By Andre Barnes
Growing up on the rural farms of Halifax, Virginia, I pulled tobacco just like my great-grandfather Roosevelt, a sharecropper who provided for his family until he died in his late 80s. Just a generation before him, his father was a slave.
In the late 1990s, as I edged closer to high school graduation, I noticed a shift in the farm workforce. My fellow laborers were increasingly immigrants, rather than Black Americans like me.
It wasn’t until later that I realized that the labor market changes I’d witnessed in my hometown were lower-wage immigrant workers displacing Black Americans, a nationwide phenomenon that had occurred several times throughout American history.
Reducing immigration is not a cure-all for the plights of Black Americans. But it’s an immediate, tangible action that Congress could take — one that, over the last 200 years, has been repeatedly proven to tighten labor markets and improve workers’ bargaining power.
Since the end of the Civil War, African Americans have repeatedly made progress in closing racial wealth and income gaps — only to see that progress reversed by waves of immigration crashing onto U.S. shores to supply businesses with cheap labor.
This is not the fault of the immigrants themselves. Rather, the fault lies squarely with those elected officials who’ve allied themselves with Big Business, allowing the dilution of Black workers’ bargaining power by importing cheap, desperate laborers by the tens of millions. The problem won’t be fixed until Black voters hold those policymakers accountable at the ballot box.
In the decades after emancipation, Black Americans became essential workers in the factories of a rapidly industrializing nation. Their standard of living improved, despite pervasive racism.
But towards the end of the 19th century, the flow of legal immigrants — increasingly from southern and eastern Europe — turned into a torrent. These desperate arrivals, who were willing to accept virtually any job at any wage, pushed Black workers out of many jobs.
Many of the Black leaders of the time, from Booker T. Washington to W. E. B. Du Bois to A. Philip Randolph, pleaded with policymakers to restrict immigration — a historical fact that’s little known today, but amply demonstrated in Back of the Hiring Line, a book by Roy Beck, the founder of my organization.
In the 1920s, a multiracial coalition of Americans succeeded in pressuring Congress to scale back immigration.
The slowdown in foreign migration enabled Black workers to reclaim the gains they’d lost. Between 1940 and 1980, Black wages quadrupled. The percentage of Black men considered middle class skyrocketed from 22% to 71%.
Unfortunately, Black workers lost ground after Congress reopened the cheap labor spigot with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and turned it full throttle with subsequent legislation throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1979 and 2019, the median wage of Black workers rose only 5.2%, while white workers’ earnings swelled by 20%.
Economists have pointed to the increased immigration between 1980 and 2000 as the cause of 60% of the relative wage decline, while 25% of the decline was in employment, and 10% of the rise was in incarceration rates among less-educated Blacks.
Immigration’s crowding-out effect continues. The Economist recently covered the replacement of African American agricultural workers in Mississippi — in a county that’s 70% Black — by white South Africans brought here on H-2A guestworker visas.
Scaling back immigration would help the African American descendants of slaves, who have all too often been consigned to the back of the hiring line by businesses seeking the cheapest and most pliable labor allowed by elected officials who make and enforce immigration policy.
Andre Barnes is HBCU Engagement Director for NumbersUSA. This piece originally ran in the AFRO News