Throughout U.S. History, Immigration Surges Have Harmed Black Workers

Washington, D.C. – Surges in immigration have harmed black workers throughout U.S. history.

Evidence shows that eras of high black employment and economic mobility directly correspond with periods of reduced immigration.

Should President Obama legalize many or all of the approximately 11.3 million illegal immigrants estimated to be living in the United States,1 black public policy experts with Project 21 warn, black Americans already experiencing a jobless rate far above the national average could be further harmed.2

Outright discrimination in employment based on race, unfair regulations and ethnic networking also have harmed the ability of black Americans to find and retain good jobs.

Facts and Figures

  • In the early 1800s, friction between free blacks and immigrants who were in competition for low-skilled labor opportunities led to the rise of union-based anti-black discrimination. Roy Beck, in The Case Against Immigration, wrote: “Rising immigration from the 1820s to the Civil War drove down wages for free black Americans and immigrants alike… As badly as new immigrants often were treated by established Americans, even worse treatment was meted out to black Americans by the immigrants. Organizing themselves into trade unions, immigrant laborers helped set the terms of hiring at many urban workplaces. Not only would they not allow black workers into their unions, but they usually would refuse to work alongside them if they were hired. Many firms decided not to hire black workers, or to fire the ones already on the site, because of that refusal on the part of the more numerous immigrant workers.”3
  • After the end of the Civil War, Beck writes, a high rate of European immigration kept many newly-freed blacks locked within the South’s agricultural economy (and helped widen the overall technological gap with the North). “High immigration solved an immense problem for the defeated southern landed aristocracy. The restoration of the plantation system depended on holding onto the ex-slaves. Eric Foner, the specialist on Reconstruction, says a major priority for both white southerners and northerners was to subdue former slaves into a sedentary agricultural work style in the South. During a brief window of opportunity after the war, many freed slaves made their way to the North and grabbed jobs that they held for years to come. But because of increasingly high immigration, most freed slaves did not get any of the new jobs up north or any of the new land out west. The unions were an essential force in keeping the ex-slaves out of the North. Nearly all of the unions — dominated by immigrants — barred blacks from membership, Foner says.”4
  • Blacks were pushed out of jobs at the start of the 20th Century by a wave of immigration of Italians and Eastern Europeans who settled in the North. Beck, who is CEO of the immigration policy organization Numbers USA, writes: “[Historian John E.] Bodnar found that the immigration had a ‘devastating impact upon [Steelton, Pennslyvania’s] black working force.’ Black workers stopped progressing up the job ladder, they lost semi-skilled occupations to the Slavs and Italians and many were forced to leave town in search of work. The black population declined. Job displacement was occurring in all cities. In 1870, of all black men in Cleveland, 32 percent had skilled jobs; by 1910, only 11 percent were in skilled trades. ‘It did not take Jim Crow laws to drive blacks out of such jobs in the North, which could draw on a huge pool of immigrant labor flowing into the cities,’ says Lawrence Fuchs of Brandeis University.”5

    Beck adds: “Anybody concerned about fulfilling the spirit of the civil rights era would have been given pause by a look back a century ago at what happened in interior industrial centers such as Pittsburgh, McKeesport, Wilkes-Barre and Johnstown in Pennsylvania; Lorain in Ohio and Buffalo in New York. In tight-labor conditions immediately after the Civil War, those cities had needed the migration of black labor. They witnessed black growth that was modest in numbers but almost explosive in terms of percentages. With the biggest surge of immigration after 1899, however, black growth in those cities essentially stopped or populations actually declined. High immigration to the nation’s cities had assured that the black worker ‘would have to start his economic climb over again — from the bottom,’ Bodnar says.”6

