How Illegal Immigration Hurts Black America

Cord Jefferson, The Root, February 10, 2010

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For the most part, the workplace crackdowns themselves are unremarkable–gaudy, ad hoc things that mitigate America’s immigration problem the way a water balloon might a forest fire. Increasingly however, their immediate aftermaths–in which dozens of eager African-American job applicants line up to fill vacancies–call into question a familiar refrain from the nation’s more vocal immigration proponents: Illegal immigrants do work American citizens won’t. Even former Mexican President Vicente Fox fell victim to the hype, infamously declaring in 2006 that Mexican immigrants perform the jobs that “not even blacks want to do.”

Four years later, with national unemployment hovering around 10 percent and black male unemployment at a staggering 17.6 percent, it seems even less likely that immigrants are filling only those jobs that Americans won’t deign to do. {snip}

Spriggs [Delonta Spriggs, a 24-year-old black man] has a difficult road ahead. In this recessed United States, competition for all work is dog-eat-dog. But that holds especially true for low-skilled jobs, jobs for which high school dropouts (like Spriggs) and reformed criminals (also like Spriggs) must now vie against nearly 12 million illegal immigrants, 80 percent of whom are from Latin America. What’s more, it seems that, in many cases, the immigrants are winning. From 2007 to 2008, though Latino immigrants reported significant job losses, black unemployment, the worst in the nation, remained 3.5 points higher.

“I don’t believe there are any jobs that Americans won’t take, and that includes agricultural jobs,” says Carol Swain, professor of law at Vanderbilt University and author of Debating Immigration. “[Illegal immigration] hurts low-skilled, low-wage workers of all races, but blacks are harmed the most because they’re disproportionately low-skilled.”

Despite President Fox’s assertion, of the Pew Hispanic Center’s top six occupational sectors for undocumented immigrants (farming, maintenance, construction, food service, production and material moving), all six employed hundreds of thousands of blacks in 2008. That year, almost 15 percent of meat-processing workers were black, as were more than 18 percent of janitors. And although blacks on the whole aren’t involved in agriculture at anywhere near the rates of illegal immigrants–a quarter of whom work in farming–about 14 percent of fruit and vegetable sorters are African-American.

For their efforts, African Americans were paid a median household income of $32,000 in 2007. In the same year, the median household income for illegal immigrants was $37,000.

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Besides competing for work while simultaneously attempting to avoid drastically deflated paychecks and benefits, unemployed African- American job seekers must also frequently combat racial discrimination. In a 2006 research paper called “Discrimination in Low-Wage Labor Markets,” a team of Princeton sociologists discovered that, all else being equal, black applicants to low-wage jobs were 10 percent less likely than Latinos to receive positive responses from potential employers. Furthermore, employers were twice as likely to prefer white applicants to equally qualified blacks.

“To be blunt, a lot of employers would rather not deal with black American workers if they have the option of hiring a docile Hispanic immigrant instead,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. {snip} “And frankly, a lot of bosses are thinking, ‘I don’t want to deal with a young black male.'”

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