Open borders historically dooms jobs for black Americans

In 1853 Frederick Douglass wrote of towns in the north:

Every hour the black man is put out of work by a newly arrived emigrant, whose hunger and whose color would give him a better title to the place.

With only a handful of interruptions, black workers have faced the same situation for nearly two centuries: mass immigration of foreigners who prefer employers over black workers, leaving them at the back of the queue.

Coincidentally, “Back of the Hiring Line” is the title of a new book by Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, the leading citizen action group working to curb immigration. The book describes, as the subtitle promises, “a 200-year history of immigration spikes, employer bias, and black wealth depression.”

In telling that story, Beck describes three brief booms of opportunity for black Americans that were accompanied by interruptions in immigration.

First, the years immediately after abolition, before the start of the Great Wave; when World War I cut off travel from Europe; and finally, the roughly four decades after the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.

But each case was a false spring, extinguished by the resumption of mass immigration.

Laws Restrict Immigration

Beck’s core message is that a tight labor market is the most practical means of improving the conditions of all marginalized Americans, especially non-university black workers. The brief immigration hiatus enforced by World War I was proof of concept, with the absence of European immigrant workers causing a massive migration of black southerners north.

With mass immigration reviving as shipping lanes reopened after the war, Congress reduced the flow through the Immigration Act of 1924. Since the law was shaped in part by the racist hokum that was the style at the time, it’s ironic that it greatest engine of black progress in American history.

Beck quotes Fortune magazine reporting that “after immigration laws stifled Europe’s labor supply . . . Labor agents roamed the south, promising the moon or better. Poor blacks — and whites — flocked from the South to fill jobs previously unavailable to them.

Migrants from Haiti cross the Rio Bravo River to turn themselves in to US Border Patrol agents seeking asylum in El Paso, Texas.
REUTERS / Luis González

This was illustrated (literally) by artist Jacob Lawrence, who captioned one of the panels of his series on the Great Migration: “All other sources of labor are exhausted, the [southern black] migrants were the last resource.”

While there was still discrimination in the north, modern jobs and higher wages were a boon to those undertaking the Great Migration. Black Americans’ incomes were still lower than white Americans, but they grew nearly twice as fast during the mid-century immigration lull. And Beck makes persuasive that the benefits of immigration control—rising black incomes, greater mobility, growing union membership—were necessary, if not sufficient, factors in bringing about the civil rights revolution.

And in another irony, it was precisely the civil rights ethic that ultimately pushed black workers to the end of the hiring line again. Less than two months after the Voting Rights Act was signed, Hart-Celler’s 1965 immigration law was explicitly viewed as a civil rights measure, abolishing the national-origin quotas that had been central to immigration law since the 1920s.

But the sponsors really didn’t think the legislation would lead to a resumption of mass immigration, all of which were considered a relic of the past. And yet, Beck writes, “the 1965 law set in motion a series of policies that loosened labor markets by flooding the hiring lines with foreign workers and betraying a century of struggles for economic and political equality by black Americans.”

While he details the decline in earnings of less-skilled black workers and their disappearance from the professions they used to dominate, it’s hard to refute Beck’s assessment: “No action by Congress in the past 60 years has been been more destructive to black American employment, income growth, and wealth accumulation than the Hart-Celler immigration law.”

‘priority’ blacks

A few migrant families from Brazil pass through a hole in the border wall to reach the United States.
AP

Beck isn’t denying that reducing immigration today can cause real problems for employers trying to get underclass young black men into the workforce, citing John McWhorter’s candid speech on the issue.

But he asks, “Where is the incentive or pressure for employers to do that kind of heavy recruiting and training when Congress provides more than 100,000 additional permanent and temporary foreign workers each month?”

By advocating for a more moderate level of legal immigration, Beck is making sure he doesn’t blame immigrants. In keeping with the ‘No’ to Immigrant Bashing admonition that has topped his organization’s home page from its inception more than a quarter of a century ago, Beck makes it clear that no one’s grandparents are to blame; the problem is numbers, not individual characteristics.

In fact, “Every group of disadvantaged Americans is further disadvantaged by easing the labor market, and each group is helped by tightening it.”

An immigrant family from Honduras is escorted back across the border by US Customs.
An immigrant family from Honduras is escorted back across the border by US Customs.
AP / David J. Phillip

But from a center-left perspective, Beck argues for what you might call a “preferential option for black Americans” when considering immigration policy. He answers the question posed by the title of his final chapter, “Giving Priority to the Offspring of Slavery?” — affirmative:

“Yes, priority must be given to those African Americans who have been left out — or thrown out by — the economy for the past half-century. . . Yes, there are reasons rooted in the 165 years since the end of slavery why we must ensure that immigration decisions do not impair the ability of struggling African Americans to enjoy the dignity of work and the fruits of their labor while the job ladder and build wealth.”

Despite the clear interest black Americans have in reducing immigration—and polls show many are aware of it—they have never collectively spoken or acted to try to make it happen. I think a big part of the reason is that there is no black political leader widely accepted as legitimate by black voters who took the case (the Congressional Black Caucus was co-opted by the anti-borders mob a long time ago).

But reshuffling is in the air. The impressive economic benefits that black families have gained during the brief pre-pandemic immigration slowdown under Donald Trump are further proof of the concept of the beneficial effects of immigration curtailment. Beck’s book provides both the backstory and a roadmap for such a recast.

From national assessment.

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