First, high levels of legal and illegal immigration, as the Harvard economist George Borjas’s recent book emphasizes, have produced wage losses among some poor and working-class low-skilled native-born workers. Wealthy whites and corporations were often the winners. It’s the old story of costs and benefits of building America on the backs of cheap immigrant labor.
For more than a hundred years, these split labor markets have often pitted native-born workers (mostly white, sometimes unionized) against successive waves of cheap-labor newcomers (usually of different ethnicity or culture or both). Economic competition fuels ethnic antagonism — and nativism, racism and the like.
There has been very little scholarly or public attention paid to a second policy trend that intensified the antagonism born of this ethnically split labor market. In the 1990s, affirmative action’s original mission to right past wrongs against African-Americans was transformed into an expanded list of preferences in the workplace and in higher education for immigrant subgroups (for example, Hispanics, Asians or Pacific Islanders).