The suggestion to job-seeking black Americans that immigrants entering illegally hurt their job prospects is not a new one. Trump himself has stressed it for the past few weeks. Politicians looking to get votes in the black community have been using it for much longer than that. In fact, the same argument was made during the 2008 Democratic primaries, by Hillary Clinton.
Eight years ago, Clinton was facing off against then-Sen. Barack Obama, who had strong support from black voters thanks in part to the chance that he might become the first black president. During a debate in Los Angeles that January, CNN's Jeanne Cummings asked Obama and Clinton a question that came from a voter in Minnesota. "There's been no acknowledgment by any of the presidential candidates of the negative economic impact of immigration on the African American community," the question read. "How do you propose to address the high unemployment rates and the declining wages in the African American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor?"
There's been a long history of political tension between the black and Hispanic communities in the United States — particularly in places like Los Angeles — providing an easy point of leverage for politicians. In her response to the question, Clinton accepted and built upon its premise.
I believe that in many parts of our country, because of employers who exploit undocumented workers and drive down wages, there are job losses. And I think we should be honest about that. There are people who have been pushed out of jobs and factories and meat processing plants, and all kinds of settings. And I meet them.You know, I was in Atlanta last night, and an African American man said to me, "I used to have a lot of construction jobs, and now it just seems like the only people who get them anymore are people who are here without documentation."
[I]f we can tighten our borders, if we can crack down on employers who exploit workers, both those who are undocumented and those who are here as citizens, or legal, if we can do more to help local communities cope with the cost that they often have to contend with, if we do more to help our friends to the south create more jobs for their own people, and if we take what we know to be the realities that we confront — 12 to 14 million people here, what will we do with them?
A few months before the debate, the National Bureau of Economic Research published data looking at the extent to which immigrants here illegally actually undercut employment. The core of the finding was that wages for black workers declined 3.6 percent for every 10 percent rise in the immigrant population (here illegally and not), while wages for white workers dropped 3.8 percent. In terms of jobs, though, the effects were different. "For white men," the study read, "an immigration boost of 10 percent caused their employment rate to fall just 0.7 percentage points; for black men, it fell 2.4 percentage points."
A report compiled by the federal United States Commission on Civil Rights in 2010 reinforced that point. "Illegal immigration to the United States in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men," the report's findings read. "Expert economic opinions concerning the negative effects range from modest to significant."
Clinton's solution to the problem, though, differed starkly from Trump's. "I know that what we have to do is to bring our country together to have a comprehensive immigration reform solution," she said to applause. "That is the answer. And it is important that we make clear to Kim and people who are worried about this that that is actually in the best interests of those who are concerned about losing their jobs or already have."
"I hear the voices from the other side of the aisle," she added, echoing arguments she could make just as easily this year. "I hear voices on TV and radio. And they are living in some other universe, talking about deporting people, rounding them up."
Obama was also given an opportunity to address the original question. He took a different tack.
Well, let me first of all say that I have worked on the streets of Chicago as an organizer with people who have been laid off from steel plants, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and, you know, all of them are feeling economically insecure right now, and they have been for many years. Before the latest round of immigrants showed up, you had huge unemployment rates among African American youth.And, so, I think to suggest somehow that the problem that we're seeing in inner-city unemployment, for example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of scapegoating that I do not believe in, I do not subscribe to.
He continued. "But let's understand more broadly that the economic problems that African Americans are experiencing, whites are experiencing, blacks and Latinos are experiencing in this country are all rooted in the fact that we have had an economy out of balance," Obama said. "We've had tax cuts that went up instead of down. We have had a lack of investment in basic infrastructure in this country. Our education system is chronically underfunded."
"We should not use immigration as a tactic to divide," he continued. "Instead, we should pull the country together to get this economy back on track."
Eight years ago, Clinton was to some extent straddling the arguments of Trump and Obama. Now, she's clearly picked a side. For what it's worth, Clinton won the California primary — and the Hispanic vote — easily. She didn't win the nomination.