Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 6 of 6

American citizens struggling to get by can find some relief through official channels, skimpy as it may be. The welfare system, public housing, and other forms of taxpayer-supported economic assistance are closed to undocumented immigrants, however. “There’s a constant claim that they’re getting welfare, they’re getting Medicaid. This is nonsense!” says attorney Vanessa Merton. It’s simple, really. If you’re not a citizen, you can’t qualify for Section 8 Housing, Medicaid, Aid to Dependent Children, or other forms of public assistance.

An overwhelming percentage of immigrants pay taxes, by the way. Not just sales and excise taxes like you and me, but income taxes as well. Even undocumented workers can be issued an official Tax Identification Number by the federal government--and most of them get one because it improves their chances of landing a job. It looks just like a Social Security number and allows an employer to withhold state and federal income taxes.

Employers may not lose much sleep over I-9 forms (the Employment Eligibility Verification statement) but they’re meticulous about following IRS rules. “We don’t want to have any problems,” McGrath says. “We withhold their taxes. They pay taxes.” Then he adds, “They’re members of society.”

Many illegal immigrants have other expenses. Juan (not his real name), who lives in Mount Kisco, NY, agreed to pay a “coyote” in his native country $6,000 to get him here from Guatemala four years ago. Juan makes his payments religiously because the coyote charges 25% interest if he doesn’t. “I don’t pay, my father has to sell his home,” he says. Juan is a 23-year-old day laborer, so every penny counts. If he can avoid deportation, pay off the coyote, and somehow stick it out here long enough to get his papers through some quirk of bureaucratic fate, he hopes to someday start a little construction business.

In the meantime, like 60,000 other undocumented immigrants in Westchester County, Juan lives and works in a shadow economy that’s slowly becoming illuminated by the glare of public attention. His fate is entwined with his boss’s. As the anonymous landscaper said, “If they get sent home, I’m out of business.”

America has work to be done; the world has people eager to do it.

Part 6 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version in Westchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 5 of 6

Even after dealing with (or avoiding) the immigration authorities, the struggles don’t end for immigrants when they land that cushy job mowing lawns in Bedford, NY. “For an immigrant, the worst part of your life is the insecurity and the anxiety,” according to Vanessa Merton, Supervising Attorney of the Immigration Justice Clinic at John Jay Legal Service at Pace University in White Plains, NY. “Because you’re afraid of the government, you’re vulnerable to victimization by employers, service providers, even the mechanic who fixes your car. What are you going to do? Go to the cops? These people are effectively living without the protection of the law.”

Then there are the struggles of daily living compounded by low education levels, a high cost of living, and, above all, the language barrier. Learning English is usually the first goal of most immigrants, despite the common misconception that they don’t want to learn the language of their adopted land, according to Martha Lopez, Director of the Westchester County Office for Hispanic Affairs in White Plains. “But if you go to the not-for-profit agencies that provide English as a second language programs, they are packed,” she points out, “All of the classes at BOCES, for example, are very well attended.” Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco provides ten ESL classes every week, morning and evening. At 11 am one day I was there, about fifty men and a handful of women were avidly drilling work-related English terms like “hammer” and “ten dollars per hour.”

It’s not easy to learn a second language, as just about anyone over the age of fifteen can attest. It’s even harder for immigrant adults. As Lopez explains, “If you come here with very low levels of education, or you are working seventy hours a week, learning a second language is very challenging.”

“Because the education level is often low,” Bracco adds, “they don’t know phonetics in their own language. Many times, they also haven’t learned how to learn. It sounds like a cliché, but many of them have been working in the fields since they were eight years old.”

According to the Census data, the median annual earnings of men from Mexico employed full time in Westchester County is $15,000. Women earn less--$10,000 on average. It would be tough to support a family in West Virginia on that income, much less in Westchester. To get by, many immigrants put up with less-than-ideal housing. A bed in a shared apartment can cost $400 a month, according to Bracco. That’s for a bed, not a room. Groceries aren’t any cheaper just because you speak Spanish, either. Nor are clothes, shoes, aspirin, or the washing machine at the laundromat.