  • Reduced immigration during World War I led to employment opportunities for black males. During the “Great Migration” that began in 1914, approximately half a million blacks moved from the South to urban areas in the North. “Wartime opportunities in the urban North gave hope to such individuals,” wrote Chad Williams, then an associate professor of history at Hamilton College and since 2012 the chairman of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. “The American industrial economy grew significantly during the war. However, the conflict also cut off European immigration and reduced the pool of available cheap labor. Unable to meet demand with existing European immigrants and white women alone, northern businesses increasingly looked to black southerners to fill the void. In turn, the prospect of higher wages and improved working conditions prompted thousands of black southerners to abandon their agricultural lives and start anew in major industrial centers. Black women remained by and large confined to domestic work, while men for the first time in significant numbers made entryways into the northern manufacturing, packinghouse and automobile industries.”7
  • Many of America’s labor laws, some of which are still in existence, are unfair to black workers. As Project 21 Co-Chairman Horace Cooper wrote in a 2014 monograph for the Capital Research Center: “Many federal labor laws in the United States originated in efforts to saddle black men with extra burdens and limitations, in order to (as racists often put it) ‘protect white jobs.’ Tragically, these laws, in one form or another, remain on the books today and continue to hamper the ability of blacks, especially men, to enjoy gainful employment.” In particular, “[t]he primary objective of [the] Davis-Bacon [Act] was to make it harder for black tradesmen to compete for work on federal projects.” And the National Labor Relations Act, “the quintessential labor law achievement of the Progressive movement, …was a catch-22: When blacks chose to leave the farms and plantations for opportunities in the North, the NLRA empowered the racist trade unions to lock them out.”8
  • A joint paper by professors at the University of California, University of Chicago and Harvard University for the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that immigration has measurably lowered black wages. One of the authors, Dr. Gordon H. Hanson of the University of California, San Diego, said, “Our study suggests that a ten percent immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a skill group is associated with a reduction in the black wage of four percent, a reduction in the black employment rate of 3.5 percentage points and an increase in the black institutionalization [incarceration] rate of 0.8 percentage points.”9

    In testimony before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Dr. Hanson added: “The economic adjustments unleashed by the large 1980–2000 immigrant influx, a labor supply shock that increased the number of workers in the United States by nearly ten percent and the number of high school dropouts by over 20 percent, reduced the employment rate of low-skill black men by about eight percentage points. Immigration, therefore, accounts for about 40 percent of the 18 percentage point decline in black employment rates. Similarly, the changes in economic opportunities caused by the 1980–2000 immigrant influx raised the incarceration rate of black high school dropouts by 1.7 percentage points, accounting for about ten percent of the 20 percentage point increase observed during that period.”10

  • Illegal immigrants and black Americans in the workforce today have a similar median age (approximately 36 and 39 years of age, respectively,11 with non-Hispanic whites six years older than the illegal immigrants, at 4212), making illegal aliens more likely to compete head-to-head for age-sensitive employment opportunities.
  • Analyzing evidence from two studies showing that employers may have a preference for hiring immigrants over black citizens, Dr. Harry J. Holzer of Georgetown University and the Urban Institute noted “that employers perceive stronger work ethic among the immigrants, and a greater willingness to tolerate low wages… Some of these perceptions and the hiring behavior they generate might well reflect discrimination, especially against black men whom employers generally fear…”13
  • “Ethnic networking” pits American blacks and Hispanic migrants against each other. As Beck writes in The Case Against Immigration: “Studies claiming to show insignificant changing in rates of African-American unemployment or labor force participation fail to take into account employment opportunities closed to black Americans who might otherwise migrate to metropolitan labor markets increasingly impacted by immigrants. The pervasive effects of ethnic-network recruiting and the spread of non-English languages in the workplace have, in effect, locked many blacks out of occupations where they once predominated.”

    He adds: “Much of the power of immigration streams comes from ‘ethnic networking,’ in which immigrants after obtaining a job use word of mouth to bring relatives and other acquaintances from their country into the same workplace. Immigrants today act like the immigrants early this century, who took whole occupations and turned them into their own preserve, quickly shutting native-born Americans — especially blacks — out of a workplace14 … Within five years [in the 1990s], the workforce of seafood plants in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland had changed from being predominantly African-American to mainly teenage girls and young women from Mexico15 … Businesses cease to advertise jobs. Natives don’t hear about openings as they are announced through word of mouth of the foreign workers in their local community and also across the country and even in other countries.”16

