The young black man hesitated as he stood outside the small furniture manufacturing shop in South Los Angeles. He was dressed neatly, and he was well-groomed. He eyed the building warily. The sign on the narrow glass door, in English and Spanish, read "help wanted" and trabajo aqui. The opening was for a shop helper, mostly to sweep up and do routine clean up and maintenance. It did not require any education or special skill. It paid minimum wage, as did the thousands of shops that dotted the area. The company had no employee health care plan or other benefits.
After a moment he went in and politely asked for an application. The petite receptionist, a young Latina, handed him an application form, with an airy nonchalance. She curtly suggested that he fill it out and bring it back. When he asked if there would be an interview, she haltingly said only if there was a position open. The young man looked perplexed, glanced at the help wanted sign, politely thanked her and left.
A couple of hours later two young Latinos came in to apply. One was immediately hired. The other was told that another helper job might open up within the next few days. However, the workers in the shop, as in nearly all the other shops in the area, were Latinos, a large percentage of whom were illegal immigrants.
There were no other blacks, whites or even English-speaking native-born Latino workers in the plant or at the other shops in the area. This is not a fictional story. I personally witnessed the scene at the company involving the black job seeker. Anti-illegal immigration activists say that the experience of the young black job seeker has played out thousands of times at restaurants, hotels, farms, and manufacturing plants nationally, and that this is a major reason so many young black males are unemployed, join gangs, deal drugs and pack America's jails.
Congress will hammer out a comprehensive immigration reform law. But it won't answer this question: Do the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country take jobs from American citizens, especially the bottom rung American workers, the young, the poor and, more often than not, African-American workers?
What if the young black job seeker, or any other American looking for work in a low-end manufacturing plant or a restaurant in Los Angeles, were offered that job which probably pays minimum wage and doesn't offer any benefits or job security? Would he take it? Maybe yes, maybe no. It's certainly hard to imagine a young black from South Los Angeles, South Chicago or Harlem -- not to mention a native-born young white or Latino -- going out to the fields to pick strawberries for 10 to 12 hours a day in the hot sun at minimum or even sub-minimum wages. Or taking a job at a car wash or bus dishes in a restaurant. But what if the farm contractors, car wash owners and manufacturers paid a living wage and provided benefits? It might be a different story, at least for some young people in Los Angeles.
Then there's the regional factor. There is some evidence that young workers will work jobs in the South and the Midwest. Jobs that have long been designated as jobs that only illegal immigrants will work, that is if those jobs were offered to them. But when employers give the quick brush-off to young blacks and other young American workers that are willing to take lower-end jobs, they send the not-so-subtle message that they are not wanted or welcome. This is a powerful disincentive for them to pursue work in these taboo areas of the job market. The end result is that an entire category of jobs at the ground rung of American industry is clearly marked as "Latino only."
The fight over jobs and illegal immigration came at the worst possible time for the urban poor. Shrinking federal and state budgets for job training and creation programs, industry downsizing, and escalating crime and violence in inner city neighborhoods made banks and corporations even more reluctant to invest in these communities, and that made the job situation even worse.
The young black in Los Angeles and other cities that anti-illegal immigration opponents cite as proof that illegal immigration is ruinous for the economy and the urban poor may or may not have lost out in his job hunt to an illegal immigrant. But he also might have lost out in his job search because of discrimination, poor education, government budget slashes and the flight of manufacturers to other countries. That is no excuse not to ensure that American workers have the right to work in any and all industries. That would do much to calm the fury of many Americans who worry that illegal immigration sledgehammers at least some American workers. Congress and the Bush administration must not ignore that worry.