Economic and civil rights experts say increased immigration spurred by President Obama’s executive orders poses a bigger threat to the black community than police brutality or racial profiling, which have sparked protests in black communities across the country.
“It’s a bigger threat to black livelihood,” Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said, adding that illegal immigration “dwarfs” the more inflammatory issues of police brutality, saying, “When you look at the hundreds of thousands of blacks thrown out of work over the years as a result of the competitive pressure the downstream effects are profound.”
The number of unemployed black workers in the U.S. is soaring, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over 12.2 million black people of working age were not in the labor force in March, meaning they had neither been employed nor actively sought a job for at least four weeks.
The labor force participation rate for black men ages 20 and older is more than 5 percentage points lower than it is for white men, and for those in the labor force, the black unemployment rate is more than double the white unemployment rate, at 10.1 percent versus 4.7 percent.
Loosened immigration policy will only compound the problem.
As more illegal immigrants enter the U.S., encouraged by the president’s sweeping executive actions, they flood low-skilled labor markets once dominated by blacks, which ultimately decreases wages and increases job competition for low-skilled black workers, said Mr. Kirsanow.
“The long-term, large-scale flow of immigration into the United States has worked to erode both the wages and employment prospects of African-American workers,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on Immigration and the National Interests, in a statement to The Times.
“Yet the Senate’s ‘Gang of Eight’ plan would have doubled future immigration from its existing record levels. As a nation, our first duty is always to our own citizens, especially those who have sacrificed so much for this country. Any responsible immigration plan must promote higher wages, rising employment and improved working conditions for people already living here,” he said.
Increasing unemployment rates in the black community can lead to numerous other negative social consequences, Mr. Kirsanow said.
“When unemployment rates increase, black institutionalization rates also increase. Individuals who don’t have jobs are less likely to be married or to get married, which means you are more likely to have kids out of wedlock. It’s a self-perpetuating negative cycle,” Mr. Kirsanow said. “These are the things that the Congressional Black Caucus and the president have refused to address and are things that are tremendously harmful to the prospects of black Americans economically, socially and culturally.”
A spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus did not reply to a request by The Times for comment.
While Mr. Kirsanow opposed the president’s immigration policies, his colleagues on the Civil Rights Commission came out in support of President Obama’s executive orders issued in November, jumping on the political bandwagon at the time.
However, a 2008 briefing report to the Civil Rights Commission on the effects of immigration on wages and employment opportunities for black workers clearly stated that more illegal immigration hurts low-skilled black workers.
“About six in 10 adult black males have a high school diploma or less, and black men are disproportionately employed in the low-skilled labor market, where they are more likely to be in labor competition with immigrants,” the report reads. “Illegal immigration to the United States in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men.”
Commission Chair Martin Castro, who was not a member of the commission when the 2008 study was conducted, has said that the report was missing key data that contradicted the overall findings and plans to call for a review of the study.
Some economists say that increased immigration doesn’t hurt low-skilled American workers because the two groups don’t typically do the same jobs.
Low-skilled Americans, nearly all of whom speak English, tend to work in jobs that require communication skills, while low-skilled immigrants, who mostly don’t, tend to do jobs that require manual labor, Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, explained.
He cited research from economists Gianmarco Ottaviano and Giovanni Peri, who found in their studies in 2008 and 2010 that more immigration tends to raise overall wages for U.S.-born workers.
But while economists agree that immigration improves living standards and wages on average, studies are divided on whether immigration reduces wages for certain groups of workers. Some studies suggest that immigration has reduced wages for low-skilled workers without a high school diploma and college graduates.
A 2007 study by economists George Borjas and Lawrence Katz found that increases in immigrant workers from 1990 to 2006 reduced the wages of low-skilled workers by 4.7 percent and college graduates by 1.7 percent.
In 2009 Mr. Borjas, a Harvard professor, specifically studied the effects of immigration on the economic status of black men and found that a 10 percent immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced black wages by 2.5 percent, lowered the employment rate of black men by 5.9 percentage points and increased the incarceration rate of blacks by 1.3 percentage points.
“It is evident that there is a negative correlation between changes in employment propensities and the immigrant share, and that the correlation is stronger for black men,” Mr. Borjas wrote.
But Mr. Nowrasteh explained that more people coming in to the country is good for the U.S. economy, and said that the bigger threat to wages for low-skilled workers is technological change.
“Studies on skilled-bias technological change find a lot of the new machines, computers [and] ways to automate manufacturing increase the wages of high-skilled people a lot more and potentially decrease the wages of lower-skilled people,” Mr. Nowrasteh said, adding that the same economic effects have been observed in countries that don’t accept many immigrants.
Multiple polls show that Americans across the board, regardless of race or political alignment, want less immigration.
In a nationwide survey conducted between August and October of 2014, The Polling Company, Inc. asked over 1,000 adults: “If U.S. businesses have trouble finding workers, what should happen?”
In total, 75 percent said businesses should raise wages and improve working conditions to attract American workers, while only 8 percent said more immigrants workers should be allowed in to the country to fill those jobs.
Eighty-six percent of blacks surveyed said businesses should increase wages rather than hire more immigrants, and 71 percent of Hispanics said the same thing.
Seventy-four percent of Republican responders and 79 percent of Democratic responders also said businesses should increase wages to attract American employees.
In a January 2015 Gallup poll, 39 percent of Americans said they were dissatisfied with current immigration levels and wanted less immigration rather than more.
Factors other than illegal immigration do contribute to black unemployment, and halting illegal immigration is not a panacea for the issues with decreased wages for low-skilled black workers, Mr. Kirsanow explained. But the effect on low-skilled minority workers must be considered by lawmakers in forming comprehensive immigration reform policies, he said, adding that it must start with following the laws already in place.
“We are not serious about securing the border; we are not serious about enforcement; we are not serious about e-verify. All of these things would be extremely helpful to low-skilled workers and, particularly, black Americans,” Mr. Kirsanow said.