When President Trump made the case for his border wall Tuesday, he repeated a popular right-wing talking point.
America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants who enrich our society and contribute to our nation, but all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration. It strains public resources and drives down jobs and wages.
Among those hardest hit are African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
Activists and academics say those comments are based on half-truths and stereotypes about undocumented immigrants taking jobs that would normally go to black and Latino Americans.
As George Borjas, a professor of economics and social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, explained in Politico:
Because a disproportionate percentage of immigrants have few skills, it is low-skilled American workers, including many blacks and Hispanics, who have suffered most from this wage dip. The monetary loss is sizable ... According to census data, immigrants admitted in the past two decades lacking a high school diploma have increased the size of the low-skilled workforce by roughly 25 percent. As a result, the earnings of this particularly vulnerable group dropped by between $800 and $1,500 each year.
That means it’s not just African Americans who took a hit. White working-class voters with little education or skills are also hurt when more people with low skills enter the workforce.
And Treva Lindsey, an Ohio State University professor who teachers about race and gender, told The Fix that increasing the labor supply could actually increase job opportunities in certain industries with sizable numbers of black and Latino workers. She said:
A 2016 study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that an increase in the labor supply resulting from immigration could actually generate more employment in industries such as home construction and food production. Simply put, more demand for goods and services means greater demand for those providing those goods and services. While a handful of less-than-credible studies suggest that undocumented immigrants take jobs from U.S.-born black people and Latinos, existing data simply doesn’t bear out a correlation between undocumented immigration and unemployment rates among U.S.-born racial and ethnic minorities.
Despite studies like this, Trump and other conservatives continue to claim that American citizens of color are hurt by undocumented immigrants, because those talking points are effective.
“Conservative tactics work,” Lindsey said. “About a third of African Americans asked in 2013 about immigration believe undocumented immigrants take away jobs from U.S. citizens. About a third also believe undocumented immigrants drive down wages for U.S. citizens. Conversely, the majority of African Americans support a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.”
While the talking point has not led to black Americans and Latinos supporting Trump’s policies, activists say the president is being divisive and unhelpful when it comes to addressing larger issues related to immigration. Jonathan Jayes-Green, director of the UndocuBlack Network, an organization uniting black undocumented people, told The Fix:
“The playbook that Trump is using seeking to divide and conquer is old and tried and we can see through it. The only people that benefit from it are Trump’s allies who run large corporations including for-profit detention centers and prisons across the country.”
A genuine interest in addressing the employment obstacles that low-skilled black and Latino Americans face would include a much broader conversation.
“Working ages Black and Latinx citizens who have been denied a quality education, relegated to high poverty communities, struggle because we are not addressing the core investments that would viable economic path for them,” Maya Wiley, a public policy professor at the New School, told The Fix. “We can blame immigrants if we need a scapegoat. But immigrants aren’t creating the problem.”
The claim that black and Latino Americans lose job opportunities when undocumented immigrants come to the United States is not likely to go away anytime soon. But if the president’s goal is to get more support for his border wall from black and Latino Americans, pitting people of color against others seeking to benefit from the American Dream probably won’t do that. Instead, it will probably only expand Trump’s reputation as being one of the most divisive presidents in recent history.