President Trump’s election victory over Hillary Clinton seemed to herald a new era for border security and immigration enforcement. But his polarizing and occasionally ignorant comments about immigrants have handed his adversaries a convenient pretext for stymying compromise on immigration reform: racism.
Left-leaning advocacy groups and a host of Democrats all too often shy away from the specifics of the debate and instead lean on cries of bigotry, resorting to claims like that of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has described Trump’s approach to immigration reform as an effort to “make America white again.”
Claims that immigration enforcement equals racism ignore the reality that the group most likely to benefit from a tougher approach to immigration enforcement is young black men, who often compete with recent immigrants for low-skilled jobs.
This dynamic played out recently at a large bakery in Chicago that supplies buns to McDonald’s. Some 800 immigrant laborers, most of them from Mexico, lost their jobs last year after an audit by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Cloverhill Bakery, owned by Aryzta, a big Swiss food conglomerate, had to hire new workers, 80% to 90% of whom are African American. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the new workers are paid $14 per hour, or $4 per hour more than the (illegal) immigrant workers.
In this case, and in many others, the beneficiaries of immigration enforcement were working-class blacks, who are often passed over for jobs by unscrupulous employers.
The labor force participation rate for adult black men has declined steadily since the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which ushered in a new era of mass immigration. In 1973, the rate was 79%. It is now at 68%, and the Bureau of Labor projects that it will decline to 61% by 2026.
In 2016, the Obama White House produced a 48-page report acknowledging that immigration does not help the labor force participation rate of the native-born. It concluded, however, that “immigration reform would raise the overall participation rate by bringing in new workers of prime working age.”
Although the report used the term “new workers,” Democrats may also be tempted by the prospect of new voters. But they should be aware that in courting one group, they risk losing others.
African Americans tend to be a reliable voting bloc for the Democratic Party, but they have repeatedly indicated in public opinion surveys that they want significantly less immigration.
A recent Harvard-Harris poll found that African Americans favor reducing legal immigration more than any other demographic group: 85% want less than the million-plus we allow on an annual basis, and 54% opted for the most stringent choices offered — 250,000 immigrants per year or less, or none at all.
These attitudes are rational.
In a 2010 study on the social effects of immigration, the Cornell University professor Vernon Briggs concluded: “No racial or ethnic group has benefited less or been harmed more than the nation’s African American community.”
The Harvard economist George Borjas has found that, between 1980 and 2000, one-third of the decline in the employment among black male high school dropouts was attributable to immigration. He also reported “a strong correlation between immigration, black wages, black employment rates, and black incarceration rates.”
In a 2014 paper on neoliberal immigration policies and their effects on African Americans, the University of Notre Dame professor Stephen Steinberg argued that, thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, “African Americans found themselves in the proverbial position of being ‘last hired.’” Steinberg also noted that “immigrants have been cited as proof that African Americans lack the pluck and determination that have allowed millions of immigrants from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean to pursue the American dream.”
The struggles of black men obviously cannot all be linked to immigration, but it’s clear that the status quo does not benefit them.
As elected leaders consider changing our immigration laws, the interests of America’s most vulnerable citizens shouldn’t be overlooked. The first step toward honest reform is for the Democratic Party to admit that while liberal immigration enforcement might help them win new voters, it also harms and disenfranchises their most loyal constituency.