By Gerald D. Jaynes
Professor Gerald Jaynes is a professor of economics and African American Studies at Yale University. With an interest in immigration and its effects on race and ethnic relations and the economy, Dr. Jaynes has conducted numerous studies on the topic and has been called to testify on his findings before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law in the U.S. House of Representatives.
During a recent telephone press conference, Dr. Jaynes admitted to changing his opinion about the impact of immigrant labor on African American workers after conducting a study analyzing impact data. What he discovered caught him by surprise and in answer to a special request from Latina Lista, Dr. Jaynes has agreed to share what his study uncovered and why the evidence was compelling enough for him to change his mind.
My views toward immigration stem from basic beliefs in equality, opportunity, and justice. This disposition is deeply rooted as a consequence of my childhood — growing up marginalized and African American.
An experience, especially relevant to my views on immigration, occurred at age ten. During the late 1950s, the two or three boys of color attending my small-town Midwestern school developed a friendship with Hector, a tall bronze skinned son of Mexican migrant farm workers, who, for a couple of years, would show up at school during late August only to abruptly disappear after several weeks.
Hector provided me my first lessons in relative poverty. Decades later, driving through suburban Washington, D.C. during the mid-1990s, I experienced a pang of ambivalence while observing a construction site where work crews composed of Latino men and white supervisors were building dozens of new houses.
I could not help but think that these men, obviously Latino immigrants, were filling jobs that could have gone to the unemployed African Americans on the streets of D.C., I also remembered Hector. My conflicted emotions about immigration are typical of most African Americans.
Historically, and for the past two decades, African Americans have viewed both immigration and immigrants more favorably than have other Americans.
Despite the news media devoting most of its coverage of African Americans’ views on immigration to competition between blacks and Latinos, and despite African Americans being more likely than other groups to believe immigrants take jobs from the native-born, African Americans remain more likely to tell pollsters that immigration should continue at current or even higher levels during recent years.
African Americans’ beliefs that immigrants take their jobs are grounded in their experiences. Although the best statistical studies of the effects of immigration on the wages and employment of the native-born conclude such effects are relatively small, and in any event secondary to other causes of low wages and unemployment, the brunt of the effects are concentrated in specific industries and geographic locations where less educated African American and native Latino workers predominate.
These conditions provide an abundance of anecdotal evidence suggesting immigrants “take over” jobs. Given these local observations and the common sense of freshman level supply and demand reasoning, some African American local leaders join the forces calling for reduced immigration.
However, observation of local conditions does not tell the whole national story.
Being a trained economist, I had the capability to conduct my own research before my opinion hardened. After my Washington D.C. experience, convinced that immigration probably was a major factor in African American job losses, a colleague and I launched a large-scale statistical analysis to measure immigration’s effects on wages and employment of natives nationwide.
To our surprise, no matter how we approached the data, our results showed either no effects or very modest effects and only on the least educated black men. Intellectual honesty required that we report data as it was uncovered, and my opinion about the effects of immigration on African American employment and wages changed.
We can acknowledge that immigration probably hurts the employment and wages of some less educated citizens and still conclude immigration is a net benefit for the United States. The evidence shows that from an economic standpoint, immigration’s broader benefits to the nation outweigh its costs.
Immigration does impose a modest negative cost on the employment prospects of less educated native born workers, but this cost is swamped by a constellation of other factors diminishing their economic status.
A significant minority of our most disadvantaged young people persist in low educational achievement, dropping out of high school and engaging in such negative behaviors as criminal activity. Those of us committed to improving the welfare of disadvantaged people must reinvigorate our efforts to combat these more consequential problems.