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The US has a ‘thirst’ for immigrant workers. Why do so many struggle to get legal status?

President Joe Biden has said that changing immigration law remains an important piece of his agenda. But the path to new legislation is complex and hardly clear. One of the biggest flashpoints in this debate are questions about undocumented workers and their role in the economy. Paul Solman dives into those questions for his latest report for "Making Sense."

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The pandemic has exposed much about life here in the U.S., including our reliance on undocumented workers in essential jobs.

    Paul Solman explores what's at stake for his latest report for Making Sense.

  • Paul Solman:

    In affluent Mount Kisco, a New York City suburb, undocumented immigrants for hire, at the train station, at Henry's Deli, and at Neighbors Link, a nonprofit that serves the newly arrived. They line up at 7:00.

    Contractors, even just homeowners, like Tony Archie, soon follow.

  • Tony Archie:

    Trees came down on my property, so I want to move the firewood from one side of the house to the other.

  • Paul Solman:

    And he's spreading mulch, a two-person job for which only one worker was available.

  • Man:

    He is wanting $17 today.

  • Man:

    How many hours you going to work?

  • Paul Solman:

    In the end, no deal.

    Pool company owner Chris Carthy also out of luck.

  • Chris Carthy:

    There's a labor shortage across the country.

  • Paul Solman:

    Even at Neighbors Link?

  • Chris Carthy:

    I come here every blue moon to pick up those extra few hands for excavation, and we can't get anyone.

  • Paul Solman:

    And so the nub of the economic argument for letting some 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. remain legally.

  • Carola Bracco:

    So, let's just be clear that immigrants are coming to this country because of our thirst for this work force.

  • Paul Solman:

    Carola Bracco runs Neighbors Link.

  • Carola Bracco:

    They are taking on jobs that often complement the work force that was born in this country because of the fact that they're willing to do these jobs.

  • Paul Solman:

    Jobs in agriculture, construction, landscaping, cleaning. And who's busing tables at restaurants, washing dishes, cooking?

  • Man:

    This is the apron with the logo.

  • Paul Solman:

    This man, whom we have decided not to name, has worked in restaurants for 20 years, since slipping across the desert from Mexico.

  • Man:

    A couple of restaurants in Manhattan. Also, I used to work in the airport, JFK.

  • Paul Solman:

    Catering for American Airlines.

    In 2008, he moved up to Trump National Westchester Golf Club.

    Were there many other undocumented people in the club?

  • Man:

    A lot. A lot. I would say 30 percent of the employees, maybe, maybe more, in the grounds, kitchen, waitstaff, maintenance. We're pretty much all over the club, illegal people.

  • Paul Solman:

    Did people know that you were undocumented, the people who hired you?

  • Man:

    Yes. Yes, they know.

  • Paul Solman:

    How do you know they know?

  • Man:

    This is the card that they tell me it's too fake for accept it.

  • Paul Solman:

    How could they not have known, he says, given that they noted the obvious inauthenticity of his I.D.?

  • Man:

    So, I got to get another one. I got to spend another $45.

  • Paul Solman:

    Both bought on the street from people hawking fake I.D.'s.

  • Man:

    All you have to give is the picture, and they do the rest.

  • Paul Solman:

    Now, this man lost his job at Trump National Westchester in 2019, after news reports of having hired undocumented immigrants. At the time, Eric Trump said the company planned to check workers' status in the future.

    But in his decade at the club, this worker had risen to banquet chef, selfie-ing with the likes of baseball legends Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera, and earning as much as $70,000 a year, between the club and odd winter jobs.

    Couldn't they have found citizens to work for that kind of money?

  • Man:

    I guess not, because it was days that I started at 6:00 in the morning, and I was in the club until midnight, nonstop. So, I guess not everybody do that. And, sometimes, I was mad, of course, because this is too much.

    But, at the same time, I feel like I got my hands tied. If I say something, they might be — fire me, they might say something to the authorities, the ICE in this case.

  • Paul Solman:

    Because you're always at risk, yes?

  • Carola Bracco:

    Yes. Yes. We are at risk every day

  • Paul Solman:

    So, economic argument number one: The undocumented do jobs nobody else will.

  • OK, another point:

    Somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of undocumented workers pay taxes, says the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

  • Man:

    I have got all the taxes that I been paying since I'm in this country, since 2002 until 2020. I got to pay taxes like a normal person, like a person with documents.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, they contribute to the economy in production and in taxes, which pay for benefits the undocumented can't always use.

  • Carola Bracco:

    Medicare, Section 8. They don't qualify for food stamps, a whole variety of services that they don't qualify for.

  • Paul Solman:

    Undocumented immigrants provide yet another economic advantage, for those worried about Social Security's finances.

    So, you paid Social Security?

  • Man:

    Yes, every single year since day one.

  • Paul Solman:

    Will you get Social Security when you get older?

  • Man:

    I don't think so, because I — no documents, no Social Security.

  • Carola Bracco:

    There is a large fund that the Social Security Administration has that are benefits that will never be paid out to the people that paid the funds in.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, that's pretty much the case for legalizing the undocumented.

    The case against?

  • Dan Stein:

    Illegal immigrants clearly cost taxpayers far more in benefits than they pay in taxes.

  • Narrator:

    Isn't it time for Washington to prioritize the American people?

  • Paul Solman:

    Dan Stein, who runs the Federation For American Immigration Reform, insists that the undocumented do not pay for themselves when you consider, for example:

  • Dan Stein:

    The social safety net, the cost of the social safety net, education, public schooling.

  • Paul Solman:

    Worse still, he says, they drive down wages.

  • Dan Stein:

    The percent of Americans who are in the labor force is at an all-time low. One of the reasons is systemic illegal immigration. Employers prefer to hire illegal immigrants over American citizens, because they're pliable, they will do menial jobs for very low wages. They prefer them.

  • Paul Solman:

    But I talk to employers all over the country, and they say, we cannot find people to do the jobs we need to have done. That's not true?

  • Dan Stein:

    Employers are constantly crying that they have a labor shortage. Why? Because employers like the labor market dynamics of hiring illegal labor.

  • Paul Solman:

    I put Stein's argument to Carola Bracco of Neighbors Link.

    Isn't there a good argument that undocumented immigrants drive down wages?

  • Carola Bracco:

    Wage theft is actually the big issue as it relates to undocumented immigrants.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, regardless, she says:

  • Carola Bracco:

    If there weren't undocumented immigrants doing this work, employers wouldn't be able to find anybody to do that work.

  • Paul Solman:

    And if you deported them:

  • Carola Bracco:

    You would find a significant reduction in our economy. What we have basically done is created a second-class citizen that is ripe for abuse and exploitation. I think we need to rectify that issue and bring in immigration reform.

  • Paul Solman:

    Reform that would legalize the undocumented, that is.

    But, to Dan Stein, that would:

  • Dan Stein:

    Justify lawbreaking and illegality. Employers have an obligation, like everyone else, to respect the law. It's a cornerstone of citizenship.

  • Paul Solman:

    The kind of citizenship to which Trump National's former banquet chef aspires. But he did break the law, which raised a final question.

    How come you feel comfortable talking to me like this?

  • Man:

    I'm not 100 percent comfortable, but somebody has got to say something. And, hopefully, Mr. Biden saw this interview and, like, give us a chance.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Man:

    Why not? I guess that's the whole reason, to show every single American that we are not a bad people. We are — we try to be good. And thanks to this country, I think we do.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.

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