Part 5 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Marek Fuchs Brings Cold Case To Life

A Cold Blooded Business: Love, Adultery, and Murder in a Small Kansas Town A Cold-Blooded Business: Love, Adultery, and Murder in a Small Kansas Town

You can tell Marek Fuchs is a reporter by trade. His facts are presented in a logical yet tension-building order, his characters are true and reveal themselves mostly through their own words and actions, and events and circumstances are weighted appropriately to their impact on the story rather than their potential to produce book-selling blurbs. It is this professionalism that separates A Cold-Blooded Business from many other examples of the true-crime genre.

There is plenty of melodrama in the story itself, and Fuchs puts it all before the reader without making you wallow in it. The Church of the Nazarene could have been depicted as a near-cult for example, but it was portrayed instead as a fundamentalist sect for Christians who don't believe you have to wear wool underwear to feel closer to God yet want the protection of a semi-closed society that holds itself just slightly holier than everybody else.

The characters reflect reality, too. All three of the main players, victim David Harmon, his wife Melinda, and their eerily successful and intimate friend Mark Mangelsdorf, are real people who lean on their religion when they need it, being very careful to not look at the underpinnings of their beliefs too closely lest they learn the foundation is a bit shaky. Fuchs did an especially fine job of demonstrating how Mark turned away from the religion of the prairies to worship at the altar of the corporate boardroom with much the same calculating proficiency he used to purchase, use, and hide the murder weapon that apparently has yet to be found.

I appreciate the way this story was told without the sensationalism that pervades and overwhelms most such books. At the hands of a skilled reporter like Marek Fuchs, A Cold-Blooded Business carries you through a sordid affair without making you feel like a rubber-necker sniffing around the blood stains at a highway fatality.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, April 17, 2009

Book Lovers Learn Why Congo Matters

With the ever-increasing protest over the conflict causing the humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it's easy for us to overlook the other, very important reasons we should all care about what happens in Congo. I briefly spoke about "Why Congo Matters" at the 18th Annual Westchester Library System Book & Author Luncheon.

You can hear my remarks in an mp3 file at

As you can tell by the stillness of the room while I spoke and the applause following, the response was very gratifying. Many of the more than 200 audience members approached me afterward to express surprise, not just at the atrocities that have gone unchecked for fifteen years but at the potential impact the DRC could have on Africa and the world if it were a peaceful, stable nation.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 4 of 6

If illegal immigrants are determined workers and we need them so badly, a casual observer might wonder, why don’t they enter the country legally in the first place? That’s what our ancestors did, isn’t it?

The current generation of immigrants would do that, too, but under current law, it’s practically impossible to enter the United States to work, according to Gloria Roman, an immigration counselor for NY Catholic Charities who works with hopeful immigrants in Yonkers, New Rochelle, Port Chester, Peekskill, and Mount Vernon, NY. She says there are only four ways to immigrate legally: through petition by a close family member who already lives here with permanent legal status or citizenship; through sponsored employment in a very few skills areas (Nobel prize winners are automatically admitted—really); by seeking asylum from personal persecution; or by winning one of a handful of visas in the State-Department-run lottery.

Petition by an immediate family member is the way 65% of the 51,513 persons who immigrated to Westchester County in the 1990s got here, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Services. Today, Roman reports, that is not an easy route. Even if there are no hitches, a family/relative petition can take a year just to process. Plus, she says, “In order for a person to be here, their sponsor has to show they have financial resources so the person won’t become a public burden. If you’re living at the poverty level yourself, that’s impossible.” She tells the story of a man in Port Chester. He is a legal permanent resident (i.e., has a coveted green card, which allows him to live and work here although he is not a citizen) who wants to bring his wife and three kids to America from Mexico. The man makes $15,000 per year. The government required him to show earnings of $32,000 to support a family of five.

Country-of-origin quotas are another big obstacle to legal immigration. Even if you otherwise qualify, according to the Citizenship and Immigration Services, you may be delayed for years by the State Department, which actually issues the visas according to formulas dictated by law. On the surface, the system sounds fair and relatively innocuous. Congress limits the total number of family preference and employment visas combined to 366,000 total each year. Where it gets tricky is that no more than 7% of those—or 25,620—can come from any one country. The quotas for Mexico are oversubscribed immediately every year; those for Liechtenstein and Iceland go unused.

