America Runs On Illegal Immigrants
By Sharona CouttsNovember 26, 2012
Some 11 million people in the US are illegal immigrants, many propping up the economy by working for low cash, no benefits. Will President Obama free the dishwashers?
Yohan Garcia’s boyhood dream was to be a pilot. It was an unlikely path for a child born in a small town in rural Mexico, where his family lacked access to the schools and academies that could have given him a chance at pursuing that career. Garcia’s father tried to dissuade him. Better try business, he said, or focus on school.
But Garcia, the youngest of 10 siblings, was stubborn, an “independent spirit”, he says with a wry smile, as he sits outside the campus of the university he now attends on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Finally Garcia’s father reluctantly arranged for his son, then aged 15, to be taken by smugglers on foot across the dangerous, mountainous border between Mexico and the United States, and then on to New York to make a new life for himself.
“That was the first time I really felt cold,” he says of the seven-day trek into Arizona. You sense it was also the first time he really felt fear. The group he made the crossing with was robbed, and one of the bandits held a gun to the boy’s head. “It was a horrible experience. I was someone who was just looking for a better future,” he says. “But I made it through.”
That was in 2003. He has since learned English, passed a high-school equivalency test, won a raft of scholarships, and is now earning good grades in political science at Hunter College, in New York City. And he supported himself through it all, by spending hundreds of hours washing dishes and serving customers at a deli in the Bronx, and working overnight at a bagel shop in Brooklyn.
At 24 he hasn’t achieved his dream of becoming a pilot. But it’s not for want of trying.
Garcia was accepted into one of the country’s most prestigious aviation schools, but was ultimately rejected because he is an undocumented immigrant.
“It’s really a very frustrating situation,” he says. “I thought it was going to happen. Then they called and said, ‘We’re sorry, but we can’t take you.’”
Now Garcia, along with millions of others in his situation, is a dreamer of a different sort. He’s one of close to two million undocumented immigrants aged under 35 known as the Dreamers, after the proposed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, which would allow them to apply to become permanent residents and, eventually, citizens of the US.
In the past two years, the Dreamers have become a public, telegenic face of the immigration reform movement, bravely showing their faces on TV, and writing articles and posts as “illegal” immigrants.
Their stories have changed the way many people think about immigration; so much so that in June, US President Barack Obama issued an executive order that mirrored key provisions of the proposed act.
Obama’s decision, paired with the crucial role that the Latino vote played in returning the Democrats to the White House, has many immigration advocates hoping the President will make immigration reform the marquee issue of his second term, just as healthcare reform shaped his first four years in office.
The President’s acceptance speech earlier this month cited immigration reform along with other key priorities, such as reducing the deficit, reforming the tax code, and moving away from a dependence on “foreign oil”.
“We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag,’’ he said.
But, as with healthcare reform, overhauling the immigration system will require overcoming a host of entrenched obstacles and competing interests.
For many, it’s difficult to take in the astonishing scope of America’s immigration dilemma. The numbers alone are staggering: about 11 million people are estimated to be living clandestinely in the US. Two-thirds are Mexican, with the rest having come from other Latin American nations, Africa, Asia, parts of the sub-continent and Europe, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a research group based in Washington, DC.
Many come from what are known as “mixed families’’, among which parents, siblings or children may be citizens, while others remain undocumented. And most have been in the United States for longer than a decade.
“The US is in a situation where everyone knows it’s happening and, to some degree, it’s ignored,” says Thanu Yakupitiyage, communications co-ordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy and training organisation. “This has created an underclass of people who have no way to change their status and are constantly in this limbo. It’s a broken immigration system.”
The cynical would say there’s a reason why the system hasn’t yet been fixed: many institutions and companies benefit from the abundant cheap labour that illegal immigrants provide, and from the inability of undocumented immigrants to demand their rights.
Go into any restaurant or fast-food joint in Manhattan or Brooklyn, and there’s a good chance you’ll rub shoulders with undocumented immigrants. They’re likely to be the people washing dishes, cleaning, or serving at the counter, because those jobs pay cash-in-hand, and don’t require employees to provide a Social Security number — that magic identifier that acts as an “open sesame” to the American economy.
Undocumented immigrants make up five per cent of the labour force, and according to Yakupitiyage, that number is concentrated in a few key industries: farming, restaurants and, increasingly, construction.
Wages in these industries are extremely low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for farm workers was between $US2,500 and $5,000 in 2011, with relatively few farm workers having any other source of income, and usually no assets. Across all industries in the US, the minimum hourly rate is just $7.25, but many undocumented workers earn less, according to Yakupitiyage.
“Right now there is an underclass of undocumented people who are underpinning certain important industries,” she says. “Things like wages set for restaurant workers are a big issue.”
