Washington, D.C. — Surges in immigration have harmed Black workers throughout U.S. history. Evidence shows that eras of high Black employment and economic mobility directly correspond with periods of reduced immigration.
If President Obama legalizes many or all of the approximately 11.3 million illegal immigrants estimated living in the United States, Black public policy experts with Project 21 warn that Black Americans already experiencing a jobless rate far above the national average could be further harmed.
Outright discrimination in employment based on race, unfair regulations and ethnic networking also have harmed the ability of Black Americans to find and retain good jobs.
In the early 1800s, friction between free Blacks and immigrants who were in competition for low-skilled labor opportunities led to the rise of union-based anti-Black discrimination. Roy Beck, in The Case Against Immigration, wrote: “Rising immigration from the 1820s to the Civil War drove down wages for free Black Americans and immigrants alike… Organizing themselves into trade unions, immigrant laborers helped set the terms of hiring at many urban workplaces. Not only would they not allow black workers into their unions, but they usually would refuse to work alongside them if they were hired.”
• After the end of the Civil War, Beck writes, a high rate of European immigration kept many newly freed Blacks locked within the South’s agricultural economy (and helped widen the overall technological gap with the North). Eric Foner, the specialist on Reconstruction, says a major priority for both White southerners and northerners was to subdue former slaves into a sedentary agricultural work style in the South. During a brief window of opportunity after the war, many freed slaves made their way to the North and grabbed jobs that they held for years to come. But because of increasingly high immigration, most freed slaves did not get any of the new jobs up north or any of the new land out west. The unions were an essential force in keeping the ex-slaves out of the North. Nearly all of the unions (dominated by immigrants) barred Blacks from membership.
• Blacks were pushed out of jobs at the start of the 20th century by a wave of immigration of Italians and Eastern Europeans who settled in the North. Beck, who is CEO of the immigration policy organization Numbers USA, writes: “Black workers stopped progressing up the job ladder, they lost semi-skilled occupations to the Slavs and Italians and many were forced to leave town in search of work. The Black population declined. Job displacement was occurring in all cities. In 1870, of all Black men in Cleveland, 32% had skilled jobs. By 1910, only 11% were in skilled trades.
Beck adds: “Anybody concerned about fulfilling the spirit of the civil rights era would have been given pause by a look back a century ago… With the biggest surge of immigration after 1899, Black growth in northern cities essentially stopped or populations actually declined.”
• Reduced immigration during World War I led to employment opportunities for Black males. During the ‘Great Migration’ that began in 1914, approximately half a million Blacks moved from the South to urban areas in the North. “Wartime opportunities in the urban North gave hope to such individuals,” wrote Chad Williams, the chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. “The American industrial economy grew significantly during the war. However, the conflict also cut off European immigration and reduced the pool of available cheap labor. Unable to meet demand with existing European immigrants and White women alone, northern businesses increasingly looked to Black southerners to fill the void. In turn, the prospect of higher wages and improved working conditions prompted thousands of Black southerners to abandon their agricultural lives and start anew in major industrial centers. Black women remained by and large confined to domestic work, while men for the first time in significant numbers made entryways into the northern manufacturing, packinghouse and automobile industries.”
• Many of America’s labor laws, some of which are still in existence, are unfair to Black workers. As Project 21 Co-Chairman Horace Cooper wrote in a 2014 monograph for the Capital Research Center[JB1]: “The primary objective of [the] Davis-Bacon [Act] was to make it harder for Black tradesmen to compete for work on federal projects.” And the National Labor Relations Act, “the quintessential labor law achievement of the Progressive movement” was a catch-22: When Blacks chose to leave the farms and plantations for opportunities in the North, the NLRA empowered the racist trade unions to lock them out.”
In testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Dr. Gordon H. Hanson of the University of California, San Diego, said: “The economic adjustments unleashed by the large 1980–2000 immigrant influx, a labor supply shock that increased the number of workers in the United States by nearly 10% and the number of high school dropouts by over 20%, reduced the employment rate of low-skill Black men by about eight percentage points. Immigration, therefore, accounts for about 40% of the 18 percentage point decline in Black employment rates.”
• Illegal immigrants and Black Americans in the workforce today have a similar median age (approximately 36 and 39 years of age, respectively, with non-Hispanic Whites six years older than the illegal immigrants, at 42), making illegal aliens more likely to compete head-to-head for age-sensitive employment opportunities.
• Analyzing evidence from two studies showing that employers may have a preference for hiring immigrants over Black citizens, Dr. Harry J. Holzer of Georgetown University and the Urban Institute noted “that employers perceive stronger work ethic among the immigrants, and a greater willingness to tolerate low wages. Some of these perceptions and the hiring behavior they generate might well reflect discrimination, especially against black men whom employers generally fear.”
• “Ethnic networking” pits American Blacks and Hispanic migrants against each other. As Beck writes in The Case Against Immigration: “Much of the power of immigration streams comes from ‘ethnic networking,’ in which immigrants after obtaining a job use word of mouth to bring relatives and other acquaintances from their country into the same workplace. Immigrants today act like the immigrants early this century, who took whole occupations and turned them into their own preserve, quickly shutting native-born Americans (especially blacks) out of a workplace.”
• As in the Reconstruc-tion era, when Blacks competed with European immigrants in northern cities, Cornell University Profes-sor Vernon M. Briggs, Jr. notes that both illegal immigrants and Black workers tend to “cluster in metropolitan areas” and compete for the same jobs: “Given the inordinately high unemployment rates for low-skilled black workers (the highest for all racial and ethnic groups for whom data is collected), it is obvious that the major loser in this competition are low-skilled Black workers.
“By definition, therefore, illegal immigrants who are overwhelmingly present in that same labor market sector adversely affect the economic opportunities of legal citizen workers because the illegal workers are preferred workers. No group pays a higher penalty for this unfair competition than do low-skilled Black Americans, given their inordinately high unemployment levels.”
• Using employment data compiled from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Center for Immigration Studies asserts that virtually all of the net jobs created in the United States since 2000 have gone to legal and illegal immigrants as opposed to native-born citizens. The report noted that “Though there has been some recovery from the Great Recession, there were still fewer working-age [16 to 65] natives holding a job in the first quarter of 2014 than in 2000 [127,000], while the number of immigrants with a job was 5.7 million above the 2000 level.” Over 17 million immigrants arrived in the country in the last 14 years, yet native employment has deteriorated significantly.”