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Commentary: A major culprit in the wage gap between Blacks and whites is America’s immigration policy

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The median white household owns over 10 times as many assets as the median Black household — a gap that has actually widened since the civil rights victories of the 1960s.

There are all sorts of reasons for this staggering inequality — from segregation, redlining, loan discrimination and other systemically racist policies that historically shut many Black people out of homeownership and prevented them from building generational wealth, to mass incarceration and sentencing disparities that put a generation of disproportionately Black men behind bars for nonviolent crimes and made it nearly impossible for them to get decent jobs after their release.

But one of the biggest — yet most underexplored — culprits is America’s immigration policy. Throughout our nation’s history, employers have preferred to hire newly arrived foreigners, who will often work for rock-bottom wages, instead of Black workers.

When policymakers have periodically scaled back the influx of those foreign laborers, Black Americans’ earnings have soared — only to fall again once our leaders turn the immigration spigots back on. Humanely limiting immigration is a matter of racial and economic justice for Black Americans.

As Roy Beck’s new book, “Back of the Hiring Line,” thoroughly documents, Black Americans enjoy good economic opportunities only in tight labor markets. That’s why, in the decades following the Civil War, Black leaders like Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph all favored restricting immigration to help free enslaved people and their descendants.

At the time, racist employers were passing over Black workers and instead hiring new European immigrants to staff the sweatshops, meatpacking plants and other mainstays of the late 19th- and early 20th-century industrial economy.

It wasn’t until Congress dramatically slashed immigration in 1924 that employers turned, in desperation, to Black workers. As Du Bois explained, “The stopping of the importing of cheap white labor on any terms has been the economic salvation of American black labor.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. Thanks to reduced labor market competition, Black Americans were finally able to win better wages and working conditions. The real incomes of Black men grew fourfold from 1940 to 1980 — even faster than the 2 1/2-fold increase for white men — and the share of Black men in the middle class soared from 22% to 71%.

But then, in the mid-1960s, Congress — which had just passed landmark civil rights legislation — changed the immigration system, removing the quotas that had limited the influx of foreign workers for four decades.

Lawmakers weren’t trying to disadvantage Black Americans. They were merely trying to make the immigration system race-neutral by removing criteria that made it difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to immigrate from countries outside of northern Europe.

But their changes had unintended consequences. The level of immigration soared far beyond lawmakers’ expectations, from fewer than 300,000 in 1965, to more than 500,000 by 1980 and to more than 1 million annually today.

That massive influx harmed the most vulnerable Americans — especially Black people. In fact, one Harvard economist found that from 1980 to 2000, immigration “reduced the wage of black high school dropouts by 8.3%, reduced the employment rate by 7.4 percentage points and increased the incarceration rate by 1.7 percentage points.”

Immigrants themselves aren’t at fault — it’s tough to blame people for seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

Rather, the blame rests on our elected representatives, who have repeatedly done the bidding of Big Business and ignored multiple blue-ribbon commissions that all reached the same conclusion: Reducing immigration is necessary to foster Black Americans’ economic development.

Consider how, in the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton appointed civil rights icon Barbara Jordan to chair the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. After finding “no national interest in continuing to import lesser-skilled” foreigners, Jordan said, the commission recommended lowering immigration levels to protect American workers from unfair competition.

But when the time came to vote on bipartisan legislation that would have scaled back the influx of foreign workers, enough lawmakers — in thrall to corporate interests — banded together to defeat the bill and maintain the status quo.

Politicians in both parties pay lip service to helping Black Americans. If they were truly sincere, they’d listen to generations of civil rights leaders who’ve all recognized that the best way to boost Black Americans’ fortunes is to ensure tight labor markets. That requires stemming the influx of foreign workers.

Frank L. Morris Sr. is the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and former dean of graduate studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

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