Could Immigration Reform Plan Hurt Black Workers?

A bi-partisan Senate immigration policy plan has won support of many key political leaders. But some within the African-American community say it could hurt low wage black workers. Guest host Celeste Headlee discusses the issue with Harry Holzer of Georgetown University; and Lesley Jordan, a food industry worker from Los Angeles.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, what do you get when you put Muslim-Americans center stage? The Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Playwright Ayad Akhtar talks about his award-winning drama "Disgraced." That's in just a moment.

But first a look at some of the drama surrounding the bipartisan Senate immigration bill proposed earlier this month. Recently, a group called the African-American Leadership Council demanded that the Congressional Black Caucus fight to make sure low wage black workers were protected in any immigration reform plan. Here's Frank Morris. He's the former director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

FRANK MORRIS: People come in from countries with less than a grade school education are the preferred workers in the critical immigrant areas in construction, the services, and in light manufacturing jobs paying up to $15 an hour. This, folks, is gross injustice.

HEADLEE: Joining us to talk about how immigration reform could affect low-wage African-American workers is Harry Holzer. He's a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. He also served as the chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor. And also with us is Lesley Jordan. He's African-American and has been working in the food industry in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. Welcome to both of you.

HARRY HOLZER: Thank you.

LESLEY JORDAN: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Professor, let me begin with you. You've been obviously watching these numbers, probably shuffling them around for some time. Do we know, exactly, how the Senate immigration plan would affect workers on the low end of the wage scale?

HOLZER: We don't know exactly. I think we can make some fairly well educated guesses. The Senate bill, and especially the bipartisan bill that's been proposed, actually has fairly low numbers on this guest worker program that they've talked about. And quite low numbers for the first five years...

HEADLEE: Low numbers, you mean the number of immigrants who are allowed to come in.

HOLZER: That's correct. That's correct. Now, if the enforcement mechanisms of the bill work, and the enforcement mechanisms would be both at the border and at the workplaces, that would choke off the supply - the supply routes that a lot of undocumented immigrants have taken. So they'd have to come in through these guest worker programs. And I said that's a big if, you know, if those enforced mechanisms work as planned. So workers would have to then come in on these guest worker programs and there the numbers are fairly tightly controlled. And other provisions have been added to make sure that these immigrants don't undercut native-born workers. And especially in construction.

So if all that happens as planned, in some ways people might face even less competition than they do right now.

HEADLEE: But Lesley, that doesn't seem to be your impression. You're worried that this immigration reform bill will end up hurting you even more. Why?

JORDAN: Well, it's already taken place here in Los Angeles. The food service industry, the construction industry, our janitorial services, gardening, light manufacturing, these jobs are already majority Latino. They've already - that's already taken place. Here in Los Angeles we're already seeing it. So it's just a matter of the bill being passed. Because we're already seen it here in Los Angeles.

HEADLEE: Well, explain to me. Have you had any incidents that occurred in which you know for sure that an illegal immigrant, for example, either got a job that would've come to you otherwise or negatively affected your ability to get a job?

JORDAN: Absolutely. Because in the food services, in the restaurant, you have the back of the house, which is the kitchen area. And those are Latinos working in the kitchen. And if you can't speak the language, then why would the chef - why would restaurant, why would they hire you? And that's been my experience.

I don't speak Spanish. I don't feel that I should have to speak Spanish. But unfortunately I don't and I've been passed over for jobs because of it. And I know this for a fact.

HEADLEE: Professor Holzer, one of the reasons it's difficult to do this math is because we're talking about - when you talk about a worker who is not a citizen of the United States, not all of them are on the books. It's difficult to track where they are and where they're working. Obviously these are not things people are reporting to the IRS. How do we do this math then?

How do we know how much an undocumented immigrant has affected low wage workers before immigration reform and what may happen after?

HOLZER: Well, again, there's no way to know for sure but there are some pretty good estimates and I think right now there is some consensus, for instance, around the number, that there's about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Before the recession it was 12, 12 and a half. It's down to 11. About seven million actually are in the labor force. So lots of informal surveys and informal evidence seem to come to that number.

It's more uncertain when you look to the future. And by the way, absent an immigration bill, the competition that Mr. Jordan talked about might actually get worse. The immigration bill actually tries to limit the new flow to try to make legal channels more attractive than illegal channels. And by the way, and lifting up those seven million workers who are already undocumented, I think would help the situation.

Because right now they are very exploitable. And right now you can see why employers in all those industries that have been mentioned - construction, food services, light manufacturing - in all those places employers actually have a preference for the undocumented because they can pay them below market wages.

If they are legalized, then in some sense they come above ground and they have to compete. They're still here and what's done is done and nobody's going to kick them out of the country at this point, but if they're going to stay, if their kids are going to stay, better for everybody that they should be legal and employers that hire them would have to pay by the rules and pay market wages like everything else.

HEADLEE: Well, let me take that straight to you, Lesley Jordan. He's saying that right now while a worker is undocumented, they're depressing the wages, that you, when you do get a job, are getting lower wages because other people who are undocumented are on the books. That's means immigration reform might be good for you. What do you think?

