Inequality evident in two eras of immigration – The Virginian-Pilot
In 2020, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranked US wealth inequality 35th out of 41 developed countries. Its poverty rate in 2020 was 11.4%; Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites accounted for 20%, 17%, and 8%, respectively. This poverty rate was the 35th highest among 37 nations. Additionally, from 2001 to 2016, the median net worth of high-income families increased by 33%; middle-income and low-income families suffered declines of 20% and 45% respectively.
The social and economic disparity between a small minority of predominantly white, wealthy, and politically powerful Americans and a white and non-white working class has its roots in colonial America. Since the 17th century, low-income blacks and whites have served as a permanent working underclass while remaining an indispensable part of the nation’s economic success. At the beginning of the 19th century, the agricultural industry generated an extremely profitable trade on the backs of poor whites and black slaves. In 1815, cotton was America’s most valuable export, and by 1840 was worth more than all exports combined.
In 1850, eight major cotton-producing states had 2.4 million slaves, 45% of their population, and 200,000 or 4% slaves. The total property value of slave owners, including slaves, was $1 trillion, or an average of $5,000 per slave owner ($187,000 in purchasing power in 2022), the value of the ownership of non-slavers was $400,000, or an average of $150 each. Additionally, the wealthy, slave-owning 4% dominated Southern slave society via a one-party, white-only political system.
Beginning in the 1970s, American businesses were again in dire need of cheap labor, and it was well known south of the border that employers were eager to hire undocumented workers. Thus, Hispanics flocked to the country, constituting America’s second largest non-white immigration. Remarkably, for decades irreplaceable undocumented Hispanics were productive employees, raised families, regularly sent money home, were more law-abiding than native Americans, and shunned eviction. In 2016, immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean sent annual “remittances,” or money, to families back home, totaling $69 billion. Mexico’s $37 billion exceeded its tourism and oil export earnings.
But how could millions of undocumented immigrants avoid deportation? The answer: Congress created the necessary legislation. The Reagan administration’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made it illegal to recruit or hire undocumented immigrants. However, it also provided a loophole for employers to hire without breaking the law by simply neglecting to apply for or verify citizenship. The crime requires proof of intent. So, for decades, undocumented immigrants worked and avoided deportation, and, as lobbyists demanded 35 years ago, employers did not break the law.
According to the Government Accountability Office, immigration officers assigned to workplace law enforcement fell from 240 in 1999 to 65 in 2004. From 1995 to 2004, notices of “intent to fine” of employers fell from 417 to 3. In 2005, there were only 165 criminal arrests, 140 charges and 127 convictions.
Once again, centuries after the involuntary immigration of black slaves, another shortage of low-wage labor was greatly solved by massive numbers of non-white immigrants. Hispanics have joined blacks in being denied a fair share of the prosperity they helped create and equal opportunities in health care, education, housing, employment and property. Both victims of white people fearing to lose their economic, political, governmental and cultural domination.
And, given today’s acute labor shortages, Republicans still vilify and attempt to evict undocumented Hispanics, once taken in by corporations as essential employees, alongside 1862 initiatives to colonize the freed slaves in Africa. But ultimately, the blacks were deemed irreplaceable and were retained.
In 1996, Samuel Huntington warned, “If assimilation fails…the United States will become a divided country with all the potentials for internal strife and disunity…a country…devoid of a cultural core.” And that’s how.
Thomas Wallace is a former Vice President of Academic Affairs at Old Dominion University and a resident of Virginia Beach.