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Black Back to The Back of The Line
Black unemployment and illegal immigration.


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Peter Kirsanow

The joke headline “World to End Tomorrow, Minorities and Women to be Hardest Hit” neatly captures a media sensibility displayed repeatedly in news stories ranging from natural disasters to government policy. But media reports on the illegal-immigration debate are, with few exceptions, strikingly devoid of information or “analyses” on the possible effects of the massive, uncontrolled influx of cheap, low-skilled labor on black wage and employment rates.

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Certain individuals for whom even the most speculative harm to minorities is a trigger for robotic demagoguery also have been peculiarly silent about the possible effects of illegal immigration on the underclass. The more responsible “progressive” leaders and organizations also have taken positions incongruent with their past practices and manifest inclinations. For example, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus sponsored expansive legalization legislation as early as two years ago, well before the current debate percolated to public consciousness. They did so without a public congressional assessment of the possible dislocation of unskilled workers, due to immigration-reform measures and despite current data that strongly indicates, to paraphrase the headline, “Blacks May Be Hardest Hit.”

The percentage of foreign-born workers has risen rapidly over the last five years. The Bureau of National Affairs reports that unreleased data compiled by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that for the first time the unemployment rate for foreign-born workers (both legal and illegal) has fallen below the rate for native born workers. While the native born rate fell from 5.9 percent to 5.2 percent between 2003 and 2005, the rate for foreign-born workers fell from 6.6 percent to 4.6 percent. Further, the percentage of foreign born workers in the workforce increased from 10.8 percent ten years ago to 14.8 percent today.

Obviously, these figures, standing alone, don’t show that illegal immigration has anything to do with overall worker dislocation, let alone black unemployment rates. But a study by Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, derives more compelling data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and American Community Survey.

Camarota notes that the percentage of native-born Americans in the labor force who have either a high-school diploma or less fell from 59 percent to 56 percent in just the last five years. The study estimates that approximately 1.5 million native-born Americans with a high-school diploma or less left the workforce during that period. During that same period the number of immigrants in the workforce (legal and illegal) with high school diplomas or less increased by almost the same amount–1.6 million.

Obviously, an assertion based solely on these figures that unskilled foreign born workers have displaced native born comparatives at a ratio of 1:1 is unsupportable. The study makes no such claim. Instead, it examines more targeted data and assesses a number of factors that raise urgent questions for a society coping with alarming unemployment rates among unskilled blacks.

The study reveals that the occupations with the highest percentage of illegal immigrants are the occupations that also have the highest unemployment rates for the native born. These same occupations just happen to be among the ones that traditionally have employed the highest percentages of black workers, e.g., building cleaning and maintenance, food preparation, and construction.

It’s no secret that black workers are more heavily concentrated in unskilled occupations–the very occupations in which the greatest amount of displacement by illegal immigrants has taken place. It’s not unreasonable, then, to infer that workforce displacement caused by illegal immigration has a far more pronounced effect on blacks than whites. Indeed, even if policymakers and the media are reluctant to draw such inference, many blacks certainly aren’t. As Darryl Fears of the Washington Post recently reported, a Pew Research poll shows that 52 percent of blacks maintain that illegal immigration has led to the loss of too many lower paying jobs and “[f]ifty one percent said the country could not afford more illegal immigration.”

The trend lines show that the worst may be yet to come. Consider: Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have highlighted the abysmal performance of black high-school students. The Thernstroms note that according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (“the nation’s report card”) only 25 percent of black 17 year olds read as well as the average white 17-year-old. Nearly 90 percent of black 17-year-olds score below the average white 17 year old in math. More than 90 percent of black 17-year-olds score below the average white 17-year-old in science. The average black high-school graduate has the academic proficiency of the average white eighth grader.

These figures signal that over the next several years a significant percentage of black workers are likely to be unskilled or low skilled, and they will be competing against a swiftly expanding cohort of illegal immigrants–a cohort motivated by the fact that the U.S. minimum wage is ten times higher than what they would earn in their native countries–for the same low-skilled jobs.

Obviously, blacks aren’t the only ones in low-skilled jobs. The impact of illegal immigration doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, per se. The concern is the impact of illegal immigration on Americans, regardless of color. Nonetheless, the dismal education figures cited above combined with the significant impediments that flow from a 70 percent black out-of-wedlock birth rate portend more deleterious long range implications for blacks than for other groups.

For much of the nation’s history black workers have competed with–and have been supplanted by–the latest wave of legal immigrants. Today, it seems that maybe only the modifier has changed.

It may very well be that the immigration reforms contemplated by Congress won’t have an appreciable impact on the job prospects of low-skilled American workers. But there’s been little public deliberation regarding the issue by Congress. The public deserves a thorough airing of the possibilities before Congress passes any bill that may aggravate both the displacement of low-skilled American workers and the racial divide in employment.

Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He is also a member of the National Labor Relations Board. These comments do not necessarily reflect the positions of either organization.



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