Sunday, June 27, 2004

Needed, but not wanted :: The Daily Herald, Provo Utah

Needed, but not wanted :: The Daily Herald, Provo Utah

Sunday, June 27, 2004 - 12:00 AM |
Needed, but not wanted

His tourist visa to the United States expired three years ago. But Gabriel Mendoza has been living and working in Utah -- and before that in Florida -- hopping from one job to the next in constant fear of being deported.

Mendoza, 45, came to this country from Peru on a six-month tourist visa after losing his diaper distribution business to a weak economy. Political unrest made it hard for him to find work in Peru for nearly two years.

Before the business collapsed, he owned a home in Peru, and he earned a comfortable salary of $3,500 a month, affording him summer vacations in America.

But constant strikes, riots and terrorist attacks coupled with a crippling lack of jobs in Peru drove Mendoza and his wife, Maria, both Peruvian university graduates, to the United States in 2000 in hopes of a new life -- even if it meant starting from the bottom as laborers earning barely more than minimum wage.

In America, the Mendozas hope to give their children a chance at a better life through education and jobs, if only they can hide from immigration authorities long enough for laws to pass that grant legal-resident status to eligible undocumented workers.

Mendoza is one of an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants who every year try to escape to the United States to avoid the hopelessness, grinding poverty, corruption, unemployment and political unrest in their countries. A majority of them are from Mexico and South America.

The Mendozas see their native Peru as a place where college-educated engineers and teachers drive taxis for a living, and where two-thirds of people of working age are either unemployed or underemployed. That's the fate the Mendozas hope to avoid in America for themselves and their children.

Mendoza is also one of an estimated 8 million to 10 million undocumented immigrants contributing to what immigration reform advocates and U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, contend is a $30 billion-a-year infusion into the national social security system. Nationwide, Hispanic purchasing power has surged to nearly $700 billion and is projected to reach as much as $1 trillion by 2010, according to estimates by Hispanic Business Inc., a California research company.

But the fast-growing Latino illegal immigrant population of which Mendoza is part, combined with post-Sept. 11 jitters, is prompting the U.S. Social Security Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement to step up efforts to identify undocumented immigrants now living in the United States.

Living light

The Mendozas live modestly in America. Their two-bedroom apartment in Provo is sparsely furnished. Their refrigerator is barely stocked in case they have to leave suddenly to avoid being caught by immigration authorities.

That fear has been pressing Mendoza since he was laid off as a production worker at the Daily Herald. He and 17 other Daily Herald production workers, all Latinos, were laid off in May after an audit by the Social Security Administration found they had used fake information to obtain employment. The company didn't break immigration laws in hiring the workers, accepting documents in good faith, but once the workers' illegal status was known, it was required to terminate them or face heavy fines.

"After my visa expired, someone gave me a telephone number for a place where I could buy a Social Security card for $80. No one would hire me without a Social Security card," Mendoza said.

Mendoza had held two jobs -- one at the Herald and another in a local manufacturing plant -- working 20-hour days, four days a week, for $7 or $8 an hour to support his wife, Maria, and daughter, Isabel, 18. He managed to send $500 a month to his two young sons in Peru: Alfredo, 13, and Jose, 12, both of whom are now in the United States on tourist visas.

But without the additional income from the newspaper job, things are tougher than ever for the Mendozas. Maria doesn't dare take a job for fear of being discovered and jeopardizing her husband's other position.

The Herald changed the names of family members for this article because they continue to face the threat of deportation. Mendoza's current employer is not aware that he is in the country illegally.

Because of his undocumented status, the only recourse he has is to marry a U.S. citizen or have family members who are U.S. citizens (or legal immigrants) petition for permanent-resident status on his behalf. But neither option is likely to succeed because the Mendozas are happily married and don't have any relatives who are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants.

Turning up the heat

Efforts to step up audits against businesses, both nationally and in Utah County, have been significant. While U.S. immigration laws impose heavy civil penalties on employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, bureaucracy makes it difficult for many businesses to instantly confirm a prospective employee's Social Security information.

Beginning Dec. 1, employers nationwide will be required to look up and verify their employees' Social Security numbers and work authorization status by calling one of two toll-free numbers. The phone numbers tap databases of the Social Security Administration and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.

This Basic Pilot Extension Act of 2003, passed by Congress in November, is an extension of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The '96 act gave employers in six states -- California, Texas, Nebraska, Illinois, New York and Florida -- direct access to the government's immigration service and Social Security's computer databases to verify employment eligibility.

Civil penalties for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers range from $250 to $2,000 per person per day for the first offense, to as much as $10,000 a day for the third offense.

Recent crackdowns have resulted in a number of local businesses being fined or investigated for employing undocumented immigrants. For instance, Provo's Champion Safe Co. lost more than 100 of its workers after an immigration raid last February found many of them to be undocumented. Charges have not been filed against the company.

Though economists and demographers lack definitive data on the number of undocumented immigrants in Utah, some estimate it's between 65,000 and 100,000. That compares to an estimated 2 million in California, where one of the largest illegal immigrant populations is concentrated partly because of its proximity to Mexico.

In April, federal authorities audited the Heber City food company Bear Creek Country Kitchens LLC and found that as many as 43 of its 100-plus workers had provided fraudulent Social Security information, alien registration numbers and proof of citizenship. Most of the 43 production workers were from South America.

