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 and Kansas City, Mo., doubts linger about President Barack Obama’s plan to grant work permits to more than 4 million illegal immigrants. Many residents worry that it might increase competition for jobs that low-skilled American workers, particularly African-Americans, are already clinging 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 rebounds, the demand for low-skilled workers remains modest. In 2013, the national unemployment rate was 6.1 percent, but for adults over 25 without high school diplomas, it was 11 percent.
▪ Many illegal immigrants 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 and are willing to toil for lower wages.
At the Bladez barbershop in Fort Worth, the question of which minority group is better off is a common topic of conversation.
Barber Kurtiz Lane, 42, has Latino customers and neighbors. He heard talk of immigrants taking American jobs, he said, but he thinks Americans can be lazy. A couple of chairs down, Erika Youngblood, 36, is torn.
As a Christian, she thinks everyone deserves an opportunity, she said. But it feels unfair watching traditional African-American neighborhoods transform with the rapid influx of newcomers. Restaurants once filled with black cooks and waiters are now 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, 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 thinks restaurants and businesses across Texas hire immigrants because they will accept less pay. His brother-in-law just lost his warehouse job. Friends told him his replacement was an immigrant.
‘No jobs … no money’
Alphonso Caldwell, 45, sees himself as someone harmed by immigration. He runs a small Kansas City construction company, Luv’s Private Contracting, and thinks Obama’s action will attract more immigrants here to compete.
It’s already tough enough for him and his crew. He and several others have felonies on their records, narrowing their job prospects. No one knows what kinds of records the immigrants have, he said, but it’s clear they are 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 illegal immigrants. And it has 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 plan.
The 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 a 2008 report by the commission that found illegal immigration harms the wages and employment of low-skilled American workers. Six in 10 black men have high school diplomas or less, are disproportionately employed in the low-skilled labor market and are likely in competition with immigrants, the commission found.
‘It’s a myth’
Martin Castro, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, defended its support of the executive action.
Castro said the 2008 study, which was conducted before he joined 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 census data from 2012 to show that cities with greater immigration from Latin America experience lower unemployment, 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 involves population changes. Strauss said many communities, particularly in the Midwest, have suffered population losses that led to school and business closures. Many of those teachers, administrators and staffers were black.
Is there some competition? Yes, he said. But had more immigrants arrived, 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.
Former Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Holtz-Eakin, who leads the conservative research center American Action Forum, said the fears are misplaced.
Eakin opposes Obama’s unilateral action, but he supports a congressional immigration overhaul that he argues would boost economic growth.
Nonetheless, Eakin said, those who would get work permits are already part of the labor force.
“The competition is already there,” Eakin said. “People are here. They’re, by and large, already working.”
Devoyd Jennings, president of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce, expects increased competition. He sees this as similar to the influx of Hispanics in the 1980s and 1990s. Many ended up taking construction jobs throughout North Texas that were once held by blacks.
But he said it’s 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.”