On the morning of Election Day, I found myself in Tijuana, Mexico on business. It was quite ironic to be there that day, particularly given the positions Donald Trump has taken on immigration. As I came back into the States in time to vote, I thought of Trump’s positions from building a wall, to deportation of illegal immigrants. He campaigned on changing how we approach immigration as a nation.
While in Mexico, a taxi driver named Jorge gave me a fiery analysis on the issue, which I recorded. In his statement he explained why he supported Hillary Clinton from afar. It largely centered on disliking Donald Trump, wanting no part in the wall, and wanting illegal immigrants to be made legal.
While this driver’s position on its face seemed positive, its impact on communities native to the United States that are struggling in poverty is economically problematic to say the least. For a generation as a group African Americans have viewed the issue of immigration through the lens of what I often call Civil Rights Nostalgia, rather than truly critiquing this issue in light of its impact on their community. This nostalgia is a form of analysis that reconfigures struggles, dividing them across the historical landscape of America’s color lines. A type of critique that tilts the lens of the immigration discussion to one where it is examined through the frame of racism built out of slavery, rather than as a form of protectionism that we saw rise up during the era of the depression. A protectionist era during which legislation like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act raised import duties to protect American businesses and farmers from imported competition.
Many will say these differences of racism, or protectionism, derive from similar places, and often are used by the same actors to achieve analogous goals of degradation of the poor. While there may be some truth to that argument, what cannot be ignored is that the issues of traditional American racism, and immigration are in fact different, and must be viewed as such to give a fair review.
In fact, as protectionism rises, we see its tentacles reach well beyond the issues we face at the Mexican border. While Mexican immigration clearly has been the most prevalent point of discussion, to see Donald Trump’s platform as an attack on Mexicans is far too simplistic. From vowing to stop China’s manipulation of their currency, to making claims that Japan may no longer be able to rely on the U.S. for defense, these ideas of realigning American interest put forth by Trump literally stretch around the globe. Here at home, it most clearly presents itself through our approach to Mexican immigration, and the recent creation of sanctuary cities. The rise of these safe havens did not come without great cost, a price that has been particularly borne by African American communities. In areas already facing dismal economic opportunities, illegal immigration only created more negative cost for black families.
One of the foremost experts in the area of immigration is Professor George Borjas of Harvard University. In a speech at UCSD Borjas explained:
“We have got to set up a system that basically discriminates. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Just chooses the winners from the losers in this very big pool of applicants we’re going to get.” He continued stating, “Immigration basically hurts people who compete with immigrants, and people who use immigrants, whether it be employers or consumers or upper middle class Californians who have a gardener, maid and so on those are the people who gain from immigration. So really, it’s the redistribution of wealth at heart… Were not fighting over an increasing pie in a real sense. We’re fighting over a different split of the pie.”
Borjas research paper titled “Immigration and African-American Employment Opportunities” stated:
The 1980-2000 immigrant influx, therefore, generally “explains” about 20 to 60 percent of the decline in wages, 25 percent of the decline in employment, and about 10 percent of the rise in incarceration rates among blacks with a high school education or less.
Taken on its face this would mean that immigration influx has resulted in tens of thousands of additional African Americans serving time behind bars.
It is this reality that has led to a long overdue discussion around immigration, rising in Black America since the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. A come to Jesus moment, largely built around seeing the true impact of immigration on African American families that descend from a long legacy of American chattel slavery. While some would argue oppressed people should unite, the data surrounding this topic begins to question the ways oppression shows up in daily life, and who is the engine behind how that oppression operates. For a generation, Black Americans have viewed the issue of oppression without dimension through the lens of white males as the group we all need to fight against for resources. While this group may play a major role in the overall market, the reality is when you add layers there are far more players. The creation of the status of minority, as a contrast to the majority white group by the data serves as far too simplistic for viewing these issues. Thus we must challenge the entire way we have in an effort to create unity, divided and aligned ourselves as American voting blocks.
Amidst this immigration discussion a critique has arisen among blacks themselves, largely built around resolving their disadvantage as one of personal choice, and a lack of personal work ethic. One built around a false notion that their youth wouldn’t do the jobs immigrants do, a truly flawed quasi-conservative ideal set. In reply to this view Carol Swain professor of law at Vanderbilt University and author of Debating Immigration stated:
I don’t believe there are any jobs that Americans won’t take, and that includes agricultural jobs, ... (Illegal Immigration) hurts low-skilled, low-wage workers of all races, but blacks are harmed the most because they’re disproportionately low-skilled... Many of the black scholars dance around this hard issue, ... They do their research in such a way that it doesn’t address how immigration affects blacks. There’s a lot of pressure to say the politically correct thing—that immigrants aren’t hurting African Americans. Well, that’s not true.
Too often we have come to view illegal immigrants simply as migrants in agricultural fields. When in fact they do so much more, and even when we discuss agriculture it includes, trucking, packing, and management of these services. According to CNN:
A growing number of undocumented immigrants are landing managerial positions. At the same time, fewer are doing jobs that require manual labor. Some 13% of undocumented immigrants had management or professional jobs in 2012, up from 10% in 2007, according to a new Pew Research Center report. Meanwhile, 29% held construction or production posts, such as a food processor, garment worker or machinist, down from 34% in 2007.
I have written extensively on the topics of African American wealth, and incarceration. Today we live in a time when the middle black family of three is worth a mere $1,700.00 when you deduct the family automobile. This is a time when nearly 700,000 black men are incarcerated, with over another million on some form of probation. While immigration is likely a mere factor in a multitude of reasons for these atrocious numbers, by the data it is a factor. It is this reality that is sparking the debate on nationalism behind the scenes in Black America. A discussion that moves us beyond nostalgia about Civil Rights, to a place where we see the dimensions of America’s economic landscape more clearly.
Antonio Moore, an attorney based in Los Angeles, is one of the producers of the Emmy-nominated documentary Freeway: Crack in the System. He has contributed pieces to the Grio, Huffington Post, and Inequality.org on the topics of race, mass incarceration and economics. Follow him on YouTube Channel Tonetalks.