While most economists agree that Americans benefit from the contributions of immigrants, not all Americans appear to be affected equally. And some might be harmed.
So in heartland cities such as Fort Worth, Texas, and Kansas City, Mo., doubts linger about President Barack Obama’s plans to grant work permits to more than 4 million immigrants living illegally in the United States. Many residents fear his plan might increase competition for jobs that low-skilled Americans, particularly African-Americans, already struggle to cling to.
Their fears are based on several realities about competition in the low-skilled workforce. Consider:
– Twice as many immigrants as native-born Americans already work in low-skilled service occupations such as food preparation and building maintenance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Immigrants also outnumber native-born workers on construction sites.
– Even as the economy is rebounding, the demand for low-skilled workers remains modest. In 2013, the national unemployment rate was 6.1 percent, but for adults over 25 years old without high school diplomas, it was 11 percent.
– Many immigrants who are in the country illegally lack higher education and may be likely to seek those scarce low-skilled jobs. A Pew Hispanic Center study in 2009 reported that nearly half of such immigrants hadn’t completed high school.
There’s also a perception, some citizens say, that immigrants have a stronger work ethic than Americans do and are willing to toil for lower wages.
Alphonso Caldwell, 45, sees himself as someone harmed by immigration. He runs a small Kansas City construction company, Luv’s Private Contracting, and he thinks Obama’s action will only attract more immigrants here to compete.
It’s already tough enough for him and his crew. Several of them, including him, have felonies on their records, making job prospects more difficult. It’s not as if anyone knows what kinds of records the immigrants have, he said. But he said it was clear they were willing to work for less.
“No jobs means no money,” he said. “It’s hard for a lot of my crew, including myself, to feed our families because you’ve been underbid so many times. Maybe 5 out of 10 jobs, I am underbid.”
Obama’s executive action, announced in November, has been widely criticized in conservative circles as amnesty for those who are in the country illegally. It’s been praised by many who advocate for marginalized communities, including Latino groups, the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP.
But not all civil rights leaders support the president’s plan.
The federal U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, for example, officially supported the program, but without the backing of two members.
One dissenting member, Peter Kirsanow, a Republican who also served on the National Labor Relations Board, warned Obama beforehand that issuing millions of work permits to potentially low-wage workers “will devastate the black community.”
He cited the commission’s 2008 report that found illegal immigration harms the wages and employment of low-skilled Americans. Six in 10 black men have high school diplomas or less education, are disproportionately employed in the low-skilled labor market and are likely competition with immigrants, the commission found.
Kirsanow said there weren’t enough jobs for all these workers.
“In the real world, you’re talking about massive dislocation of actual workers who are going to be suffering,” he said in an interview.
Martin Castro, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, defended its support of the executive action.
Castro said the 2008 report, which was conducted before he was on the commission, was missing key data that contradicted the overall findings. He wants the report revised and plans to call for a review next month.
“The premise that Latinos and African-Americans are competing against one another is a false premise,” he said. “It’s a myth that’s being used as a wedge, as a dividing point between these two communities of color.”
Castro pointed to a more recent study that found that African-American communities benefit when immigrants move in. University of Denver economist Jack Strauss analyzed 2012 census data to show that cities with greater immigration from Latin America experience lower unemployment rates, lower poverty rates and higher wages among African-Americans.
Strauss estimated that for every 1 percent in a city’s share of Latinos, African-American median and mean wages increase by 1.6 percent.
The reason has to do with population changes. Strauss said many communities, particularly in the Midwest, had suffered population losses that led to school and business closures. Many of those teachers, administrators and staff were African-American.
Is there some competition? Yes, he said. But had more immigrants moved in, he said, they would have moved into empty houses and shopped at local stores. They would have sent their kids to the schools.
“That helps the African-Americans,” Strauss said in an interview.
Drawing a firm conclusion is almost impossible with so much conflicting information.
Economists have battled for years over whether, and how much, immigrants compete with low-skilled American workers.
Around 500 American academics, including several Nobel laureates, signed an open letter to President George W. Bush in 2006 that said: “While a small percentage of native-born Americans may be harmed by immigration, vastly more Americans benefit from the contributions that immigrants make to our economy, including lower consumer prices.”
At the Bladez barbershop in Fort Worth, the debate over which minority group is better off is a frequent topic of conversation.
Barber Kurtiz Lane, 42, has Latino customers and neighbors. He said he heard the talk about immigrants taking American jobs, but he thinks Americans can be lazy. A couple of chairs down, Erika Youngblood, 36, is torn.
As a Christian, she says everyone deserves an opportunity. But it feels unfair watching traditional African-American neighborhoods transform with the rapid influx of newcomers. Restaurants once filled with African-American cooks and waiters now are staffed by immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Her customers are losing jobs.
“They’ve come into our urban communities,” she said. “They’ve taken over.”
Sitting in Lane’s chair, Robert Woods, 31, was blunt.
“I don’t think it’s fair at all,” said Woods, who works as a janitor. “They’re over here illegally. They’re taking jobs from us, and we’re here struggling. It’s not right.”
Woods said he thought restaurants and businesses across Texas hired immigrants because they’d accept less pay. His brother-in-law just lost his warehouse job. Friends told him he’d been replaced with an immigrant.
But former Congressional Budget Office director Doug Holtz-Eakin, who leads the conservative research center American Action Forum, said the fears were misplaced.
Eakin opposes Obama taking unilateral action on immigration, but he supports a congressional immigration overhaul that he argues would boost economic growth.
Nonetheless, Eakin said, those who’d be provided work permits are already part of the labor force.
“The competition is already there,” said Eakin. “People are here. They’re, by and large, already working.”
Devoyd Jennings, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce in Fort Worth, expects increased competition. He sees this as similar to the increase of Hispanics who arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. Many ended up taking construction jobs throughout North Texas that once were held by African-Americans. But he said it was up to African-Americans to be ready.
“And if we can’t do that, then it’s our loss,” Jennings said. “The challenge is to go sharpen up your skills.”