What Immigration Has to Do With Black Economic Struggles

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How does immigration play into the economic divide between blacks and whites?

A half century later, the vision of equality laid out by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “I Have a Dream” speech is far from realized.

A report released last week by the Pew Research Center illustrates just how dramatic an economic divide still exists between Americans of different races, and how that gap is widening.

The difference between whites and blacks when it comes to median household income, for example, has grown by 42 percent since 1963.

Does immigration have anything to do with the earnings split between whites and blacks?

An article in the Washington Post tried to answer this a few days ago, suggesting that Hispanic immigration was driving down wages for black workers. That drew fire from Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group.

Media Matters is right overall: immigration has a positive impact on the economy as a whole.

For example, the immigration bill that passed in the Senate this June would dramatically increase legal immigration if it becomes law. What would that do to the economy? It’s projected to cut the federal deficit by something like $150 billion in a decade, and substantially more over 20 years.

But for black workers in particular, there has been evidence that immigration can depress wages among certain sectors of the workforce.

Fusion touched on this topic last month and spoke with David Dyssegaard Kallick, a senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), a liberal research organization.

A 2010 report by FPI found a slight rise in unemployment for black workers with a high school diploma or less during peak periods of immigration. But that’s only one of many factors conspiring against those workers, the policy specialist told Fusion.

“Among the social challenges to African American men who did not go to college, immigration would come below a long list of other concerns, from high incarceration rates to racial discrimination in the workplace,” he said. “But, I would not discount the notion that even a modest negative effect on a group that already faces many hurdles is worth paying attention to.”

This job displacement, however, could actually be an argument for immigration reform, not against it.

If we find a way to legalize workers who are currently off the books -- through a path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, for instance -- it would help level the playing field for all workers.

Undocumented workers would have more standing to demand fair pay, and a better chance to fight workplace abuses. And there would be less incentive for employers to hire immigrants over black workers if everyone was working on the books. That’s why unions are pushing hard for an immigration bill to pass, especially one that allows workers to become full citizens.

Despite the criticism by Media Matters, the Post took a balanced approach to how immigration might affect blacks in the labor market, interviewing immigrant workers and U.S.-born black workers.

One of those workers was 40-year-old Keith Bellisaire, who was at a Baltimore unemployment center. He hasn’t been able to find full-time work for years, and has been relegated to day-to-day jobs painting houses.

“When I first walked in here and saw all these Spanish faces, I wondered how I would ever get a job,” he said. But his attitude has changed over time, he told the Post.

“The way I see it,” he said, “we’re all in the same boat.”