Around sunrise on a crystal-blue morning, John Henry Ford and a knot of other day laborers waited for work on a scruffy Washington street corner. He was a rare sight among the men waiting anxiously outside a paint store chatting away in Spanish: a black handyman in a labor pool dominated by undocumented Latino workers.
"They came over here, in a sense, to replace us," Ford said. But he had no hard feelings. "Me as a black man around Latinos, I get along with them better than some in my own culture."
During the noisy debate over illegal immigration arguments about "fairness" and "compassion" have filled the air. But for low-income, low-skilled people such as Ford -- a disproportionate number of them black -- another idea, "competition," confronts them nearly every day. Yet despite seeing themselves as being increasingly displaced by migrants from Mexico and Central America, many black people like Ford -- and the leaders who claim to represent them -- tend to have a favorable view of immigrants.
‘We're not anti-immigrant’
In a recent poll by the Pew Research Center and the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly a quarter of black respondents said they had personally lost a job to an immigrant or knew someone who had. Less than a fifth of white respondents said that.
But when asked if legal immigration should be cut back, the tables turned. Black people were less likely to say yes than white people -- 34 percent, compared with 44 percent. On another question -- whether immigrants are a burden -- two-thirds of both groups answered yes.
"We're not anti-immigrant," Lita Herron, a black activist, said at a recent roundtable discussion on immigration in Los Angeles. "The problem is, it puts us at odds with people who are trying to do the same thing we're trying to do: make a living, put a roof over our heads."
The issues of whether immigrants are crowding out black people in the labor market or driving down the wages among low-skilled workers are hotly debated. Some economists, including George Borjas of Harvard University, say they are. "Low-skill . . . illegal immigration has the biggest negative impact on the wage of low-skill workers," said Borjas, whose research is often cited by those seeking to restrict immigration. "A disproportionate number of these low-skill workers happen to be minorities: blacks, Hispanics and earlier immigrant arrivals."
Impacts difficult to quantify
Some other economists say it is difficult to separate the impact of immigrants on black employment prospects from other issues such as discrimination and the large percentage of low-skilled, poorly educated black men who have criminal records.
Whatever the truth, it is clear that many black people believe strongly that they are losing jobs, neighborhoods and status to the estimated 11 million or more undocumented workers who are in the country.
In places where black Americans mix with immigrants -- Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Miami -- there is a measurable tension. Traditionally black neighborhoods now belong to Latinos. Black parents have complained about school PTA meetings being conducted entirely in Spanish. Over the past decade, black and Latino prison inmates have battled for supremacy in riots that often turn deadly.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black journalist, said he recently got an earful when he wrote a series of stories that favored reform. "I got so many e-mails and calls from people saying, 'How dare you take a position in support of immigration reform? They're taking our jobs.' That's at the heart of why so many African Americans are so fearful," he said. "It's not the schools, it's not the jails. It comes down to the economics and the jobs. I hear over and over, 'They're taking all the jobs.' "
Leaders project a united front
Such feelings are seldom voiced by black politicians and civil rights leaders, who tend to emphasize working with Latino groups to form a united front for civil rights. Last week, for example, the NAACP issued a news release calling on Congress to approve a comprehensive immigration reform package that allows immigrants to legally work and become citizens, mirroring calls by the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland professor of political science, said black civil rights groups might be doing their communities a disservice. Like President Bush, he said, they are wrong in saying that immigrants are taking low-skill jobs that Americans do not want. He believes Americans reject low wages that desperate immigrants workers keep driving down.
In the Washington area, where Central American immigration has thoroughly changed the demographic landscape, black opinions on immigration are more harsh, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center.
"Blacks here have more negative impressions than blacks nationally," he said. "But even at that, they are not overwhelmingly negative toward immigrants by any means."
Torn between diversity, immigration
The Pew survey of 2,000 was taken between Feb. 8 and March 7. Its sample of black respondents was much smaller than the 900 African Americans who answered questions on immigration for a 1999 survey conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank.
Nearly half of black respondents in the Joint Center survey felt illegal immigration was a major problem, and more than half -- 52 percent -- said it had led to the loss of too many lower paying jobs. Fifty-one percent said the country could not afford more illegal immigrants.
As in the Pew poll, black people were of two minds. Exactly half told the Joint Center that they thought the increasing diversity made America a better place. Which is pretty much what A.D. Thomas said as he stood in line for a job with dozens of Latino workers at 15th and P streets NW.
"Years ago, there weren't any Hispanics here," Thomas said. "But everybody got to make a living, to do the best they can." He acknowledged that Latino cliques bypass black handymen. But he took the discrimination in stride, saying they prefer "working with people they're more comfortable with."
Latinos, he said, "have the reputation, true or false, of being so-called better workers." Nearby, the third and last black man in the labor pool, who identified himself only as Damon, for fear that his comments would cost him work, scoffed at that.
"When customers come here, they'll pick a Spanish guy over a black guy in a minute," Damon said.
Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report.