Employers give illegal immigrants 'green light'

The major immigration problem for the United States government may not be illegal immigrants themselves but US citizens and companies who hire them. Consider some who give a quiet green light to immigration while national leaders in Washington try to stem the flow:

* The San Diego couple, both working professionals, who pay Delores (not her real name) $80 a week plus room and board to watch the kids and take care of their house full time. ''I don't think you can find Americans who would do this work or do it as well,'' says the wife, adding that if they had to pay more, the job might not exist at all.

* A southern California electronics firm that advertises jobs for computer assemblers. Callers who respond to the ad in English are turned away, but those who speak Spanish are told to come straight to the plant.

* A San Diego County farmer who says a steady flow of illegal immigrants come to him seeking work. It's a ready, willing, and cheap work force he says he is forced to tap. When a crop has to be harvested, says the farmer, he needs field workers immediately. ''All I care is that someone can do the work; I don't care who they are.'' He says he's certain there is not a US citizen to be found for the minimum-wage work he offers.

Though they may not see themselves as part of the nation's illegal immigration problem, US employers are the most important lure north of the border for illegal immigrants. A major feature of any immigration reform law, says US Sen. Alan K. Simpson, will be aimed at those who employ undocumented immigrants.

''I don't know of any other way of passing reform unless you come to the great heart of it,'' says Mr. Simpson, the Wyoming Republican who sponsored, with US Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, an immigration reform bill that died last fall when a House-Senate conference committee failed to work out a compromise. Penalities for employers who ''knowingly hire'' illegal immigrants will be the foundation of any reform law, indicates Senator Simpson. He says he will reintroduce some form of his part of the controversial Simpson-Mazzoli bill next month.

US employers can legally hire undocumented immigrants because no law prohibits it. And no law prevents illegal immigrants from taking jobs in this country. This legal gap appears to be mutually beneficial to employer and immigrant, at least in the short term. Employers are looking for cheap, reliable labor. The ''illegals'' fill that bill and at the same time collect wages that are better than they would get at home.

Illegal immigrants from Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central America, the Carribbean, and the Middle East can be found all over the US in restaurant kitchens, factory assembly lines, agricultural fields, and sweeping up office buildings after hours. And some are in white-collar jobs. But the largest group of these illegal immigrants is comprised of Mexicans and Central Americans who settle in the Southwest, where many employers have come to depend on them.

These employers hold the common belief that the jobs they offer might not exist in the US if it were not for the immigrants. Without the immigrants, the employers say, to remain competitive they might have to move to cheap labor sources overseas, or automate, or go out of business altogether. They say these immigrants are a hungrier lot than American citizens and so will take jobs US citizens won't and will work harder at those jobs. Further, some say the declining US birthrate and the nation's economic growth will create demand for labor from outside the country.

Employers who hire undocumented workers express support for increased control of the borders. Generally conservative, they are concerned that illegal immigrants might overload the nation's social service system. Many even support sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers. But these ideas are coupled with strong support for continued access to the immigrant labor force through guest-worker programs or increased immigration quotas. Just as the immigrants come here for economic survival, the employers see themselves hiring the immigrants out of their own need for economic survival. And employers find themselves criticized from both ends of the political spectrum for their position.

''It boils down to being a fool not to hire illegals,'' explains the plant manager for a small Los Angeles ''mail house'' that stuffs and addresses envelopes for a direct-mail advertiser. Like other employers interviewed for this story, the plant manager asked not to be identified because he doesn't want to invite Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) raids that would take his work force and interrupt business.

''I'd like to play it by the book, but this (hiring illegals) is so rampant that if I had to raise my wages, my costs would be higher and thus my fees would be higher, and I'd be beat out by the huge houses who employ lots of illegals.''

An Escondido, Calif., farmer similarly describes the economics of hiring illegal immigrants. He can't get Americans to do the tough field labor it requires to harvest his citrus and avocados. Americans might be found to do it for more than the minimum wage, he admits, adding: ''I'm willing to pay more money (for wages) if you're willing to pay more for citrus. The press says $3.35 an hour is low, but the unionized farms (where higher wages are paid) are going out of business.''

Admitting that more than 80 percent of San Diego County farm work is done by undocumented workers, he reasons: ''We gain from it, they gain from it, and America gets cheaper food.''

He says he prefers Mexican workers to Americans because they are quicker and more eager to work in the fields. He observes that once a laborer has tasted work in the service sector in Los Angeles, that worker never wants to return to field work.

Western farmers are adamant about an expanded guest-worker program. They will politically block any bill that includes employer sanctions without a guest-worker program, says Charles Woods, secretary of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. ''We prefer to live within the law, and that's why we support an H-2 (guest worker) program so we can get supplied with workers and farmers can rest at night, not having to worry that their work force is going to disappear with the Border Patrol. We wouldn't exist without that pool of labor (illegal immigrants) and we know it's not right, but nothing can be done about it,'' he says.

''The EDD (state Employment Development Department) says they want to supply us with workers. So we say we need 20 tomorrow and we get one or two or none,'' Mr. Woods explains, adding that when harvest time comes the most certain source of labor is the undocumented alien.

Sixty to 80 percent of the work force of the California garment industry is in the undocumented category. Its employers echo the farmers' arguments.

''It's not a matter of wanting documented or undocumented, we don't know who's who. But let's face it, if we didn't have the Latino population, we'd go out of business,'' says Bernard Brown, chairman of the Coalition of Apparel Industries in California (CAIC).

''If you could stop immigration and deport all illegal workers in California, it'd have a detrimental effect on our industry,'' says Howard Walter, owner of Blumenthal Manufacturing Company. The Los Angeles clothing firm has a small plant where Mr. Walter says he tries to hire documented workers. He says that today all he can do is check social security numbers and immigration papers, and make a record of them. He says that's all he could do even if the Simpson-Mazzoli employer sanctions were passed.

Walter says he doesn't doubt that illegal workers slip through his process today because fraudulent papers are as common as real ones. And he's not sure a national identity card would prove any easier to keep aliens out.

The CAIC threw its support behind the Simpson-Mazzoli bill's employer sanctions, hoping that this would force all contractors to hire legal workers and bring wages up to the legal minimum wage. Further, Mr. Brown adds, it was also hoped that a guest-worker program would be developed in the future for the garment industry. But the guest-worker program is a source of great controversy. Minority groups claim it maintains a permanent underclass, tapping the immigrants for cheap labor and keeping their standard of living below that of most Americans.

(Several people interviewed for articles in this series declined to give their full names. Some of the names they gave may or may not be their real names. Where a fictitious name is used, this is indicated. There are no fictitious or composite characters in these articles.)

Next: Prospect for immigration reform

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