TOPICS > Politics

Illegal Workers

September 7, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY KAYE: On a country road in Fallbrook, California, U.S. Border Patrol agents are on the lookout. Their checkpoint is intended to capture illegal immigrants who have made it 60 miles north of the Mexican border. Senior patrol agent Victor Flores says the lure is jobs.

JEFFREY KAYE: Are they stopping, looking for jobs? Are they passing through? What’s going on?

VICTOR FLORES: We get both. We get people that are stopping here, and there is a high… There’s plenty of jobs here for them.

JEFFREY KAYE: The roadblocks are an outgrowth of a 1990s policy that fortified the border. But the frontier is still porous, and ironically the checkpoint is surrounded by farmlands cultivated mainly by illegal immigrants. In fact, the vast majority of U.S. farm workers are in the country illegally, says avocado grower Bob Vice, President of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.

ROBERT VICE: Well, our best guesstimate based on a lot of different information is somewhere around 80 percent. It could be 85 percent. But we believe that there’s at least in that neighborhood of people that are currently working in agriculture are working with fraudulent documents.

JEFFREY KAYE: So they give you the documents, and they look good?

ROBERT VICE: The documents look good on the surface, and the law says that if the employee gives you a combination of two or three different documents, that those are the documents you must take if, on the surface, they look valid.

JEFFREY KAYE: And you’ve done your job?

ROBERT VICE: We’ve done our job.

JEFFREY KAYE: To get jobs, workers must show employers ID such as a driver’s license or Social Security card. But fake documents are easy to get on the streets, and increasingly, says Vice, government auditors are letting employers know that their workers may have phony Social Security cards.

ROBERT VICE: That’s a first warning. It kind of tells you that this person is here illegally. So growers, knowing that they’re subject to fine by knowingly hiring, all of a sudden find themselves in a position to either get rid of the workers that they need, or are they going to be breaking the law because Social Security has told them that the numbers don’t match?

JEFFREY KAYE: So you are vulnerable?

ROBERT VICE: We are very vulnerable.


ROBERT VICE: Vulnerable to losing our work crew, which…You know, in agriculture, the crop is ready at a certain time; you’ve got to pick it or it’s… In many cases, it’s perishable. If you don’t pick it when it’s ready, you’re vulnerable to losing your crop.

JEFFREY KAYE: Faced with this kind of quandary, for years the agricultural industry has been a major proponent of immigration law reform. But the vulnerability of employers and workers in agriculture is far from unique. Five hundred fired janitors in Southern California are now receiving free food from their union; they were dismissed after an audit by the Immigration and Naturalization Service found their documents were not in order. One of the fired janitors, Ana Diaz, says many of her coworkers moved out of their homes when they heard about the audit.

ANA DIAZ (Translated): We were afraid for our children. They could come and threaten us. And we were thinking they could come any day at any time and take us away. Since I’m a single mother– I have four children at home– they could take me away and leave my kids alone.

ELISEO MEDINA: You know, here we have people that have been working with this one company for ten, 15, 20 years, and all of a sudden they are told that their papers are no longer valid, that they no longer have a job.

JEFFREY KAYE: Eliseo Medina says the case illustrates the failure of the immigration law. Medina is executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents the fired janitors.

ELISEO MEDINA: We don’t have a law right now that recognizes and rewards hard work. We have a law that is punitive in some ways, and I don’t think that that’s helpful at all, or fair, to these workers or to the employers who need them.

JEFFREY KAYE: Medina, a powerful force in organized labor, is also pushing for reform of immigration laws. Labor unions have been recruiting immigrant workers, and want them to have legal status and the right to join unions. It’s a reversal of Labor’s longtime opposition to legalization proposals for fear that a pool of low-paid immigrants could hold down wages. Labor now finds itself on unprecedented common ground with the agricultural industry and with other U.S. businesses that employ low-wage workers.

They are all part of a building political momentum for various plans to legalize illegal immigrants and to expand temporary worker programs. U.S. and Mexican leaders have made immigration reform issues a priority. Mexico’s President, Vicente Fox, has pushed for a program to legalize millions of Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally.

But the Bush administration reiterated its opposition to broad amnesty after complaints by critics, many who favor restrictive immigration policies. At a meeting last month between Mexican and U.S. officials, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the two nations were discussing plans for a temporary worker program under which undocumented immigrants might earn legal residency.

COLIN POWELL: We want to ensure an adequate labor supply for U.S. Employers when American workers are not available. We want a system that focuses on fairness.