JORDAN: Yeah, that may be true but the problem still remains. The employer's preference happens to be a Spanish-speaking worker. So they're not going to hire the black people. They're not going to hire the African-American. They're going to continue to hire Latinos. That's just about the bottom line out here in Los Angeles. I'm here - I'm speaking of Los Angeles. This is the mecca of illegal immigration. The mecca.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the potential impact of immigration reform on low wage black workers. I'm speaking with Lesley Jordan, you just heard, a food service worker in Los Angeles; and Harry Holzer, a public policy professor at Georgetown.

Lesley, you feel as though political leaders in the African-American community have turned their back on people like you. Why do you feel that way?

JORDAN: They're a disgrace, in my opinion. An absolute disgrace. The Jesse Jacksons, the Al Sharptons, the Congressional Black Caucus, and our president, they've all turned their backs. They're betraying the so-called people that they claimed to look out for.

HEADLEE: And why do you say that? What have they done to betray you?

JORDAN: Well, the most glaring thing to me is that they've told these people that their movement is an extension of the Civil Rights Movement and our ancestors are turning over in their graves because that is just the most outrageous thing I've ever heard. I have yet to see a Latinos-only water fountain. I have yet to see a Latinos-only theater. I have yet to see a Latino directed to go to the back of the bus.

I have yet to see fire hoses turned on Latinos when they have some of these foolish protests out here in Los Angeles. And that should outrage any African-American. That should just outrage you.

HEADLEE: Well, let me go back to you, Professor Holzer. There are many employers who are opposing immigration reform and yet there seems to be a larger number, especially of corporations, who are looking to see this bill get passed. If hiring an undocumented worker gives you more freedom to depress wages, if you can pay them less, if you don't have to give them benefits, why would employers want to see immigration reform go through?

HOLZER: Well, it depends on which employers you're talking about. Certainly at the higher end, the Microsofts, the Googles, in, for instance in the high-tech industry, they're having a hard time finding native-born workers with sufficient math and technical skills. Too few engineers. It's very hard to hire in those industries, even in this economy. So they have an interest in a reform bill that creates a better flow at the high end.

Even at the lower end, I think there's a lot of employers that - I mean I think really small employers can play this game of hiring undocumented workers and going under the radar. I think the larger employers are starting to feel pressure. You know, enforcement efforts have kicked up a lot in the last five years, both under the Obama administration and towards the end of the Bush administration.

I think the bigger corporations that can't fly under the radar anymore see that this is really problematic. You know, having seven million workers in the shadows, not being counted, that that's - in many ways, that causes problems for them, as well, and they don't want to play the game and risk being caught, having severe fines, etc. So, for the larger employers, even at the low end, the reform bill probably makes sense, as well.

HEADLEE: Do you have any words of reassurance for Lesley Jordan here? I'm sure he's not the only person who's very concerned about what effect this bill may have on their livelihood. Anything you can say for him?

HOLZER: You know, I understand Mr. Jordan's point of view. It makes sense to me because he's in one of the most immigrant-heavy metro areas in the country and he's in one of those industries that's very hard hit, so I understand his concern. There are (technical difficulties) who probably benefit from the presence of immigrants. For instance, if a company pays less to its janitorial workers who are immigrants, they have more money to spend on clerical workers, on sales workers.

So some people like Mr. Jordan do get hurt. Other people get helped by the process. The economy, overall, grows more. That's good for everybody. The only thing I'd say to Mr. Jordan is these people are already here. No immigrant reform bill - blocking immigrant reform bill - isn't going to get rid of them. While they're here already, we might as well make them legal. We might as well have them play by the same rules as everyone else and make their employers pay by the same rules and then have a more managed flow of legal immigrants with beefed up enforcement.

I think, for people in the effected industries where there's already a big presence of immigrants, Mr. Jordan's probably right. It's probably not going to dramatically change things in that industry. I just think, from the point of view of the overall economy, it will help and I think making people legal rather than illegal, it may not do any good and it may not get Mr. Jordan and his colleagues back into that industry. I think that's a reality that's going to be true either way, but I think, on net, bringing these people up out of the shadows and making them play by the same rules, fewer people will be undercut, maybe, in other industries down the road.

HEADLEE: It's impossible to know unless it goes through or doesn't go through and we can see what happens to a certain extent. You just heard Professor Harry Holzer. He's a professor of public policy at Georgetown University. He also served as the chief economist for the Department of Labor and he joined us right here in our Washington studios. And Lesley Jordan joined us from Los Angeles. He's been working in the food service industry for more than 20 years.

Good luck to you, Lesley, and thanks to you both.

HOLZER: Thank you.

JORDAN: Thank you.

HEADLEE: In more immigration policy news today, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to step into a dispute over Alabama's immigration law. State officials had appealed a lower court decision that blocked portions of the law that made it illegal to harbor or transport illegal immigrants. For more coverage, stay tuned to your public radio station or go online to NPR.org.

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