Misguided Debate over Undocumented Workers Ignores Larger Challenge
By: Lorinda Bullock
NNPA National Correspondent
Originally posted 6/13/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As the Black community debates whether Hispanic immigrant workers create competition for jobs with low-income African-Americans, the president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists says too little attention is being paid to educated immigrants taking
high-tech jobs away from middle- and upper-class African-Americans.
“That is much more of a threat to us than picking lettuce,” said William Lucy, president and founder of the labor group.
There is one facet of the recent immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate that Lucy said Blacks in technology should be especially concerned about—the 200,000 guest visas the country would allow annually.
Nearly 12 million illegal immigrants live and work in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Over the last 10 years, the annual quota for the H-1B visas-specifically for highly-educated and skilled immigrants-has fluctuated between 65,000 and 195,000, depending on how well the high-tech and scientific markets were doing.
Under the H-1B visa, immigrant workers can stay in the U.S. for up to six years or even 10 years in some cases. After the first year of the visa, they aren't counted into the annual quota, allowing a new wave of immigrants to enter the country.
Lucy said the increasing number of Blacks earning degrees in technology and engineering don't need to worry about competition from Mexico, but from other countries.
“It's much more dramatic at the high wages,” he said. “These are the jobs that are going to India and Pakistan.”
Legislation recently passed by the Senate would set up a guest worker program, primarily for Hispanics, and allow a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already living and working in the U. S.
A stronger, more punitive bill passed earlier by the House would declare undocumented workers felons and speed their return to their homeland.
Emotions run high on both sides of the immigration debate and it is not yet clear whether the House and Senate can reach a compromise acceptable to both chambers.
National opinion polls show that while African-Americans are generally supportive of undocumented workers, they worry about the possibility of losing jobs.
Recent data from the Department of Labor shows that despite the creation of 138,000 new jobs in April, the overall Black unemployment rate is 9.4 percent, well above the national unemployment rate of 4.7 percent.
One newly-created group, Choose Black America, believes that unlawful immigration can exacerbate that gap.
“This is not an argument with Hispanics. I don't care who it is. If you have 12 million anybodies coming in, it's going to come out of my pocket,” says a member of the group, Kevin Fobbs, president of the Nation Urban Policy Action Council in Detroit.
“It's not a radical idea to stand up for protecting your children or protecting your community,” he said.
“It's not being racist. It's not being politically incorrect. It's being American.”
Although Fobbs views illegal immigrants as taking from the federal treasury and not giving anything back, the Urban Institute released a study that found the opposite.
In addition to undocumented workers paying sales tax for items they purchase, the Social Security Administration estimates that three-fourths of undocumented workers pay payroll taxes and contribute $6 to $7 billion into a Social Security system they are barred from enjoying.
Bernard Anderson, an economist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said blaming the high Black unemployment on immigrant workers is unfair.
“Their (immigrant) presence in the American labor market has not had a major detrimental effect on the wages and employment of African-American workers,” Anderson said.
According to Anderson, there isn't any statistical evidence to back up the talk of immigrants “stealing” jobs from Blacks.
“Most of it is based on observation and anecdotes. It's not based on systematic research,” he said.
“Either Black workers have left the labor market altogether or Black workers have moved on to other jobs that pay more or pay the same.”
A 2004 study by George J. Borjas, a Harvard University professor of Economics and Social Policy, presents a contrary picture.
“Although the 1980-2000 immigrant influx lowered the wage of White workers by 3.5 percent and of Asians by only 3.1 percent, it reduced the wage of Blacks by 4.5 percent and that of Hispanics by 5.0 percent. The adverse impact of immigration, therefore, is largest for the most disadvantaged native-born minorities,” the study said.
Claud Anderson, president of the Harvest Institute a Washington, D.C. based Black think tank, is deeply concerned about the issue.
“As a direct result of massive immigration, the last 50 years totally eradicated progress Blacks made in income,” he said.
According to the Census Bureau, between 1967 and 1990, there was a 12 percent increase in the Black median family income. Over that same period, Black income relative to White wages remained unchanged.
