Hundreds of activists rallied near the U.S. Capitol on Monday, arguing the country cannot afford an immigration overhaul bill that would pave the way for more low-wage foreign workers in a sluggish economy while Americans are still struggling to find work.
The "March for Jobs" rally sponsored by the Black American Leadership Alliance (BALA) was the first broad, organized rally in the nation's capital on the issue since House Republicans held a strategy session last week on how to deal with the immigration question — and one of the first in which the impact of immigration on working black Americans was a focal point.
"When you think about what is happening with black unemployment, when you think about what is happening with black teenage unemployment, all those voices down in Sanford, Fla. — why aren't they here today standing with us right now?" said former Rep. Allen B. West, Florida Republican, alluding to the acquittal over the weekend of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. "We need you to understand that this is not about black or white or Hispanic or Asian."
BALA member Kevin Martin said pejorative labels given to anti-immigration activists are actually a point of pride for him.
"'Nativists,' 'racists' — all the names you've been called, I take that as a badge of honor," Mr. Martin told the crowd. "I stand for the American worker. I stand for the American people. I'm not anti-immigrant; I'm anti-amnesty."
The broad Senate immigration bill, passed last month but seen as dead on arrival in the House, offers the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally quick legal status and work permits, but withholds full citizenship rights for most of them for more than a decade. Younger illegal immigrants and those doing agriculture work would have an even quicker path to citizenship.
Mary Bargerstock, a 58-year-old small business owner who made the trip to the District from Atlanta, was disappointed the debate has partly fallen along racial lines.
"We feel that they're trying to pit black people against white people," Ms. Bargerstock said. "They're trying to create a race war ... [Immigration reform] means we're going to lose jobs."
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has said the body will take up a more piecemeal approach than the Senate, focusing first on securing the border against future illegal immigration.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday the Senate bill was a "great vehicle" and that President Obama would sign it into law if presented the opportunity.
"But obviously, this is a process that House leaders will decide," he said.
Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, New York Democrat, said on a conference call organized in response to the rally that the health of immigrant and black communities are linked, and that an improved immigration system would benefit people of all backgrounds.
"Many citizens, African-Americans included, are feeling these depressed wages because of unscrupulous and illegal corporate hiring practices," she said. "Comprehensive immigration reform is clearly not solely a Latino immigrant issue. It is an issue that is as diverse as the American landscape."
More than 130 black clergy from around the country also released an open letter Monday to express solidarity with immigrant families, especially those seeking a path to citizenship.
"We, as people of faith and of African descent, are being called by God to bear witness to God's command for justice and equal human dignity for all," they wrote. "And so we must act."
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