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Blacks weigh in on immigration debate

Newsday Staff Writer

April 13, 2006

James Ryans, an African-American who teaches math and science at a New York City high school, helped support himself growing up in Georgia by stocking shelves in a grocery store.

But Ryans says competition from illegal immigrants is making it harder for unskilled black youths to find jobs that pay enough to persuade them to work.

"Immigration is flooding the market to where employers can get cheap labor without benefits, without health care," said Ryans, 54, whose neighborhood in Wyandanch has pockets of economic depression. "These kids that come out of Wyandanch High School are looking for summer jobs, looking for part-time work, but no one will hire them."

As Congress debates immigration reform mostly without strong input from black leaders, many African-Americans worry that competition from low-wage immigrants is making it harder for economically-disadvantaged black Americans to find work.

A generation ago, area residents with little education could rely on unskilled jobs to earn a living - unloading trucks, washing dishes, mopping floors or painting houses.

Now, those without high school diplomas are facing stiff competition for low-skilled jobs from undocumented workers, which helps fuel the immigration debate.

Economists from both liberal and conservative camps say undocumented workers compete with unskilled native-born workers for low-wage jobs. In 2000, 44.2 percent of Hispanic immigrants under age 25 were high school dropouts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

But while some economists say this competition depresses wages of low-skilled workers, others say the willingness of undocumented workers to accept very low wages encourages businesses to expand, creating new jobs that otherwise would not exist.

Daniel Griswold, director of trade and policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said low-cost labor provided by undocumented workers helps fuel economic growth that lifts the fortunes of more skilled Americans, blacks included.

"Low-skilled immigration definitely does dampen wages at the lowest end of the pay scale," Griswold said. "But it also tends to spur Americans to upgrade their skills. It tends to increase the premium for having a high school diploma."

That view was shared by Joseph Charles, a black man who emigrated from Haiti 26 years ago and owns the New Look barber shop in Wyandanch. "If I'm looking for someone to paint my shop, I can get a better price," he said. "Immigrants help the economy."

But Jared Bernstein, a senior economist with the Economic Policy Institute, said those who say more immigrants are needed because Americans won't do certain jobs ignore that immigrant workers often accept less than what is considered a living wage. "When someone says they have a job that no American will take, ask them the part they leave out, which is how much they pay," he said. "If compensation and working conditions were improved, of course Americans would take them."

American's black leaders have maintained a generally low profile on the debate. The NAACP has mostly aligned itself with the immigrant movement, opposing proposed measures that would criminalize undocumented workers. NAACP president Bruce Gordon said rather than allow immigration policy to pit blacks against Hispanics, the nation should expand training for workers and boost federal funding for education "so that all Americans can have enhanced opportunities."

Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute, at the University of Maryland, said the debate over immigration has posed a dilemma for black civil rights leaders. "I don't think the African-American leadership wants to buy into criticism of immigrant workers," Walters said. "Because if you point to the fact that there is low-wage competition, you run the risk of getting into bed with people who are criticizing the immigrants rather than criticizing the system that is bringing them in."