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

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