John Lewis' Immigration Betrayal
Some sixteen years ago, I was driving to my house in southeast Atlanta when I saw my longtime Congressman, John Lewis (D-GA 5th), standing on a sidewalk taking to a group of black men, some dressed for construction work.
Although it was not clear what was going on, the men appeared to be picketing outside the Cabbagetown Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills construction site, where an abandoned cotton mill was being renovated into urban lofts thanks to a large influx of Clinton-era federal “Empowerment Zone” money. The Mill is just a few blocks from the birth home of Martin Luther King and the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
I knew John Lewis because I wrote about and worked in politics. I had also worked in the building trades, and a few years earlier, I helped my coworkers in a mostly-black workforce decertify a fake company union that was stealing our money in the Atlanta convention industry. So I stopped to see what was happening.
One of the men on the sidewalk said to the congressman that they were angry because the federally subsidized construction jobs that were supposed to be going to minorities were going to Mexican workers. Lewis promised to find out why more black men were not being employed at the site. But the men on the sidewalk weren’t satisfied. They complained that a jobs program that was supposed to help them was helping Mexicans instead. This sort of thing happened all the time to black men, one of them said: Mexicans would work for less than Americans, and they wouldn’t work with blacks, the man charged.
It was obviously an uncomfortable conversation for Congressman Lewis.
But perhaps it was not uncomfortable enough. Looking back at this incident in light of John Lewis’ recent, unqualified support for welcoming unlimited numbers of illegal immigrants into our nation, it is clear that Lewis learned nothing on the sidewalk that day. He has chosen a side in the immigration fight, and it is not the side of underemployed and unemployed black men.
The more you know about changes in the workforce in John Lewis’ district in recent decades, the more dismaying Lewis’ betrayal becomes.
In the late 1990s, John Lewis was a powerful member of Congress who helped usher in the (massively wasteful) Empowerment Zone program. As such, Lewis doubtlessly would have been able to arrange jobs for black workers at the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill loft construction site. (Of course, Lewis’ poor white constituents would, disgracefully, be excluded from such jobs on the basis of their skin color. And, like most programs of its type, the main beneficiaries of the Empowerment Zone boondoggle in Atlanta were not poor workers of any race but the crooked race activists, connected developers, and elected officials who lined their pockets with the $250 million in Empowerment Zone cash. So it goes.)
Furthermore, as a living icon of the Civil Rights movement, Lewis was then under considerable pressure to improve the lives of the many black men living in poverty in his own district.And in the city of Atlanta, under not-yet-indicted Mayor Bill Campbell, strict minority hiring requirements were a part of every contract involving public money, from construction for the Olympic Games to the infamous Hartsfield Airport concessions racket, where for decades ex-mayors and their kith and kin have bellied up to the public troughs to grow rich. Minority hiring preferences were alsoattached to funding from federal agencies such as HUD, the city’s partner in the Empowerment Zone project.
Yet, despite all these engineered advantages for black workers, and despite the fact that in the late 1990s the Hispanic population in Atlanta was not yet a political force to be reckoned with, black workers were already out on the sidewalk arguing about their rights with the civil rights legend-turned-Congressman while Hispanic workers were already inside the gates earning a paycheck.
Fast-forward to today: the illegal immigrant population in Georgia has doubled, from 220,000 to 440,000 between 2000 and 2011. Nearly one in ten people in Georgia are foreign-born. An astonishing 7% of Georgia’s workforce is illegal, a number that matches the current unemployment rate. So-called “undocumented” workers flood several industries where poor black men previously found entry-level employment, including yard and road maintenance, non-skilled and semi-skilled construction, and restaurant work.
At the same time, according to one study, the unemployment rate for black males between 16 and 25 without a high school diploma is a staggering 51.6%. This is more than double the unemployment rate of Hispanic males of the same age and educational attainment.
Meanwhile, Hispanic political clout has mushroomed in Atlanta. The aging civil rights elite, including Lewis, recently rubbed shoulders with Hispanic amnesty advocates at the opening of Atlanta’s new $75 million museum, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Ironically, an exhibit there on John Lewis will soon share space with an “International Sites of Conscience National Dialogues on Immigration” program that promises to “contextualize issues around immigration in a broader discourse of human rights and social justice.”
That none of this highly-touted “discourse of human rights” will create even one job for poorly educated and unemployed black youth in Atlanta is preordained. Whether this fact matters to the well-heeled civil rights establishment is a question they are unlikely to address.
I lived in pre-gentrified neighborhoods and worked with the poor in the heart of John Lewis’ district for nearly twenty years. Over that time, job prospects grew more bleak for the very cohort who arguably ought to have been able to count on Lewis the most: young black men from troubled homes taking their first steps onto the bottom rungs of the employment ladder.
Twenty years ago, a black man could walk into a labor pool agency or fast food restaurant in neighborhoods throughout Lewis’ district and find a job. Today many of those agencies are shuttered, and those jobs are increasingly remote from the young black men who need them the most. John Lewis’ tweets promoting open borders are an arrow in the heart of his own community.
Tina Trent writes for America’s Survival and blogs about crime, politics, and academia at tinatrent.com. She lives in the North Georgia mountains.