The thicket of immigration law is one few professionals can navigate, much less those from outside the system with a rudimentary grasp of the language. “Before the 1996 laws, out of a hundred people who came to immigration lawyers, you could help 65% of them. Now you can help maybe two,” says Vanessa Merton, Supervising Attorney of the Immigration Justice Clinic at John Jay Legal Service at Pace University in White Plains.

“The problem is the system is so difficult to navigate,” says Anthony Uzzo, a painting contractor in Katonah, NY. “I’ve tried to help guys, even help them fill out the forms, but even I couldn’t figure out what they had to do. ”

Part 4 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 3 of 6

One of the largest misconceptions about the undocumented immigrant workforce is that they are primarily day laborers. They may be the ones we notice most often, but they really represent only about 5 percent of the total, according to Carola Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link, a community center in Mount Kisco, NY. “Another misconception is that they are all men. There are also a large number of women. The women get here the same way guys do. Plenty of them literally walk.” She continues with yet another side of the story: “There are children who come here alone as well. Oftentimes, the teenage children come having run away from their country because a parent has had to leave them behind.”

“A lot of kids ride on top of trains to make it across Mexico. It’s a horrendous journey. They go through hell to do it.” What drives them? “In general,” she says, “we have no concept of how bad it is” in many of these countries. “People are willing to risk everything just to get here.”

What are these people doing here? Working—hard. Graciella Heymann, executive director of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, a non-profit human services agency headquartered in White Plains, NY, says, “I always tell people to look in the parks at the nannies taking care of the children. Look at the construction sites, restaurants, landscaping projects. Look at the services performed and see who actually does them. Our standard of living depends on them.”

The only law that can’t be broken is the law of supply and demand. “Immigration law is not in touch with economic reality,” says Heymann. “That’s why it gets broken.”

Raul (whose name has been changed for this story) obeys the law of supply and demand--although he broke other laws to do it. Raul is one of those slightly dangerous-looking young men you see hanging around in a cluster on the street corner. He is the one in the paint-spattered jeans and the sun-faded baseball cap. He has a somewhat hunted look on his face, which makes you wonder whether you should cross the street to avoid walking near him. You shouldn’t be afraid, though; Raul, 23, was an elementary school teacher in Guatemala before he walked across half the North American continent to get to Mount Kisco. Actually, he didn’t walk all the way; the “coyote” arranged a series of van, bus, and truck rides to bring him from Guatemala.

“In my country, I make two-hundred dollars a month,” Raul explains. “I was a professional, but I cannot afford to marry and have a family.” Now, Raul paints houses when he can get work, which is usually only two or three days a week in the spring, summer, and fall. With luck, he’ll pick up some odd jobs in the winter--unloading trucks or doing some light carpentry, perhaps. That means he will earn maybe $11,000 this year, or about five times what he’d make in Guatemala. He’s been here three years and shares a small apartment in Mount Kisco with seven other people. He is here because, in the United States, “anything could be possible.”

Once someone like Raul is here, it isn’t hard for an employer to hire him. Despite legislative efforts to ensure that only legal immigrants find employment, employers can hire just about anybody without breaking the law. “We always take identification,” Phil McGrath says. “We go by the book.” McGrath owns a restaurant in Pleasantville, NY. The vast majority of businesses do the same, requiring job applicants to show proof they can work in the US legally and have a Social Security or government-issued tax ID number so taxes can be withheld. But, as McGrath points out, “You can go down to 42nd Street and buy as many Social Security cards as you want.” Businesses aren’t required to validate their workers’ documents, which wouldn’t be practical anyway. As McGrath says, “If somebody comes in and shows me a Social Security card and a license, or a visa, an INS card, how am I to know if it’s legitimate or not?”

The business owner makes copies of the documents and has the employee fill out a form (an I-9) swearing that they’re allowed to work in the US. These documents are carefully filed away on the premises (but not with the immigration authorities or anyone else). The Citizenship and Immigration Service (formerly the INS) rarely inspects those records, unless they’re pursing a specific individual. If an actual—but stolen—Social Security number is used, the employer has no way of knowing otherwise, so taxes are withheld and benefits simply never claimed. If the tax ID number is legitimate (and you can get one by mail from the IRS with copies of any two of thirteen different documents including foreign voter registration cards and driver’s licenses), a record of the employee exists—but it’s not linked to any immigration records.