If anyone doubts the importance of clandestine labour to these industries, they need only look at what happened in Georgia last year when the state passed a draconian law intended to crack down on illegal immigrants. In essence, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act required all private businesses to hire only workers who could verify that they were eligible to work in the US; the issue or renewal of business licences or occupational tax certificates was made dependent on employers’ compliance.
Barely a month after the law passed, farmers began complaining that they couldn’t find workers to harvest their blueberries, melons, onions and other crops. The goods were left to rot, while politicians found themselves in the bizarre position of having to downplay the success of their own legislation which had forced employers to seek workers among the less willing.
As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, in the debacle’s aftermath, a government survey showed that the state was short 11,000 workers. Even a plan to hire Georgia’s 2,000 “unemployed criminal probationers” to harvest the crops seemed doomed, with commentators doubtful that they would accept the combination of very low pay, hard work, and lack of benefits such as healthcare, which are characteristic of farming jobs.
“The pain this is causing is real,” wrote Jay Brooklyn, a Constitution columnist. “People are going to lose their crops, and in some cases their farms. The small-town businesses that supply those farms with goods and services are going to suffer as well. For economically embattled rural Georgia, this could be a major blow.”
Many clandestine immigrants have spent enough time living in the US to identify as culturally American, and share the same aspirations. However, without a Social Security number or official government identity card, their options are severely curtailed.
Take the case of Ricardo, an undocumented immigrant who asked to remain anonymous because the company he works for either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, that the Social Security number he provided them is fake.
Like Garcia, Ricardo arrived in the United States as a child. When he was five his mother fled Mexico to escape his violent father, spiriting her son away one winter night in 1986.
Ricardo remembers getting into a van, in which the people-smugglers — known as coyotes — drove them to the mountains at the border, and dropped them off at 10pm. Keeping an eye out for border police, they walked and ran across the border, reaching a safe house in California shortly before dawn.
At one point, they walked through a tunnel that was partly flooded with water. It was so cold that Ricardo’s legs went numb, and his mother had to carry him for hours.
When they arrived in San Diego, Ricardo’s mother found work as a maid with a wealthy family. The family, however, didn’t want Ricardo living with them, so he stayed with distant family members — strangers — for two weeks, until the family relented and let him rejoin his mother.
These days, Ricardo speaks perfect American-accented English. Both his mother and younger sister have since become US citizens. He has nearly completed a degree at a public college, and has worked at the same company for almost eight years, where he’s risen from an entry-level sales job, up to a management role. He has health insurance — a key benefit that most undocumented workers must go without — and a white-collar lifestyle. He even pays income tax, through a separate “taxpayer identification number” that he applied for a few years ago.
But Ricardo can’t get a credit card or any type of loan, and can’t subscribe to basic services like a mobile phone, because all of these require a valid Social Security number.
“I can’t plan for the future, because I can’t invest my money,” he says. “I can’t start my retirement savings. I can’t save to buy a house because I can’t get a mortgage. I’ve sort of hit a ceiling.”
Like many in his situation, when his company asked for his Social Security number, Ricardo used a number given to him years ago by a family member who knew of his plight. He’s unsure whether it’s a fake, or if it belongs to an unsuspecting stranger in another state. He says he feels guilty about lying to his employers, but knows that he would otherwise be limited to the sorts of low-paying jobs that Garcia has had to accept.
“Part of the reason I started paying taxes was because of the guilt. I felt that I didn’t want to just take from the country. I felt that I was lying,” Ricardo says. “So because of that, I felt the only way I could rectify things was by paying my share and contributing to the country’s revenue.”
But using a fake Social Security number means Ricardo’s situation remains precarious. From time to time, he receives letters from the Internal Revenue Services informing him of “problems” with his Social Security number, meaning that his name and number don’t match IRS records.
Normally, when the IRS sends this type of notice to an employee, it also informs the employer.
“You get that letter and the next time you go into the office, I can remember looking the other way and not making direct eye contact with either HR or my sales manager, because I wasn’t sure whether they had received the same thing,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until a couple of days had gone by with no news from them that I knew everything was okay and I could essentially relax.”
The consequences for getting caught can include deportation. The Obama administration has deported 1 million undocumented immigrants, actions which have drawn criticism from advocates. Ricardo hopes that the close relationships he’s fostered with his bosses over the years would give him some protection.
“I would hope that they would ask me in a manner that’s more like a friend talking to another friend, because I’ve been there for so long,” he says. “I’d apologise for using a fake number, but I’d explain the situation and let them know why things happened this way, and hope that they wouldn’t then turn the information over to authorities.”
The IRS isn’t the only federal government agency that knows of Ricardo’s presence in the United States. In 2001, he applied for permanent residency, with his mother as his sponsor. His application was approved in 2002, but more than a decade later, the Department of Immigration is only just processing applications it received from Mexicans in June 1993. At this rate, Ricardo figures he’ll be 60 by the time his status is processed. That’s a lifetime spent in immigration purgatory, somewhere between legal and illegal, unable to flourish. By contrast, someone who has lived in the US for only a short period could marry a US citizen and be eligible for permanent residency in a matter of months.
