The Corner

Illegal Immigration and Black Unemployment

As politicians rush to grant effective amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, there’s one aspect of the “debate” over the issue that receives almost no attention from members of either party: the demonstrably deleterious effect illegal immigration has on the employment and wage levels of low-skilled Americans, particularly blacks.

In 2008, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights examined the issue, conducting a hearing at which experts from across the political spectrum testified. As might be expected, there was some disagreement as to the precise magnitude of the impact of illegal immigration on black employment. But despite the ideological diversity on the panels, the witnesses were unanimous that illegal immigration has an adverse impact on black employment, reducing job opportunities and depressing wages — especially for black men.

The reason illegal immigration hurts blacks is quite basic. Blacks, particularly black men, are disproportionately concentrated in the low-skill labor market and are disproportionately likely to have no more than a high-school diploma. Likewise, illegal immigrants are disproportionately male and also disproportionately likely to have minimal educational levels. Both groups compete with one another in the low-skill labor market (and the competition is most fierce in some of the very industries in which blacks historically have been highly concentrated). Blacks frequently lose that competition, crowded out by illegal immigrants who, for various reasons, are preferred by many employers. As Professor Vernon Briggs of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations noted, it’s not because low-skilled Americans — regardless of race — are unwilling to work, it’s that they’re unwilling to work at the cut-rate wages (and often substandard conditions) offered to illegal immigrants — a cohort highly unlikely to complain to the EEOC, OSHA, or the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor.

The impact of illegal immigration on the employment and wage levels of low-skilled workers is especially pronounced in today’s stagnant economy, even with a reduced influx of illegal immigrants. In 2007, the unemployment rate for blacks without a high-school diploma was 12.0 percent. By 2011 that rate had more than doubled to 24.6 percent. Obviously, the supply of low-skilled workers far exceeds the demand. This bodes ill for all such workers, but particularly black males, who, according to evidence adduced at the hearing, are significantly disfavored by employers in certain sectors of the economy.

In a letter sent last week to President Obama, congressional leadership, and the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, my colleague Abigail Thernstrom and I noted the negative consequences of illegal immigration on wage levels. For example, a study done by an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimated that “as a result of the growth in the share of undocumented workers, the annual earnings of the average documented worker in Georgia in 2007 were 2.9 percent ($980) lower than they were in 2000. . . . Annual earnings for the average documented worker in the leisure and hospitality sector in 2007 were 9.1 percent ($1,520) lower than they were in 2000.”

Again, the evidence before the U.S.Commission on Civil Rights shows that while the negative impact on black employment and wage levels was much more pronounced, illegal immigration hurts all low-skilled American workers. It’s peculiar, however, that those who can usually be counted on to highlight any disparity between blacks and whites — whatever the reason and no matter how slight the disparity – have said not a word about the effect of illegal immigration on blacks.

— Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S.Commission on Civil Rights and former member of the National Labor Relations Board, practices and teaches employment law in Cleveland, Ohio, and has also been, among other things, a laborer, painter, bouncer, truck driver, researcher, security guard, warehouseman, think tanker, and paperboy, has run the 40 in 4.45, benches 420, likes puppies, Cohibas (Dominican), summer breezes and Smirnoff — most of which has no relevance whatsoever to the substance of this post but is mandated by  the Federal Commissars of Mindnumbing Minutiae who maintain that if Kirsanow mentions, for purposes of reference and context, his position as a member of the commission, members of the public — who the commissars apparently presume are uniformly and galactically stupid — won’t understand that the post doesn’t necessarily reflect the position of the Civil Rights Commission as a whole, despite the fact that he invariably says just that whenever he does reference his position on the commission, and, therefore, he must list several other positions, titles and other inane biographical information about himself so that there’s absolutely no confusion that his comments aren’t those of the commission, its parents subsidiaries, agents, successors, or assigns, even though by any measure they really should be. Carissa Mulder writes frequently on civil-rights matters.

Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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