The Bureau reports that median Black family household income of $30,134 was the lowest of all.
By contrast, foreign-born households had a median income of $39,421. But this data includes all foreigners, such as the highly skilled and trained immigrants that labor leader Lucy mentioned.
Peter Holoman, the director of the Male Development and Empowerment Center at the Medgar Evers College at the City University of New York, conducts job training and financial empowerment programs for both immigrant and Black American men at the Brooklyn campus.
While both Andersons cite Census data to argue their very different opinions, Holoman sees in his office the faces of frustrated Black men who were turned down for jobs and excited immigrants coming in to tell him they have gotten jobs.
“It does present a problem for that individual who is legal and trying to get that job. Then you look around and you have your (immigrant) neighbor next door going all around the system. They're working odd jobs here and there and maintaining,” he said.
Alfred A. Young Jr., a researcher and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, said Black resentment toward immigrants when it comes to labor issues is nothing new.
Of the hundreds of young men he's interviewed in southeastern Michigan and Chicago, he found there was no direct competition with immigrants for jobs, but instead young, Black men would not and could not work for the wages immigrants accepted.
“These [Black] guys say it doesn't make sense,” Young said.
Even members of the Hispanic community, such as Flavia Jimenez, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, a leading national Hispanic rights group, agrees the low wages immigrant workers accept hurts everyone-including the immigrants.
“Big corporations are taking advantage of workers overall. Because of the illegal status of the undocumented workers, they hire them for fewer wages, lowering, of course, the wages for African-American workers,” Jimenez said.
The Pew Hispanic Center released a “Latino Labor Report” in 2004 and showed with the constant influx of new immigrants competing with other more established immigrants, weekly earnings for Hispanics dropped in 2003 and 2004.
The report also revealed that wages for Black workers increased in 2003 but declined by 1 percent in 2004, while Hispanic workers wages fell 2.2 percent in 2003 and another 2.6 percent in 2004.
“Black men who take those jobs move in and out of those positions. They're trying to find careers in work and not just do jobs,” Young said. “They're thinking about, `Do I have an opportunity to move up?'”
Aside from the increase in white-collar jobs, construction companies seeking a better profit margin look to immigrants willing to work longer hours for less pay and no benefits.
The Latino Labor report said the construction industry heavily depended on Hispanic immigrants in 2004, and of the 571,000 construction jobs added that year, Hispanic immigrant workers made up almost half of them – 226,000.
More recently, Lucy said the rebuilding efforts in areas destroyed by Hurricane Katrina are a perfect example of how young, Black men are not getting in on work opportunities there at the same rate of Hispanic immigrants.
A new study from the Census said that 45 percent of the reconstruction workers in New Orleans are Hispanic and at least two-thirds of them came after Hurricane Katrina.
“They (contractors) are hiring workers they can exploit,” Lucy said.
Bernard Anderson acknowledges that unemployment among young Black men is a “crisis” but notes some other labor trends.
“Jobs Hispanic women hold in hotels today, Black women held 30 years ago. Black women who used to work in the Hilton are working at Wal-Mart, health services and centers,” Bernard Anderson said.
Keith Sutton, president of the Triangle Urban League in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina, said in recent years he's seen an increase in Hispanic immigrants in the area, but only a handful of Blacks there feel immigrants are taking jobs from them.
“The feeling is that many of the Hispanics have jobs or work in jobs that African- Americans probably would not have a whole lot of interest in anyway,” Sutton said referring to jobs in landscaping, housekeeping or maintenance.
However, members of Choose Black America believe before Blacks can help fight for anyone else's rights, they need to secure their own. They are also challenging prominent Black groups promoting immigration to do the same.
“They (Blacks) need to be helping themselves. Put their own self interest first. It's not Black folks' responsibility to save the world. It's their responsibility to save themselves,” said Claud Anderson.
“We help gays, minorities, midgets, and lesbians (while) Black people are the poorest in this country.”
Meanwhile, Bernard Anderson says Blacks have made progress in the job market.
“We ought to be out celebrating we aren't holding those jobs,” he said. “We're holding better jobs. You don't want Black people working for less than minimum wage.”