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Unlikely allies in immigration fight

Jeff Tyler May 3, 2006

Black community debates impact of illegal immigrants
NPR’s Ina Jaffe looked at the mixed response from African-Americans in Monday’s huge immigrant rallies in Los Angeles.

KAI RYSSDAL: There was a different kind of immigration march starting today here in Los Angeles. You remember the Minutemen? The volunteers who are stationing themselves along the US-Mexico border. Today the group kicked off a cross-country caravan to Washington. Trying to make the case for tighter border security, sure. But also to highlight the impact of illegal immigration on African-Americans. Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler spoke to some of the black Minutemen.

JEFF TYLER: Marvin Stewart is a proud member of the Minuteman Project. He sits on the board. And he’ll also take part in the caravan. Driving across the country over the next few days, stopping for press conferences along the way. Why?

MARVIN STEWART: We native blacks are a labor class that the government and private industries are allowing to become obsolete while they reach out to foreign-born aliens to fill shrinking opportunities.

A Harvard study of the past two decades shows illegal immigration has lowered incomes for unskilled workers. At least marginally. The situation is particularly dire among black high school dropouts in their 20s. Only 28% of those men have jobs. Statistics like these motivate homeless advocate Ted Hayes.

He says he’s probably the third or fourth black man to join the Minutemen. He says he sought them out because he believes the wages paid by American companies are criminal.

TED HAYES: They are creating slavery. They must pay black people, American people, cost-of-living wages. Human beings will do anything if you pay them right. They’ll pick your nose if you pay them right.

Hayes blames illegal immigrants for exacerbating the problem and driving wages down.

HAYES: When they take a job that should be paying $20 an hour, and they take it for $10 or less. They are undermining the American worker, particularly the black worker.

But Steven Pitts has another explanation for why some jobs pay 20 bucks an hour, while others pay 10. An economist at the Center for Labor Research at the University of California, Berkeley, Pitts says it’s partly a result of weak labor unions in America and a failure to harness the power of organized workers.

STEVEN PITTS: It’s not because of the benevolence of the employer. It’s there because of the power of workers to demand and receive a certain wage level. And in the absence of that power, firms will always drive wages down to the lowest level.

But Pitts says he understands the frustration around what he calls a jobs crisis in the black community.

PITTS: A large number of blacks are working. But they’re working in jobs that aren’t truly desirable. I think you have a lot of black folks who experience the pain of these job crises, and without any sort of viable solution to the problem, I think you have a community in pain and lashing out at scapegoats.

Pitts believes blacks would benefit if today’s illegal immigrants were granted amnesty. He says studies show that legalization would improve working conditions, not only for immigrants but also for other workers hanging on the bottom rung of the labor ladder.

I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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