Alien Nation: Illegal Immigrants In Our Economy
Westchester Magazine, July, 2006
A look at the local illegal immigrant population-and why life as we know it here in Westchester could grind to a halt without it.
By: Dave Donelson
Ever eat at the Iron Horse Grill, the consummately polished restaurant just around the corner from the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville? Philip McGrath, owner and chef, has been dishing out timbale of Peaky Toe crab and seared diver scallops with creamed leeks and oyster mushrooms for the past eight years to an appreciative audience and to great acclaim. But of course he can’t—and doesn’t—do it alone. Even in this intimate sixty-seat establishment, McGrath has help: four servers, a bartender, a bus person, two food runners, plus four people in the kitchen. About a third of these men and women hail from Ecuador, Honduras, and Mexico, and some, perhaps, have come to Westchester illegally.
McGrath requires documentation from everyone he hires, but some of his employees could theoretically be among the 60,000 or so illegal immigrants in our county who serve you dinner and pour you water at restaurants, cut your grass and plant your shrubs, scrub your floors and polish your silverware, wash your cars and starch your shirts, watch your kids and empty your great aunt’s bedpan in the hospital.
They are the men and women whose labor helps make Westchester work. And now they and the people who employ them are nervous, really nervous—now that the nation is talking tough on immigration laws. Employers are nervous because they need their work. Immigrants are nervous because they need the work. A county landscaper, who asked for anonymity, says, “The immigrants are terrified.” She cites rumors of police rounding up 150 men for deportation in Mount Kisco and setting up roadblocks on Central Avenue in White Plains.
One day soon after the May 1st national demonstrations for immigrant rights, her entire staff stayed home, spooked by a rumor of a retaliatory crackdown. “For days afterwards, they were nervously looking over their shoulders,” the landscaper says. She was nervous, too. “I’d heard immigration officers were going after employers and fining them ten thousand dollars,” she says. None of these tales were true, but they reflect the unease and fear of both undocumented workers and those who employ them.
Fear and frustration. This spring, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Latino civil rights group, sued Mamaroneck over the town’s decision to close a day-laborer hiring site at Columbus Park and accused the local police of intimidating immigrants from congregating, violating their constitutional rights to free assembly.
According to an article published in El Diario, police officers, on orders of the Town Board of Mamaroneck, dispersed workers and handed out tickets to the contractors who came by to hire them. The litigants and the town are reportedly trying to settle the case out of court.
Indeed, not everyone thinks that Mamaroneck was in the wrong. Jim Russell, a Hawthorne resident and Republican who has decided to run against Nita Lowey for the 18th Congressional District (which includes Mamaroneck), opposes hiring sites for illegal aliens. “Facilitating the continued presence of large numbers of illegal aliens endangers our communities,” he opines on the website of his organization, Westchester-Rockland Citizens for Immigration Control. According to Russell, the ills associated with illegal immigration are many. He blames “the current high rate of legal and illegal immigration” for the “outbreaks of multiple-resistant strains of tuberculosis and rubella,” the “bankrupting” of our hospitals, and the “increasing burden on our school systems.”
Whether or not Russell’s concerns about illegal immigrants are legitimate, the reality is that their presence fills an economic need. Were it not for illegal immigrants, our entire way of living, local businessmen and women say, would grow even more costly and business would suffer profoundly.
Take Philip McGrath’s restaurant, for example. “In Westchester, you’re not going to get many Americans who want to wash dishes and sweep floors.” Once upon a time, teenagers might have filled those jobs. No longer. “Because of the wealth in this county, it’s hard to get most teenagers to work,” McGrath says. “The kids don’t want to work for a landscaper; their parents pay somebody to mow the lawn. They don’t want to work on the golf course; the kids belong to the golf club.”
“On a broader scale, who’s going to pick the apples and the asparagus and the tomatoes and the cotton?” McGrath asks. “Americans tend not to want to do that labor. Our fruits and vegetables would cost three times as much as they do now if it weren’t for the immigrant labor.” McGrath estimates that a head of lettuce would go from the current $1.29 to $5—and, with restaurant labor accounting for forty percent of costs, that same head of lettuce rendered into a salad at your local eatery might cost as much as a good steak.
In countless examples, employers report, jobs go begging. Anthony Uzzo, owner of Artisan Partners, Inc., a painting contractor in Katonah, says, “I can’t find a native-born American who will do the work—even though I pay at least fifteen dollars an hour and give bonuses, paid vacation, and sick days.”
Carla Massimo, owner of Maplewood Domestics in New Rochelle, 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 the women who work for her are from Peru and El Salvador. And they and their friends’ friends migrate here to do work that others won’t.
“It’s not really the cheapness of the labor that makes them attractive to hire,” maintains Carola Otero Bracco, executive director of Neighbors Link, a community center in Mount Kisco that provides ESL classes, computer training, and a job bank, and serves as a day-labor hiring site. “It’s the availability of the labor.”
McGrath agrees. “I would pay anybody the same amount to come here and cook,” he says. McGrath says he pays nine to twelve dollars an hour for entry-level food-preparation and staff positions (like dishwashers). He also provides benefits such as vacation, health insurance, and a 401(k) plan. And, while the pay isn’t enough to finance the Westchester version of the American Dream, where the median home price currently is $650,000, it’s higher than New York State’s minimum wage of $6.75 per hour.
Paul Ryan, president of Westchester-Putnam Labor Body, a local branch of the AFL-CIO, blames corporate greed for the tide of illegal immigration into Westchester. “They’re coming to take the jobs that no one wants,” he says. “But perhaps no one wants to do those jobs because they don’t pay enough to attract anyone except someone fleeing extreme poverty. Corporate America is basically engaged in a race to the bottom for the lowest labor costs.” If employers want to attract American citizens, Ryan insists, they have to pay a living wage, provide benefits, and take steps to ensure workplace safety.
