For several years, “We are all immigrants” has been a rallying cry for immigration reform. A well-intentioned slogan, it gestures toward a supposed shared history of migration among Americans.
Unfortunately, the slogan either willfully or unconsciously ignores two important facts: the forced removal and mass murder of indigenous people, and the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade. The creation of a false collective national-origin narrative by some immigrant rights activists fosters an unnecessary tension between recent immigrants and US-born marginalized communities.
So too, from the other direction, does brewing resentment stemming from the belief that undocumented immigrants take jobs from “hard-working Americans” — including African Americans.
Native Americans and most African Americans do not have a conventional immigrant story, yet they can and should be a part of the movement for immigrant rights.
The anti-immigrant argument that appears to resonate most among African Americans is the assertion that immigrants take jobs away from black people born in the US. African American unemployment, though steadily declining since 2010, is still the highest of any racial or ethnic group in the country. It’s currently 7.7 percent.
While Trump has spared no opportunity to boast that African-American unemployment briefly hit a record low of 6.8 percent during his presidency, the story behind the unemployment rate for African Americans is more complicated than that number suggests.
This number — as Trump opportunistically noted during his campaign in his attacks on former President Barack Obama, only to drop the caveat when he took office — does not account for people who dropped out of searching for employment altogether after years of unemployment. Additionally, the percentage encompasses people employed in temporary jobs who might prefer full-time work.
The unemployment rate also fails to capture those working but not making a living wage as well as those working two or more nearly full-time jobs and scraping by. The unemployment rate doesn’t account for the widening wealth gap or income inequality between African Americans and white Americans. Those numbers provide a starker picture.
The dangers when one segment of the working poor turns against another
The growth of low-wage worker population has at least two distinct effects: first, the devaluation of low-wage work as unskilled and menial; and, second, the establishment of perceived competition for these jobs among the groups constituting the working poor.
Positioning one group of low-wage workers against another group of low-wage workers is an insidiously effective method of fomenting resentment and tensions among workers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, which only buttresses the status quo.
In a 2013 poll on African American perspectives on immigration reform, 34 percent of respondents stated that immigrants took jobs away from American workers. 39 percent of respondents believe that immigrants drive down wages for African Americans. (On the brighter side, roughly two-thirds supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.)
In truth, while there are a handful of studies that indicate a small but noticeable negative impact of immigration on African-American employment, those studies are highly contested by scholars. Anti-immigration advocates seize on those disputed studies to fuel anti-immigrant attitudes and policy-making.
We can understand the worries and also push back against them
Given that African Americans are overrepresented in low-wage jobs, it’s not irrational for them to fear that low-wage immigrant workers willing to work for less could replace US-born black workers. What this fear fails to account for, however, is that population growth can catalyze job growth, specifically in the fields of low-wage goods and services, and manual labor.
A 2016 study conducted by scholars at Penn’s Wharton School of Business found that the increase in the labor supply resulting from immigration could actually generate more employment in industries such as home construction and food production. More people means more consumption, and, specifically, more consumption by the working poor.
Existing data simply doesn’t support any definitive correlation between the stark unemployment rate of African Americans and the employment of recent immigrants. Nevertheless, those striving to push through xenophobic, racist, Islamophobic, and inhumane immigration restrictions find unusual allies among some African Americans seeking to lower the black unemployment rate.
Leaders of groups such as the Chicago-based Voices of the Ex-Offender link mass unemployment among formerly incarcerated African American men to immigration. They even embrace the offensive term “illegals” for undocumented immigrants.
It’s both intellectually and politically lazy to attribute African-American unemployment to immigration. The receipts simply don’t exist. But there are receipts for racial discrimination and other barriers for African Americans seeking employment. Trump has sought to turn frustration over stagnant unemployment and intra-communal violence within the black community into support for his hardline measures: In his State of the Union, he attributed drugs and gangs in “vulnerable communities” to “illegal crossings” from Mexico.
Who else is likely to be hurt by the mobilization of stereotypes about Latinos and people from the Middle East?
But anyone genuinely concerned about addressing racial disparities in unemployment should be wary of supporting a position trumpeted by people who have rarely, if ever, cared about improving the status or collective well-being of African Americans. Racism and xenophobia propel a significant portion of anti-immigrant sentiment and proposed legislation; the mobilization of those sentiments hurts African Americans.
It’s not just Trump calling certain black countries “shitholes” that should alarm any black person tempted to buy into divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric. It’s also the mobilizing of racial stereotypes of depravity, criminality, and laziness, even if they have mostly been directed at immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East. These stereotypes are strikingly similar to anti-black racist stereotypes.
Let’s also not forget about black immigrants. Black immigrant dollars are essential to the financial health and growth of black communities in the United States. More importantly, black immigrants and their cultures are integral to African-American communities — and to the US as a whole. Undocumented black immigrants are also at great risk of deportation, as they encounter the double bind of anti-black policing and racist immigration laws and policies.
Organizations such as Black Alliance for Just Immigration, UndocuBlack, and African Communities Together are leading the way in promoting support in the African-American community for immigrant rights — for building bridges between black and brown communities. A broader coalition of people pushing for just immigration, a living wage, reproductive justice, and for a less racist society poses a threat to those who profit from exploiting and regulating the lives of the working poor in the US.
The fight for a more just and equitable society requires reframing the narrative of competition among the working poor to one of interconnectedness. Eliminating hostility to immigration in the African-American community could have powerful effects, rippling beyond immigration to other issues of social justice.
While Trump and Congress continue to pass the buck and trade blame over immigration reform, it’s imperative to build solidarity among all vulnerable communities. If we break down the distrust and expose harmful lies, a new bloc of political power could emerge.
Treva B. Lindsey is a professor at Ohio State University. Follow her on Twitter @divafeminist.
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