National Review, February 3, 2022
In 1853, Frederick Douglass wrote of cities in the North:
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.
With only a handful of interruptions, black workers have faced the same situation for nearly two centuries — mass immigration of foreigners whom employers prefer to black workers, pushing them to the back of the hiring line.
As it happens, Back of the Hiring Line is the title of a new book by Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, the premier citizen-action group working to reduce immigration. The book traces, as its subtitle promises, “a 200-year history of immigration surges, employer bias, and depression of black wealth.”
In relating that history, Beck describes three brief flowerings of opportunity for black Americans that came with interruptions in immigration. First, the years immediately following abolition, before the start of the Great Wave; then, when World War I cut off travel from Europe; and finally, the four decades or so after the 1924 immigration-restriction law.
Beck’s core message is that a tight labor market is the most practical means to improve the conditions of all marginalized Americans, non-college-educated black workers most of all. The brief immigration pause forced by World War I was “proof of concept,” with the absence of European immigrant workers sparking a huge northward migration of black southerners.
With mass immigration surging back as shipping lanes reopened after the war, Congress reduced the flow via the Immigration Act of 1924. Given that the law was partly shaped by the racialist hokum that was the style at the time, it is ironic that it became the single greatest engine of black progress in American history.
Beck quotes Fortune magazine’s reporting that “after the immigration laws choked off the European labor supply. ... Labor agents roamed the South, promising the moon or better.” Poor blacks — and whites — streamed out of the South to fill jobs that were previously unavailable to them.
This was illustrated (literally) by artist Jacob Lawrence, who captioned one of the panels of his series on the Great Migration: “All other sources of labor having been exhausted, the [southern black] migrants were the last resource.”
While there was still discrimination in the North, the modern jobs and higher wages were a boon for those who undertook the Great Migration. Black Americans’ incomes were still below those of white Americans, but they grew nearly twice as fast during the mid-century immigration lull. And Beck makes a convincing case that the benefits of the immigration restriction — rising black incomes, greater mobility, growing union membership — were necessary, if not sufficient, factors in bringing about the civil-rights revolution.
And in another irony, it was precisely the civil-rights ethos that ended up pushing black workers back to the end of the hiring line again. Signed less than two months after the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 Hart-Celler immigration law was explicitly seen as a civil-rights measure, in its elimination of the national-origins quotas that had been at the center of immigration law since the 1920s. But the sponsors genuinely did not think the legislation would result in a resumption of mass immigration, which all considered a relic of the past. And yet, Beck writes that “the 1965 act set in motion a series of policies that loosened labor markets by flooding the hiring lines with foreign workers and betraying a century of struggle toward economic and political equality by Black Americans.”
As he details the reduction in earnings of less-skilled black workers and their disappearance from occupations they used to dominate, it’s hard to argue with Beck’s assessment: “No congressional action in the last 60 years has been more destructive to Black Americans’ employment, income growth, and wealth accumulation than the Hart-Celler immigration act.”
Beck doesn’t deny that reducing immigration today could cause real difficulties for employers trying to draw young underclass black men into the world of work, citing John McWhorter’s frank talk on the issue. But he asks, “Where is the incentive or pressure for employers to do that kind of tough recruiting and training when Congress provides every month more than a hundred thousand additional permanent and temporary foreign workers?”
In calling for a more moderate level of legal immigration, Beck is careful not to blame immigrants. Consistent with the admonition “‘No’ to Immigrant Bashing” that has been at the top of his organization’s home page from its inception more than a quarter-century ago, Beck makes clear that no one’s grandparents are culprits; the problem is numbers, not individual characteristics. In fact, “Every group of disadvantaged Americans is further disadvantaged by loosening the labor market, and every group is helped by tightening it.”
But coming from a center-left perspective, Beck argues for what you might call a “preferential option for black Americans” in the consideration of immigration policy. He answers the question posed by the title of his final chapter — “Prioritize the Descendants of Slavery?” — in the affirmative:
Yes, there should be a priority of attention to those African Americans who have been left out of — or discarded by — the economy of the last half century. ... Yes, there are reasons rooted in the 165 years since the end of slavery why we should make sure that immigration decisions don’t harm the ability of struggling African Americans to enjoy the dignity of work and the fruits of their labor as they climb up the jobs ladder and build wealth.
Despite the obvious interest that black Americans have in reducing immigration — and polls show many are aware of it — they have never spoken or acted collectively to try to bring that about. I think a big part of the reason is that there is no black political leader broadly accepted as legitimate by black voters who has taken up the cause (the Congressional Black Caucus having long ago been co-opted by the anti-borders crowd).
But realignment is in the air. The impressive economic gains enjoyed by black families during the brief pre-pandemic immigration slowdown under Trump are another proof of concept of the beneficial effects of immigration restriction. Beck’s book provides both the backstory and a roadmap for such a realignment.