Writer: Illegal Immigration Stifles Black Community
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, we turn to Silicon Valley where several giants in the technology field, including Apple and Google, have refused to release data about the diversity of their workforces. We will ask why.
But first, we want to talk more about unemployment. Since this recession has been officially acknowledged, on this program weve had many conversations about unemployment overall and its disproportionate effect on some groups, like teenagers, the less educated, seniors, blacks and Latinos. The overall unemployment rate, for example, is just under 10 percent. But that number is far higher for African-Americans, more than 16 percent and its even higher for black teens.
Now, some are questioning what role illegal immigration plays in that scenario. And they are asking: Is illegal immigration a factor in the high unemployment rate for African-Americans?
Joining us to talk more about this is Cord Jefferson. He is a regular contributor to the online magazine, The Root. His latest story is called How Illegal Immigration Hurts Black America. Hes here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Also joining us is Carol Swain, professor of law at Vanderbilt University and the author of Debating Immigration. And shes with us from the studios there. Thank you so much for joining us both of you.
Mr. CORD JEFFERSON (Author, How Illegal Immigration Hurts Black America): Thank you very much for having me.
Professor CAROL SWAIN (Law, Vanderbilt University; Author, Debating Immigration): Thank you.
MARTIN: Cord, now you sight the case of a North Carolina poultry producer that went from having a workforce that was 80 percent immigrant, presumably immigrant Latino, to 70 percent African-American in a very short period of time. Now, how did that happen and why did that happen?
Mr. JEFFERSON: There is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in October of 2008 that came in and found 300 undocumented workers at the Raeford Farms, Columbia Farms processing plant in Columbia, South Carolina. And Raeford Farms was presumably spooked by that as they had been hiring undocumented immigrants for all their plants. And they systematically began firing all their undocumented workers in within less than a year. What had been an 80 percent Latino production line became a 70 percent African-American production line.
MARTIN: Is this what gave you the idea?
Mr. JEFFERSON: What gave me the idea was seeing the unemployment rates skyrocket in this country, especially for American-Americans overall, but also African-American male unemployment is almost at 20 percent now. I mean, thats shocking.
MARTIN: Thats right. Im sure that the plant would argue that they werent hiring illegal immigrants. And if they were, they thought that their papers were in order and so forth. There are those who would argue that thats an isolated case. Youre making the broader argument that illegal immigration, a high rate of illegal immigration is disproportionately affecting African-Americans. Why do you think thats so?
Mr. JEFFERSON: I think that, unfortunately, African-Americans are disproportionately low skilled. And African-Americans are disproportionately low educated. And those are the jobs that illegal immigrants are most often taking. And so I think that African-Americans who are low skilled and low educated who are out looking for employment in this sort of economy, they are competing with illegal immigrants of which there are millions. And so, I think that thats why theyre disproportionately affected by this.
MARTIN: Professor Swain, whats your view of this? Do you think that thats true?
Prof. SWAIN: Its not an isolated incident. Its been that kind probably for the last 10 or 15 years. Theres been story after story of factories and plants in the South, where the white and African-American workers were laid off or gradually replaced with immigrant labor.
The way our laws are when these companies are caught, they get a slap on the wrist. So, African-Americans have been displaced for a while. Their unemployment rate is always greater than the unemployment rates of white Americans regardless of the economy. Some of that is discrimination. And the numbers that we see now of the high unemployment, it actually understates the problem. Those unemployment numbers are based on people who are actually looking for work. There are millions of people of all races that have just given up.
MARTIN: Professor Swain, can I just ask you to make a distinction between legal and illegal immigration. Are you specifically arguing that its illegal immigration or immigration overall that is so profoundly affecting the employment chances of African-Americans?
Prof. SWAIN: I want to be really clear...
Prof. SWAIN: ...because I have no problem with America being a nation of immigrants and immigration thats orderly and done legally. But there are some programs like the H2B Program, a visa program, brings in low-skilled labor from foreign countries to work in hotels and occupations where African-Americans and low-skilled other Americans that include whites and legal immigrants, legal Hispanics, have worked and that is a problem.
And if you look at how those programs operate, its like indentured servitude. Its another form of slavery. What we dont need in America is competition in areas where you have qualified Americans that are unemployed.
And so, Im not against legal immigration. I think we are all for legal immigration, but we have a broken system that floods the market in areas where we have Americans that are unemployed.
