NumbersUSA Founder Roy Beck Champions Economic Justice
As President and Founder of NumbersUSA, Roy Beck credits his upbringing for the sense of responsibility for economic justice that he brings to his 26-year-old immigration-reduction organization. While growing up in an economically modest small town in the Ozarks, he said, he witnessed firsthand the struggles of the working class to earn a living. And his father’s long-time membership in the Teamsters union gave him insight into the importance of group action in the cause of economic fairness.
As a student during much of the Civils Rights movement in the 1960s, he supported the drive for racial equity. That continued through his adulthood as he has played active roles in major community assistance programs designed to help poor residents, many of them in African American neighborhoods.
Both of these ideas, economic and racial equity, feature prominently in Roy Beck’s recently published book, Back of the Hiring Line: A 200-Year History of Immigration Surges, Employer Bias, and Depression of Black Wealth. In it, Beck describes how economic opportunities for African Americans, especially those in the working class, have been negatively impacted by waves of immigration through the years.
In an interview, Roy Beck explained how his experiences as a youth gave him a strong belief in the value of economic equity for all Americans. His father started a small dairy when he returned to his home town after World War II, but he was eventually driven out of business by a bigger competitor in a nearby city. He then went to work driving a wholesale milk truck as a member of the Teamsters union. Beck describes his father as a quintessential member of the World War II generation. “He was a joiner,” Beck explained, “his duty drove everything.”
His father would never shirk his duty, Beck said, whatever it was: whether his role in his church, Boy Scouts, Army Reserves, the American Legion, etc. He led all the Honor Guards for military funerals in his town. As Beck recounts, by the time he was in seventh grade his father would get him out of school to play taps at these funerals. His father was also a nationally recognized local leader in the Lion’s Club. And he started a volunteer-run recycling program in the town which grew into a government-run program for workers with intellectual disabilities that is named the “Warren Beck Memorial Recycling Center.”
“This is the stuff I come by naturally,” Beck said, “this type of patriotism, the sense of duty to community and the realization that there is an environmental side to all of that.”
Another influence from his upbringing is his love for journalism. His grandfather was a self-educated subsistence farmer whose big claim to fame, according to Beck, was writing a column for the weekly county newspaper for over thirty years. Beck’s determination to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps as a journalist took him to the University of Missouri school of Journalism.
After graduating, Beck served a stint in the Army, after which he joined a newspaper in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he mainly covered environmental and urban issues. Eventually, he took on a role with other newspapers in other states covering major stories all over the country and, at times, internationally. After doing that for a number of years, he took a job covering politics in Washington D.C.
Just before he left that job, the 1990 immigration act was passed. “I covered that law, and after everything I’d done on environmental and on economic justice issues, I thought, quadrupling immigration from what it was before 1965, this is really undercutting all the efforts on the environment and economic justice issues.” Beck didn’t see anybody doing much about the issue, and this, along with the results of two major national commissions, led to the founding of NumbersUSA.
One of the commissions which helped inspire Beck to start NumbersUSA was a bipartisan congressional commission chaired by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, while the other was a commission created under presidential authority and chaired by former Senator Tim Wirth. Both commissions found that reducing immigration numbers towards their historical average was in the best interest of the United States and its authorized residents.
Beck says all those influences and experiences came together in a way that would eventually contribute to the founding of NumbersUSA, the largest grassroots organization in America focused on immigration reduction, with more than eight million participants including conservatives, liberals and moderates.