By John Twint
Undocumented workers most probably are present in every country, and every country is trying to cut the number of its undocumented or illegal workers. But why is it happening? Are undocumented workers ruining economy or supporting it, are they stealing jobs from local people or just taking unattractive jobs? Issue of undocumented or illegal workers is very complex, but I’ll try to find out the truth in this fragile issue.
Once I’ve been in a small resort city and asked an owner (or maybe a manager) of a small ice-cream place why most of the workers were foreigners. She told me that usually foreigners are more reliable and responsible and are more afraid of loosing their jobs then American workers. That was the reason why every summer she tried to hire foreigners first and only then American workers.
Is this an example of discrimination? I would not say so. Employer is interested to hire employees that would be able to perform their job in the best way. It just happened so that in a low paid hard jobs immigrants perform much better then American workers. Not only because this “low salary” is much higher than in their home country, but also because American workers are not willing to work hard for low salary.
Currently there are 11 million undocumented workers in the USA. Mexicans constitute the biggest part of the undocumented population or 57%, 23% are from other Latin countries, almost 10% are from Asia, 5% are from Europe and Canada and 5% are from different countries of the world.
Almost 66% of the undocumented workers live in only 6 states: 26% in California, 12% in Texas, 10% in Florida, 8% in New York, 4% in Illinois and 4% in New Jersey. The Rocky Mountains, the Midwest, and the Southeast are the high growth regions: undocumented population in these regions growth very rapidly.
There is a stereotype that mostly undocumented workers are men, this is not true as women represent 41% of all undocumented workers in the United States. There are approximately 4.5 million undocumented men (that are in labor force) and 3.2 million undocumented women. There are also 4.6 million children of undocumented workers in the United States. 3 million of them are U.S. citizens because they were born in the United States. And 1.6 million children are also undocumented immigrants.
Almost 6 million of undocumented people are working, which represents a little over than 5% of working population in USA. All undocumented men are in labor force (are working), because most of them are young and less likely to be disabled, retired, or in school. But only 62% of undocumented women are in labor force. This happened because more undocumented women are of childbearing age, and undocumented women are more likely than U.S. citizens to have children and remain in the home. (Passel, 2004)
3. Stereotyped image of undocumented workers
It has been said that undocumented workers cause unemployment, overcrowd schools and break law because of fear of deportation. This stereotyped image of illegal workers was created by numerous Hollywood movies.
Undocumented workers were blamed for a lot of things: taking away work from Americans, country’s economical problems, social services problems, etc. But do they really cause so many problems? Would a worker move from one country to another if there was no work? Of course not! And if there is a need for workers in one country, what is bad about foreigners doing this work?
This stereotyped image is not the real one. Usually undocumented workers are good people, who move to the United States in order to be able to support their family; these people strive for a better life and do not mean any harm to anyone. It is not their fault that their country is not able to provide everyone with working places.
4. Undocumented workers benefit us
Let’s investigate what kind of job undocumented workers usually get: is it highly paid prestige job or low paid hard job? Going on a low paid hard work is advantageous for an undocumented worker, because this work is unpopular amongst local population. This way immigrant can easily find work as long as it will be unpopular and low paid. So why do we blame immigrants for stealing our jobs, if these jobs are not popular and people simply do not want to take them. Maybe immigrants are those people who help us to save our economy?
Undocumented workers represent a very important workforce in manufacturing, service, construction, restaurant, and agriculture sectors. Undocumented workers need these jobs, and these sectors need workers, so in this case immigrants and these jobs need each other.
Many new migrants are undocumented, which means that they are afraid of deportation and want to settle down on a new place. This way they try to get a constant job that would give them more stability. Employers appreciate migrants because they value their job more and would not go home if they needed to do some family business, etc. Not only because they value job more, but also because they have limited family access. (Ehrenreich B., 2003, p. 93)
Undocumented workers benefit society in a lot of ways. As long as they do not work for cash, they pay federal, state and all applicable local taxes. Because they live in the United States in order to work, they also pay sales taxes. Paying payroll taxes and sales taxes supports American economy. And the fact that if they loose job they do not receive any welfare also proves that undocumented workers contribute to American economy much more than they take from it. Basically they work much harder than most Americans do, but do not receive any economic or social benefits from it.
Moreover undocumented workers often support unpopular industries and take unpopular jobs. Someone has to do these jobs, and if local people are unwilling to do them, migrants will gladly take them.
5. Reason for undocumented workers
Why there are so many undocumented workers in the United States? The answer is simple: it is quite hard for people to get authorization to work and stay legally in USA. Process of getting all necessary working permits and visas is long and complex and takes several months. If your family is dying from hunger, you will not wait…
American government does not make it easier to get all the necessary documents; this process becomes more and more complex with every year. It may be quite simple to get a visa if you are a student in foreign country and want to come to United States as an exchange student to study, or if you want to work during the summer.
