PHOENIX, AZ — On Sundays, Pastor Warren Stewart of the First Institutional Baptist Church can usually expect to hear a chorus of ‘amens’ when he’s delivering his sermon.
But when he started voicing his opposition to his state’s new immigration law to his predominately African-American congregation, the response was far from enthusiastic.
“There’s kind of a hush, not like an ‘amen’ when you talk about racism or police brutality,” Stewart said.
On Friday, Arizona’s Republican governor Jan Brewer signed what some are calling the harshest state immigration law the U.S. has ever seen. The legislation makes it a crime to be in the country as an illegal immigrant, requiring anyone suspected of being illegal to produce papers at the request of a police officer.
But some in Warren’s congregation are supportive of the new measure and questioned why their pastor would choose to take up this issue.
“It caught me a little off guard to be honest,” parishioner Eartha Jackson said. “My initial feeling [about the immigration law] was there’d be a lot less crime and a lot more jobs.”
Some leaders have found little traction with African-Americans on the issue of immigration.
“We don’t see it as an issue for us,” said Wilbert Nelson, president of the NAACP in Arizona. “We see it as an issue of folks crossing the border.”
However, Pastor Stewart, a longtime advocate for immigration reform sees the new law as an opportunity to unite blacks and Latinos.
The sweeping legislation permits police officers to question individuals about their immigration status if there is suspicion that a person is not here legally. Stewart and other opponents of the law believe this will promote racial profiling.
“Blacks have been racially profiled for years… we still are,” he said. “So now a whole new group of people are being judged by their color.”
Stewart and others in the pro-immigration movement believe that African-Americans will be reminded of their own struggles with racial profiling and will object to the idea of another group of Americans being subject to the similar treatment under the law. According to Stewart, the new law has already attracted more African-American opponents to the fight for immigration reform.
“Our noted African-American civil rights leaders have really not embraced it,” said Stewart. “They’re just now coming on board.”
Wilbert Nelson agrees. He urged Gov. Jan Brewer not to sign the measure, said African-Americans in his state should remember the support they’ve had in their struggles.
“When we were struggling for the King Holiday, we weren’t the only ones out fighting – we could not have done it without the cooperation and support of others who didn’t exactly look like us,” Nelson said.
Concerns that undocumented workers cause even higher rates of black unemployment have left some African-Americans on the fence. And some do not see a connection between blacks struggling in the 1960s and today’s undocumented population.
“I don’t think this is a civil rights issue unless it is handled the wrong way. I think it’s more of an undocumented immigrant issue than a civil rights issue,” said Rodney William, a recent visitor to the state.
On Sunday, Pastor Stewart hosted a rally to protest the state’s new immigration stance. Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and thousands of demonstrators were on hand.
Kimetta Coleman, a Phoenix resident and a participant in Sunday’s rally expressed disappointment in the lack of African-American involvement in the movement.
“C’mon black folks,” she said. “We ain’t been too far out of nothing. When we say the focus is not on us, so let it be ‘them,’ it’s never good. Exclusionary rule is never good.”
However, Stewart was encouraged that his rally features faces of every color and he hopes this type of solidarity will catch on with the African-American community throughout Arizona and the nation.
“I see more people…it’s like an ‘A Ha!’ It clicked. They’re doing racial profiling. They are discriminating against a group of people simply because the color of their skin. So there will be more support – I certainly hope so.”
But for now, he admits that it’ll take many more Sunday sermons just to win over his own congregation.