Black, Brown, and Underpaid

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Many people opine on the interplay between immigration and race in this country … I’ve never been convinced by the argument that immigration is somehow responsible for the plight of African Americans, or is a seriously harmful influence on the status of African Americans. Your antennae should go up that something is rotten with this argument when you look at the people who are supporting these terrible repressive measures against immigration in the name of the poor … The same people who are happy to oppress poor minorities in other venues suddenly get all dewy-eyed when it comes to immigration …

After 1986, because of the Immigration Reform and Control Act’s criminalization of undocumented hiring, employer after employer shifted from direct hiring to subcontracting … It doesn’t matter what your status is, everyone works for the subcontractor [who] takes a portion of your wages as his fee for being the middle person. The net effect … was not to dry up employment of immigrants, but to lower the wages and working conditions not only of undocumented migrants, who always earn low wages, but of legal immigrants and U.S. citizens … That subcontractor basically provides a buffer that allows large wealthy employers like Wal-Mart to get away with paying substandard wages, not adhering to U.S. labor law, not fulfilling their obligations under Occupational Safety and Health. This has harmed all workers …

By lifting the barriers [to immigration] everyone in the U.S. will benefit [and] U.S. workers will no longer be competing with a super-exploitable class of people.

African Americans in this country have many problems … but I’ve never believed that immigration and immigrants are one of them. Compared to massive discrimination in the housing market … systematic discrimination in the labor market … dramatic disinvestment in public education, the dismantling of the American social-welfare net, compared to these forces that are vast and powerful, immigration is small potatoes. But to the extent that immigration plays a role, we should not see immigrants as competitors but see them as allies in a broader fight against inequality and oppression in this country.

—Dr. Douglas Massey, a former Penn professor who is now the Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, speaking in April at a conference titled “Poor, Young, Black, and Male: A Case for National Action?” It was co-sponsored by the Institute for Urban Research, the School of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Africana Studies, and several other schools and centers.

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