How Immigration Reform Could Help Black Workers

PHOTO: workersDigital Vision/Getty Images
Immigration reform could affect U.S.-born black workers.

The strange politics of immigration reform had some of Washington's most hardened conservatives speaking at a tea-party rally on Monday as if they were union bosses or civil rights leaders.

One of the topics of concern at the "D.C. March for Jobs": how immigration affects U.S.-born black workers.

The members who paraded out to speak about the issue included congressmen like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), once alleged to have been less-than-critical of the Ku Klux Klan.

And with a crowd mostly composed of "sweaty, pink sexagenarians," as the New Republic described it, it wasn't exactly an NAACP meeting (the leading black civil rights group supports immigration reform, btw, as do labor unions).

But it's a legitimate question. Any workers -- regardless of race -- should be curious how increased immigration could impact wages.

The Immigration Policy Center, a pro-reform group, found that African Americans living in cities with higher rates of immigration from Latin America fared better than those in cities with lower rates.

Some economists think that's generally the case, but recognize that some black workers with lower levels of education appear to lose their jobs during periods of high immigration.

David Dyssegaard Kallick, a senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), looked at the economic impact of immigrants in a 2010 report focused on Long Island, New York.

In that report, FPI looked at unemployment rates during peak periods of immigration in 1990, 2000 and 2005-2007. The result showed a slight uptick in unemployment among blacks with a high school diploma or less. The unemployment rate went from 6.2 percent in 1990 to 8.2 percent in 2000, then down to 7.8 percent in 2005-2007.

Here are some thoughts from Kallick on how immigration affects black workers, based on his research on Long Island:

My general reading of the literature is that immigration has entailed some displacement of African American men who have not been to college. African-American women have fared better, as have African-American men who go to college (a number that is growing faster than is generally appreciated).

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. 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.

As Kallick explains, however, giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal status and citizenship would help black workers, since it would level the playing field:

The legalization component of reform should be very good for African American men who have not been to college, since it should help to rebuild the floor of the labor market. It will be harder for employers to take advantage of employees, and that will be good for all workers in related jobs, not just the immigrants who benefit directly.

The visa changes are harder to parse at this point. But the net effect for African American men, including those who did not go to college, should be positive.

The takeaway: Higher rates of immigration could be a concern for a certain segment of black workers, specifically those with a high school diploma or less. But even for those workers, it's not a foremost concern, since there are a range of other factors that could be negatively affecting their chances at getting a job.

More importantly, a legalization program for undocumented immigrants would also benefit that segment of black workers, since it would likely raise wages for all workers.