Why Do Black Congressmen Vote Against Limiting Immigration?

By David North on March 9, 2011

This is a question that has puzzled me for decades.

It is generally agreed that the people hurt most, economically, by both illegal immigration and massive legal immigration are those at the bottom of the labor market; and many in that part of the labor market are blacks.

Why then do black members of the House routinely vote and speak against measures that would limit immigration, and thus free up more (and better) jobs for their black constituents? Just last week I witnessed this pattern in action when both Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) vehemently berated pro-restrictionist witnesses at a House immigration subcommittee hearing. (This was described in an earlier blog of mine.)

I think there are four substantive reasons for this pattern, all supported by the remarkable ability of incumbent Black House Members to keep winning elections. The substantive reasons are these:

  • Immigration issues are seen as a distraction from other policy matters

  • Ties to the Democratic Party

  • Ties to the liberal establishment

  • "The politics of the Chamber"

Let's examine them in turn.

Immigration issues seen as a distraction from other policy matters. This is the reason that appears most often in public, and was mentioned by both Black Caucus members in the recent hearing.

The general notion, within the Black Caucus, is that the other side is bringing up the job-displacement role of illegal immigrants in order to avoid making other policy adjustments that would be upsetting to conservative constituencies. The black members would much rather talk about, for example, raising the minimum wage, spending more money in the inner cities, ending discrimination, improving big city educational systems, and taxing the rich; all of these subjects rather than immigration matters.

Black members of Congress are among the most loyal supporters of what had been the New Deal approach to government. So there is a fundamental (rather than merely tactical) concern about migration as a distraction.

Ties to the Democratic Party. A couple of months ago, in a setting far from an immigration policy debate, I had a few minutes alone with a member of the Black Caucus, and asked about the tension between the damage mass immigration does to blacks and the position of the Caucus on immigration policy.

"Well, of course, it is our people who suffer," was the response, "but we defer to the Democratic Party on this."

The member did not have to tell me that the party's position was, historically, pro-immigration and one of the consequences of this has been that most immigrant populations, when they reach the voting stage, side with the Democrats.

While the black members do not need immigrant votes to win their own elections, it is the votes of first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants and their friends and supporters that elect allies of the black members to offices such as mayor, governor, and president, or at least that is the thought process.

An unstated irony of this rationale is that black members can argue that they are thinking in broader terms than the narrow needs of their own constituencies on this subject. This, then, is a strong tactical reason for opposing restrictionist measures.

Though I am a staunch, life-long Democrat I think the black members of Congress should rise above these thoughts and pay attention to the needs of their unemployed neighbors back home.

Ties to the liberal establishment. The least important of this quartet of rationales is the relationship between the (not always united) liberal establishment, on one hand, and the Black Caucus on the other. My sense is that the black members of the House are not so much members of the liberal caucus as generally allied to it.

By the liberal establishment I mean such entities as the big foundations (Ford, Carnegie, etc.), organized labor, media organizations such as NPR and the New York Times, the faculties of the high-prestige universities, and the like.

On a great range of issues, including civil rights, education, income distribution, taxation, and welfare the liberal establishment and the black House members have similar views; the views of the former on immigration sort of rub off on the black congressmen in an amorphous manner.

"The Politics of the Chamber". I first heard this term from my then employer, John Bailey, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He had been named to that post by JFK, and his appointment had been subsequently extended by Lyndon Johnson. Bailey was at the time, and had been for years, the state boss of Connecticut; he was also a shrewd observer of the political scene, and happy to talk about it in the late afternoons and early evenings when I served as his assistant during the 1964 campaign. (As the reader may sense, I liked him.)

I had been following a foreign farm worker issue in the U.S. Senate, and noticed that Connecticut's senator, Tom Dodd (D-CT) (father of Chris) had voted against the administration on a particular issue. I asked Bailey if there was something going on in Connecticut (hardly an agricultural state) that caused the vote.

