Last May, Anthony W. Williams, a longtime pastor in Englewood, met with about 10 residents from Roseland on Chicago’s South Side. The residents were upset that a local company was allegedly hiring undocumented immigrants, instead of community members, to staff its meat packaging plant.
Williams’ first move was to turn to Rick Biesada, co-founder and director of the Chicago Minutemen Project, an offshoot of an anti-immigration group that patrols the U.S.-Mexico border, for support. Within a week, the two managed to organize a protest in front of the plant, drawing about 50 people. It grabbed headlines in the local media and led to negotiations with the company, which later agreed to hire 30 black residents from the community.
The episode is an exemplary crusade of Williams, who is running for Congress as a Libertarian against Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. this November. At a time when much of the nation’s black establishment is united in support for immigrants, Williams has emerged as one of the most cutting African American critics of lenient immigration policies. This alone has brought him some gravity as a candidate—along with much-needed publicity.
To Williams, the reason for his immigration stance is simple. “Illegal immigration is a terrorist act on the American people,” he said. “Illegal immigration will destroy the black community.”
Meanwhile, Jackson and other prominent African American leaders in Chicago all backed a May 1 immigration march for legalization, saying that the plight of any marginalized worker should concern the black community. “Our leadership, particularly African Americans, should not be in a black-and-brown struggle of scarce jobs that are missing in the urban core,” he said.
Jackson argues that African Americans should be fighting for an economy that is broad and inclusive enough to ensure that all people can provide for their families. “That will require courage on behalf of our leadership not to pander to the whims of the crowd but to articulate the message of hope for working-class blacks, working-class whites, working-class browns and working-class immigrants,” he said.
Immigrant advocates add that it’s in the best interest of all parties to stand behind the legalization of immigrants. “It will raise the standards for people, including African American groups, because people can compete in the same way,” said Catherine Salgado, spokesperson for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
But Williams insists that his immigration stance is not about being against any particular group; he says he’s simply trying to look out for people in his community first. “On one hand, I admire the Hispanics for organizing politically,” he said. “They are protecting the interests of their people. Well, I’m looking out for the interests of my people.”
Williams spent the last 10 years as a pastor of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in the South Side’s Englewood neighborhood, where he grew up. In May, he left the church to focus on his campaign.
Williams is no stranger to politics. He has twice run for the office, losing both times in the Democratic primaries. This time, Williams bypassed the primary by running as a Libertarian.
Few doubt that Williams is up against considerable odds. So far, he has failed to raise any money and used $4,000 of his own money to support his campaign. But he says he’s not concerned, insisting that his campaign is not about the money.
The absence of name recognition was evident on a recent Sunday morning, when Williams was a guest preacher at Dolton Church of the Nazarene, where his campaign manager, Ollie Carter Jr., is the pastor. About 20 people gathered at the church, but no one seemed to know much about Williams, let alone his stance on immigration.
But Williams was undeterred. For 20 minutes, he brought energy to the otherwise tranquil Sunday sermon by preaching about the strength of faith—a message that he might hope embodies his campaign. “One person can make a difference, despite all of the power and the status quo,” Williams said, his voice echoing throughout the church. “If you believe in something in your heart, you can make a change in your lifetime.”
Harold Davis Jr., a parishioner at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, still believes that Williams has a chance against Jackson. He said Williams is the type of leader that the district desperately needs. “He would be an ideal member of Congress because of his mindset and how he feels about the little guy,” he said. “He would be a congressman that would fight for the people that don’t have anything.”
“Jesse Jr. can’t represent us because he doesn’t know,” Davis added, pointing to Jackson’s affluent upbringing.
Jackson has represented the South Side’s 2nd Congressional District, which stretches from 53rd Street to University Park, since 1995. Last year, the district was about 68 percent black, 18 percent white and 12 percent Latino, according to census estimates. About 19 percent of the residents lived below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate stood at 10 percent. Statewide, by comparison, 12 percent of Illinois residents lived below the poverty line, and 5.3 percent were unemployed.
Williams says increasing competition from immigrants would only compound the challenges that black residents in the district are facing. “African Americans are already at the end of the totem pole socially, economically and politically,” he said. “The impact [immigration] has on the African American community is frightening to me.”
Williams is betting that his constituency is squarely behind him on this issue. Biesada, for example, says his group has been drawing a larger number of African Americans to its events this year—as a response to the immigration marches that demanded benefits and better wages he said African Americans should have.
A study released in March by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center also appears to have given Williams some ammunition. The center surveyed 2,000 people and found that 22 percent of African Americans said they “lost a job to an immigrant,” compared to 14 percent of white respondents. In Chicago, another 801 people were surveyed, and 41 percent of the black respondents said an immigrant cost them a job.
Scott Keeter, the center’s director of survey research and the study’s author, said African Americans were particularly alarmed by immigrants’ impact on their finances. “We did find that African Americans –¦ did not have particularly negative views of immigrants and were not more negative about immigration but were more sensitive to the idea of the economic competition with immigrants,” he said.
Dave Gorak, executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, based in west suburban Lombard, says more black leaders should heed the message and follow the path led by Williams. “Black Americans again find themselves being pushed back against the economical and social bus,” he said. “I hope that [Williams] keeps beating away at this issue, and that other black leaders step up. We got to start taking care of our own workers first.”
But James H. Lewis, a professor and executive director of the Institute for Metropolitan Affairs at Roosevelt University, says there’s little empirical evidence that immigration has had as much impact on the employment prospects of African Americans as some might suggest. “I really don’t think that immigration has affected Chicago blacks too much,” he said. “If Hispanics are taking huge numbers of jobs from blacks, you’d think the black poverty numbers have gone up a lot in the last 10 or 15 years. But that didn’t happen. They’ve been fundamentally stable.”
In the end, Lewis adds, the impact of immigration will be minimal in this election. “It’s rare that an election is decided on one single issue,” he said, “and it’s inconceivable that this issue alone could hurt Jackson.”
Sara Semelka helped research this article.