Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Black jobs and Hispanic immigrants

Kenneth J. Cooper:

From a bright Harvard undergraduate to an established lawyer visiting Boston from Cleveland, I hear economic insecurity in Black voices, a fear of being passed up and "left behind" by yet another wave of immigrants, as happened in decades past with yes, the Irish, the Italians and Jews from Europe.

The undocumented Latino immigrants, unlike those groups, are not White by definition. For that reason, they may not fare as well in a country still obsessed with race.

Already, though, there is evidence that African-Americans who are the most vulnerable economically because they have limited education and skills are being hurt by the presence in the job market of millions of immigrants who entered the country unlawfully.

Advocates for immigrants like to say the undocumented are taking jobs that no Americans want. That cannot be true. The various estimates I have seen put immigrants at no more than 25 percent of the nation's workers in any of the jobs where they are clustered — construction, hospitality, landscaping, building maintenance and agriculture. That means the majority doing those jobs are American citizens.

Nor is it true, as Mexico's President Vicente Fox once asserted, that Black workers won't take such jobs. Three Latino academics, who in 2002 published a study of Black-Latino relations in Houston, reported that the city's household maids and servants went from majority Black in 1980 to majority Latino in 1990, according to U.S. Census data. Where did those former Black servants go to work instead or did they?

A few months ago, a restaurant manager in St. Louis told me kitchen staffs there tend to be either Black or Latino, because the two groups of low-skill workers don't get along. The White manager further confessed that kitchens tend to be all-Black if the restaurant is in a Black neighborhood and all-Latino if it is in a White neighborhood. The last category would cover most restaurants in the St. Louis area. Where did those Black kitchen workers in White restaurants go?

Competition for low-skill jobs between Blacks and undocumented Latino immigrants is an economic fact. That competition depresses wages, and not only because fearful immigrants are willing to work for less — which to them is much more than they could earn back home. Any increase in the supply of labor depresses pay for that work.

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