A Deafening Silence about Immigration’s Impact on Black Workers

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has led to discussions that extend beyond police reform, such as providing access to better schools, housing and economic opportunities. Yet, few voices are willing to talk about the impact immigration has and will have on the fortunes of black workers.

As noted by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ briefing report issued a decade ago, “[T]he effect of illegal immigration on the wages of low-skilled workers, who are disproportionately minority members, is a piece of the puzzle that must be considered by policymakers in formulating sound immigration policy.”

After briefings with experts in April 2008, the Commission concluded that the increase in illegal immigration “in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men.”

Despite an increasing number of African-Americans obtaining college and graduate degrees, they also are being shut out of high-skilled jobs market by legal immigrants, particularly H-1B visa holders.

Blacks comprise 13.4 percent of the total U.S. population, yet only account for 9 percent of workers in core information-technology (IT) occupations, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, A key reason for the low numbers is that the number of foreign-born workers employed in computer and mathematics-related occupations rose 141.1 percent from 2003 to 2018, according to a 2019 Goldman Sachs study.

The disparity is even greater in Silicon Valley where foreign-born workers hold more than 70 percent of the creative IT jobs. A March report from the Department for Professional Employees (DPE) provides a succinct explanation for the gross underrepresentation of African-Americans, as well as other minority Americans.

”The current H-1B visa program limits career opportunities for women, African Americans, and Latinos,” says the DPE, the coalition of unions representing professional and technical employees.

“Especially in computer-related occupations, employers’ use of the H-1B visa program to hire temporary foreign workers at below-market wages contributes significantly to this under-representation,” the report says, adding that “in STEM fields that utilize fewer H-1B visas, women, African Americans, and Latinos are making faster gains.”

Historically, Indian outsourcing firms have dominated the H-1B visa user market, but a 2018 report from the National Foundation of American Policy found Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, and Google now ranked among the top 10 employers to submit applications for H-1B visas in FY 2017.

But does the level of H-1B visa usage actually hurt black Americans? Yes, as pointed out in a 2017 Black Enterprise magazine article. Simply “by hiring workers on H-1Bs, [tech companies]receive cheaper labor and can also point to their brown-skinned engineers and claim diversity boosts.”

A case in point is the ridesharing company, Uber. In its 2019 Diversity Report, Uber expresses a commitment to ensuring “that our internal community reflects the incredible diversity of the communities we serve.”

Yet, their words are quite hollow as Uber last year actually increased its hiring of foreign workers while simultaneously laying off American workers.

Similarly, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued an equally lengthy statement after the death of George Floyd that touched on various topics, including climate change, yet did not once mention any efforts to hire and advance more African-Americans at his company.

Despite benefitting from millions of African-American consumers, Apple has the worst record in terms of favoring foreign workers. Although the company hired a relatively small number (836) of H-1B visa holders directly, according to Dice, Apple sourced 2,274 H-1B foreign workers from outsourcing firms. Just like H-1B visas, virtue-signaling is no benefit to African-Americans. Until and unless immigration is included in the discussion, there will be neither justice nor real change.

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