TOPICS > Economy

Immigration Reform

February 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST


JEFFREY KAYE: Drive down almost any street on Los Angeles’ affluent west side and you see a so-called “shadow workforce” that’s actually out in the open.

These men and women are just some of the estimated 8 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

Local resident and restaurant owner, Jack Srebnik, echoes many Americans when he says that undocumented labor has become indispensable to both his community and his industry. He spoke to NewsHour producer Saul Gonzalas.

JACK SREBNIK: If you just drive down a street and you look at a car wash, you look at a supermarket, or you look at a restaurant, or you look at the person taking your child to school, you look at the gardener, it’s just … it’s overwhelming. They are an integral part of not only Santa Monica, not only the west side, but of the state.

JEFFREY KAYE: In the kitchen, Srebnik’s two dozen immigrant workers agree. They say they are either former undocumented workers themselves or in the process of getting residency cards.

Head chef Carlos Martinez says he and his kitchen crew, like millions of other immigrants, legal and illegal serve this country by doing jobs that Americans often shun.

CARLOS MARTINEZ: The majority of Americans — maybe not a 100 percent but pretty close to it — they don’t want to earn minimum wage washing dishes or cleaning floors. I’ve worked here for 14 years, and I have yet to see an American come through the door and ask to wash dishes or help out in some other kind of way; they’re not interested in that kind of work.

JEFFREY KAYE: President Bush made similar arguments when he recently unveiled his sweeping immigration reform proposals.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling.

JEFFREY KAYE: To fill those jobs, the president proposes a new guest worker program. Undocumented immigrants already in the United States, such as these men looking for jobs at a Los Angeles day labor site, could apply for temporary legal status — good for three years, renewable for another three.

Temporary workers could apply for legal residency and would be able to travel back and forth between the United States and their home countries.

In addition, employers could bring in workers from outside the U.S. if the employers can demonstrate they can’t fill jobs with Americans.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: This program will offer legal status as temporary workers to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States and to those in foreign countries who seek to participate in the program and have been offered employment here. This new system should be clear and efficient so that employers are able to find workers quickly and simply.

JEFFREY KAYE: The president’s ideas have been enthusiastically received by representatives of such immigrant-dependent businesses, as restaurants and hotels, construction and agriculture.

BOB VICE: What the president is saying is it’s the fair thing to do; it is the right thing to do, and I think we agree with that.

JEFFREY KAYE: Bob Vice, an avocado farmer in San Diego County, is co-chair of the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, a group representing agribusiness. He says that even though 80 percent of California farm workers are estimated to be undocumented, his industry needs even more cheap immigrant labor to remain competitive.

BOB VICE: The avocados that I raise, for example, compete in a world market. If I pay a wage that is unrealistic in terms of costs to harvest them, then my product will not be competitive in the world market in product from other countries that have a much lower labor force.

JEFFREY KAYE: Many employers support the president’s proposals for another reason. They say it would remove a cloud hanging over their heads — fear of possible prosecution and loss of their workers.

JACK SREBNIK: It’s against the law to hire an illegal immigrant. So, I mean, you know, just like if you are in a car and you are speeding, what’s wrong with it? Well, nothing is wrong with it, it’s against the law. So it’s always on our back that the INS can come in at any time and make a raid and legally have these people leave.

JEFFREY KAYE: Critics of the president’s immigration proposals say that although they might benefit American employers, they would devastate American workers.

IRA MEHLMAN: The president’s immigration plan is really a dagger at the heart of the middle class in the United States.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ira Mehlman is a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The organization says the president’s immigration initiatives “pander to ethnic lobbies and business interests.”

Mehlman fears, that if enacted, the proposals would flood the U.S. job market with cheap labor.

IRA MEHLMAN: And essentially what the president is doing, or proposing, is to turn over immigration decision making to the economic interests that have a vested interest in having a large workforce to choose from.

The law of supply of demand says if you have an unlimited supply of workers, the price of labor will go down. And obviously, employers love that. Nobody wants to pay more for wages than they really have to. And as long as they can go anywhere in the world and seek out labor, why would they ever raise wages for Americans?

JEFFREY KAYE: The administration points out that temporary workers would have the benefit of wage and labor laws.

But even those in favor of guest worker programs and legal status for America’s undocumented acknowledge those proposals could hurt some U.S. workers.

JIM SMITH: Does everybody gain from immigrants coming in? No. People who compete directly with immigrants lose out.

JEFFREY KAYE: Jim Smith, a senior economist and immigration expert with the RAND Corporation, acknowledges the president’s plan could hurt unskilled Americans, while providing undocumented workers more opportunities.

JIM SMITH: Right now, I think most of the undocumented workers are looking over their shoulder, and they don’t want to get caught. They don’t want to be detected. This eliminates that. Now you say, “go out, work anywhere.” You know, you don’t have to worry about being detected.

JEFFREY KAYE: Even if a broader range of businesses could hire from an expanded pool of foreign workers, they would still have to prove Americans couldn’t be found.

But Mehlman fears it will be too easy for employers to substitute foreign workers for U.S. ones.

IRA MEHLMAN: Rather than having to go out and compete by offering better wages for American workers, they can simply say, “Well, I can’t find an American worker to do the job at the price that I want to pay, so therefore, I am going to go looking all over the world to find somebody who is willing to do that.” And given the economic conditions around the world, that’s not going to be very hard to do.

JEFFREY KAYE: The president’s plan offers business groups the carrot some have long sought: A temporary worker program. But the proposal also comes with a stick. The administration promises stiffer enforcement of laws that make it illegal for employers to knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Organized labor has denounced the Bush immigration plan as one that is designed to provide a steady stream of low wage, foreign workers for American companies. But restaurateur Srebnik says raising wages to attract American workers would be commercial suicide for his industry, known for its thin profit margins.

JACK SREBNIK: Out of every dollar that we bring into this place, 35 cents is going to labor. And then if you figure 30 cents is going to food costs, and then you got workers’ comp and rent, and this and that, we’re hoping to make five cents on the dollar.

Now … then people will come back and say, “Well, why are you in this business?” Well, if you can generate enough dollars, 5 cents on the dollar works. But we have to keep the labor costs at 30 percent to 35 percent to make a restaurant work.

JEFFREY KAYE: The key details of the president’s plan still have to be worked out with Congress. But immigration is politically controversial, and with business groups supporting the proposal and labor opposed, no one is predicting easy passage of such sweeping immigration reform, particularly in an election year.