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Steve Bailey | Downtown

Immigration and race

Email|Print| Text size + By Steve Bailey
February 8, 2008

It was comedian Chris Rock, a favorite of mine, who way back in November best framed the argument of why African-Americans should vote for Barack Obama for president. Appearing with Obama on the stage of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Rock told the audience they would be "embarrassed" if Obama won and they voted for Hillary Clinton. "You'd say, I had that white lady! What was I thinking?"

African-Americans have not missed that point as the vote totals in one southern state after another showed on Super Tuesday. But on at least one issue - the impossibly thorny topic of illegal immigration and black employment - it was that white lady who has been willing to tell difficult truths.

In the final debate before Tuesday's voting, Obama was asked about the negative economic consequences of immigration on the employment rate and wages in the African-American community. Said Obama: "I think to suggest somehow that the problem that we're seeing in inner-city unemployment, for example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of scapegoating that I do not believe in, I do not subscribe to."

"I believe," Clinton responded, "that in many parts of our country, because of employers who exploit undocumented workers and drive down wages, there are job losses. And I think we should be honest about that."

Talking about race is very hard. Talking about immigration is not much easier. Talking about race and immigration together can be absolutely explosive. But like anything else, if we can't recognize a problem, we can't fix a problem.

On balance, immigration is not only good, but critical, for this country and this economy. But like most things in life, it creates winners and losers. And the preponderance of evidence indicates that the flood of illegal immigrants has hurt those on the bottom of the economic ladder most, blacks in particular and probably even American-born Hispanics.

George Borjas, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, is one of the leading scholars in the field. His research, drawn from 40 years of census data, has found "a strong correlation between immigration and black wages, black employment, and black incarceration rates." In an interview yesterday, Borjas was careful to say that the majority of the huge job losses in the black community would have occurred even if a single immigrant had never crossed the border. But he attributed somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the job losses among low-skilled blacks to immigration.

"It seems to me Hillary had a more sensible response," Borjas told me.

Northeastern University economist Andrew Sum has come to much the same conclusion. In the years 2000 to 2005, Sum found, 85 of every 100 net new workers in the country was a new immigrant. Among just men - native-born Americans and immigrants here more than five years - the net employment growth was "less than zero," Sum reported. Less than zero is a very small number.

While the job gains have overwhelmingly gone to new immigrants, Sum found that African-Americans and American-born Hispanics were big losers. The employment rates among black men ages 16 to 19 dropped 20 percent over five years and 24 percent among Hispanic male teenagers. In almost every category, the young and undereducated, whites included, lost ground.

"It is extremely difficult to argue that the bulk of the 2.7 million jobs obtained by new, young immigrants in 2005 were not acceptable to native-born young workers who held similar types of jobs in large numbers in 2000," Sum and his colleagues wrote in a study two years ago. "The critics of job displacement are ignoring the ugly realities of American labor market operations over the past five years."

Obama and Clinton are both fine candidates. Race and immigration are among the most difficult issues they will face though hardly the only difficult issues. To be successful, the next president will have to face them squarely and honestly. The guy in the White House right now is a case study in the high cost of doing otherwise.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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