"Nothing from the state that I know about," he said, "it is probably the politics of the chamber." By this he meant the relationships of Senators to each other, which sometimes override larger considerations in specific votes.

Getting back to the way black Congress members vote on immigration issues, it has always been my hunch that the more numerous and more senior black members identified with the smaller, and more recently arrived, delegation of Hispanic members. Both see themselves as representatives of disadvantaged minorities and both groups usually consist (though not 100 percent this year) of members of the Democratic Party.

Immigration issues are very, very high on the agenda of the Hispanics, and of much less concern to the black members, so the latter tend to support the former on migration matters, because of the politics of the chamber.

The remarkable hold black members have on their seats. One of the reasons that the four rationales just offered can sway black House members is because once a black has been elected to a seat, it is just about impossible to oust him. So a member could decide to pay little attention to unemployed black constituents should they seek to pressure him on an immigration issue, with little concern about being ousted. (I say "could" because I have no firsthand knowledge of the extent to which black voters press their congressmen on immigration issues, nor do I know precisely how they respond.)

There are two reasons for continuity in office for black House members: one is that, unlike their white opposite numbers, few give up safe seats in the House to run for statewide office. The other reason is that once in the House, they tend to be re-elected.

As to not running for other offices, the five blacks who have been elected senator or governor in recent times have not come from the House. These are former Gov. Doug Wilder (D-VA), and current Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA); former Senators Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama (both D-IL), and former Sen. Edward Brooke (R-MA). Only three black congressmen, to my knowledge, sought state-wide office in recent years, and all were defeated; they were Alan Wheat (D-MO) in 1994, Harold Ford, Jr. (D-TN) in 2006, and, last year, Kendrick Meek (D-FL).

One of the main reasons why black members stay in the House for as long as they do is because of districting. When Republicans are in charge of this process they tend to put as many black voters in a single district as they can, so that the new lines do not endanger Republican members in nearby seats. When Democrats are in charge they do not want to change the lines in such a way as to endanger their incumbents, both black and white. There are also housing patterns, in which there are heavy black concentrations.

As result of all this incumbent, black members are rarely disturbed in their seats, unless strong unusual forces are at work.

There was, for instance, the defeat of the flamboyant Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY) by then-Assemblyman Charles Rangel (D-NY) in the Harlem primary of 1970. Accusations that Powell was corrupt were widely reported in the media. Similarly, easy-to-understand corruption charges against Rep. William Jefferson (D-LA), the one whose freezer contents included $85,000 in cash, led to his defeat in 2008. On the other hand, it was his conservative voting record, in a liberal, blue-collar district, that finally caused the defeat of Albert Russell Wynn (D-MD) in a primary 2008 at the hands of Donna F. Edwards (D-MD).

Only in the case of Jefferson was the incumbent defeated by a Republican, and that New Orleans seat went right back to the Democrats two years later.

These are the exceptions that prove the rule. Let me recall a more typical outcome when a black congressman is threatened electorally. There was, for instance, the challenge faced by Rep. Bobby Rush in 2000. Earlier in his life he had been the "Defense Minister" of the Black Panthers; then he worked his way up in Chicago politics by becoming a member of the City Council, and then on to the House of Representatives in 1992.

In the spring of 2000 a primary opponent to Rush emerged; he was a bright, articulate young lawyer, a rising star in state politics, and a black member of the Illinois State Senate. For a while it appeared that the upstart might upset the incumbent, but when the votes were counted Rush had won by a more than two-to-one margin, and he remains, to this day, a member of the House of Representatives. He won the general election that year by a seven-to-one margin.

Whom did Rush defeat in the 2000 primary? None other than Barack Obama.

Rush's victory that year was just another indication of the overwhelming incumbency power of a member of the Black Caucus.

Given these four rationales, and the individual staying power of members of the black Caucus, turning around their positions on immigration will be an uphill struggle.