said member Greg Akili. "When you align yourself with people who have been an anathema to civil rights, people scratch their heads. They say, 'I may support your position but I see you standing with people who I know ain't with me,' " Akili said.
The activist denounces all the charges and says he is no extremist. At least one Latino activist, Nativo Lopez of the Mexican American Political Assn., agrees.
Lopez said he has met with Hayes to discuss common concerns about immigration's impact on blacks and U.S.-Mexico trade and labor policies. Hayes proposed that the two men plan a march in support of civil rights and economic justice for Mexicans in Mexico.
"He's not a racist," Lopez said. But the furor has badly damaged him, and Hayes said it illustrates the vicious treatment blacks get when they dare to criticize illegal immigration. Which is why, he added, few black leaders publicly do.
On that point, many of his critics agree.
"In black neighborhoods, most of the folks I encounter are leery of immigrants and most have negative perceptions of them, unfortunately," said Larry Aubry, columnist for the black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel and an executive committee member of the action and accountability group. "But black leadership throughout the community has been frankly derelict in addressing this issue."
A recent Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll showed that more than two-thirds of blacks nationwide said illegal immigration was an important problem. About half supported a pathway to citizenship for those who learn English, pay fines and have no criminal record, compared with 60% of whites. But more believed illegal immigrants had a negative impact on their community than those who viewed them positively. And blacks generally supported harsher enforcement measures than whites.
Such sentiments -- and a push from a friend -- helped propel Hayes to take on the controversial issue last year.
Inglewood businessman James Spencer plied him with arguments, Hayes said, that illegal immigrants were draining resources that could otherwise help the homeless on skid row, most of whom are black men.
Hayes knew the issue would jeopardize his homeless work, endanger his safety and strain ties with Latino friends.
He did it anyway, he said, because he could not avoid seeing a link between illegal immigration and diminishing resources for struggling blacks. "I thought, 'OK, I can suffer for this cause,' " Hayes said. And he has.