Illegal workers didn't orchestrate ills of black men
Talk about strange bedfellows. The anti-illegal immigration campaign has brought together a curious mix of activists, joining white conservatives with a handful of black civil rights crusaders.
In the last year or two, looking to add a certain diversity to their ranks, the Minuteman Project and similar groups started posting another complaint alongside the usual litany of ills they associate with illegal workers. On top of refusing to assimilate, waving the Mexican flag, destroying neighborhoods and draining social services, illegal workers, they say, steal jobs from black Americans, especially uneducated laborers.
Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist, whose group placed vigilante guards along the southern border, was among the first to seek black support by expressing a deep concern for the economic prospects of black men. More recently, state Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock), one of the Georgia Legislature's fiercest critics of undocumented workers, has experienced an epiphany over the poor job prospects of uneducated black men. He, too, blames their plight on illegal immigration.
That message hasn't attracted many black supporters, but it has energized a few. In recent testimony before Congress, T. Willard Fair, president of the Urban League of Greater Miami, railed against so-called amnesty. "Which is more likely to persuade a teenager in the inner city to reject the lure of gang life and instead stick with honest employment — amnesty and more immigration, or enforcement and less immigration?"
There is only one problem with that argument: It's nonsense. If it were somehow possible to round up by close of business tomorrow every one of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the thug life would still hold allure for many young black men. Less-educated men, especially black men, face a complex and daunting series of obstacles, including their own attitudes, suspicions and misperceptions about the marketplace. Blaming Mexican landscapers and Guatemalan ditch-diggers doesn't help them.
Columbia University professor Ronald Mincy is one of the nation's leading experts on the plight of marginalized black men — those whose education reaches no further than completion of high school.
"The data don't indicate that black men and immigrant men compete for the same jobs, except maybe in construction and in California. Immigrant men take low-wage jobs that black males wouldn't take anyway because [black families] are accustomed to a higher standard of living, bolstered by their greater access to welfare. They can't live with dignity off of the low wages those jobs offer," he has said.
Harvard economist George Borjas, a critic of illegal immigration, believes it suppresses wages for the least-educated men — those who didn't finish high school — but only by about 7.4 percent. By his math, if every illegal Mexican laborer disappeared, a $10-an-hour wage would increase to $10.74.
Still, it's heartening to see so many conservative politicians — those who have not previously shown a keen interest in poor black men — suddenly taking an interest. I'd recommend they read "Black Males Left Behind," a volume of research edited by Mincy and published last year by the Urban Institute. A number of thoughtful scholars contributed to the work, which cites the decline of manufacturing, incarceration and subsequent criminal records, and simple bigotry among the biggest obstacles to employment faced by uneducated black men.
Having a criminal record deals a severe blow, according to Georgetown University professor Harry Holzer and two co-authors. "Employers are much more reluctant to hire ex-offenders than welfare recipients, the long-term unemployed, or any other group. Indeed, less than 40 percent of employers would 'definitely' or 'probably' fill their last noncollege job with an ex-offender," they wrote.
So here's an initiative state Sen. Rogers might introduce in the Georgia General Assembly: substantial tax incentives for employers to hire people with criminal records. With his newfound concern for marginalized black men, he might also appeal to his fellow legislators to repeal lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes — a remedy that would do more to boost the prospects of uneducated black men than any border fence.
That stance might not have quite the visceral appeal of Rogers' nativist proposals on immigration, but it would certainly be more beneficial.