Shrill Rhetoric Isn't Enough

The disjointed assembly of black academics, civil rights activists, and black conservatives that gathered at the National Press Club in Washington D.C, in late May had only one goal in mind: to stop passage of the Senate's immigration reform bill. They formed what they called the Choose Black America Coalition.

The Federation for Immigration Reform, which has been the loudest and most relentless in opposing any concessions to immigration rights groups, sponsored their news conference. The Coalition didn't stop the bill, but it sent another noisy message that many blacks oppose immigration reform. Coalition members vowed to stage rallies, join the Minuteman Project, patrol the border, and publicly denounce black Democrats and civil rights groups that back immigrant rights.

Their rage against immigration reform again boiled down to one thing: jobs. At the press conference, every speaker charged that illegal immigrants take jobs from blacks. The Coalition did touch a sore nerve with the jobs issue. Though a May Pew Research Center poll found that blacks, by a bigger percentage than whites, are sympathetic toward the plight of illegal immigrants, it also found that blacks, by a far bigger percentage than whites, are terrified that illegal immigrants take jobs from them.

The moment the illegal immigration issue became the topic of intense national debate, some blacks finger-pointed illegal immigrants as the main cause of the massive economic ills in poor black communities. And even with the passage of the Senate immigration reform bill, the finger pointing hasn't stopped.

If there's any group that illegal immigration may have had a damaging economic impact on, it is young black males. But how damaging an impact has that been? More than forty percent of American-born blacks work in the cleaning and maintenance, food preparation, light manufacturing, and transportation industries. That's double the number of whites in those industries. These are also the industries that the greatest number of illegal immigrants work in.

Immediately after the Katrina debacle, black workers bitterly complained that labor contractors reneged on their promise to hire them for clean-up and repair jobs in the hardest-hit Gulf regions in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. Instead, they trucked in thousands of undocumented workers. Homeland Security temporarily suspended sanctions against employers that hired undocumented workers. The Gulf clean-up flap was no exception. According to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, illegal immigrants make up more than ten percent of the construction trades.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' current population survey, more than half of the nearly four million immigrant workers that American businesses hired in the past five years have been illegal immigrants. The BLS calculates that this resulted in the loss of more than half a million jobs to American-born workers, the majority of whom were under age 30. The Bureau of National Affairs, based on data from the BLS, reported that for the first time ever, in 2005 the rate of unemployment for foreign-born workers fell faster than the rate of unemployment for American-born workers.

These numbers are not smoking-gun proof that illegal immigrants have displaced tens of thousands of young blacks from jobs. If there were no illegal immigrants to fill jobs, many employers would still find dodges to skirt discrimination laws and not hire young blacks. And, given the bottom level wages and lack of benefits, many young blacks would not take these jobs even if they were available. Still, the sheer number of jobs lost due to illegal immigration is just enough for some blacks to make the inferential case that illegal immigration has adversely affected blacks.

Black immigration's opponents say the answer is to jail the immigrants, kick them out, and militarize the border. This is inflammatory and delusional. Employers will continue to put the welcome mat out for cheap labor, illegal or otherwise. And when they can get away with it exploit them shamelessly. Katrina is an example of that. At the same time that black workers complained that illegal immigrants took clean-up jobs from them in the Gulf area, two federal class action suits were filed that alleged that thousands of migrant workers worked brutal 12-hour shifts removing dangerous toxic wastes from buildings and were not paid.

Immigration opponents have refused to press government officials and business leaders for more job funding and training programs, and to toughen enforcement against job discrimination. That would dent the job crisis among young blacks. But it would remove the issue of black joblessness from their arsenal of weapons to bludgeon the public and elected officials on the perils of illegal immigration. The worry over black joblessness also enables them to con a few blacks into expressing support for ultra-conservative groups such as the Minuteman Project, a few of whom turned up at the National Press Club.

The crisis of black unemployment is very real. But dumping the entire blame for that crisis on illegal immigration won't solve it, and neither will shrill rhetoric from a rump black anti-immigrant group.

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