But if you are not a student anymore, and want to come to the United States in order to work or to live, it is much harder. In this case you have to get a green card or get temporary working permit. There are 3 ways to get a green card:
– To marry an American citizen or green card holder.
– To win it by participating in a green card lottery. But this method discriminates people from certain countries: for example Russia was excluded from green card lottery.
– To receive a sponsorship from some company, meaning that person already has to have a job in United States before even applying for working permit.
The same is with temporary working permit: person has to find job before coming to the United States and has to work at that company during all the period of the stay.
As we can see it is extremely hard or almost impossible for people with no or little education to get a permit to work and live in the United States. Only a person with higher education and of needed profession would be able to find a job in the United States before coming to the country. And it is useless to do it if person is looking for a low paid, hard work… In result most of the undocumented workers are in low paid hard jobs, sometimes in unattractive industries, and most of the documented foreign workers have good highly paid jobs. Why did it happen? Because the system is made up this way: it encourages highly educated workers to come to the United States and discourages those with little or no education.
6. Not enough undocumented workers
Although there are 11 million undocumented workers in the United States, but even more workers are needed in order to support US economy. There is a huge need for workers in many sectors of the American economy. Let’s look at the agricultural sector.
For example, in California there is a shortage of workers to harvest crops, which may result in a loss of billions of dollars if certain crops are not harvested in time. This problem in agricultural sector exists primarily because many workers have moved to do construction work which pays $$10-14 per hour, on contrast in agricultural sector workers usually get only minimum wage. Plus agricultural work is more seasonal, while many workers are looking for stability and would prefer long-term construction work. (Taylor)
To say the truth agricultural companies agreed that they use undocumented workers and government knows about it. US Border Patrol sometimes has raids in order to find undocumented workers, but they almost never check agricultural sector. We can even explain shortage of workers in sectors such as agricultural by successful work of US Border Patrol and deportation service.
In previous years, when entering United States was not very hard, undocumented workers moved back and forth between USA and their home countries. But now, those workers who make it through American border stay in the United States and do not go back home.
Because of this situation government has passed a bill called AgJobs. This bill said that those undocumented workers who worked in the agriculture for 18 month or more will be rewarded. Those undocumented workers could be granted temporary residency together with their families. Moreover, those who worked in agriculture long enough had higher chances to receive green card and permanent legal residency. (Maceri, 2005)
Since agriculture is not the only sector that needs more workers, a lot of talking has been made about a need of a guest-worker program. In May 2005 such bill was introduced. But the main problem still remained: what to do with existing 11 million undocumented workers?
Should 3 million kids, whose parents are illegal immigrants be sent home with their parents or be left in the United States, since they are American citizens? Should these 11 million illegal workers be sent home, or only those working in not key industries, or only those with criminal background? Are we allowed to separate children from parents on the basis of immigration status?
7. Discrimination of the undocumented workers
Sometimes employers take advantage of migrant’s fear of deportation or loosing job and give them too low pay or too much hours. Often undocumented workers can not refuse to do certain tasks or quit job because they do not have the power to do that. When you are in a foreign country you try to get some stability and therefore will do everything to reach that. (Ehrenreich B., 2003, p. 99)
The Constitution of the US protects everyone, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. It guarantees the same freedoms: to practice religion, to say what you want, to get due process of law, and to live and work free from discrimination. Why does it happen then that average salary of American workers is at least two times as high as salary of migrants? Does not it look like discrimination?
It is also very interesting to notice that it is allowed to continue to employ a worker who was on the payroll before November 6, 1986. Why? Because before November 6, 1986 there was no law that would forbid doing that. Undocumented workers before November 6, 1986 can legally work, but after that point in time – all undocumented workers are illegal. This is discrimination which is based on the law! (Repa, 2005, p.373)
Here is an example how employers take advantage of the illegal workers:
Arnulfo Martinez is 16 and he does not speak English. He is from Oaxaca, Mexico from a very poor family. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans he heard about an opportunity to earn money while working for a subcontractor of KBR, a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton that was awarded a major contract by the Bush administration for disaster relief work. He was helping to clean up a Gulf Coast naval base. He was promised $8 per hour plus housing.
After 3 weeks of work, he was expecting pay for his work, but instead Martinez’s boss, Karen Tovar booted him from the base and left him homeless, hungry and without money. And situations like this happen all over United States. Employers promise a lot to their employees, but when work is done, they either do not pay, or even call deportation service. (Lovato, 2005)
That’s not all undocumented workers have to face: undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America, who work for minimum wages in factories and restaurants live often from 12 to 14 people in one apartment. Otherwise they can not afford to pay rent. (Hirschfield, 2002)
Despite the fact that these workers are illegal all communities must be informed that both, legal and illegal workers are protected under American most basic federal and state employment and labor laws. Because employers often do not know laws, or want to take advantage of an undocumented worker, immigrants are often treated in a different way than American workers. But the following rights are universal and do not differ because of immigration status:
– The right to receive the promised wage and/or at least the minimum wage and overtime pay for work actually performed.
