In his March 2 Op-Ed, James Williams detailed a history of African-American leaders’ skepticism about immigration since the 19th century. He argued that cracking down on “illegal immigration” would increase employment opportunities for the black community. As an African-American with the great fortune to represent the vibrant and diverse 179th Legislative District, I felt compelled to offer a strong rebuke of this opinion.
Attempts to divide Philadelphians and place communities in opposition to one another are perhaps the worst way to confront the challenges that our city faces. Solidarity between those with and without legal status is the only way we can effectively combat the systemic issues facing us, whether native-born or just arrived.
At the outset of his piece, Mr. Williams compared a 2014 estimate of the undocumented workforce (8 million) in the US to the number of unemployed African-Americans (4 million). From this, we are supposed to conclude that because 8 million is bigger than 4 million, undocumented immigrants, therefore, harm African-American employment prospects.
But the same report used to cite the size of the undocumented workforce also shows that this population is widely distributed. Only six states have an undocumented immigrant population representing more than 6 percent of the workforce, so simply comparing the number of African-Americans looking for work to the number of undocumented immigrants working is starkly inadequate as an explanation of black unemployment. On the local level, this argument is even less convincing. According to the 2015 American Community Survey, the unemployment rate among African-Americans in Philadelphia was 18.9 percent, meaning roughly 97,000 folks were out of a job and actively looking for work. A Pew Research Center analysis places the undocumented population in the city at 50,000. Using Mr. Williams’ statistical methodology, I am forced to conclude that 97,000 is a larger number than 50,000, especially since the latter figure includes children and others not in the labor force.
Furthermore, Mr. Williams’ argument obscures rather than clarifies the causes of African-American unemployment. Undocumented immigrants aren’t the reason our school district has been underfunded for decades, or why we don’t have more robust public transit options in a city dominated by car culture. Nor did they cause good, family-sustaining jobs to flee to the sprawling suburbs while discriminatory lending practices limited both housing options for black families and investment in our neighborhoods. Opposing immigration won’t make our neighborhoods safer, help combat the scourge of addiction or end the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. How can we fault immigrants for lack of employment opportunities, when even the City of Philadelphia awards only 9 percent of its contracts to minority-owned businesses? These are just a sampling of the real issues African-American lawmakers and public servants need to spend their time addressing.
Mr. Williams asked if it’s “time for our elected African American lawmakers to stand up for their constituents.” Indeed it is! It’s time to stand up for all of our constituents, regardless of their immigration status. Targeting other marginalized communities will never solve the problems that African-Americans face. None of us benefit from policies that tear families and communities apart. No matter where we were born, we all send our children to the same schools, drive on the same roads and live in the same neighborhoods. That’s why I will continue to stand up for Philadelphia’s immigrants, because only together can we move our community forward.
PA Rep. Jason Dawkins represents the citizens of the 179th Legislative District, encompassing parts of North Philadelphia.