Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the San Francisco murder of Kathryn Steinle by an undocumented immigrant with a lengthy criminal history have revived the national debate over immigration policy. While pro-immigration forces have correctly condemned Trump for his stereotyping of illegal Mexican immigrants, federal immigration authorities often release undocumented detainees with criminal records into American towns and cities while their deportation cases proceed. Between 2010 and 2014, 121 such illegal immigrants have been charged with murder. Better enforcement policies can limit these criminal acts. But often lost in the debate over immigration—legal and illegal—thus far has been the way the current system hurts low-wage, native-born Americans, especially in the black community.
Over the last 15 years, teen employment rates have collapsed, from 45 percent in 1999 to 27 percent in 2013. Among black Americans, the rate dropped from 27 percent to 17 percent. The availability of cheap immigrant labor—while not the only cause—has contributed to this trend. Fewer job opportunities for black youth mean fewer legal sources of income as well as the loss of valuable experiences and habits of work that paid employment provides.
The trend’s long-term effect on black men has been damaging. Based on the 2010 census, economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick estimated that 78 percent of 25–29 year-old white males were employed compared with 57 percent of black males. The figures are worse for less-educated black men. Only a quarter of black men without a high school diploma were employed, while almost one-third were incarcerated. More black men with a GED and no additional education were incarcerated than legally employed. These two less-educated groups comprise almost 25 percent of all black males in this age bracket. While I have argued elsewhere that a more important cause of this joblessness is the chaotic and often abusive homes in which many disadvantaged black youth live, black employment is also adversely affected by our current immigration policies, which allow vast numbers of low-skill newcomers to enter our economy.
Defenders of such policies cite studies that point to the overall positive impact of immigration on the U.S. economy; they downplay the evidence of its negative effect on less-educated, lower-earning native-born Americans. They also slight the effects of job competition by claiming that most illegal (and some legal) immigrants take jobs that native-born workers won’t do. Interestingly, the same liberals who jumped all over Jeb Bush for his perceived suggestion that American workers are lazy for not working more hours claim that native-born workers reject strenuous physical labor. They overstate the case: while native-born workers might not take, say, seasonal agricultural jobs, most would accept permanent, even if physically demanding, urban service jobs. Undoubtedly, employers would have to offer higher wages for these jobs if the supply of cheap immigrant labor was cut off.
Some liberals, especially those in the professional class, claim that immigration should be seen as a moral issue. Those who flee unbearable conditions have been victimized once, they say; we shouldn’t victimize them again after they enter the United States illegally. Of course, these professionals feel particularly comfortable making these arguments. They benefit from the increased demand for professional services, including teachers and social workers, and the lower prices for domestic and household services, that our immigration system makes possible.
Why shouldn’t the United States adopt immigration policies such as those already in place in Canada and other countries—policies that would restrict the arrival of less-educated workers and emphasize skills that the economy needs? Such a system would be beneficial to both the economy as a whole and a significant share of black men of modest means.