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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights invited a group of labor economists and immigration experts to its Washington, D.C., headquarters in April to debate the thorny issue of immigration and race. Specifically, they wanted to know the effects of the influx of new and, in particular, illegal immigrants on African American employment rates.
Commissioner Peter Kirsanow proposed the hearing, he says, because several studies, such as one conducted by Harvard Kennedy School of Government economist George Borjas, have found that employment, wages, and even incarceration rates of black males have been adversely affected by increased illegal immigration.
The panelists’ opinions covered the range of ideological perspectives, but one point they all agreed on is that the level of illegal immigration to this country has vastly increased the labor supply for low-wage, low-skilled jobs, such as childcare, food preparation, office cleaning and maintenance, and construction.
“The kinds of people who do that kind of work tend to be people who don’t have a lot of education. Either they dropped out of high school or have only a high school degree,” says Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “If the market was tight for [those kinds of jobs], we’d expect that wages and benefits would go up fast as employers try desperately to hold on to what few workers there are and also try to attract other workers. But that’s not what’s happening; in general, wages have either declined or stagnated in the last 20 years.” He believes that this is particularly problematic for less-educated black men who were already earning the lowest wages and have the highest unemployment rates, and therefore must compete with immigrants for jobs. Camarota says, “If one is concerned about less-educated workers in this country, it is difficult to justify continuing high levels of legal and illegal immigration that disproportionately impact the bottom end of the labor market.”
According to Vernon M. Briggs Jr., a Cornell University emeritus professor of industrial and labor relations, the foreign-born population in the United States increased from 8.4 million in 1965 to 39.3 million in 2007. Approximately 7.4 million immigrant workers are here illegally, competing for low-skilled jobs with 43 million other adults who are legally entitled to work here. “Given the inordinately high unemployment rates for low-skilled black workers (the highest for all racial and ethnic groups for whom data is collected), it is obvious that the major loser in this competition are low-skilled black workers,” Briggs testified. The situation, he says, is “the civil rights issue of this generation of American workers.”
Kirsanow adds, “The problem is you’ve got employers out there who’ve made the pragmatic decision that they prefer illegal immigrants [who will] work for lower wages, in substandard and sometimes even hazardous conditions. They won’t complain because they’re afraid of the consequences, and very often very grateful even to get those jobs because if they were to go back to their home countries, their employment prospects and job conditions are even worse.”
Others on the panel believe that
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