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Published April 25, 2022

Reginald Parks: Bad immigration policy takes heavy toll on Black workers

– Reginald Parks

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Black leaders were some of the most prominent advocates for reducing immigration levels. Leaders like Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass understood that welcoming millions of immigrants — then mostly Europeans — only set the wages of less-skilled workers on a race to the bottom.

When the U.S. labor market finally tightened from 1940 to 1980, due in large part to closely-controlled immigration levels, Black male incomes grew by 400%, as immigration policy expert Roy Beck points out in his recently-released book, Back of the Hiring Line. That staggering increase outpaced even that of White men, whose incomes rose by 250% over those 40 years. This momentous progress towards economic equity was underway even before the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As immigration levels ramped up again in the 1980s and 1990s, however — eventually reaching roughly four times what they were before 1965 — relative Black wages went in the opposite direction. Today, most of the mid-century progress America made against the racial wage gap has been lost.

Both major parties bear responsibility for this reversal. The bipartisan Immigration Act of 1990, which increased the country’s annual immigration cap overnight, was enacted by a Democrat-controlled Congress and signed into law by a Republican president. Even now, members of both parties are pushing to increase the overall level of immigration.

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Back Cover Text


While most Americans justifiably celebrate Ellis Island ancestors, here are the stories of what the long period of mass immigration after the Civil War meant to freed slaves, their children and grandchildren in the hiring lines of America: decades of delays in gaining industrial job experience, skills and career connections, and constant setbacks in accumulating and transferring wealth.

Average Black household wealth in the 21st century is only a fraction of the wealth of other racial ethnic groups, including recent immigrants. There are many reasons. This book is about one of them: periodic sustained immigration surges over the last two centuries.

This is a little-told story of the struggles of freed slaves and their descendants to climb job ladders in the eras of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B DuBois, A. Philip Randolph, Barbara Jordan, and other African American Leaders who advocated tight-labor migration policies. It is a great history of bitter disappointment and, occasionally, of great hope.

Linda Beck