L.A. Workers Join Fierce Debate Over Immigration

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, Feb. 20, 2006

Drexell Johnson and his Young Black Contractors of South Central Inc. are hungry for work—and when polite requests for an opportunity are rebuffed, they’re not afraid to raise a ruckus.

After Johnson was cut out of a contract when Staples Center was being built, he drove to the construction site, spinning 360-degree rolls and kicking up doughnuts of dust until, he said, a bulldozer nearly ran him down. In Torrance, his group staged a mock hanging in front of an automaker’s office. And earlier this month, they hauled a makeshift “slave ship” to an Inglewood mall development to symbolize economic injustice.

The tactics may seem outrageous, but they underscore the rage and frustration that Johnson and his cohorts feel about losing out to other workers in the region’s construction boom. Their anger is fueled by a 14% unemployment rate among African Americans in Los Angeles, twice as high as among whites.

So the news that President Bush and some members of Congress are pushing to bring more blue-collar guest workers into the country—perhaps 400,000 annually—leaves the contractors indignant.

“Hell, no, don’t bring no one in from nowhere,” said Johnson, a 47-year-old Mississippi native who founded his consortium of 35 minority contractors a decade ago. “Train the people here. Give the people here the same opportunity you’re willing to give someone out of this country.”

The guest-worker proposals have reignited fierce debate—and sharply divided the Republican Party—over some of the most controversial aspects of national immigration policy. Do immigrants take jobs from Americans? Or are they needed to fill jobs Americans won’t do? Do they lower the wages of America’s least-educated workers? Or do they benefit most Americans by providing cheap labor for a wide range of jobs, from nannies to construction workers?

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“The Democratic Party cannot afford to ignore the tension and anger among blue-collar African Americans and whites here, because they feel [immigrants] are taking their jobs,” said Kerman Maddox, a Los Angeles public relations executive who has worked on several Democratic campaigns. “Everyone wants the emerging Latino vote, but at what expense?”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) opposes a large-scale guest-worker program outside agriculture, fearing it will increase illegal immigration. Sen. Barbara Boxer, also a California Democrat, has voiced similar fears, opposing Bush’s proposal. But their constituents are strongly divided, as was demonstrated last week when activists held dueling rallies at Feinstein’s Los Angeles office.

A coalition of churches, labor unions and immigrant advocacy groups staged a noisy rally, featuring Korean drums and a Mexican trumpeter, urging legalization for undocumented immigrants and more visas for workers and relatives of Americans. Later that evening, immigration-control advocates held a vigil urging Feinstein to oppose any new guest-worker program.

Latinos themselves are split on the issue. A Pew Hispanic Center poll last August found that 34% of American-born Latinos surveyed believed that illegal immigrants hurt the economy by driving down wages, compared with 55% who viewed them as an economic benefit by providing cheap labor. The survey found that 32% opposed a temporary-worker program, while 59% favored one.

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Salinas’ concerns are borne out by some research. Harvard University professor George J. Borjas, the nation’s leading labor economist on immigration, has found that the immigrant influx between 1980 and 2000 lowered wages of American high school dropouts by 7.4%, for an annual loss of $1,800 on an income of $25,000. The effect was worse for native-born Latinos and blacks, he said. Overall, he found that all U.S. workers suffered a 3.7% wage decline.

“You can’t have a huge increase in the labor supply without having an impact on the wage structure,” said Cuban-born Borjas, adding that the data had turned around his original, more positive view of immigration.

“If one cares about the well-being of the less advantaged, having a guest-worker program to import hundreds of thousands of workers is a huge mistake,” he said.

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