Urban League Opportunity Journal, Summer 2007
“Every hour sees the black man elbowed out of employment by some newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and whose color are thought to give him a better title to the place.”
No, this quote isn’t from today’s debate over immigration – it was written by Frederick Douglass in 1853. Mass immigration has always been detrimental to the job prospects of black Americans.
Of course, there are other considerations in establishing immigration policy – whether certain family members should be given special immigration rights, for instance, or how many refugees to take. But you can’t argue with a straight face that the admission of large numbers of foreign workers doesn’t harm blacks economically.
There are two reasons this is true – one that applies to workers in general, and one that is of special concern to black Americans.
The first factor is simple numbers. The immigrant population, legal and illegal, is now at a record high of some 37 million, growing at a rate of more than a million a year. What’s more, immigrants account for nearly half of workers with less than a high school education – meaning they are in direct competition with American workers who also have less than a high school education, a group that is disproportionately made up of black Americans.
George Borjas of Harvard University, America’s leading immigration economist and an immigrant himself, has shown that immigration has cut the wages of American men without a high school degree by $1,800 a year. Economists at Northeastern University have found that businesses are actually substituting immigrants for young American workers, especially for young black men. In fact, scholars estimate that immigration is the reason for one-third of the drop in employment among black men, and even for some of the increase in incarceration.
This is why the late Barbara Jordan, then chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, told Congress in 1995: “Unless there is another compelling interest, such as in the entry of nuclear families and refugees, it is not in the national interest to admit unskilled workers, especially when the U.S. economy is showing difficulty in absorbing disadvantaged workers and efforts towards welfare reform indicate that many unskilled Americans will be entering the labor force.”
Which brings us to the second reason - the reason that black Americans specifically must be concerned about the economic effects of immigration. As Douglass’s quote suggests, immigrants simply are seen by many as preferable to native-born black Americans. That’s true whether we’re talking about Irish and Italians from the early 20th century or Mexicans and Chinese (even Jamaicans and Africans) today.
Immigrants Vs. Native-born Blacks
During World War I, for instance, immigration all but stopped, and it was only then that blacks began to be drawn into the modern industrial economy, simply because employers had no other choice. More recently, sociologist William Julius Wilson found that employers in Chicago preferred immigrants, even though blacks were willing to work cheaper.
When businessmen say Americans are too lazy nowadays and aren’t willing to take certain jobs, who do you think they’re talking about? When politicians say immigrants revive decrepit neighborhoods, whose neighborhoods do you think they’re referring to? When President Bush extols the “family values” of immigrants, who do you think he’s comparing them to?
None of this means that individual immigrants, or particular immigrant groups, can be blamed for the difficulties facing black Americans. Nor would it be useful or responsible to use immigration as a crutch, blaming all of black America’s problems on it. The reality is that black America, especially less-educated young black men, face a variety of serious challenges, from high rates of crime and drug use to poor performance at work and school, all of which are caused by factors unrelated to immigration.
The magnitude of the problem was most recently outlined by the National Urban League in The State of Black America 2007: Portrait of the Black Male, which showed that black men are much more likely to be unemployed than white men, more likely to be dropouts, in prison, in poverty, or dead.
There are many reasons for such grim statistics, including the continuing effects of slavery and Jim Crow; the shift in the economy away from manufacturing; broken schools in our big cities; the popular glorification of self-destructive behavior.
No Panacea, But…
If fixing immigration policy, reducing legal immigration and enforcing the law to reduce illegal immigration, wouldn’t be a cure-all in helping young black men build constructive lives as fathers and breadwinners, it sure would help. Economic research clearly shows that immigration is notthe whole reason for the drop in employment of black men; it’s not even half the reason. But it is the largest single reason, and it’s something that can be addressed relatively easily, as opposed to fixing education or reforming private behavior, where progress has been much more difficult and elusive.
Think about it this way: If there’s a young black man in Miami’s Liberty City or South Central L.A. or Bed-Stuy in New York, and he’s good with his hands and wants to become a carpenter, which is more likely to help him achieve that goal – amnesty and more immigration, or enforcement and less immigration?
Which is more likely to help an ex-convict or recovering addict get hired at an entry-level job and start the climb back to a decent life – amnesty and more immigration, or enforcement and less immigration?
Which is more likely to persuade a teenager in the inner city to reject the lure of gang life and instead stick with honest employment – amnesty and more immigration, or enforcement and less immigration?
Solutions to the challenges facing black America have to come from a variety of private efforts and government initiatives – but regardless of the specific approach, flooding the job market with foreign workers can only undermine these efforts.
Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.