CLARENCE PAGE: When Mexican President Vicente Fox said, "Migrant workers in the U.S. are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do," he poked a large hole in a political hornet's nest.
Among the first bees to bite him were Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in meetings and phone calls, but not much happened but headlines and talks to agree to hold more talks.
The truth is that Vicente Fox was partly right: A lot of immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are doing work that most Americans, black or otherwise, don't want to do. But it's also true that a lot of employers prefer to hire undocumented workers. And when that happens, it doesn't matter whether black Americans want to do the work; they don't even get that chance.
Even New York, the great melting pot, got a taste of that earlier this year. Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged almost a dozen temporary job agencies with discrimination. The agencies allegedly catered to the preferences of employers who only wanted certain races or ethnicities to do work like housekeeping and child care.
Researchers have found many employers choose to hire foreign workers over U.S. citizens because they are viewed as hard workers, reliable workers who will do as they are told without making any demands. That's why even the legendary labor organizer Cesar Chavez opposed massive illegal immigration when it got in the way of his efforts to organize farm workers.
There's a larger story here, an epic story about the world of low-wage workers competing across borders in a global marketplace. The recent Human Rights Watch report on America's meat and poultry plants described jobs that a lot of Americans are not eager to fill.
Its descriptions of the bloody, greasy, dangerous and exhausting work echoes "The Jungle": Upton Sinclair's 1906 classic about the old Chicago stockyards. Industrial America threw open its doors to millions of immigrants back then, mostly from Europe. They eagerly rushed in to fill jobs that black Americans, only a generation or so after slavery, allegedly did not want.
"That's not true," said black leaders as diverse as the liberal WEB Dubois and the conservative Booker T. Washington. "There should be limits on new immigrants," they said, as long as large numbers of black Americans still needed work.
For several decades, they got their wish. Hundreds of thousands of black American families like mine migrated internally, from the stoop labor of the South to the factory labor and domestic work in the North -- their first big leg up on the ladder of American success.
Has all that changed? Washington, usually divided along party lines about most big issues these days, is unusually united around the latest guest workers bill. Republicans and Democrats alike say illegal immigrants are only taking jobs that other Americans don't want.
Is that true? I wonder. Is there any job that Americans don't want if it pays enough? Or do we as American consumers, or employers, or lawmakers, make trade-offs for the sake of higher profits and lower prices? There are no easy answers to these questions, but this much we know: Vicente Fox was not all wrong. Immigrants do take jobs that some Americans don't want. But first, we should make sure that all Americans have been asked.
I'm Clarence Page.