Immigration Hits Minorities the Hardest

Norman Matloff

San Diego Union-Tribune Op-Ed, February 26, 1995

(part of this article also appeared in the Los Angeles Times September 30, 1994)

Political pundits, who were portraying California's Proposition 187 as pitting whites versus nonwhites, were shocked by the strong support among minority groups for the measure. Exit polls taken by the Associated Press showed strong majorities of African Americans (56 percent) and Asian Americans (57 percent) for the measure, percentages approximately equal to the vote for 187 in the general population (59 percent).

In pre-election polls two months earlier, more than half of Latinos supported the proposition, and in spite of extremely heavy campaigning by the Spanish-language media and Latino community workers, about a third of Latinos still ended up voting for the measure.

The pundits were confounded by other seeming anomalies as well. Fifty-six percent of those in Los Angeles County, for instance, voted for 187, a proportion close to the statewide figure. Yet Art Torres, a Latino candidate for state insurance commissioner, won in Los Angeles County (51 percent) but lost statewide (43 percent). If voters in the county were anti-Latino, as the pundits presumed from the voters' support of 187, why did those voters choose a Latino for insurance commissioner?

Minority groups are worried about legal immigration as well. Over the years, polls have shown repeatedly that most members of minority groups wish to see reductions in immigration, both legal and illegal.

The Latino National Political Survey in 1992, for example, found that up to 84 percent of Mexican-Americans agreed with the statement that ``There are too many immigrants.''

When asked why most Latino Americans wish to see reduced immigration, Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), explained that ``Migration, legal and undocumented, does have an impact on our economy...[particularly in] competition within the Latino community...There is an issue of wage depression, as in the garment industry, which is predominantly immigrant, of keeping wages down because of the flow of traffic of people.''

Presumably motivated by similar concerns, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta testified to a state Assembly committee that ``With 1.5 million legalized immigrants living in California, and only approximately 250,000 agricultural jobs in the state, there is no need for additional farm workers.''

Immigrants are entering the U.S. faster than minority communities can absorb them. Numerous case studies in New York's Chinese-American community by sociologist Hsiang-Shui Chen show how the influx of Chinese newcomers reduces employment opportunity for native and earlier-immigrant Chinese, as well as resulting in reduced market shares for established Chinese entrepreneurs.

And the effect is not limited to the low end of the job market. Displacement of engineers, many of whom are Asian-American, by immigrants is becoming a serious issue. Computer industry employers continue to hire foreign nationals and sponsor them for immigration or work visas, in spite of a labor surplus which has existed since the late 1980s. Often the employers' motivation is a desire for cheap, compliant labor.

A 1988 study of the Los Angeles hotel industry by the General Accounting Office found that jobs formerly held by African-Americans were now performed mainly by immigrants. This study was not based on some econometric model of questionable assumptions. On the contrary, it was a direct report of the hotel owners' actions to break up the largely black unions, and replace union workers by immigrant workers.

Studies have shown a similar displacement of blacks in the restaurant industry, at airports, and so on. Even the staunchly pro-immigration Urban Institute now concedes that such effects are real.

A number of blacks are souring on the idea of Affirmative Action, claiming that many firms are hiring immigrant Asians and Latinos (the ``preferred minorities'') instead of blacks to fulfill Affirmative Action requirements.

It is estimated that there are 300,000 illegal immigrant students in California's schools. Yet some schools in the West Contra Costa Unified School District recently closed their doors to enrolling new students. As the district contains many black and Asian-American students, we see again that minorities comprise a major class of victims of immigration problems.

Last year the San Francisco School District announced that, due to a dearth of bilingual teachers fluent in Cantonese, Russian and Vietnamese, it was resorting to hiring uncredentialed teachers. In other words, the quality of instruction is taking a back seat to the god of bilingual education. Once again, the principal victims are the Asian, black and Latino kids who comprise the bulk of San Francisco's student population.

Ethnic organizations such as MALDEF dismissed Proposition 187, a ballot initiative, as the shoddy work of a bunch of amateurs. Yet these same organizations have consistently opposed every immigration-reform measure drawn up by professional legislators as well, always charging racism.

This charge will be more difficult to make in the future, now that 187 has focussed national attention on minority support for immigration reform. The ethnic political activists may finally be forced to address the frustrations of the people they have been claiming to represent.

Norman Matloff teaches at the University of California at Davis. He is former Chair of the UC Davis Affirmative Action Committee, and has long been active in organized efforts in support of minorities.