MARTIN: Let me just clarify this. Cord, in your reporting, is it your argument in your piece that its high levels of illegal immigration that are so profoundly affecting the employment opportunities for African-Americans or legal immigration overall or both?
Mr. JEFFERSON: I think that in my estimation and in my reporting, I think that I was sort of looking at illegal immigration only. And I think that the reason that I was is because illegal immigrants, rather, far more than their legal counterparts are highly exploitable. And I think that that is one of the main reasons that you find these employers who are looking for cheap labor, who are unwilling to hire African-Americans or low-skilled Americans of all races who are unwilling to hire them instead of an illegal immigrant.
MARTIN: I had asked initially whether the case that you sighted at this poultry plant in North Carolina is an isolated example. Give me the big picture about why you believe that this is not just an isolated case. That its illegal immigration per se is dampening the employment chances of African-Americans. So, its just a matter of arithmetic?
Mr. JEFFERSON: Yeah. Well, I think its just a matter of arithmetic and I think its just a matter of, you know, opening your eyes. I think that knowing how many illegal immigrants are in America, I mean, these numbers in the millions are sort of accepted by people on both sides of the fence.
MARTIN: So, if you figure that the number. even though the Department of Homeland Security suggests that theres about 12 million or just under 12 million undocumented or illegal immigrants in this country and that they are competing with the approximately 12 million lower-skilled African-Americans who would also be competing for those jobs.
Mr. JEFFERSON: Absolutely. I think you just have to open your eyes. In any major city in the United States, I think that if you go to any restaurant, if you go to any factory and you see Latino immigrants, I think that youd be sort of naive and kidding yourself to think that all of those workers are legal.
MARTIN: The argument here is that these immigrant workers, be they legal or illegal, are doing the jobs that most Americans wont do. What did you find in your reporting or did you address that question of the employer preference is that they said that the labor market just isnt there. What did you find?
Mr. JEFFERSON: I did look into that and I think that the numbers obviously show that there are, especially in this economy, Americans are willing to do these jobs. And Audrey Singer whos a senior fellow at Brookings said that she does believe that immigrants would do jobs that blacks wont do, but only at the wages that - the wages are an issue and the blacks wouldnt do the jobs for these sorts of wages.
MARTIN: So that made a point blacks are in a better position to bargain.
Mr. JEFFERSON: No. No, no, illegal immigrants are in a better position of bargain because they can undercut what black Americans would ask for as far as benefits and wages go.
MARTIN: Oh, so shes suggesting that theres actually an employer preference for illegal?
Mr. JEFFERSON: Oh, absolutely.
MARTIN: Okay. Professor Swain, a final question to you. Why do you think it is that this argument has not surfaced previously particularly given that a number of, you know, prominent African-American intellectuals and political leaders have certainly made an issue of the high rate of unemployment among African-Americans, but they have not really connected it to the rate of illegal immigration? Why do you think that is?
Prof. SWAIN: Its political correctness. And if you actually state these positions, you are sort of demonized. And one of the reasons that I wrote Debating Immigration, was because I saw this was a neglected area and that most of the scholars, intellectuals, members of Congress were not representing the disadvantage to Americans on this issue. I think its a disgrace.
MARTIN: But maybe its that they think its not in the long-term political interest of African-Americans to be perceived as anti-Latino. Is that possible?
Prof. SWAIN: Its not about African-Americans, its about Americans because Latinos are hurt too. Legal Latinos, their wages are depressed. Some of them are in the same boat as African-Americans. They are being discriminated against. Its also whites with low levels of education.
Its an American problem. Its not a black problem. Black people get hurt more because of discrimination. And thats, again, thats another American problem thats not being addressed adequately.
Mr. JEFFERSON: May I say one last thing? I just want to say that a lot of people sort of - and I get a lot of hate mail for this piece and sort of conflate, as Professor Swain said, sort of conflate being sort of have questions about immigration as being anti-Latino. And I think that thats sort of - thats a cheap argument. I dont fault illegal immigrants for wanting a better life. I fault employers who look at qualified African-American job applicants and say I dont want your labor. I want to hire somebody whos easily exploitable and to whom I can pay very, very obscenely low wages.
MARTIN: Cord Jefferson wrote the piece How Illegal Immigration Hurts Black America for the online magazine The Root. Well have a link on our Web site. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Carol Swain is professor of law at Vanderbilt University and the author of Debating Immigration. She joined us from the studios at Vanderbilt. I thank you both so much for joining us.
Mr. JEFFERSON: Thank you very much for having me.
Prof. SWAIN: Thank you.
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