African Americans and Immigrants: The Common Good

America's current heartburn over immigration policy has focused on, among other things, the impact of immigrants on African American workers and other low-wage, uneducated workers. This superficial analysis is summed up by the cry, "They are taking our jobs."

Are they? Or is this just the latest chapter in America's never-ending search for cheap labor? It takes no anti-capitalist conspiracy theorist to conclude that along with individual freedoms, another founding principle was employers' freedom to search for labor (preferably free or cheap) both here and abroad. How else to explain this country's continued sanction of slavery well after England and other civilized countries had outlawed it? How was it, as Douglas Blackmon explains in his superb new book, The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II, that Southern capitalists could use the legal system for decades after the Civil War to ensure a steady supply of essentially free labor?

America willingly opened its doors to the Chinese and Irish in the mid-1800s, until xenophobic and economic pressures grew too great. How interesting is it that the last great wave of immigration, from Eastern and Southern European countries from 1890 to 1920, occurred at the same time that organized labor was taking its first steps to restructure the workplace so that American workers could also benefit from capitalism? In short, our immigration policy has been as much about labor needs, as defined by employers, as it has been about deciding "who gets to be an American."

The unemployment rate among African Americans has been persistently twice the rate of unemployment among white Americans. Even more alarming is the "employment-to-population ratio," which measures the percentage of the total population in a certain age group holding jobs. In 2003 in certain urban communities like New York and Los Angeles, only 51.8 percent of African American males between ages 16 and 65 held jobs, as compared to 75.7 percent of others.

How is that possible when those same communities, as an example, have hundreds of thousands of immigrants both legal and illegal with higher labor-participation rates than African Americans have? Perhaps, something else is going on. It may be that employers prefer "other" workers for "other reasons."

Research exploring the restructuring of the economy, the weakening of trade unionism, employer preferences, and racial bias suggest some answers. Researchers Roger Waldinger and Michael Lichter concluded that immigrant workers were seen as more subservient and compliant than native-born workers and thus, more willing to take on low-wage, difficult jobs with no benefits.

One wonders why such preferences do not constitute discriminatory bias. How can we determine if we need more foreign workers because "there are some jobs that Americans won't do?" Pay decent wages, with decent working conditions -- and there are very few jobs Americans won't do. Conversely, if the jobs being offered are not the "good jobs" of the past that created the great blue-collar middle class, why would the native-born, be they European American, African American, or Hispanic American, want such jobs?

Today's immigration debate has led to the perception and sometimes the reality that immigrants are taking the jobs of some African Americans and others. Rarely is asked the question: Why are we fighting over "bad jobs"? Instead, the anger and resentment focus on the immigrants and not on the employers.

By focusing on the illegal status of millions of people, the vast majority of whom are workers, and their violation of civil immigration laws, the public fails to ask the real questions: Why do employers prefer immigrants to native-born Americans? Why don't these jobs pay more, be safer, and offer benefits, including health care? Why is it that communities are subsidizing the lack of health care and housing offered by the meat-packing, agricultural, construction, and hospitality industries? Why is it that employers are free to hire people without legal status for these jobs?

Lately, the public's focus on the problem of "illegal immigration" has resulted in the government increasing enforcement at the workplace (as well as striking terror in neighborhoods and communities by conducting midnight raids, etc.). The response to the numerous Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids over the last 18 months has not been for employers to change their recruitment practices by searching for new workers in new communities or to improve wages and working conditions.

Rather, they are fighting tooth and nail to prevent or delay implementation of federal and state schemes to require employers to use federal databases to verify an employee's right to work in this country -- arguing in state legislatures that anti-immigrant laws are negatively impacting their ability to hire the workers they need and thereby hurting local and regional economies. For example, Arizona's employer-sanctions law is currently being implemented, though employers were able to limit its reach to new employees. And efforts are under way in Arizona to have an initiative on the November ballot that would further weaken the employer-sanctions law.

Regardless of what one may think about employer sanctions and new employer-verification systems, it's obvious that the status quo only benefits employers (and that does not mean just big employers, as there are plenty of families relying on inexpensive undocumented gardeners, nannies, home health-care workers, and housekeepers). Both immigrant workers and the native work force would benefit by requiring the currently undocumented to obtain legal status, thereby preventing employers from continually preferring the most vulnerable and exploitable workers.

But more needs to be done, including developing ways to test and end employer bias against the native-born, particularly against African Americans. We need to revamp our unemployment system so that it can truly work to match legal workers, including travel assistance from depressed communities such as Michigan to states with more robust economies such as Arizona and Nevada. We need unions to help enforce labor-law protections.

Only then can we begin to assess whether new workers are needed. As it turns out, due to the aging of America, we will need to welcome more immigrants. But let's make sure that the jobs of the post-industrial, information-based, and service-oriented economy of the future are good jobs. Only then can we keep the American Dream alive, not just for immigrants but for African Americans, too.