To Help Inner City, Cut Flow of Immigrants

Foreign Influx to L.A. has been Devastating to Low-income Residents

By Otis L. Graham Jr. and Roy Beck on May 19, 1992

Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1992

Weary conservatives and liberals have no shortage of explanations for the devastating Los Angeles riots. Yet a major factor has escaped serious discussion.

It is immigration, currently running at unprecedented levels, that exacerbates the economic and social forces behind the riots. One-third of all immigrants and refugees to America settle in California, transforming the state's demography, economy and society in ways that news media have been loath to discuss.

We should not have to rediscover that massive immigration widens the divide between wealth and poverty, storing up social dynamite, especially diminishing life for African-Americans. This country has a long and sad history of allowing the massive importation of low-skilled foreign workers to displace black citizens, though most black contemporary leaders have lost or renounced the ability to speak about this difficult reality. Now events seen on television expose the issue, and we must learn to talk about its dynamics and its cure.

Booker T. Washington dared do that, in his famous 1895 Atlanta Exposition address. He implored the audience of white business elite to stop bringing millions of workers from Europe to take factory jobs opened by industrialization and instead to turn to the underemployed freed slaves and their descendants. "Put down your bucket where you are," was his memorable phrase. Finally, in 1921, Congress (for other reasons) drastically curbed immigration, unintentionally giving blacks wider opportunities.

Tight labor markets, enhanced by low immigration and World War II, allowed economic advancement for blacks through 1965, when the Civil Rights Act provided for major political gains. Unfortunately, Congress that same year ended the positive labor conditions by revising the immigration law, once again allowing millions of foreign workers into our inner cities.

The nation has added more than 25 million immigrants and their descendants since 1970, flooding low-skill job markets. Job-strapped blacks in Los Angeles saw about 700,000 immigrants move into their neighborhoods and job markets during the '80s alone. In a study by the General Accounting Office, it was found that custodial firms with foreign workers almost totally replaced unionized black workers in downtown Los Angeles office buildings.

Even more pervasive than unemployment is wage depression. Black, Latino and other U.S. citizens in California have increasing difficulty earning a liveable income from low-skill jobs with declining wages. With so much cheap foreign labor available, there is little incentive for business and government to upgrade jobs and productivity through technology, capital expenditure and more efficient management. While the poverty rate declined for blacks elsewhere in the 1980s, it rose 40% in California, where nearly half of all foreign workers settle.

Adding insult to black city residents is that they must contend not only with traditional white racism but with intense discrimination through ethnic networking. Recent immigrants achieve positions of authority within a business and begin to recruit relatives, friends and acquaintances from their country of origin. Wages and working conditions stagnate or decline in the firm. Often the language of the workplace changes from English. Blacks are effectively barred from employment.

In myriad ways, blacks find themselves trapped in inner cities where tribalism is rising. Affirmative action and other remedies, originally intended to redress two centuries of discrimination against blacks, now must be shared with recently arrived, foreign-born people that outnumber them.

Several aspects of the riots point to the taboo truth that there has been too much immigration and too much diversity, all of it happening at much too fast a pace.

Interestingly, a respite in importing foreign workers would also benefit recent immigrants, whose working conditions tend to be most harmed by additional immigration. Stopping most immigration for a while would be a relatively easy, cheap and extremely popular way to begin to boost the status of inner-city blacks and recent immigrants.

Immigration reform to lower the immigration numbers will not in itself solve the complex problems of Americans of all skin colors who are caught in this growing urban pathology. Much more needs to be done, and we are beginning that debate. But without frank discussion and action on the immigration question, no combination of the other meritorious ideas coming forward will ultimately work.