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

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