Public opinion is loaded with divisive rhetoric that suggests that undocumented immigrants are taking “black” jobs—low wage occupations in domestic, agricultural and other industries requiring manual labor. It was the allegation that some used to fuel anti-immigrant sentiments in Arizona, and unfortunately, it is likely to live in the debates that will accompany the next wave of copycat bills in the making.
Legislators in at least ten states—including Utah, Oklahoma, Colorado, Ohio, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and Maryland—are now considering copycat bills to the one passed in Arizona, a problematic trend that promises to propel the myth that immigrants somehow keep African-Americans from working. Psychologists must revel at the simplicity of it all—the age-old strategy of “divide and conquer” that has dominated policymakers’ responses to hard issues, especially in a troubled fiscal climate when employment remains elusive for so many.
April unemployment figures show African-Americans unemployed at 16.5 percent, unchanged from March 2010. In times like these, suggesting that someone is “taking your job” can become fighting words; but unfortunately, this fight has resulted in little more than a cadre of marginalized soldiers fighting over the wrong issue.
First, there is no “black job.” While immigration trends have led to immigrants filling low wage jobs that were historically filled by African-American workers, no low-wage job was ever exclusively black; so, the foundation upon which the assertion that someone is taking away “black jobs” is flawed on its premise. Undocumented immigrants have participated in the American workforce; however, a greater percentage of American jobs are being hidden by a heavy bureaucracy that denies to the American labor force an opportunity to work.
In other words, in most states, it’s not undocumented immigrants who are keeping jobs from U.S. citizens. Access to appropriate education and training, employer bias, incorrect background checks, inappropriate credit checks and other structural barriers also serve as barriers to employment. However, in some cases, particularly in states where residential segregation is most acute, it’s our own state governments that are preventing folks from working.
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Thousands of publicly funded jobs are currently invisible to those seeking public employment because they are not listed on a public database. In any state, less than 10 percent of public jobs can actually be accessed by the public, leaving most without knowledge that a job was even available—and the more segregated the community, the less likely public hiring processes will be transparent. In this scenario, there are fewer systems of accountability and decreased opportunity for employment—for everyone.
If one doesn’t know about a job—he or she can’t apply for it.
Research has shown that when transparency is improved, everyone is more likely to work. In fact, if transparency is improved, thousands more jobs could instantly be available at more than 2,900 public employment centers around the nation. Again, there is no “black job,” “white job” or “immigrant job;” however, there are publicly funded jobs for which people apply and are hired, because they knew they were there, and engaged in the process.
Instead of pointing a half-informed finger at undocumented immigrants, we should fix the structures that are actually denying Americans employment. Immigration, particularly the need for comprehensive immigration reform, will undoubtedly continue to dominate the public discourse about our changing nation—especially if these ten states are successful in their efforts to copy the Arizona legislation. But armed with information about what’s real, and what’s propaganda, we shouldn’t fall for the proverbial “banana in the tail pipe.” We should recognize that the threat to our employment is not the coming of new immigrants—documented or undocumented. It’s the lack of transparency and continued segregation of opportunity that threatens the integrity of our quest for employment.
As the nation considers the pending Local Jobs for America Act and other legislative responses to create jobs, let’s make sure that equal access to those jobs doesn’t hang in the balance. This can begin with holding states accountable to publicly disclose what and where the existing jobs are—and it will continue with our commitment to sift through the hype to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to compete, without obstruction and without blame.