At church, Trump stirs Black-immigrant tensions. Are Dems ready to respond?

ANALYSIS: Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants seek to recruit Black Americans through resentment over historically unfair exclusion in the labor market. Democrats must strategically counter Trump’s claims rather than avoid tough conversations.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a community roundtable in Detroit, Michigan on June 15, 2024. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

If you listened closely during Donald Trump’s most recent visit to a “Black” church in Detroit, you might’ve heard whispers of the ghost of political pasts.

“They’re invading your jobs,” Trump said. “The people coming across the border — all those millions of people — they’re inflicting tremendous harm to our Black population and to our Hispanic population.”

Trump’s dire warning was a claim that isn’t new but has been repeated in different political eras, sometimes even by Democrats themselves. After all, President Bill Clinton, in 1996, signed a law that made it easier to deport more immigrants while narrowing the path to legal immigration. 

For many Black Americans, there’s still no there there – to them, immigrants are their allies, exploited by similar economic systems meant to marginalize the “other.” But for other pockets of voters in the broader Black community, even if it’s not politically correct to say out loud, Trump’s claim of immigrant competition may be appealing.

For these voters, immigrants — more often than not, Latino immigrants – are allegedly the cause of Black Americans losing jobs and being marginalized in the very country they helped build with their own sweat and blood. To them, while immigrants have gotten to pursue the American Dream, sometimes being branded as “hardworking,” Black Americans have been stepped on while climbing the nation’s ladder of racial and social caste. If immigrants didn’t take jobs, at the very least they sometimes clashed culturally.

So, whose interpretation is right?

The question of whether or not immigrants “take” Black American jobs and opportunities is touchy for advocacy groups and certain political circles because the answer requires nuance.

The American Immigration Council argues there is no significant correlation between high immigration levels and high unemployment for Black Americans because immigrants often work complementary roles in the labor market. Those jobs are lower-skilled, which open paths for native-born workers to fill higher-paid roles. However, in the journal article “Beyond Conflict and Competition,” authors Chrisshonna Grant Nieva, Laura Pulido and Nathan J. Sessoms explain the following:

“While many assume that Latinas/os have simply displaced African American workers, the reality is more complicated. In a few sectors, there has been significant displacement. The most oft-cited example is the janitorial industry: as older, Black, unionized janitors retired, they were replaced by nonunion immigrant Latinas/os.  

In other sectors, however, the influx of immigrant workers has enhanced the economic position of African Americans, as they have the requisite language and cultural capacity to assume supervisory or management positions. While this shift has benefited educated and skilled Black workers, this is not the case for the less-skilled.”

Immigrants from Haiti, who crossed through a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border barrier, wait in line to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol on May 20, 2022 in Yuma, Arizona. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In short, the answer depends on your occupation and your level of education.

This research shows us that the political framing of “immigrant competition” must address complexities, or it will appear dismissive of some people’s real experiences. For those who want simple answers, heroes and scapegoats, the above explanation doesn’t satisfy either side of the debate.

But that doesn’t mean it should be avoided by Democrats.

Doing so only strengthens the argument as an effective tool for the Republican Party. Look no further than the scores of immigrants bused to predominantly Black Chicago neighborhoods to sow deep resentment from residents.

“Our specific frustration lies in the continuous and blatant disregard for the safety and overall quality of life for Black residents, as many of these migrants have been dumped in our neighborhoods without a plan in place to monitor and house them long-term,” said Natasha Dunn, a Chicago resident quoted in a Fox News article about a housing plan that sought to place migrants in an abandoned school nearby.

Speaking of Fox News, one search of “Black” and “migrants” yields multiple articles framing migrants as a threat to Black communities. Somehow, the same right-wing media brands that disparage and demonize the Black Lives Matter movement, DEI, racial justice efforts and America’s first Black president are concerned about the welfare and pain of Black communities.

The savviest media consumers may clock the contradictions. But others will not care about the source of the news. It also doesn’t negate the concerns of Black Americans, especially if they live in swing states where each vote could make or break the election.

Democrats tend to house the most racially and ethnically diverse communities under their one big tent of voters, with Black and Hispanic (which includes Black Hispanic/Latino) voters as part of their voting coalition. For Democrats to fend off these attacks from Trump, who characterizes them as a party out of touch on immigration at the expense of Black communities, they must have a clear explanation of how the concerns of immigrant communities align with Black American communities.

Migrants, many from Haiti, are seen at an encampment along the Del Rio International Bridge near the Rio Grande, on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021 in Del Rio, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

They must also be prepared to tell the story of how these groups formed a coalition.

Just as Black Americans aren’t a monolith, neither are immigrants who come to America, especially Latino immigrants who come from more than 20 countries, speak different languages and constitute different races.

In cities like New York during the 1960s, Black American and Puerto Rican migrant communities fought alongside each other for their civil rights, with groups like The Black Panthers and The Young Lords demanding healthcare, education and a cease in exploitation. While Puerto Rican migrants are American citizens, there are still lessons to be taken from cross-cultural collaboration (and sometimes tensions).

What was it about their situations that made them align with each other at all? Some scholars argue that the concept of “linked fate” persuaded these communities to work in partnership.

Differences in immigrant nationalities (Mexicans, Cubans, Jamaicans, Dominicans), race (Black, white, Asian, mixed-race), and geography (West coast vs. Northeast vs. American South vs. Midwest), combine to create difference reactions to immigrant and ethnic competition narratives across the country. Democrats should tailor their immigration messaging and not treat all voters the same.

Democrats also have a great deal to work with in countering Trump’s claims that he’s Black America’s champion: his death wish to the Central Park Five; his “very fine people on both sides” claim after neo-Nazi marches; verified disdain for Black employees; threats of military action against BLM protestors; sparking the birtherism movement; and his “sh*thole countries” comment that deemed people from predominantly Black countries as unworthy immigrants.

But it’s not enough to pull a Kanye and say, “Donald Trump doesn’t care about Black people.” Dems must show how their policies actively demonstrate care for Black people’s economic and personal well-being. They have plenty to work with, from child tax credits and prescription drug caps to student loan forgiveness.

But for immigration, they need to be more direct and intentional with messaging. They should remind the public that on his first day in office, President Biden proposed immigration reform, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. The bill was shot down by Republicans and didn’t have a chance with the Senate filibuster in place.

Democrats should explain how they created a bipartisan immigration bill that would’ve addressed the most urgent aspects of the crisis, but Trump discouraged its passage, largely to prevent a Biden legislative win. They should also demonstrate why the party believes legal immigration improves the overall economy for all Americans, and though immigration has been broken under Democratic and Republican presidents, they have a plan to fix it.

But most importantly, Dems must be clear that Black Americans won’t be left behind in their 2025 vision for America and beyond. Because for these voters, being prioritized is mandatory, not optional.

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Natasha S. Alford is VP of Digital Content and a Senior Correspondent at theGrio. An award-winning journalist, producer, and TV personality, Alford is the author of the book “American Negra: A Memoir” (Harper Collins) and writes frequently on issues related to politics, policy, and identities. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.