An Eye-opening Experience

By Roy Beck
Volume 3, Number 1 (Fall 1992)
Issue theme: "Revealing the costs of immigration"

'Blacks vs Browns Immigration and the New American Dilemma' By Jack Miles The Atlantic October 1992 An emerging national debate on immigration is likely to begin on the right but will 'quickly be seized by the left' where there may be stronger ideological reasons for restrictionism, predicts Jack Miles, a Los Angeles Times editorial writer. In a 28-page The Atlantic essay promoted on the cover as 'Immigration and the New American Dilemma Blacks vs. Browns,' Miles goes a long way toward making his prophecy come true by penning what may be the most visible and influential liberal argument to date for reduced immigration. A highly personal account of intellectual and moral struggle with the issue in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, it reveals Miles as a donor to activist Central American refugee groups, as having had close relations with illegal residents and their families, and as a person much more comfortable around Latino immigrants than poor black citizens. But the riots forced him to come to grips with the true meaning of the impact of mass immigration on African-Americans in Los Angeles. Although giving some credence to the view of the riots as a black-white issue, he finds most convincing the explanations that deal with the economic despair into which blacks have been plunged by mass immigration. In thousands of 'quiet choices,' Miles says, L.A. residents have contributed to the despair. 'The average white or Asian Angeleno prefers to have - and usually does have - a Latino rather than an African-American doing the work,' he writes. 'The result is unofficial but widespread preferential hiring of Latinos - the largest affirmative-action program in the nation, and one paid for, in effect, by blacks.' Miles unmasks the racism that so often is behind statements that mass immigration is necessary to fill jobs that Americans refuse to do. 'Are they thinking of black Ameri-cans?' he asks rhetorically. Well, of course they are. With extraordinary numbers of blacks crying out for jobs with liveable wages, talk of work that Americans won't do is a thinly-veiled judgment that jobless blacks are too lazy and demand too high a wage. But Miles writes 'If there were no Latinos - and no other immigrants - around to do all the work that is to be done in Los Angeles, would blacks not be hired to do it? I think they would be. Wages might have to be raised. Friction might be acute for a while. But in the end the work would go looking for available workers.' Miles relies heavily on the writing of labor economist Vernon Briggs of Cornell University and on the literature and polling of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, (FAIR) which he calls an 'anathema to some, but better a clearly framed agenda, however debatable, than free-range nativism.' He salutes FAIR and Briggs for reminding us that the nation has choices on immigration and notes that FAIR is not anti-immigration. 'FAIR would admit 300,000 a year. How many would you admit? And if blacks get hurt, whose side are you on?''...the riots forced [Mr. Miles] to cometo grips with the true meaning of theimpact of mass immigration onAfrican-Americans in Los Angeles.' Although he doesn't directly answer the question for himself, Miles indicates that the needs of African-American citizens should have priority over the needs of citizens of other countries. He quotes Abraham Lincoln on the blood debt the nation owed for 250 years of unrequited toil of slaves, and concludes, in a passage quoted favorably by the Washington Post 'And by an irony that I find particularly cruel, unskilled Latino immigration may be doing to American blacks at the end of the 20th century what the European immigration that brought my own ancestors here did to them at the end of the 19th.' The Atlantic, in an editors' note, acknowledges that it allows Miles to 'explore questions raised by the riot which well-meaning people usually avoid as inflammatory.' And much change seems to be presaged for future liberal-oriented debate by the assessment of the editors that the proper context of immigration discussion is not good (in the form of compassion for immigrants) vs. evil (manifested as immigration restriction) but a conflict of good vs. good. Miles claims he has compassion for citizens of Third World nations who, he suggests, could see the rise of their own terrorist versions of Peru's Shining Path movement if the United States shuts off the immigration safety valve. And he offers a challenge for groups like FAIR to address the push factors of immigration while leading the way on eliminating the pull factors. 