For the most part, the workplace crackdowns themselves are unremarkable—gaudy, ad hoc things that mitigate America’s immigration problem the way a water balloon might a forest fire. Increasingly however, their immediate aftermaths—in which dozens of eager African-American job applicants line up to fill vacancies—call into question a familiar refrain from the nation’s more vocal immigration proponents: Illegal immigrants do work American citizens won’t. Even former Mexican President Vicente Fox fell victim to the hype, infamously declaring in 2006 that Mexican immigrants perform the jobs that “not even blacks want to do.”
Four years later, with national unemployment hovering around 10 percent and black male unemployment at a staggering 17.6 percent, it seems even less likely that immigrants are filling only those jobs that Americans won’t deign to do. Just ask Delonta Spriggs, a 24-year-old black man profiled in a November Washington Post piece on joblessness, who pleaded, “Give me a chance to show that I can work. Just give me a chance.”
Spriggs has a difficult road ahead. In this recessed United States, competition for all work is dog-eat-dog. But that holds especially true for low-skilled jobs, jobs for which high school dropouts (like Spriggs) and reformed criminals (also like Spriggs) must now vie against nearly 12 million illegal immigrants, 80 percent of whom are from Latin America. What’s more, it seems that, in many cases, the immigrants are winning. From 2007 to 2008, though Latino immigrants reported significant job losses, black unemployment, the worst in the nation, remained 3.5 points higher.
“I don’t believe there are any jobs that Americans won’t take, and that includes agricultural jobs,” says Carol Swain, professor of law at Vanderbilt University and author of Debating Immigration. “[Illegal immigration] hurts low-skilled, low-wage workers of all races, but blacks are harmed the most because they’re disproportionately low-skilled.”
Despite President Fox’s assertion, of the Pew Hispanic Center’s top six occupational sectors for undocumented immigrants (farming, maintenance, construction, food service, production and material moving), all six employed hundreds of thousands of blacks in 2008. That year, almost 15 percent of meat–processing workers were black, as were more than 18 percent of janitors. And although blacks on the whole aren’t involved in agriculture at anywhere near the rates of illegal immigrants—a quarter of whom work in farming—about 14 percent of fruit and vegetable sorters are African–American.