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Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Published: 07 June 2006

The disjointed assembly of Black academics, civil rights activists and conservatives that gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. in late May had only one goal in mind: to stop passage of the Senate's immigration reform bill.

They formed what they called the "Choose Black America Coalition." The Federation for Immigration Reform, which has been a loud and relentless voice in opposing any concessions to immigration rights groups, sponsored their news conference. The coalition didn't stop the bill, but it sent another noisy message that many Blacks oppose immigration reform.

Coalition members vowed to stage rallies, join the Minuteman Project, patrol the border and publicly denounce Black Democrats and civil rights groups that back immigrant rights. Their rage against immigration reform again boiled down to one thing: jobs.

At the press conference, every speaker charged that illegal immigrants take jobs from Blacks. The coalition did touch a sore nerve with the jobs question.

Though a May Pew Research Center poll found that Blacks by a bigger percentage than Whites are sympathetic toward the plight of illegal immigrants, it also found that Blacks — by a far bigger percentage than Whites — are terrified that illegal immigrants take jobs from them.

The moment the illegal immigration issue became the topic of intense national debate some Blacks fingered illegal immigrants as the main cause of the massive economic ills in poor Black communities. And even with the passage of the Senate immigration reform bill, the finger-pointing hasn't stopped. If there's any group that illegal immigration may have had a damaging economic impact on it is young Black males. But how damaging an impact has that been?

More than 40 percent of American-born Blacks work in the cleaning and maintenance, food preparation, light manufacturing and transportation industries. That's double the figure for Whites in those industries. These are also the industries where the greatest number of illegal immigrants work.

Immediately after the Hurricane Katrina debacle, Black workers bitterly complained that labor contractors reneged on their promise to hire them for clean up and repair jobs in the hardest-hit Gulf regions in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. Instead they trucked in thousands of undocumented workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' current population survey, more than half of the nearly 4 million immigrant workers hired by American businesses in the past five years have been illegal. The bureau calculates that this resulted in the loss of more than 500,000 jobs to American-born workers, the majority of whom were under age 30. For the first time ever in 2005, the rate of unemployment of foreign-born workers fell faster than that of American-born workers.

The numbers don't prove that illegal immigrants have displaced tens of thousands of young Blacks from jobs. If there were no illegal immigrants to fill jobs, many employers would still find ways to skirt discrimination laws and not hire young Blacks. And, given their bottom level wages and lack of benefits, many young Blacks would not take these jobs even if they were available. Still, the number of jobs lost due to illegal immigration is just enough for some Blacks to make the inferential case that illegal immigration has adversely affected them.

The Black immigration opponents say the answer is to jail the immigrants, kick them out and militarize the border. This is inflammatory and delusional.

Employers will continue to put out the welcome mat for cheap labor, illegal or otherwise. Katrina is an example of that. At the same time that Black workers complained that illegal immigrants took cleanup jobs from them in the Gulf area, two federal class-action suits were filed alleging that thousands of migrant workers worked brutal 12-hour shifts removing dangerous toxic wastes from buildings and were not paid.

The crisis of Black unemployment is very real. But dumping the entire blame for that crisis on illegal immigration won't solve it, and neither will shrill rhetoric from a rump Black anti-immigrant group.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.

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