The young Black man hesitated as he stood outside the small furniture manufacturing shop in South Los Angeles. He was well-groomed and dressed neatly. The sign on the narrow glass door read, in English and Spanish, "help wanted" and "trabajo aqui."
The opening was for a shop helper, mostly to do routine cleanup and maintenance. It did not require any education or special skill. It paid minimum wage, as did the thousands of shops that dotted the area. The company had no employee health care plan or other benefits.
After a moment he went in and politely asked for an application. The petite receptionist, a young Latina, handed him an application form with an airy nonchalance. She curtly suggested that he fill it out and bring it back. When he asked if there would be an interview, she haltingly said only if there was a position open. The young man looked perplexed, glanced at the help wanted sign, politely thanked her and left.
A couple of hours later, two other young Latinos came in to apply. One was immediately hired. The other was told that another helper job might open up within the next few days. However, the workers in the shop — as they were in nearly all the other shops in the area — were Latinos, a large percentage of whom were illegal immigrants.
I personally witnessed this scene involving the Black job seeker. There were no other Blacks, Whites or even English-speaking native-born Latino workers in the plant or the other shops in the area. This is not a fictional story. Anti-illegal immigration activists say that the experience of the young Black job seeker has played out thousands of times at restaurants, hotels, farms and manufacturing plants nationally and that this is a major reason so many young Black males are unemployed, join gangs, deal drugs and pack America's jails.
Congress is in the process of hammering out a comprehensive immigration reform law. But it won't answer this question: Do the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country take jobs from American citizens, especially the bottom-rung American workers — the young, the poor, the Black?
What if the young Black job seeker — or any other American looking for work in a low-end manufacturing plant or restaurant in Los Angeles — were offered that job, which probably pays minimum wage and doesn't offer any benefits or job security? Would he or she take it?
It's certainly hard to imagine that a young Black from South Los Angeles, South Chicago or Harlem — not to mention a native-born young White or Latino — going out to the fields to pick strawberries for 10 to 12 hours a day in the hot sun at minimum or sub-minimum wages. Or that they'd take a job at a car wash or bus dishes in a restaurant.
But what if the farm contractors, car-wash owners and manufacturers paid a living wage and provided benefits? It might be a different story, at least for some young people in Los Angeles.
There is no excuse not to ensure that American workers have the right to work in any and all industries. That would do much to calm the fury of many who worry that illegal immigration sledgehammers at least some American workers. Congress and the Bush administration must not ignore that worry.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.