Money, marches & immigration

May 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

There wouldn't be an illegal immigration "problem" in America if there weren't companies-who-hire-illegal-immigrants-at-dirt-wages-so-they-don't-have-to-pay-workers-a-fair-wage problem. Like so many other major issues in America, this is all about the money. It's one of the first things I was taught as a journalist: Follow the money and you'll find your story.

Last week, on May 1, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants took off work to march and demonstrate against a bill passed by the House of Representatives last December that would make it a felony to live in the United States illegally. The legislation also proposes to significantly beef up the border between Mexico and the United States, and would also make criminals of employers who hiring illegal aliens.

Mexican immigrants, who comprise the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants entering this country (the next largest group is from South America), aren't coming here because they like the view, or because the food tastes better. They are coming here for jobs that pay much better than anything back home. But as anyone who has been following this issue already knows, what a Mexican considers good wages is what most Americans would consider several steps below poverty-level scraps. And forget about health care and other benefits for illegal workers on the lowest rung of the employment ladder. The end result of this is that American employers, who like the idea of paying workers less and paying themselves more (my guess is that this would encompass quite a few employers), can't resist the temptation to hire Mexicans whenever possible. The fact that Mexicans get screwed in the deal is of no concern to the employers. Call it collateral damage.

Unfortunately, another result of this has been a heightening of tensions between immigrants and those African-Americans who view immigrants as a threat to what little hold they have on the job market. Because immigrants are willing to work for so much less and generally can't afford to complain about working conditions, blacks harbor a not altogether misplaced fear that immigrants are considered preferable hires. What adds fuel to the fire is that black males already suffer disproportionately higher unemployment rates than any other group, and those suffering the most, naturally, are those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. So this argument over what to do about illegal immigration is pitting the poor against the poor.

Like I said, this is about the money — who has it and who doesn't. Since economically disenfranchised blacks don't have the money and neither do the immigrants, then it doesn't make much sense that this should be about blacks vs. immigrants. Both groups are getting screwed by the same system.

Sensible or not, the tensions are there, as Earl Ofari Hutchinson noted in a piece posted at AlterNet's Web site (

Mainstream African-American leaders such as U.S. Rep Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton all strongly support the cause of the immigrants. And last year, when Minister Louis Farrakhan was in town at Fellowship Chapel promoting the Millions More March, he strongly chastised blacks who were angry at immigrants for taking jobs that black people didn't want anyway.

According to Hutchinson's article, a recent Field poll taken in California showed that "blacks — by a bigger percentage than whites, and even American-born Latinos — back liberal immigration reform measures." But the day after the poll results were released, he writes, "a spirited group of black activists marched in front of the Los Angeles office of popular, outspoken ... Maxine Waters. They protested Waters' firm support of citizenship for illegal immigrants."

This by itself would seem to cast the group of protesters as being out of touch with the majority of blacks, whom they claimed to be representing — until one takes a look at another poll taken one month prior to the Field poll.

"The month before the results of the Field poll were announced, a poll by the Pew Hispanic Research Center found that many blacks were hostile toward illegal immigrants. The sore point with them was jobs. They blamed illegal immigrants for worsening the dire plight of young, poor African American males," Hutchinson writes.

The center estimates the total number of illegal immigrants in America to be more than 11 million, compared to 8.4 million in 2000, based on census results; the growth rate of illegal immigrants has averaged 500,000 per year for the past five years. Analyzing 2005 data, the center says 56 percent — or 6.2 million illegal immigrants — were from Mexico. Another 22 percent, or 2.5 million, were from Latin America. As for where the immigrants are finding jobs, they are 24 percent of all farm workers, 17 percent of the workers in cleaning, 14 percent in construction and 12 percent in food preparation.

Although President George W. Bush and his gang continue to emphasize how strong the economy is and how low the unemployment rate is overall, those being trampled beneath that powerhouse economy know for a fact that these jubilant numbers have little meaning for them. Think about it; if the economy is so damned strong and there are jobs growing on trees, then why is everyone so upset that the immigrants are taking all the jobs and are somehow a drain on the economy? That doesn't add up unless you're talking about the availability of jobs for the working-class, the poor and the poorly educated. Because it is at that level where opportunity becomes constricted, and that is what is creating the friction.

Blacks once migrated from the South in huge numbers to cities like Detroit and Chicago to find well-paying jobs that would help them to establish decent lives and raise families. It was far from paradise, but it was far from the hell of the South, and that was good enough. Today, as we all know, those jobs are disappearing fast, which is why Michigan now has the weakest economy of any state in the nation. The ladder that so many blacks used to climb into the middle class is now broken. Perversely, the majority of jobs now available for people with few skills and little education don't pay anywhere near enough to raise a family and create a better life — unless you're a Mexican immigrant. Perhaps these jobs might pay more if it weren't for the fact that the immigrants can survive on so much less.

So then what happens if all the illegal immigrants are branded criminals and sent back from whence they came? And what happens once employers are penalized for continuing to hire these illegal immigrants that have cost them so much less than if they had been forced to hire U.S. citizens? Does anyone really believe these employers will suddenly raise their pay scale and go hunting for young black males to fill the vacant slots? Does anyone really believe young black males — or anyone else — will run to apply for jobs picking grapes?

Me neither. I don't pretend to know how this whole thing will shake out, but I'm willing to bet it won't result in mass deportations of Mexicans, nor will it result in the sudden creation of good-paying jobs for unemployed black males or anybody else having a hard time finding a job in this booming economy we're supposed to be in.

Why? Because it's all about the money. Don't hate the Mexicans for taking jobs that help to improve their lives. That's only common sense, and you'd take a job to save your family too if it were offered to you.

As the saying goes: Don't hate the player, hate the game.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]