  • As in the Reconstruction era, when blacks competed with European immigrants in northern cities, Cornell University Professor Vernon M. Briggs, Jr. notes that both illegal immigrants and black workers tend to “cluster in metropolitan areas” and compete for the same jobs. Dr. Briggs says, “there is little doubt that there is significant overlap in competition for jobs in this sector of the labor market. Given the inordinately high unemployment rates for low-skilled black workers (the highest for all racial and ethnic groups for whom data is collected), it is obvious that the major loser in this competition are low-skilled black workers. This is not surprising, since if employers have an opportunity to hire illegal immigrant workers, they will always give them preference over legal workers of any race or ethnic background. This is because illegal immigrant workers view low-skilled jobs in the American economy as being highly preferable to the job opportunities in their homelands…”17

    Dr. Briggs further stated: “As for wage suppression, all studies show that the large infusion of immigrants has depressed the wages of low-skilled workers. It is the illegal immigrant component of the immigration flow that has most certainly caused the most damage… the unemployment rates in the low-skilled labor market are the highest in the entire national labor force. This means that the low-skilled labor market is in a surplus condition. Willing workers are available at existing wage rates. By definition, therefore, illegal immigrants who are overwhelmingly present in that same labor market sector adversely affect the economic opportunities of legal citizen workers because the illegal workers are preferred workers. No group pays a higher penalty for this unfair competition than do low-skilled black Americans, given their inordinately high unemployment levels.”18

  • Using employment data compiled from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Center for Immigration Studies asserts that virtually all of the net jobs created in the United States since 2000 have gone to legal and illegal immigrants as opposed to native-born citizens. The report noted that “[t]hough there has been some recovery from the Great Recession, there were still fewer working-age [16 to 65] natives holding a job in the first quarter of 2014 than in 2000 [127,000], while the number of immigrants with a job was 5.7 million above the 2000 level.”19 The report concluded there actually has been “no general labor shortage” in the United States thus far in the 21st century and “trends since 2000 challenge the argument that immigration on balance increases job opportunities for natives. Over 17 million immigrants arrived in the country in the last 14 years, yet native employment has deteriorated significantly.

What Project 21 Members are Saying

“In the spirit of Booker T. Washington, President Obama should encourage the Chamber of Commerce, Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates to cast down their buckets among the millions of black Americans who are here and in need of economic opportunity. Instead, it seems Obama wants to cast his political lot among those who smuggled themselves into our nation, and whose insertion into our still faltering economy would increase unemployment and misery among black Americans. Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it, and it would behoove Obama to see how blacks have fared in past mass migrations before he throws his most loyal constituency over a cliff.” — Project 21 member Derryck Green writes for Project 21 on federal employment statistics and other economic indicators

“The immigration issue is complex. While it is clear the left wants to pass it off as a cut-and-dry case of humanitarianism and common sense, there are secondary effects at play. History shows that surges in immigrants, both legal and illegal, lead to employment crises in the black community because they create increased competition for the same jobs. If it is true that many low-wage workers could be granted amnesty or legalized working status, who is speaking on behalf of black American citizens who are struggling to find work and opportunities? In the past, we had Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington championing the cause of black job-seekers. Who among the self-appointed black leadership will stand up for us now on immigration and jobs since they have failed to lead blacks to true, sustained economic empowerment?” — Project 21 member and financial analyst Hughey Newsome

“Frederick Douglass… often spoke of America’s race-based labor policies. In the North, free blacks were denied employment because of a preference for the cheap labor of the Irish. Booker T. Washington implored employers to ‘cast down your bucket where you are’ to provide work for the black man. But Western European immigration increased, and the Davis-Bacon Act — which is still on the books — was passed to, in part, keep blacks and new immigrants from being hired for many jobs.” — Project 21 member and talk radio host Charles Butler

“While modern illegal immigration has had a devastating impact on the quality of education, health care and other services, black Americans in particular have had a long history of being impacted by immigrants. Our opportunities for gainful employment suffered exponentially under the weight of past waves of legal and illegal unskilled foreign workers, sometimes undermining the free market through unlawful employment. Now, we appear to be losing more opportunities than ever to illegal aliens. This is a civil rights problem that was recognized in the past but is largely overlooked today when we debate the issue of amnesty for those who smuggle themselves into our nation.” — Project 21 member and right-to-work activist Stacy Swimp