Part 3 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Heart of Diamonds at WLS Book & Author Luncheon

WLSI am very pleased to be one of four authors on the program at the 18th Annual Westchester Library System Book and Author Luncheon, April 16. I'll be speaking about Heart of Diamonds, my thriller about diamond smuggling in the Congo, as well as about the current humanitarian crisis in the country.

Also appearing on the program will be Hallie Ephron, author of Never Tell A Lie, a tale about what we know and don't know about the people in our lives. Marek Fuchs, another local author (he lives in Hastings, NY), will be talking about A Cold-Blooded Business, his true crime story of how to get away with murder--literally. Multiple-award-winning author Laura Lippman will appear as well. Her latest novel, Life Sentences, is about a memorist who explores a story about a former classmate accused of a heinous crime.

The WLS Book & Author Luncheon is held annually during National Library Week to increase awareness of the many important contributions libraries make to their communities. I'll also be talking about my role as a WLS trustee.

The luncheon is sponsored this year by Con Edison, Entergy, and the H.W. Wilson Foundation. Entergy Nuclear will receive the National Library Week Recognition Award for its continued support of the WLS and its mission to ensure that all Westchester County residents have seamless access to excellent library service.

The event will be held at Abigail Kirsch at Tappan Hill in Tarrytown, NY. Tickets are $75 for general admission and $100 for a Library Patron, which includes a journal listing and special invitation to an author reception at 11:15 AM. Proceeds from the luncheon are devoted to WLS advocacy efforts to raise awareness for the 38 public libraries who are members of the consortium in Westchester County. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 914-231-3226 or go to the Westchester Library System web site.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 2 of 6

Time after time, employers claim, jobs go begging if only fully-fledged American citizens are allowed to apply. Anthony Uzzo, owner of Artisan Partners, a painting contractor in Katonah, NY, says, “I can’t find a native-born American who will do the work--even though I pay as much as fifteen dollars an hour and give bonuses, paid vacation, and sick days.” And with the demand for labor strong, and the number of legal immigrants very restricted, it’s not surprising that illegal immigration fills the void.

Carla Massimo, owner of Maplewood Domestics in New Rochelle, NY, says she couldn’t operate her business without workers from outside the country. “In twenty-four years, I’ve never been able to hire enough women from this country. I wouldn’t have a business without the immigrants.” Most of women who work for her are from Peru and El Salvador. “It’s like a chain of people. I find somebody who does a good job, they recommend somebody, and so on.”

There is a huge demand for labor in this county, which will, one way or another, be satisfied by immigrants. “It’s not really the cheapness of the labor; it’s the availability of the labor that makes the difference,” says Carola Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link, a community center in Mount Kisco, NY, that provides ESL classes, computer training, and a job bank, as well as serving as a day labor hiring site.

Restaurateur Phil McGrath confirms Bracco's observation that low wages aren’t the reason most businesses hire immigrants. “It’s not because the labor is cheap,” he says. I would pay anybody the same amount to come here and cook.” He pays just slightly below union wage scale for New York city restaurant workers and points out that entry-level jobs like dishwasher don’t pay much regardless of the country of origin of the person who holds them. Labor costs represent about 40% of a restaurant’s operating costs, according to McGrath, so substantially higher pay scales would put menu prices farther into the stratosphere.

No matter how fairly employers like McGrath and Uzzo pay, statistics indicate that if immigrants hadn’t been pouring into places like Westchester County during the last decade, you’d probably be eating at home and watching the remaining paint peel off your kitchen walls. From 1990 to 2000, the total population in the county increased by 48,593. Nearly every one of these new Westchesterites--96% to be exact--came from foreign countries. In fact, one out of every five people who lives in Westchester today was born outside America. Of these, 119,883 are not citizens, although many hold the precious green card that gives them legal status.

How many are without documents? According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, DC, 29% of the foreign-born residents in the US are undocumented migrants. If that ratio holds in Westchester, there are about 60,000 illegal immigrants living--and working--in the diverse New York City suburb. And since it’s a pretty safe assumption that the illegal population is under-counted (it’s hard to count people who hide), this figure is certainly a minimum.

Part 2 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the