JEFFREY KAYE: But Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform says even a temporary worker program goes too far.

IRA MEHLMAN: They sent up the amnesty trial balloon; it didn’t fly. Now they’re trying to call it something else. And one of the proposals on the table is what they call a guest worker program. But, in effect, it would be an amnesty for illegal immigrants who are living in this country. The bottom line is that the result would be the same: Millions of people who came to the United States illegally, settled here illegally, would be rewarded with permanent residence.

ELISEO MEDINA: We have some people right now that have been here in the country 20 years. A lot of them are now living in mixed families. They’ve married American citizens; they’ve married permanent residents; they have American-born children. And we’re going to tell them that regardless of the contributions they’re making, regardless of the fact that they have families in this country, that they’re not going to get the opportunity to legalize? I think that’s unfair, fundamentally unfair.

JEFFREY KAYE: Under the current system, illegal immigrants and employers alike share a widespread and constant fear. Michael Mellano is one of California’s largest flower growers. He says many of his 250 workers– he has no idea how many– are always in jeopardy, and so is his 600-acre farm.

MICHAEL MELLANO: From my point of view, I would like to know that the Immigration’s not going to come and find something wrong with my workers. That’s all I want. I want… I want some stability.

JEFFREY KAYE: Stability and peace of mind is what these strawberry and tomato pickers want as well. They are all from Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states.

CRUZ (Translated): Here, you’re afraid to go out into the streets. That’s because of the police. You’re afraid that Immigration might see you and take you. And when you’re in Mexico, you’re afraid to come back because of how hard it is to cross the border.

JEFFREY KAYE: Whether in the fields or in the cities, their illegal status makes America’s armies of low-paid, undocumented workers especially vulnerable to exploitation, says Mayron Payes. Payes is with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, a nonprofit group that runs a site in a parking lot of a Los Angeles home improvement store where day laborers, many of them here illegally, wait for work.

MAYRON PAYES: The economic realities that this country has is that we’re looking for disposable workers, you know?

JEFFREY KAYE: Disposable workers?

MAYRON PAYES: Disposable workers, you know. They hire them… Americans hire these workers only when they need them. When they don’t need them, “we don’t need them.” That’s an economic reality. It’s very sad. It’s very sad, but that’s the way it is.

JEFFREY KAYE: Sometimes day laborers do the work, but don’t get paid. That’s what happened to Juan Urenda from Guadalajara, Mexico. He’s been in the U.S. 11 years. Two of his three children were born here.

JUAN URENDA (Translated): I was hired on the street to do some demolition, and the lady never paid me what I was owed.

JEFFREY KAYE: And you couldn’t complain?

JUAN URENDA (Translated): No. I looked for a lawyer to help me, but they said I had no case. Because I didn’t have my papers, I couldn’t make a claim.

JEFFREY KAYE: While a cheap labor force is plentiful in California, employers in some regions favor immigration reform because of what they see as a labor shortage. At the Broadmoor, a luxury resort in Colorado Springs, several hundred jobs go unfilled each summer. Locals won’t take $7.50-an-hour jobs, says Cindy Clark, the director of the resort’s human resources department. So she imports 220 English-speaking workers from Jamaica using an existing but limited guest worker program. Clark is part of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, made up mostly of service industry trade groups. The coalition advocates a streamlined temporary worker system and the legalization of many undocumented workers.

CINDY CLARK: At the Broadmoor locally, we’ll look very closely locally to fill our positions, and have been quite successful, but simply we don’t have enough applicants and enough employees filling our positions from the local community. That’s why we’ve had to search outside the local community to fill those seasonal positions that we do need filled to maintain our level of guest service.

JEFFREY KAYE: Ira Mehlman doesn’t buy the labor shortage argument. He says many employers just want to avoid paying good wages.

IRA MEHLMAN: Human beings have a remarkable ability to confuse need and want. If you had been interviewing some southern plantation owner 150 years ago, he probably would’ve told you he needed slaves. But the fact of the matter is, if you look at what has happened over the past decade, during the 1990s, when we had the strongest economy perhaps in our nation’s history, the wages for people with less than a high school diploma declined by 7% in the United States. Now, unless somebody came along and repealed the law of supply and demand while nobody was looking, it seems obvious that we don’t have a labor shortage. What we have are employers who are seeking to just find cheaper labor.

JEFFREY KAYE: Regardless of the policy debate, the fact remains that millions are here illegally. What to do about them presents a formidable challenge for the Bush administration, and for Congress.