On the Immigration Question

Latin American Immigrants at the US Border

An Afro-American View

When the question of immigration is considered from the perspective of Afro-Americans it is clear that it is not in our interests. One need only look at the history of the traditional black community – those Afro-Americans who are the descendants of slaves, many of whom’s ancestors go back to the founding of the American republic – to recognize a distinct relationship between immigration and Afro-American economic development. Simply stated the pattern shows that African-Americans experience the most dramatic economic growth during periods of low foreign immigration.

Indeed, evidence of the inverse relationship between Afro-American economic advancement and immigration is not confined to statistics, but is also noted in the real time testimony of thoughtful Afro-American leaders. For instance, Frederick Douglass recalls European immigrants trying to run him off the job when he was working in the Baltimore shipyard as a skilled slave that his master hired out to collect his wages. The immigrants felt that Douglass – who soon escaped slavery and went on to become the most insightful commentator and critic of a hypocrital American society that perpetually preached the virtues of freedom while practicing a tyranny which Douglass said “would embarrass a nation of savages!”- had no right to work on the job because he was black.

Over a century later I would be told by an arrogant Eastern European immigrant on a New York construction site “you are only working here because you are black!” He was referring to the anti-discrimination laws that required the contractor to employ a racially diverse work force, which he resented. Although Douglass and I were born and raised in America, and the immigrants had literally just got off the boat, they felt they should be given preference over us in the job market.

In his 1895 speech at the World Exposition of Cotton Growing States held in Atlanta Georgia, Booker T. Washington, founder and principal of Tuskegee Institute in the black belt of Alabama, who would succeed Frederick Douglass as the most influential spokesman for black America, made a desperate plea for the economic salvation of Afro-Americans, who were trying to gain an economic foothold as a free people after enduring 250 years of chattel slavery. His famous refrain in the speech, “Cast down your buckets where you are,” was a warning to black Americans who were fleeing the increasing white terror and drudgery of rural southern peonage that the northern cities was no paradise.

Washington’s extensive visits to the north investigating the fate of Afro-Americans who had fled to the north convinced him that they were worse off in the unhealthy conditions of the wretched city slums. And he attributed their poverty to the fact that they were excluded from the employment opportunities offered by an industrializing America by the massive waves of poor immigrants from Europe!

This has been the experience of Afro-Americans with immigration. And there is no reason to believe it will be significantly different with Hispanic immigrants, a labor force made docile by the lash of hunger back home and often harboring racists attitudes toward black people, as Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has shown in his revealing PBS documentary “Black in Latin America.”

Yet, despite the opposition of many Afro-Americans to immigration, the transparent racism of Donald Trump, and the odious spectacle of US government agents snatching the children of Hispanic immigrants seeking asylum, even separating toddlers from their mothers who are then confined to cages, has turned most Afro-Americans against his “Zero Tolerance” policy. Hence it is virtually impossible for black politicians and intellectuals to assert our interests in the ongoing debate over immigration without being tainted by the arguments and policies of the Trump administration. Yet Afro-Americans have a special truth to tell regarding the negative effects of mass immigration that grows out of our experience, and it must be told.

However I share the view and concerns of Robert Beck, author of the insightful book, The Case Againist Immigration, who noted:

Unfortunately, to write about the problems of immigration is to risk seeming to attack immigrants themselves. Even worse is the risk of inadvertently encouraging somebody else to show hostility toward the foreign born.” After noting his extensive relationships with immigrants, and the fact that his children’s friends were mostly immigrants or the children of immigrants, Beck writes,” Thus, as with the case for millions of other Americans, I have a very personal stake in not wanting to hostility or discrimination toward the foreign born who are already living among us. To be sure, this proximity to so many foreign born persons include some less than positive experiences, along with the delightful, which preclude me from from a superficial, romanticied view of immigration. The influx into my own community clearly has been too fast and in too large a volume.”

Alas, the way the debate has been shaped at the moment, one is either a racist right-wing Trump supporter who is hostile to immigrants from South of the border, or a left-wing radical who believes that anybody that presents themselves at the US border with a hard luck story should be allowed to enter. The former position is morally repugnant and the latter position is well meaning but unsustainable.

Anyone who has visited Latin America recognizes that there is a multitude of people trapped in appalling living conditions with no real prospect for change. And one does not have to agree with Trump’s silly ideas about building a wall across the Mexican border – which would cost millions – to recognize that since all people want a better life for themselves and their children, they would immigrate to the US en-mass if economic hardship were made the test for gaining admission to the US.

Many people will argue that this was the basis upon which millions of European immigrants entered this country including the grandfather of Donald Trump. While that is certainly true, it must be viewed in historical context. The massive European immigration of the late 19th and early 20th century occurred during a period of rapid industrialization centered in the city, and the massive expropriation of Indian lads by white settlers in the American West, hence the US economy could absorb the new immigrants.

Today neither condition exist, rather the US economy is rapidly moving toward a post-industrial phase in which jobs are being permanently eliminated due to digitization, in which people are being replaced by robots. This epochal change is rendering human labor obsolete. Jobs as diverse as professional drivers – trucks, trains, buses, cabs, etc – to behind the counter clerks; accountants and even newspaper editors. Man of these are jobs that were believed to require human workers not that long ago. The projections of scholars studying this development concur that millions of workers who are gainfully employed today will be obsolete in the not too distant future.

Hence any analogy between the great waves of European immigration in the 19th and twentieth centuries, and the immigrants now seeking to enter the US in the second decade of the 21st century, is a false one. Hence the question of immigration must be viewed in the light of contemporary American economic realities. And aside from farm work which native born Americans appear to be unwilling to do in sufficient numbers to meet the requirements of large scale farmers.

This would suggest that immigration policy should be adjusted to meet that economic need; some have proposed a guest worker program would address this problem. On the other hand, a policy of allowing large scale immigration into the US at this time that would pit foreign born workers against the native born for a dwindling number of jobs is bound to create social anxieties and conflict that give birth to reactionary right-wing nativist movements of the sort that put Donald Trump in the Oval Office.

Since this is a White Nationalists movement, Afro-Americans are bound to lose hard won ground as they enact racist policies. And should immigration policies favor “people from Norway,” as Donald Trump – a latter day eugenicist aka white supremacist – has proposed it would only swell the ranks of the white majority.

Alas, having lived under “The tyranny of the majority” – a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville to distinguish mere majority rule from genuine democracy in his magisterial 1831 study Democracy in America –” increasing the ranks of whites in the US is not an outcome that would favor black Americans.

Then there is the fact that immigrants tend to band together and aid each other to the exclusion of native born Americans. This produces antagonisms, especially with Afro-Americans who are still struggling for full inclusion in American economic life. Hence, from any point of view, large scale immigration from any quarter is not in the interests of Afro-Americans.


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem, New York

July 12, 2018

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