“Black vs. Brown: Immigration Reform and African-American Employment” by Steven J. Kaplan

Reference: Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibilty

An unusual Los Angeles Times story caught my eye last fall. The Beverly Hilton Hotel, site not only of the Golden Globe but also the Jewish Image award ceremonies, signed a contract with the hotel workers union (whose largely Hispanic membership has been at the forefront of immigration rights reform) pledging to hire more African-Americans to offset the industry’s preference for Hispanic immigrants. The union pointed to statistics showing, for example, that in 1978 a majority of culinary workers in one of the city’s major hotels was African-American; today it is less than three percent.

The union and Hilton management faced a sensitive issue that many liberal immigration reform advocates ignore: that large-scale immigration, and particularly undocumented immigration from south-of-the-border, may result in the loss of employment for African-Americans. Immigration rights advocates often say that immigrant workers do jobs that Americans don’t want to do. But are they really talking about jobs that middle class (mostly white) Americans don’t want to do? Have those jobs become so identified with immigrants that now they are considered beneath the dignity of native-born white and black Americans?

Economists are of limited help in answering these questions. A minority of economists (Harvard’s George Borjas most prominent among them) argue that successive waves of undocumented unskilled immigrants contribute to the serious depression of wages in the lower tiers, higher rates of black unemployment, and hurt our economy. A majority of economists think immigration has an overall positive impact on the economy, though some of them concede the possibility that immigration negatively impacts wage rates for unskilled native-born Americans, who are disproportionately black. The competing economic analyses cannot hide what has become apparent over the past 20 years. In large cities, restaurant, janitorial, domestic care, and hospitality workers — who were once predominantly African-Americans — are now largely immigrants.

The divide concerning immigration and African-American employment places Jewish progressives in the unenviable position of wanting to alleviate the suffering of millions of undocumented workers without simultaneously contributing — albeit unintentionally and indirectly — to the possible worsening of living conditions for black Americans. Our history as a migrant people, as well as our fundamental texts (“honor the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”), compel us to work for a fair solution for immigrant workers who now suffer the consequences of undocumented status. But our historic commitment to social justice (tzedek tzedek tirdof), forged anew during the civil rights era, also compels us not to abandon the struggle for equality and full economic integration. Our support for fair immigration reform should not be done in such a way as to expose us to the charge that we are more concerned about the plight of the undocumented than we are for native-born Americans who continue to suffer.

This immigration conundrum has led to some odd political pairings. While most African-Americans support immigrant rights, an important segment of that community is wary. Choose Black America, for example, a new organization linked to the anti-immigration organization Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), blames Hispanic immigration on the economic woes of the African-American community, advocates tighter border controls, and opposes legalization. We also see unexpected admixtures on the other side. Social justice liberals who advocate “comprehensive immigration reform” (the triad of legalization, increased visa availability, and liberalized border controls) find themselves aligned with business interests who want a continuing flow of hard-working, easily exploitable low-wage immigrants. Americans concerned with justice and equality must rethink immigration reform to ensure that black America is not hurt in the process. While private measures like those promoted by the hotel workers union are to be applauded, public policy measures are also necessary. Many advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform” have been wearing blinders that lead them to focus on only half of the problem — legal status for the undocumented — and ignore the low-wage economy, downward wage pressures, and increased poverty that large-scale immigration has enabled.

It behooves us, therefore, to imagine an immigration reform package that addresses not just “immigrant status” but “worker fairness.” An immigration reform package should be but a component of a more general labor law reform package. Such an approach will help all low-wage workers — including immigrants and poor African-Americans.

This approach may prove nettlesome to some in the immigration rights movement. For example, the current alliance between immigrant rights groups and certain industry groups (especially the restaurant industry, our country’s largest) will be tested if legislation includes genuine labor reform and not just status legalization. Nonetheless, we need a legislative package that contains a fair pathway toward legalization for undocumented workers currently in the U.S. while also addressing:

• Enforce Anti-Discrimination Laws

We need meaningful enforcement of our antidiscrimination laws. While employers may prefer Hispanic immigrants because they say immigrants work harder and are more reliable, it is illegal to discriminate based on race stereotyping. Funding special investigative units in federal or state labor departments to ferret out discrimination in industries that have deliberately displaced African-American workers with immigrant workers will help improve employment prospects for black Americans.


• Repeal Hoffman Plastics

Congress should repeal the Supreme Court’s Hoffman Plastics decision that denied undocumented workers the rights afforded other workers when fired for union organizing or otherwise discriminated against. This will both increase the rights of immigrant workers and remove one of the incentives that employers have for preferring undocumented workers over native-born black Americans.


• Amend the National Labor Relations Act

This law, which is supposed to encourage collective bargaining, has been so denuded that it is now an obstacle to union organizing. Employer hiring preferences can be addressed through the collective bargaining process if workers are given a fair chance to unionize.


Minimum Wage Increase

Minimum wage increases must be designed to guarantee workers a living wage and should be indexed to avoid the deterioration of standards that we have seen over the past decade.


• Enforcement & Employer Sanctions

Border controls alone will not reduce illegal immigration if job opportunities are plentiful in the U.S. Sanctions against unscrupulous employers who exploit undocumented workers who fear deportation must be strong enough to serve as a deterrent. While civil libertarians may bristle at the suggestion, electronically verifiable identification cards may be the only effective way to enforce sanctions. There are many reasons why immigration reform should become labor law reform. Without a broader vision, black-Hispanic animosity is likely to increase, and conditions for all low-wage workers, black, white, Asian, and Hispanic, will continue to deteriorate.


Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibilty (shma.com) April 2007, Vol. 37, No. 639-640.