The Immigrant Worker in a Down Economy

Racism, unscrupulous employers, law enforcement intimidation, loss of [immigrant] taxpayer dollars? Peter Munoz, executive director of Centro Hispano in Madison, says he sees such struggles every day, and while he agrees that immigration is, indeed, a complex issue, he feels it too often evokes kneejerk responses and, sometimes, racist social policy.

Immigrants — often undocumented aliens — are in desperate straits, now more than ever and largely due to the economy. With thousands in the Dane County area falling victim to job cuts, unskilled or language-challenged or trades workers on the lower rungs are always the first to go. Undocumented individuals, part of an invisible workforce unknown in employment rolls, are hit doubly hard, he said.

So, what's happening to this population — legal alien or undocumented workers — when jobs are scarce? IB asks the question because during good times, these workers are in high demand in this area, where unemployment figures usually fall far below the national average. We needed them desperately five years ago, and expect to need even more five years from now. Are these people staying in the area? If so, how are they treated or surviving? Are they going back to their homelands? Finding other employment?

The answer is: Yes.

9/11 Consequences

Although legal status may or may not be documented, what is well understood is the plight of immigrant and migrant worker populations as they try to forge a living in what most still consider to be the land of opportunity. Statewide, migrant workers numbers have dropped 56% since 1978, including a 17% drop from 2007-2008. Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) Agency Liaison Richard P. Jones suggests the most recent drop was due to three factors: weather (severe flooding/late freeze damaged crops); the national debate on immigration and lack of reform making many employers hesitant to hire workers; and the economy. 2009 figures have yet to be released.

Munoz believes there also is another problem: "These people, including 'undocumenteds,' have significant frustrations," he said, citing an increase in anti-immigrant sentiments that he believes has been bubbling up since 9/11. "Many undocumented workers came here for the economic opportunities available in the U.S., but now find themselves considered as terrorists."

Deputy Dogged?

The "terrorizing" Munoz refers to is in part directed at what the immigrant community views as bias from the Dane County Sheriff's department, which operates the Dane County Jail. "If someone is caught without a driver's license, which they can't obtain without papers, the infraction might involve some jail time," said Munoz. Many consider that practice unfair.

Sheriff David Mahoney disagrees. "The Dane County Sheriff's department — as well as the city of Madison police force — does not enforce immigration at all." In fact, he went on to explain, law enforcement "cannot ask immigration-related questions during the course of handling a crime investigation, particularly in domestic-related crimes. But if there is a court order, then it becomes a civil matter."

However, if a detained person is unable to prove their identity (driver's license, etc.), they are referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and that is what is most offensive to the immigrant community. "Where I've run afoul of the immigrant community is that when [someone] comes to jail and is arrested, I contact [ICE] to find out as much as I can about a person who self-identifies as a non-U.S. citizen." It is a strategy he refuses to change. "I should not be picking and choosing which law enforcement agencies we use as public policy," he said. "I have to use every resource available to [assure] public safety."

In 2008, Mahoney said about 16,000 people were booked into the Dane County Jail. Of those, 300 self-identified as non-citizen and undocumented. About a third of those had "holds" (i.e. warrants) placed on them.

[Advocate] Munoz has long contended that this approach disconnects the minority populations from feeling that they, too, have access to law enforcement protection versus discrimination, and makes them hesitant to approach law enforcement for issues such as domestic violence, etc.

Mahoney said the last thing his department wants is a "terrorized" immigrant community. "If there's a perception that local law enforcement is rounding up immigrants," which, he insists, is untrue, "then there will be reluctance from those communities to report crimes for fear they'll be arrested." That, he agrees, would decrease public safety for all county residents. Then he added, "If people feel the immigration policies are broken, changes must first be made at the federal level."

The Cost of Alienating Aliens

What the general population may view as increased U.S. border patrol and anti-terrorism security tactics, the immigrant population sees as a direct attack on their population. "We have no choice but to secure our borders," Munoz said, "but to limit economic activity isn't the right thing either."

Estimates on the number of undocumented immigrants vary between 10 and 20 million people nationwide. "Twenty million can have a tremendous impact on the economy," Munoz said. "All of the sudden, if you terrorize that workforce, make it difficult for them to hold on to jobs, scare them so they stop economic activities, they begin saving money rather than spending. These folks were buying houses and cars," he said, "and paying taxes. No doubt that's had a tremendous affect on the economy."

Patrick Hickey, executive director at the Worker's Rights Center (WRC) in Madison, a nonprofit providing translation services and informal job complaint mediation, agrees. "In Madison, it used to be that it was pretty easy to find work," he said, speaking on the issue of immigrant (including "undocumented") workers. "Employers were struggling to cover their job needs, and in many cases, looking the other way."