What Others Have Said About Mass Immigration and Its Effects on Black Employment

  • In his book, The Case Against Immigration, Numbers USA CEO Roy Beck wrote of post-Civil War history and immigration: “The end of the Civil War opened a golden door of opportunity to black Americans, both those just freed from the chains of slavery and those who long had been free… By happy circumstances, both new land and good jobs became available soon after the Civil War… If more black Americans had gotten in on the ground floor of both of those developments, they and their descendents would have had remarkably different lives. And all Americans today likely would be living in a much more harmonious and healthy society. But it wasn’t to be. Mass immigration helped slam the golden door shut on equality of opportunity for black Americans after the Civil War.”20

  • In 1871, the famed black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in The Washington New National Era: “The former slave owners of the South want cheap labor; they want it from Germany and from Ireland; they want it from China and Japan; they want it from anywhere in the world, but from Africa. They want to be independent of their former slaves, and bring their noses to the grindstone.”21

  • Booker T. Washington, the famous black educator, said in a impassioned plea on behalf of black American job-seekers at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895: “To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted I would repeat what I say to my own race, ‘cast down your bucket where you are,’ Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your firesides. Cast down your bucket among these people who have, without strikes and labour wars, tilled your fields, cleared your forests, built your railroads and cities and brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, and helped make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.”22

  • Commenting on the improvement in job prospects for black Americans due to a curtailment of immigration, leftist black labor activist W.E.B. DuBois sourly wrote in The Crisis in 1929: “[T]he stopping of the importing of cheap white labor on any terms has been the economic salvation of American black labor. As usual, we gain only by the hurt of our fellow white serfs, but it is not our fault and whenever these same laborers get a chance they swat us worse than the capitalists.”23

  • In laying out the goals of the Clinton-era U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1994, former U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan (D-TX) said: “It will be impossible to reach answers to these questions [about economic stability and civic diversity] unless our policies and their implementation are more credible. As far as immigration policy is concerned, credibility can be measured by a simple yardstick: people who should get in, get in; people who should not enter are kept out; and people who are deportable should be required to leave. The Commission is convinced that immigration can be managed more effectively and in a manner that is consistent with our traditions, civil rights and civil liberties. As a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law, this country must set limits on who can enter and back up these limits with effective enforcement of our immigration law.”24
  • In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2012, Peter Kirsanow, a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a member of Project 21, said: “Granting amnesty to illegal immigrants will only further harm African-American workers. Not only will the low-skilled labor market continue to experience a surplus of workers, making it difficult for African-Americans to find job opportunities, but African-Americans will be deprived of one of their few advantages in this market… Furthermore, recent history shows that granting amnesty to illegal immigrants will encourage more people to come to the United States illegally. The 1986 amnesty did not solve the illegal immigration problem. To the contrary, that amnesty established the precedent that if you come to America illegally, eventually you will obtain legal status. Thus, it is likely that if illegal immigrants are granted legal status, more people will come to America illegally and will further crowd African-American men (and other low-skilled men and women) out of the workforce.”25

During 2014, Project 21 members have participated in over 150 interviews on immigration, including a commentary in the Orlando Sentinel written by Project 21 member Joe Hicks, a former executive director of the Greater Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Over the past several weeks, the Project 21 black leadership network has issued a series of press releases highlighting how a unilateral move by the Obama Administration to protect illegal aliens could have a negative disparate impact on black Americans and African immigrants on issues such as jobs
26, education27, health28, legal immigration29 and refugee status.30

In 2014, Project 21 members have been interviewed or cited by the media on current events over 1,300 times, including by the Fox News Special Report with Bret Baier, the O’Reilly Factor, Fox and Friends, CNN’s Situation Room, Salem Radio Network, Sean Hannity, Jim Bohannon, Conservative Commandos, Bill Martinez, Radio America, American Urban Radio Network, Bill Cunningham, Roger Hedgecock, Mike Siegel, Dana Loesch, Thomm Hartmann, Progressive Radio Network, The Blaze, EurWeb, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, SiriusXM satellite radio, TVOne, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Orlando Sentinel and 50,000-watt talk radio stations including WBZ-Boston, WJR-Detroit, KDKA-Pittsburgh and WLW-Cincinnati. Project 21 has participated in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding race preferences and voting rights and defended voter ID laws at the United Nations. Its volunteer members come from all walks of life and are not salaried political professionals.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over two decades, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research (

Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated.


Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.