Blacks Fret Over Immigrant Gains

Franco Ordoñez, Charlotte Observer, May 21, 2006

Troy Watson sat with friends in a west Charlotte diner where most customers are black and the cooks are Hispanic.

The 62-year-old Vietnam veteran said he feels for any downtrodden individual. But as a black man, he said, he can’t support the cause of illegal immigrants.

He compared the economics of immigration to a piece of unfinished bread on his plate: Whites, he said, have long enjoyed the soft middle, leaving the crust for blacks. Now, he said, a growing surge of Latino immigrants is threatening even that.

“I’m concerned about black people,” Watson explained between sips of coffee. “We need that crust. There is not enough for both of us. I love you, but I can’t let you have it.”

National surveys suggest that Watson, who owns his own business, represents the sentiments of many black Americans.

As Latino leaders step up demands for immigrant rights, they are finding limited support among the nation’s 38 million blacks.

At stake, some blacks say, is a competition for jobs and public services—along with political and economic clout.

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Few question that blacks and Latino immigrants compete for some of the same low-wage jobs, but not all agree on how much they compete, or how much black Americans are hurt by immigrant labor.• Harvard University professor George Borjas released a 2004 report that found African American wages fell 4.5 percent between 1980 and 2000 because of immigration growth.

• A 2005 Pew study found no erosion of black employment in six Southern states where Hispanic immigration is growing fastest, including the Carolinas. In counties where Hispanic growth was fastest, including Mecklenburg, black employment rose despite competition from Hispanics.

• U.S. Labor Department data show that while unemployment dipped nationally for blacks since 1996 (from 10.6 percent to 9.4 percent), Hispanics saw a far more dramatic decline (from 9.6 percent to 5.4 percent). Labor Department economists offer no explanation for the disparity.

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Statistics like that matter little to John Dewalt, a 56-year-old roofer. In a small west Charlotte park, he and a group of friends said the immigration issue has become personal.

Dewalt, who is black, said a boss once told him he wanted to “ ‘get rid of all the blacks and replace them with Mexicans. They don’t argue. They don’t complain. And they don’t charge as much as you.’ ”

Dewalt said it’s impossible to compete with Latino immigrants, who he says will work for “next to nothing.”

All six men at the park, who are all black, said they or someone they knew had lost a job to an immigrant.

“We’re the ones who built everything, and now they’re coming over here to take everything way,” said Antonio Romero, 40, a construction worker.

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Professor Watson believes that, much like the Republican Party gained decades of support from black Americans after slavery was abolished, today’s Republican Congress could endear itself to millions of Latinos if it passes a bill giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

Others say political changes are probably years away because black voters still heavily outnumber Hispanic voters.

“Right now there is more economic clout,” said Dan Ramirez, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner. Ramirez, a Colombia native, won an at-large seat as a Republican in 2002.” Political clout is going to come if a lot of these people are legalized and become citizens,” he said.

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