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Monday, June 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some blacks say Latino immigrants taking their jobs

Seattle Times staff reporter

Outside the Home Depot store in Seattle's Sodo neighborhood, Tim Mitchell chases the same handyman jobs as the Latino men who crowd the narrow sidewalk.

On some mornings, the 39-year-old African American says, he's outnumbered 100-to-1.

Mitchell holds no resentment toward the others, many of whom are in this country illegally. Ultimately, he said, they're all just trying to earn a living.

"I think many people prefer Latinos because they believe they're cheaper, that they'll work for less money," he said. "Many of them don't speak English ... so people think they can take advantage of them."

As the debate over illegal immigration in the U.S. escalates, the scenario playing out among day laborers reflects a growing uneasiness among some blacks nationwide.

Many worry that the flood of illegal-immigrant workers crossing the border from Mexico is muscling low-skilled workers, many of them black, out of jobs in a number of industries — from the service sector to construction.

It's a sentiment that's not shared by all black leaders, many of whom marched alongside immigrants in recent demonstrations and tout the importance of black/brown unity. Blacks and Latinos, they say, are being exploited and hurt by the same economic forces.

But other African Americans say the hordes of low-skilled workers from across Latin America crossing the borders can only harm those on the very fringes of the economy.

And the problem, they say, only threatens to get worse if Congress grants amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants living in this country, and allows thousands of others in through a guest-worker program.

"This issue is not new; this preference for immigrant workers over native African-American workers is historical," said Frank Morris, a former associate dean at the University of Maryland, College Park. Morris was also president of the Tacoma branch of the NAACP during the 1960s.

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A century ago, the same fears of displacement were raised by blacks when legal immigrants poured into the U.S. from across Europe and Asia. "The only time when the black workforce is desired is when there's low immigration," said Morris.

The result are two minority groups fighting for many of the same low-wage, low-skill jobs that promise neither a path out of poverty.

The showdowns are taking place on the streets of cities like Los Angeles, where African Americans have joined demonstrations against illegal immigration.

Some have teamed up with the Minuteman Project, a border-watch group that reports illegal crossings from Mexico into the United States, and whose members some have called vigilantes and racists.

Last month, a coalition of economists, educators and community leaders called Choose Black America called on Congress to reject legislation they believe will only flood the U.S. labor market with even more low-wage immigrants.

In recent months, Morris pointed out, illegal immigrants have become mobilized, with vast networks of support even among such venerable black organizations as the NAACP and the Urban League. Both favor a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants; local chapters have followed suit.

"Some of us feel a need to speak out for those who have no voice," said Morris, who is chairing Choose Black America. "They could be black, white, Hispanic. They are not the people financing campaigns; they are not visible or particularly articulate."

King County Council member Larry Gossett, who is black, denounces tactics he said only serve to divide poor people.

"It's not legitimate nor is it politically helpful to fall into the trap of dividing very poor, semi- or unskilled black and Latino workers," he said. "There's nothing beneficial there."

It is true, Gossett acknowledges, that immigrant workers, by providing a ready and cheap supply of labor, may be helping to depress wages. But, "I don't blame the poor Latino. Certainly they would like to be treated fairly, make a decent wage that allows them to adequately take care of their family.

"It's really not to our advantage to put one oppressed group against one another, while those who control the economy are getting richer."

Difficult to quantify

What impact illegal immigration has on the wages and employment of black workers is largely anecdotal and tricky to quantify.

A 2004 study by Harvard University professor George Borjas found that the influx of all immigrants between 1980 and 2000 drove down wages 4.5 percent for blacks and 5 percent for Latinos.

"How many more people would have been employed during that period, had the immigration growth not occurred, the data does not say," said Chris Weber, a professor of economics at Seattle University.

And Labor Department statistics show that last year, for the first time, unemployment for native-born workers, at 5.2 percent, was higher than that for those born elsewhere, 4.6 percent.

Morris points out that unemployment among black people ages 18 to 29 is even more telling. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show joblessness among those without a high-school diploma hovered near 30 percent in April, and was around 19 percent for those with a diploma.

But Gossett said there's no proof that African Americans are rushing after many of the kinds of jobs that Latinos take — on the fruit orchards and in restaurants.

"In some urban areas, blacks and Latinos are going in for the same day-labor jobs. But most African Americans are not interested in being dishwashers in the 50 largest restaurants in Seattle," he said.

Gossett said that when black people from the South first came to cities like Seattle during the 1940s, they were willing to take many of the menial jobs that Latinos now dominate. "Now I hear brothers say, 'I'm not taking those slave jobs,' " he said.

Yeh Ling-Ling, a naturalized citizen born in Vietnam of Chinese parents who heads up a group called Diversity Alliance for a Sustainable America, disputes the claim that immigrants are taking jobs Americans don't want.

"Native blacks and whites are taking those jobs in places all throughout the South, like in Alabama," she said.

Morris said part of the problem is that the networks that help people find and land jobs may extend all the way back to Mexico, shutting blacks out.

"So African Americans aren't going to those jobs because they aren't in those networks that can get them in," he said.

Pramila Jayapal, executive director of Hate Free Zone, a group that advocates for all people of color, acknowledged the concerns over the impact of illegal immigration on wages and employment.

Each year, Jayapal said, the economy comes up around 500,000 workers short — about equal to the number of undocumented workers coming into the country. Making undocumented workers legitimate members of the labor force would stabilize it for everyone, she said.

"Trying to make it"

As a U.S. citizen, Mitchell, the day laborer, knows he has advantages over many of his Latino competitors.

For one, he speaks English — making it possible for him to better explain to prospective employers his skills in construction, electrical and landscaping and, if necessary, to negotiate a better rate of pay.

The Latinos work no harder than he does, he said, but traditionally have been willing to work for less. Now, that's starting to change. "They used to work for $10 an hour; now they're asking for up to $12," he said.

Farther north, along Western Avenue, where greater numbers of day laborers gather, Ollice Rogers, who lives in Pioneer Square, waits for work.

He's heard all the talk about illegal immigration but doesn't give it much thought. "Everybody is out here trying to find work, make a living. Nobody's perfect out here. We're all trying to make it."

Still farther to the north, Leslie Croaker of Madison Valley waits for work along with dozens of hopefuls at the Millionair Club charity.

The 85-year-old organization provides meals and short-term jobs to people down on their luck but typically with lawful immigration status.

Croaker owns A&L Construction but comes to the club for work when business slows. He believes people who come to this country, find work and work hard should be allowed to stay.

Illegal immigrants, he said, "can't take a job you already have. Most of the jobs they do, most people here think they're too good to take that kind of work."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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