The economic tumble has changed all of that.

E-Verify or E-Terrify?

In 1997, the U.S. Government established a free service called the Basic Pilot/Employment Eligibility Verification Program, which has evolved into what is now known as E-Verify, a voluntary program designed to help employers certify that employees (of all races) hired are legally authorized to work in the United States. With a quick online check, employers can verify that a social security number matches an employee's name.

The program has had its drawbacks, however, as Munoz found out first-hand. He once tested the system by entering his own name and social security number, only to find that no match was found. As it turned out, he didn't type his name in exactly as the system had registered it, but the potential for problems became immediately obvious.

According to FAIR (the Federation for American Immigration Reform), a three-year extension of the E-Verify program is currently included in the House-Senate conference report for the Fiscal Year 2010 spending bill for Homeland Security. The organization claims 140,000 employers use the system nationwide, resulting in 12 million queries this year alone.

Munoz said E-Verify has been "devastating to the population" because many do not have the legal papers necessary. One reason, he says, is the incredibly long and difficult process involved in obtaining legal papers. Depending on the individual, it could take 10 to 15 years, he said. "That's a long time." That frustration, he said, is leading many to return to their homelands.

Is this typical?

Not necessarily. Hickey (WRC) says chances are, no matter how bad things are here, they can be much worse south of the U.S. border. He cites one case where a person returned to Guatemala, only to find people "literally starving." The realization that life is even more difficult at home may be the impetus for many immigrants to remain.

While Hickey agrees the Madison area is still more fortunate than other areas of the state because many are still finding work, he says it may take longer to find those typical "bottom of the ladder" jobs. "Where they used to have three jobs, now they have two," he says, "Rather than working 70 hours a week, now they're working 40." In the meantime, he said, they are turning more frequently to religious charities for help.

Not Playing Fair

Unscrupulous employers are an additional and unfortunate consequence in a down economy. Hickey said the WRC has seen a fair amount of unscrupulous employers who often exploit migrant workers, most often in the construction and food-service industries. These employers, often "fly-by-nighters" or sometimes employers who have simply fallen on hard times, have been found to pay workers late, not pay them at all, or expect a lot more for a lot less.

Some workers report receiving "salaries," meaning they are paid cash under the table, which ultimately results in less than minimum wage. Additionally, business failures can sometimes result in a bounced paycheck, unbeknownst to a worker, triggering assessed bank fees. Sometimes a worker may purchase food on what they believed was their hard-earned money, only to find later that they've used money that never existed.

The WRC fields exploitation complaints like these on a regular basis, and Hickey has noticed an uptick in activity this year. "We saw about 650 cases in 2008," he said, "and this year we're on track for about 700." Some complaints, he said, are coming from quite a distance, such as Beloit, Stevens Point, Fond du Lac, and Richland Center — evidence that the problem is widespread.

"This type of behavior has always gone on where immigrants are concerned," Hickey admitted. "We don't have white or African Americans or Hmong workers coming in saying they haven't been paid."

Keeping it Legal

The Bruce Company in Middleton is known for legally hiring foreign seasonal employees through the visa system — trained workers who in many cases, return year after year. In order to get hiring clearance, the company is required by the Department of Labor to prove that there is not an adequate local workforce available to fill the landscaping positions requested. At its peak, the Bruce Company was adding 120 visa workers to its payroll.

But hiring for the spring of 2010 is in question. "Right now, we're taking things one step at a time and looking at projected sales," said the company's PR director, who asked not to be identified. "If we were to bring back any foreign workers, it would have to be a very qualified, very specialized group," she said, adding that it would be difficult right now for any employer to legally bring foreign workers on board. "You'd have to prove there is not a local workforce available to fill those jobs, but clearly, there is," she said, thanks, of course, to Dane County's 5.8% seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate (still the lowest in the state). "We truly believe that with the current state of our economy, it would be a disservice not to hire locally."

What do you think?

When those same local people can find higher wages in a rosier future job market and move on, the immigrant laborer again will be in high demand. When that happy day comes (for all of us), might the public have a greater tolerance for ambiguity about identities? If so, might the public servants' job of identifying undocumented workers to the ICE might be relaxed as well, since law enforcement priorities tend to mirror public sentiment?

Are we more racist during a down economy? Or, following 9/11, do we want more assurances that we know the identities of those living in our community? Does the Sherriff's Department referral to ICE reassure you or worry you? How do you feel about migrant labor and the policies or laws protecting workers in general?

Please share your thoughts or predictions in the comment section below.