A hearing in the House Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement on Tuesday received a sharp rebuke from Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, who accused Republicans on the committee of trying to use immigration to drive a wedge between communities of color.

“I am concerned by the Majority’s attempt to manufacture tension between the African American and immigrant communities,” Cleaver’s statement read. “It seems as though they would like for our communities to think about immigration in terms of ‘us vs. them’, and I reject that notion.”

The third immigration hearing since January focused on whether illegal immigration contributes to higher jobless rates among black and Hispanic Americans.

“When employers hire foreign workers who will work for less than American workers, Americans lose jobs,” committee chairman, Rep. Elton Gallegly (CA) said in his opening statement. “Importing millions of poorly educated foreign workers won’t help our country, but instead will only hinder its growth.”

The hearing comes at an awkward time for the GOP, which despite historic gains in the U.S. House and statehouses around the country in 2010 faces the prospect of a younger, browner electorate in 2012.

As one Republican Congressman told Politico’s Jonathan Martin for a recent article:

The electorate will look much different in 2012 than it did in 2010,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who was a political operative for decades before coming to Congress. “It’s going to be younger, browner, and more to the left.

While nationally, Republicans rarely enjoy more than minimal support from black voters, their weakness among Hispanics is especially problematic, given that Hispanic voters are the fastest growing demographic, and given the harsh anti-immigration policies Republicans are proposing in states like Arizona.

Gallegly, who became the subcommittee chairman when the House leadership passed over controversial Congressman Steve King, has occasionally attracted attention for his immigration views. Since 1991, he has introduced multiple bills that would change the 14th Amendment to strip the American-born children of illegal immigrants of their birthright citizenship. All of the bills failed.

Tuesday’s hearing seemed designed to re-frame the Republican immigration message in terms of jobs, rather than inflammatory proposals like Gallegly’s.

In his statement, the chairman cited high rates of unemployment for blacks and Hispanics: 15.7 percent and 11.9 percent, respectively — as well as a 2006 study by Harvard University professors George Borjas and Lawrence Katz, which stated that a 10 percent increase in the supply of a particular skill group due to immigration, “reduced the black wage in that skill group by 3.6 percent,” and “lowered the employment rate of black men by 2.4 percentage points.”

However, the Borjas study made no distinction between legal and illegal immigration, and it is difficult to quantify when and where native and illegal immigrant communities actually compete for the same jobs, though in the case of jobs like construction and food service, it seems likely that in some instances, they do.
The committee heard from two African-Americans: Frank Morris of Progressives for Immigration Reform — a group linked to the controversial Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which played a role in drafting Arizona’s controversial immigration law; and Vanderbilt University political science and law professor Carol Swain, author of the book Debating Immigration, who told the panel illegal immigration indeed has a negative economic impact on black Americans.

Also testifying: Wade Henderson, the President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and George Rodriguez with the San Antonio Tea Party.

The Immigration Policy Center (a project of the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council) released its own report Tuesday finding no correlation between the size of the foreign-born population in U.S. metropolitan areas and the African-American unemployment rate:

African-American unemployment rates in many low-immigration cities are far higher than in many high-immigration cities. For instance, immigrants were 17.6 percent of the population in Miami in 2009, but only 3.1 percent of the population in Toledo. Yet the unemployment rate for African-Americans in Toledo (30.1 percent) was much higher than that of African-Americans in Miami (17.6 percent).

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, some three-quarters of illegal immigrants to the U.S. are Hispanic, with about 6 in 10 coming from Mexico. Another 11 percent apiece are from Asia or Central America, 7 percent from South America, 4 percent from the Caribbean and less than 2 percent from the Middle East.

There is evidence that foreign-born workers have gained more jobs than the native-born since 2007, and that their wages simultaneously fell faster – particularly those of Hispanic workers, indicating a growth in low-wage jobs. But there again, no breakout exists between legal and illegal immigrants.

But as Manuel Pastor of the University of California, Santa Cruz stated in a September 2006 report for the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies, the impact of illegal immigrants on the labor market, particularly for African-Americans, is more complex, because:

There are many other, far more significant factors contributing to unemployment and low wages among African American men in particular, such as “the rising level of skill requirements of jobs, racial discrimination, and spatial mismatch between the location of employment opportunities and residential locations of blacks.

Three CBC members sit on the immigration subcommittee: Rep. John Conyers, the ranking member, from Michigan, Rep. Maxine Waters of California and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. All were critical of the hearing afterward, calling it an attempt to divide black and brown voters and divert attention from the root causes of minority unemployment.

Gallegly, in media interviews, called their allegations “shameful.”

California and Texas rank number one and number three, respectively, in terms of undocumented immigrant populations. Yet California and Texas were home to just three of the 18 metropolitan areas with the highest black unemployment in 2009, and 10 of the 21 metro areas with the highest Hispanic unemployment.

“Many American workers are suffering from the same economic condition, and our broken immigration system creates a race to the bottom for the worst paying and most difficult jobs,” Cleaver’s statement concluded.

“Playing politics with immigration only re-enforces the status quo. It is time that we that we all come to the table, negotiate, and fix our broken immigration system. We need reform if we want to level the playing field in the workplace and stop the race to the bottom that our current system promotes.”