RUTH FORTUNE IS A YOUNG PERSON whose similarly precarious future was eventually dramatically altered by an event that had nothing to do with the actions of her or her family.
Taken to the US from Haiti in 2000 at the age of 12, Fortune’s family lived in a house on Long Island with more than 20 others. She shared a bedroom with her brother, mother and father, and four others.
Back home, her father had owned a small business, and her mother had worked at the Canadian consulate — both very good jobs in an impoverished country. But after a visit to the United States, they were impressed by how clean and modern life could be.
The family flew into New York on tourist visas, and simply never left. But as she grew older, Fortune’s life became more restricted. For example, she couldn’t get a driver’s licence, or travel abroad. She says she also felt a sense of shame at being “beneath” the people around her, so she kept her status a secret from her friends.
“I never told anyone I dated because I thought it was just embarrassing, and I didn’t want them to feel the burden of having to marry me or be with me because the only way I could be legal or stay in the country was to marry a citizen,” she says. “There was no other path besides that.”
Fortune watched as her classmates and relatives went off to expensive colleges, while she missed out because, as a non-citizen, she was ineligible for the generous government loans and grants that many students rely on to fund their education.
She eventually found an affordable university, where she excelled in her business degree.
“Even then it was a bit of a reach for me because the tuition was about $5,000 a year. I worked full time [as a waitress] throughout college to pay for the tuition, because I didn’t get any assistance,” she says.
In all likelihood, Fortune’s university knew she was undocumented. In many cases, colleges require students who can’t provide a Social Security number or furnish a student visa to sign affidavits in which they promise to regularise their immigration status — though, of course, there is no realistic way for them to do so.
The way universities deal with undocumented students is indicative of the broader reality in the US, where significant wilful blindness from officials — at schools, colleges, and even state police forces — results in what Thanu Yakupitiyage calls a Catch-22, in that undocumented aliens are able to subsist, but rarely to excel.
And indeed, despite good grades, hard work, and paying out-of-pocket for her studies, Fortune’s ambitions were constantly thwarted throughout her college experience.
“Graduation day, I was actually pretty sad and miserable because I didn’t have a full-time offer like a lot of my friends did that had just graduated,” she says. Her friends had been able to accept plum internships from global companies, such as KPMG and PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which often led to full-time positions. Fortune had also been accepted by these firms, but she was knocked back at the last minute because she didn’t have legal authority to work.
“For those companies, even if they like you, they cannot do anything unless you can legally work,” she says. “They cannot petition [for a visa] for an undocumented student.”
In the end, it wasn’t her hard work or determination that resulted in Fortune being granted a form of legal immigration status. Rather, it was the calamity of the Haiti earthquake that devastated the island in January 2010. As part of America’s humanitarian response to the disaster, President Obama granted “temporary protection status” to all Haitians living clandestinely in the United States, which allowed them to live and work there for 18-month periods that can be renewed by the government.
“I was fortunate to have got this in my senior year in college,” Fortune says. “So even though I missed out on internships, by the summer of 2010 I had a full-time job offer, so I was able to get a real professional job and stop waitressing. It helped me and my family to help our family in Haiti, who were really in a dire situation. We could help support them financially.”
For Garcia, relief came this June when Obama issued an executive order declaring that certain undocumented immigrants under 31-years-old could work in the United States for up to two years, without fear of deportation. Garcia now aspires to a different dream: involvement in the immigration debate has whetted his appetite for politics, and he has already interned for New York Democratic senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Rather than wanting to become a pilot, he now aims to run for the Senate.
But Ricardo has not been so lucky. He missed out on the executive order because he was born two months too early to benefit from the decree.
His only real hope is that the Obama administration, and Congress, will take action to give him and 11 million others a chance to regularise their status.
The politics have rarely seemed so auspicious for immigration reform as they do in the aftermath of this month’s election. Several notable Republicans are now voicing support for immigration reform. If they persuade the party, it could be one of the most stunning about-turns in recent US politics, given that the Republicans spent a good deal of the past four years using immigration as a lightning rod to galvanise their conservative base.
But Ricardo doesn’t want to leave his future in the hands of politicians. He’s contemplating leaving the country, even though lawyers have told him that once he gets on a plane he’ll likely never set foot in the United States again.
“I realised that what I would need to do in order to fulfill my potential is to leave the country so that I can get the sort of job and position that I would like for myself,” he says. “And it’s not just the job and position, but it’s also simply having the freedom to strive and achieve as much as you want. And even though everyone comes here for the American dream, our American dream is definitely limited. That’s just not something that I am willing to accept.”