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

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