September 18, 2013

Maine Voices: Immigration reform locks black workers out of the American dream

Congress is giving away jobs and allowing labor markets to be swamped by people here illegally.

By Jonette Christian

HOLDEN - According to U.S. Census data, only 14 percent of blacks had incomes above the poverty line in 1940. But by 1970, that number had risen to 70 percent. 

Surprisingly, this meteoric rise in black prosperity largely happened before the civil rights movement, in the face of Jim Crow laws and institutional racism.

It happened because Congress strictly regulated immigration in mid-century, averaging only 178,000 a year, tightening labor markets and expanding wages for all workers. Without access to foreign labor, Northern factory owners recruited Southern blacks, and a diaspora of black workers headed north for better-paid blue-collar jobs.

In the 1960s we launched the civil rights movement, embarking on an ambitious program to rid ourselves of racism: rewriting laws; creating affirmative action; launching a "war on poverty"; redesigning  school curricula; creating new holidays; promoting black talent in politics, business and television; renaming roads, buildings and memorials; and eventually electing a black president. We were determined to rid ourselves of racism.  

But what about black economic gains? Forty years later, only 73 percent of blacks have incomes above the poverty line. A pathetic 3 percent rise.

What happened? Congress rewrote immigration policy, quadrupling visas for foreign job seekers, swamping American labor markets, especially black labor.

George Borjas of Harvard, a leading authority on labor impacts of immigration, wrote in 2006: "As immigrants disproportionately increased the supply of workers in a particular skill group, the wages of black workers fell, the employment rate declined, and the incarceration rate rose."

And today, the U.S. unemployment for black workers is 13 percent, nearly twice that of whites. Thirty-five percent of black children live below the poverty line, and black men are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites.

The Senate recently passed an immigration reform bill giving another blanket amnesty to illegal immigrants and their employers, doubling legal visas, massively expanding our future workforce. The numbers are simply astounding.

Members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights expressed outrage over the devastating impact this legislation would have on black communities.

And other civil rights leaders weighed in.

In his book "What Would Martin Say," Clarence B. Jones, Martin Luther King's attorney, adviser, speechwriter and close friend, writes: "Martin would be outraged by the greater immorality of importing a slave class into this country, especially one that has robbed so many African Americans of their hard-won livelihoods."

And why aren't we talking about it? When making the connection between immigration and black joblessness, immigration reductionists are accused of driving a wedge between people of color and failing to recognize their own racism.

"You're a racist"; "No, I'm not" is not a productive conversation. And that's precisely the purpose: Change the subject and avoid the uncomfortable facts.  

And the tactic obviously works. A 1,000-page Senate bill that radically expands our future labor force passes with appallingly little public review. Tossing the racist bomb has stifled intelligent discussion of immigration policy for decades.  

Over the centuries, African Americans have been whipped, lynched, subjugated to horrific conditions and locked out of the American dream. Only recently have they begun to make real progress.

But now, under the guise of compassion, Congress is giving away jobs to people who defied our laws and then had the audacity to compare their plight to the plight of the descendants of slaves.

Employers told the Senate they couldn't get American workers to take the jobs their illegal workers were doing. It's a lie. The fact is, when the government briefly enforced laws at the worksite, causing illegals to leave, blacks were lining up to take those jobs in one industry after another.  But the companies had to raise the wage. And there's the rub.       

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King voted for the Senate immigration bill. Evidently, they believe we have serious labor shortages requiring millions of new foreign workers.

And their support for another mass legalization indicates they also believe that illegal immigrants have a greater right to those low-skilled jobs, traditionally held by blacks, in slaughterhouses, chicken processing plants and the building trades. Once again, the cheap-labor lobbies are setting immigration policy for the nation.

It's hard to understand how Collins and King could support this deceptive bill. And the American Dream continues to unravel for both blacks and whites. 

Jonette Christian of Holden is head of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy.

 

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