Immigration Buries U.S. Blacks

By Richard Estrada
Volume 5, Number 4 (Summer 1995)
Issue theme: "Blacks and immigration"

With yet another wave of Cuban newcomers on the way under the new Clinton-Castro immigration accord, and with the approach of the 1996 election year, Florida is destined to mimic California's raucous immigration debate of 1994.

Yet it is almost as likely that the voices of one segment of Florida's citizenry will be turned out. It will not be the first time the arguments of low-wage, low-skill African-Americans and their political champions have fallen on deaf ears.

Today's wave of immigration in Florida and across the country has swept scores of thousands of low-skill African-Americans out of the labor market, into welfare and even crime. While welfare reform is very much needed, such an initiative without genuine immigration reform will only intensify the problems facing America's own poor and dispossessed.

In both Miami and Los Angeles, African-Americans used to dominate the hotel-cleaning industry. Today, Hispanic newcomers do. In Chicago, inner-city restauranteurs routinely express a preference for hiring Mexican newcomers with low skills over their black counterparts. And in Manhattan, native-born blacks must compete not only with immigrants from Latin America but also with Chinese workers who are virtual indentured servants.

This argument isn't universally accepted. Studying the Mariel refugee influx of 1980, economist David Card of Princeton University concluded that after 125,000 Cubans flooded into South Florida in four months, no adverse impact on the local labor market was registered.

Card's 1990 study has been widely cited in part because there are so few other case studies. The trouble is that his conclusion presumes to repeal the law of supply and demand in labor economics The greater the number of workers who vie for a job, the lower the wages and working conditions an employer will be obligated to offer.

And then there is the question of which workers are to be studied. A mail carrier, for example, will not take home a shrunken paycheck as a result of a sudden surge of low-skill workers into his community. And Card included low-wage federal employees and all other low-wage workers in his study.

Instead of measuring the immigration-related impact upon those Americans least likely to suffer immigration-related harm in the labor market, shouldn't common sense and scholarship have dictated a concentration on those most likely to be affected by such competition?

In addition, Card raises but fails to answer a key question Were there Americans who chose not to move to Miami - or, having lived there for several years, chose to leave - because they knew it was an immigrant-saturated labor market where wages and working conditions were particularly depressed?

Today, about 75 percent of all newcomers to America settle in just six states and in those states' major urban areas. (In addition to California and Florida, they are Texas, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.) The valid point about 'disproportionate impact' can be carried too far, however.

The American labor force as a whole has many high-skilled workers at the top, yet it also has a huge and growing number of low-skilled workers at the bottom. Sadly, anywhere from 20 million to 40 million Americans are functionally illiterate or subliterate. This is a national problem if ever there was one.

'Public policy should be used

to bolster the middle class

as opposed to allowing

a haphazard immigration system

to pull society further apart.'

Labor economists point out that America's skills picture has an 'hour-glass' distribution. Society is becoming increasingly polarized. 'Average' skills among those in the middle are misleading because the number of workers to be found at the middle of the hourglass is shrinking.

Public policy should be used to bolster the middle class as opposed to allowing a haphazard immigration system to pull society further apart. Against this backdrop, three things are sorely needed the cessation of illegal immigration, lower levels of legal immigration, and a selection process that restricts low-skilled admissions. Not only would such initiatives serve the national interest, they also would protect our most vulnerable citizens. In the end, the argument is little different from that made by the great black leader Booker T. Washington at the end of the 19th century. At the time, he implored American's industrialists to look to his people, freed slaves turned full citizens, for America's labor force needs. 'Cast down your buckets here,' he begged.

Not for the first time - and perhaps not for the last - he and those he championed were promptly ignored. ;