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President Obama works the phone in the days leading up to the House vote on health care reform. Immigration reform and reducing black joblessness are two of the domestic issues he is now being pressed to take up.

Photo by: Courtesy of The White House

President Obama works the phone in the days leading up to the House vote on health care reform. Immigration reform and reducing black joblessness are two of the domestic issues he is now being pressed to take up.

The most recent statistics put the national unemployment rate at 9.7 percent – and 15.8 percent among blacks. The next issue of City Limits magazine – “The Black Depression: Race and the Recession In New York” – arrives in mid-April and examines why this is and what can be done. This is one in a series of related web-only features on the topic.

In 2006, as immigration groups staged a nationwide wave of rallies calling for amnesty for undocumented people in the U.S., the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, a black minister who founded the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, said: “These folks are coming in illegally and demanding that we do what they want us to do while flying the Mexican flag. I just don’t know how anyone can say that you can break the law and come to this country, protest, and insist that we give them rights, and call that civil rights.”

Since then, Peterson has been quoted saying that “Barack Obama, ‘the messiah,’ is a socialist” who “especially hates the white man” and is “dangerous.” He has also thanked God for slavery because it got blacks out of Africa. But in spite of his record of far-out rhetoric, Peterson’s quote still features prominently on anti-immigration websites trying to make the case that newcomers—legal and not—deserve significant blame for black economic despair.

Now that immigration groups are ramping up another push for easier legal immigration, their opponents are once again targeting blacks as potential allies. A February Zogby poll being publicized by the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) indicates that 68 percent of black Americans think the numbers of immigrants are too high. NumbersUSA, another group opposed to immigration, features on its home page a photo of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the first black woman to represent a Southern state in the House of Representatives, and her quote: “It is both a right and a responsibility of a democratic society to manage immigration so that it serves the national interest.”

But when immigrant rights activists gathered in Washington just a few weeks ago for a “March for America,” leaders of the NAACP and National Urban League took the stage to support the cause.

Lurking in the background is the severe economic crisis among black workers, especially black men. In February, black male unemployment stood at 19 percent—nearly twice as high as white male unemployment for that month (9.6 percent). Black women posted a 13.1 percent unemployment rate that month, compared to white women’s 7.8 percent rate. With the black community seeing fewer jobs than people need, immigrant competition for low-wage work is a sensitive issue.

The reality of the impact of immigration on the black worker is complex. First of all, immigrants and blacks are not distinct, separate populations. In New York City, according to U.S. Census data covering 2006 through 2008, 32 percent of people identifying as black were foreign born, compared to 28 percent of whites and 41 percent of Latinos.

The population share of immigrants—defined as anyone born outside the United States—in the New York City metropolitan area, 28 percent, is one of the highest in the country (only Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco post higher shares), according to the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI). In New York City itself, the foreign-born rate is 37 percent.

Department of Homeland Security data show that as of Jan. 2008 some 12.6 million legal immigrants—people with permanent residency but not citizenship—were living in the United States. With 1.5 million, New York state ranked only behind California for number of legal immigrant residents. The New York City-Northern New Jersey-Long Island metropolitan area saw 180,000 new legal immigrants in 2008, more than any other metro area and more than 10 percent of the total intake nationwide.

Meanwhile, the population of undocumented immigrants in Jan. 2009 is estimated by DHS to be 10.8 million nationwide, with about half a million in New York state.

The question for black men seeking employment is whether either group of immigrants (or both) competes with them for work. However, the economic impact of immigration on native workers has more than one dimension. Immigrant workers in New York don’t just earn wages; they also spend them, and that fuels economic activity that might provide jobs to blacks that would otherwise lack them.

Studies that have tried to quantify the impact of immigration on blacks reach different conclusions.

One 2006 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “a 10-percent immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced the black wage by 4.0 percent” and “lowered the employment rate of black men by 3.5 percentage points.”

A February report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found that immigration boosted modestly native-born workers’ wages and—interestingly—hurt those of earlier immigrants. Wages of native-born workers rose by 0.4 percent and those of foreign-born workers fell by 4.6 percent. “Any negative effects of new immigration over this period were felt largely by the workers who are the most substitutable for new immigrants—that is, earlier immigrants,” the report read.

The report didn’t discuss immigration’s impact on different races, and didn’t directly address the impact on employment, just wages, but the two are closely linked. It did find that even workers with less than a high school diploma see a modest gain in wages thanks to immigration—in nationwide data, at least.

However, in states with high levels of immigration—including New York—EPI found that low-skilled workers did see lower wages as a result of immigration.

Even if there is a negative impact of immigration on blacks and other low-skilled workers, that doesn’t necessarily mean the number of immigrants is the problem; rather, the legal status of some of those newcomers is what causes trouble for others on the low end of the labor market. Indeed, those making the case for federal immigration reform offering a path to legalization say that illegal immigration is more likely to cause the wage disparities between immigrants and native-born that give immigrants a leg-up over blacks—and other native-born workers—with low skills.

“Rather than black men being pushed out by immigrants,” says Seth Wessler, a researcher at the Applied Research Center, a think tank on race and economics, “there are a set of policies that have created a whole group of people who are by and large people of color who are relegated to low-wage work.”