By Andre Barnes
Growing up on the rural farms of Halifax, Va., 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.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it. 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 proverbial waves of immigration crashing onto U.S. shores to supply businesses with the cheap labor they crave.
This is not the fault of the immigrants themselves. They can hardly be blamed for seeking better opportunities here. Some would argue nor is it the fault of businesses who sought to find the least expensive, legal way to manufacture.
Rather, the fault lies squarely with those elected officials, policymakers, who’ve allied themselves with Big Business, most likely in exchange for financial support in their election campaigns, 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 and community leaders hold those policymakers, these elected officials, accountable with the power voters have 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 and the legalized discrimination of Jim Crow.
But towards the end of the 19th century, the flow of migrants, 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. It’s no accident that the protagonist of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the famous novel depicting the dangerous and despicable working conditions of meatpacking plants around the turn of the century, was a recent arrival from Lithuania.
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 broad multiracial coalition of Americans finally succeeded in pressuring Congress to scale back immigration. Du Bois praised the restrictions, noting that “the stopping of the importing of cheap white labor on any terms has been the economic salvation of American black labor.” Randolph concurred, saying that “excessive immigration is against the interests of the masses of all races and nationalities in the country — both foreign and native.”
The slowdown in foreign migration enabled Black workers to reclaim the gains they’d lost — and then some. Between 1940 and 1980, Black wages quadrupled — outstripping the rate of wage growth among white earners. During that period, the percentage of Black men considered middle class skyrocketed from 22 percent to 71 percent.
Unfortunately, Black workers once again 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 percent, while white workers’ earnings swelled by 20 percent — a drastic contrast with previous decades.
Economists have pointed to the increased immigration between 1980 and 2000 as the cause of 60 percent of the relative wage decline, while 25 percent of the decline was in employment, and 10 percent of the rise was in incarceration rates among less-educated Blacks.
Immigration’s crowding-out effect continues through the present day. The Economist recently covered the replacement of African American agricultural workers in Mississippi — in a county that’s 70 percent Black — by white South Africans brought here on H-2A guest worker visas.
Scaling back immigration would benefit virtually all American workers — but it’d particularly 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.