Bridging Black and Brown 

With immigration debate raging in Washington, local group seeks black understanding of immigrants' plight.

Leonard McNeil, a San Pablo city councilman, stood in front of an audience of about 25 in the city's Mission-style council chambers on a spring Thursday evening and asked, "How many people know who Vicente Guerrero is?" Only a few raised their hands.

Guerrero was, in fact, the first black-Indian president of Mexico, McNeil explained. Though in office for less than a year, Guerrero signed a decree banning slavery in Mexico in 1829. It's one of the little-known historical facts connecting African Americans and Latinos — a commonality upon which McNeil hoped to shed light at this meeting hosted by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

The Berkeley-based group, which formed last year, claims to be the only one in the country fostering black support for immigrant rights. Black voices have been largely absent from the debate over the Senate's immigration reform bill, McNeil says, and the group hopes to change that.

In April, the alliance organized a delegation of fourteen black leaders from the Bay Area, Seattle, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, and Mississippi for a four-day trip to "investigate human-rights abuses of immigrants and indigenous peoples on the US-Mexico border." What they discovered only strengthened their belief that black Americans should become vocal allies of the nation's immigrant communities.

"It's about social, economic justice, and struggling against racism," McNeil told the crowd, an ethnically mixed group of blacks, whites, and Latinos. The councilman views blacks and Latinos as not only having a shared history, but similar concerns. "If you look at health, housing, the digital divide, incarceration, Chicanos/Latinos and African Americans, we have common issues," he said.

Yet, outside of this meeting, McNeil's perspective tends to be in the minority. Nationally, black organizations like Project 21 and Choose Black America have taken active anti-immigration stances. Recently, a study by Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain based on Pew Hispanic Center data concluded that illegal immigration is hurting black Americans, and that any parallels made between the two groups' experiences are unfounded. Some blacks have even joined the Minutemen.

Much of that's due to ignorance, says the Reverend Phillip Lawson, cofounder of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and one of the delegates who traveled to the border. Lawson, an uncommon-looking pastor with gray dreadlocks and earrings, said one of the first things the alliance did was to organize a series of meetings with black churchgoers to "help clear up our thinking."

"The whole range of questions came up, particularly questions in terms of economics," Lawson recalled in a phone interview. Among the biggest concerns was that immigrants take away black jobs. Others questioned equating the immigrant struggle with the black struggle. Some were concerned about retaining the English language. "We carry most of the vices and prejudices that the majority of Americans carry," Lawson said.

To the reverend, the connection between the two groups is clear, especially after his "transformative" sojourn to the border near Tucson. During the evening's slideshow, McNeil and Lawson showed pictures of delegates posing with hopeful migrants in the Mexican border town of Altar. Lawson told of the cottage industry that has developed around the estimated three thousand to four thousand young people who arrive there to migrate each week: backpacks, water, accommodations that resemble cattle houses, people sleeping on top of one another. "Like the slave ships," Lawson chimed.

Indeed, the alliance views immigration in the context of a tangled web of issues — from slavery to the Iraq war, globalization to genocide, the prison industrial complex to police brutality. "The migration is driven by economics called globalization," Lawson said. "In earlier times they called it imperialism."

Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenge, McNeil seemed hopeful. After the slideshow, he outlined BAJI's next steps: He's asking Congressman George Miller to hold a hearing on immigration in San Pablo, which is about 52 percent Latino. He's inviting CSU Professor Ron Wilkins, an "expert on black-brown relations," to speak to the group and high-school students. He plans to organize a "brown-black youth summit," celebrate International Migrants Day in December, and establish a black and Latino group to address immigration issues.

Though his alliance aims to create awareness, McNeil says Latino activists have an equal responsibility to educate themselves of the needs of non-Mexican immigrants as well as black Americans. "Sometimes you hear the phrase, 'We're doing the work that no one else is willing to do.' That's how racism manifests itself," he says. "That's the history of the African-American people."

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