– The right to healthy and safe conditions on the job.
– The right to receive workers’ compensation benefits for injuries on the job.
– The right to be free from discrimination based on sex, color, race, religion, and national origin; age; and disabilities. (Midwest New Media, 2005)
8. Current proposals
There is a big current movement of non-profit worker centers across the country. These centers empower immigrant workers to defend their employment rights and their dignity. It is very important that public and private sector would also strive to defend rights of those who are being treated badly, only because they can not defend themselves.
It has been proven that economy of the United States depended on illegal immigrants for the last century, especially in the periods of growth. As Mexican immigrants constitute the biggest part of undocumented workers, it is vital to make a reform that would insure controlled flow of Mexican workers to the United States.
More than a million undocumented workers are present in manufacturing industry, similar number in service industry, 1-1.4 million in agricultural sector, 700,000 in restaurants and 600,000 in construction. If all these workers are sent home, there will be a strong decline in all of these industries; therefore a reform to legalize their status is needed. (Lowel, 2002)
President Bush and Mexican president Vicente Fox are trying to implement an immigration reform that would:
– allow undocumented workers that are already in the US to gain legal status
– control future flow of the immigrants
– ensure future flow of the immigrants to the sectors of American economy that have labor shortage
Both governments also face with an issue if only Mexicans should be touched by this reform or workers from other countries too. Another issue is deciding on the workers that will be allowed to legally stay in the United States, and the workers that will be required to go home. One of the proposed criteria is period of time worker have already lived in the United States. It is argued that this criteria shows to which extent worker has already established him/her –self in the country and got used to the culture.
Major argument to this reform is the following: if workers employed in the abovementioned industries were given a temporary or even constant legal status, most of them would quit their jobs in order to find higher paid jobs in other sectors of the economy.
The next argument is that with current proposals only half of 11 million undocumented workers would be eligible to stay in the United States, and half of them would have to go home. Without anyone to replace them, how these sectors of economy will survive?
Currently President Bush proposes to create a guest worker program, which means that employers will have to prove that they have tried everything possible in order to fill their working places with American residents, and if they failed to fill all their working places they will be eligible to hire foreign workers. These foreign workers will receive temporary 3 years work permits that could be renewed for another 3 years. (Fine, 2004)
But there are 3 fundamental drawbacks of this proposal:
First, this proposal gives too much power to the employers. Undocumented workers are already afraid to loose their jobs, afraid that they won’t be paid, or will be treated bad. But this proposal means that employers will be sponsors of workers’ visas, which gives employers huge powers over workers.
Second, there are a lot of employers who would not be interested in letting government know that they use labor of undocumented workers: these are employers that pay cash to their workers and are not interested in changing somehow these relationships. These workers are gardeners, day-laborers, domestic workers, nannies, dishwashers, and other service workers. Also there are workers who are self employed (taxi drivers for example), and this proposal does not say what to do in this situation.
Third, a lot of these undocumented workers come to the United States not only to work; their desire is also to stay permanently in our country. Why would these people risk by participating in this guest worker program and then be deported to their home country? This program does not alter in any ways chances of these people on receiving green card and permanent residency.
American economy depends on the constant supply of workers, since it is constantly growing. Completely cutting immigration to the United States is not a solution and sending back already existing undocumented workers is not a solution too.
USA was built as a country of immigrants, some of Americans came here many generations ago, and some are still coming. People were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, that’s why they were moving to United States. Immigrants now are looking for better life too, and forbidding them is not a way out.
A compromise should be reached in regulating status of undocumented workers, who are already in the United States, children of those workers, who are American citizens and those workers who still want to move to USA, but do not have this opportunity. Is not USA the land of opportunities after all?
Delgado, Gary. Swimming up the migrant stream: Organizing undocumented workers. Center for Third World Organizing. 1984.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy. 2003.
Fine, Janice. “Bush Plan’s 3 Flaws”. Boston Globe. January 11, 2004.
Hirschfield, Robert. “Undocumented Workers.” Z Magazine. Vol. 15. Number 11. November 2002.
Lovato, Roberto. Gulf Coast slaves. 2 December, 2005
Lowel, Lindsay. The Value of Undocumented Workers. 2002.
Maceri, Domenico. Enough Undocumented Workers?
Midwest New Media, LLC. Hidden America: undocumented workers. 3 December, 2005
Passel, Jeffrey. Undocumented Immigrants: Facts and Figures. 2004. 1 December, 2005
Repa, Barbara. Your Rights In The Workplace. 2005.
Taylor, Edwards. Foreign and undocumented workers in Californian agriculture. The Urban Institute. 1987.
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