But if small businesses like McGrath’s and Uzzo’s are compelled to pay a living wage in Westchester, businessmen and women argue, most of us will be searing our own diver scallops and painting our own siding. In other words, they say, immigrants pouring into Westchester during the last decade or so have kept our cost of living (well, real well) down.
From 1990 to 2000, our foreign-born population increased by 46,832 persons, an increase of nearly thirty percent. In fact, one out of every five people who lives in Westchester today was born in another country. 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, thirty percent 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 among us. And, since it’s a pretty safe assumption that the illegal population is undercounted (it’s hard to count people who hide), this figure is certainly a minimum.
One of the largest misconceptions about the undocumented immigrant workforce is that it consists primarily of day laborers. They may be the ones we notice most often, but, Bracco reports, they represent only about five percent
of the total immigrant population. “Another misconception is that they are all men,” she says. “There are also a large number of women.”
Graciella Heymann, executive director of the Westchester Hispanic Coalition, a non-profit human-services agency headquartered in White Plains, says, “I always tell people to look in parks at the nannies taking care of the children. Look at construction sites, restaurants, landscaping projects. Look at the services performed and see who actually does them. Our standard of living depends on them.”
One law of economics that seems to always hold true 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) came to this country to earn an honest living—although he broke laws to do it. Raul is one of those young men you might 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. But Raul, twenty-three, wasn’t always a day-laborer. Before he walked across half the North American continent to get to Mount Kisco, he was an elementary-school teacher in Guatemala. Actually, he didn’t walk all the way; for nearly $7,000, a “coyote” arranged a series of van-, bus-, and truck-rides to help him complete his journey.
“In my country, I made two hundred dollars a month,” Raul explains. “I was a professional, but I could not 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, he says, “anything could be possible.”
Once someone like Raul is here, it isn’t hard for for him to get the necessary documentation for employment. “We always take identification,” Chef McGrath says. “We go by the book.” Many businesses do the same, requiring job applicants to show proof (a green card or proof of US citizenship) they can work in the US legally and have a Social Security number or government-issued tax ID number so taxes can be withheld.
“Most people who are here for more than two years get a tax ID number,” says Mariana Boneo, executive director of the Hispanic Resource Center for Larchmont and Mamaroneck. Besides, she says, “The tax ID helps them develop a credit history at the bank and get established.”
But, McGrath points out, there’s little employers can do to ensure that documentation is legitimate. “You can go down to Forty-second Street and buy as many Social Security cards as you want,” McGrath says. Besides, 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 an I-9 form swearing that he or she is 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 these 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 are 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.
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, says Gloria Roman, an immigration counselor for New York Catholic Charities Community Services, who works with hopeful immigrants in Yonkers, New Rochelle, Port Chester, Peekskill, and Mount Vernon. She notes that 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 sixty-five percent of the 51,513 persons who immigrated to Westchester 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, his or her sponsor has to show he or she has 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, a legal permanent resident (i.e., he 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 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 seven percent 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 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 [which toughened immigration law and made it easier for the government to deport offenders], out of a hundred people who came to immigration lawyers, you could help sixty-five 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 Law School in White Plains.
“The problem is the system is so difficult to navigate,” says painting contractor Uzzo. “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. ”
Even after dealing with (or avoiding) the immigration authorities, their struggles don’t end when they land that cushy job mowing lawns in Bedford, either. “For an immigrant, the worst part is the insecurity and the anxiety,” Merton says. “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, reports Martha Lopez, director of the Westchester County Office for Hispanic Affairs in White Plains. “If you go to the not-for-profit agencies that provide English as a second language programs, they are packed,” she says. Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco provides ten ESL classes every week, morning and evening. At 11 am one day when 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, “immigrants don’t know phonetics in their own language. It sounds like a cliché, but many of them have been working in the fields since they were eight years old.”
According to census data, the median annual earnings of men from Mexico employed full-time in Westchester is $15,000. Women earn less: $10,000 per year 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 $300 a month, according to Bracco. That’s for a bed, not a room. Groceries aren’t any cheaper just because one speaks Spanish, either. Nor are clothes, shoes, aspirin, or the washing machine at the laundromat.
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,” says Merton. “This is nonsense!” 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.
But you don’t have to be a citizen to get treated at local hospitals, even if you lack health insurance or you can’t pay for your care. And your kids can attend the local public schools.
Juan (not his real name), who lives in Mount Kisco, agreed to pay a “coyote” in his native country $6,000 to get him here from Guatemala two years ago. Juan makes his payments religiously, because the coyote charges twenty-five percent interest if he doesn’t. “If I don’t pay, my father has to sell his home,” he says. For Juan, 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, Juan lives and works in a shadow economy that’s slowly becoming illuminated by the glare of public attention. His fate is entwined with that of his boss. As the anonymous landscaper says, “If they get sent home, I’m out of business.”
Westchester has work to be done; the world has people eager to do it. How do we meet our needs and theirs fairly? Couny Executive Andy Spano, for one, feels that “our borders shold be secured in a humane way so as not to exacerbate the situation.” And what do we do about the undocumented people who are already here? “I’m a realist,” says Spano. “The people here now contribute to the enconomy and our way of life The country must find a way to get illegal or undocumented immigrants on the road to legality and ultimate citizenship.”
Like Spano, most of the people interviewed for this article favor “a path to citizenship” (to quote the AFL-CIO’s position paper), and a reasonable, more welcoming policy for those who follow in their wake. Whether such a policy might be a guest-worker program or one that makes full citizenship easier to obtain is, frankly, a matter that must be hammered out on the national level. Here in Westchester, actual hammers are already swinging.