Outside the Home Depot store in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood, Tim Mitchell chases the same handyman jobs as the Latino men who crowd the narrow sidewalk.
On some mornings, the 39-year-old African American says, he’s outnumbered 100-to-1.
Mitchell holds no resentment toward the others, many of whom are in this country illegally. Ultimately, he said, they’re all just trying to earn a living.
“I think many people prefer Latinos because they believe they’re cheaper, that they’ll work for less money,” he said. “Many of them don’t speak English . . . so people think they can take advantage of them.”
As the debate over illegal immigration in the U.S. escalates, the scenario playing out among day laborers reflects a growing uneasiness among some blacks nationwide.
Many worry that the flood of illegal-immigrant workers crossing the border from Mexico is muscling low-skilled workers, many of them black, out of jobs in a number of industries—from the service sector to construction.
It’s a sentiment that’s not shared by all black leaders, many of whom marched alongside immigrants in recent demonstrations and tout the importance of black/brown unity. Blacks and Latinos, they say, are being exploited and hurt by the same economic forces.
But other African Americans say the hordes of low-skilled workers from across Latin America crossing the borders can only harm those on the very fringes of the economy.
And the problem, they say, only threatens to get worse if Congress grants amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants living in this country, and allows thousands of others in through a guest-worker program.
“This issue is not new; this preference for immigrant workers over native African-American workers is historical,” said Frank Morris, a former associate dean at the University of Maryland, College Park. Morris was also president of the Tacoma branch of the NAACP during the 1960s.
A century ago, the same fears of displacement were raised by blacks when legal immigrants poured into the U.S. from across Europe and Asia. “The only time when the black workforce is desired is when there’s low immigration,” said Morris.