Federal authorities, who were tipped off by former Bear Creek workers claiming to have lost their jobs to undocumented workers, have yet to find fault with the company or SOS Staffing, the temporary staffing agency that contracted with Bear Creek. No fines or legal actions followed for either company, said Michael Rosoff, Bear Creek's environmental health, safety and risk manager.

Rosoff said existing law does not require immigrant workers to produce an alien registration number or a green card. They are only required to produce a Social Security card and driver's license documents, documents that Rosoff said are notoriously easy to forge.

Most of the 43 Latino workers had entered the United States legally on tourist visas but overstayed their 90-day limit and became illegal, Rosoff said. Bear Creek offered to reinstate six of the 43 if they could become legal within 30 days of the audit, but only three were able to do so with help from immigration attorneys or petitions by family members who were U.S. citizens or legal immigrants.

"We suffered because we lost good people we had trained and were comfortable with, and we had to work seven times harder to fulfill our production during those 30 days," Rosoff said. The company has since replaced all of its lost workers and has a work force of 130. It is now taking extra precautions to verify its employees' status.

Steeped in controversy

Illegal immigration remains a hot political topic, and was central in Cannon's Republican primary election campaign against Matt Throckmorton for Utah's 3rd Congressional District seat.

Cannon, who breezed to victory with more than 58 percent of the vote on Tuesday, sponsored a bill in Congress last year that would allow some illegal immigrants to gain legal status. He also supports Bush's proposal for a guest-worker program.

Throckmorton, however, supported tighter border controls and opposed plans to allow now-illegal immigrants to move toward legal status -- proposals he calls amnesty. While he recognizes the need for legal migrant workers in the United States, he said many unemployed citizens need jobs, too, and immigrants take those away from Americans. He is vague on whether the country's need for labor could actually be filled without undocumented workers in the picture, though he has used anecdotal stories about unemployed Americans he knows who would be happy to work at a job now held by an illegal worker.

Critics argue that because undocumented workers violate federal laws when they fail to obtain legal status for employment, the problem becomes one of simple law enforcement. Anti-immigration groups, such as Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, which Throckmorton has led, say illegal workers are taking jobs away from low-skilled and blue-collar native workers and blame them for exerting downward pressure on wages across the lower end of the payscale.

Critics also think illegal immigrants are a fiscal burden on state and local government because their households tend to have lower incomes and, therefore, pay lower federal, state and local taxes. They add that more school-age children come from illegals on average than from their U.S. counterparts, placing a greater burden on schools.

And unless the U.S. Department of Homeland Security can do better at controlling borders, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some industry experts say the public may be reluctant to accept President Bush's proposal for a new guest-worker program and legalization of undocumented immigrants already here.

Inefficient border controls have allowed communities of recently arrived immigrants to create immigration networks that serve as incubators for illegal immigration, providing jobs and housing for illegal immigrants, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research group.

Economic benefits

The other side has a sharply different view -- that society reaps enormous net economic benefits from the employment of illegal immigrants. That's the clear message of one researcher, Jacob Siegel, in his book "Applied Demography: Applications to Business, Government, Law and Public Policy." Siegel is a demographer and a former U.S. Census Bureau senior statistician.

Many business owners in agriculture, manufacturing, hospitality, construction, restaurants, meat packing and food processing, janitorial and landscaping depend on immigrant workers because they represent a cheap and compliant labor source. This, in turn, contributes to lower prices of goods and services.

"And the long-term fiscal effect of immigration is positive for the federal government," said Pia Orrenius, a senior economist with the Dallas Federal Reserve. "They don't qualify for Social Security and welfare benefits, but they have to pay federal income taxes as well as Social Security taxes and Medicare taxes."

She estimates more than 50 percent of illegal immigrants in the United States are on payroll records, which means state and federal taxes are withheld along with Social Security taxes and Medicare. In addition, these workers pay sales taxes on purchases and pay property taxes through rents.

Illegal immigrants' access to welfare was restricted in 1996, when the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act made illegal immigrants ineligible for nearly all welfare benefits, such as food stamps, except emergency medical assistance under Medicaid, Siegel said.

"Claiming that immigrants are a drain on education and health care services is an oversimplification because there are payoffs in the future from having the children of immigrants educated," said Jeffrey Passel, a demographer with the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan think tank.

There is no government estimate on the percentage of the illegal alien population that is now attending public school in grades K-12, according to a June study by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

But in 1982 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it would be unconstitutional for any state or school district to deny K-12 education to a child residing in that state or school district on the basis of the child being an illegal alien, the GAO study said.

Gabriel and Maria Mendoza are grateful for that law.

"The most important thing for us is educating our children in America, then getting better jobs and our own home. That's the American dream for us," Maria said, beaming at Isabel, whom she said will represent Utah at a martial arts competition in Atlanta.

Isabel, who completed a nursing course at Mountainland Applied Technology College with her parents' financial help, hopes to study architecture at the University of Utah. But it may be difficult unless she is able to convert her tourist visa to a student visa.

"That could be a problem," said Salt Lake City-based immigration attorney Bibiana Ochoa. "If she's out of status for less than a year, there's a three-year bar on her applying for another visa. If she's out of status for more than a year, there's a 10-year bar."

Labor shortage solution

The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, a research unit affiliated with Columbia University and the University of Southern California School of Policy, Planning and Development, says illegal immigrants in Utah are heavily concentrated in unskilled occupations such as construction labor and domestic services such as dishwashing.

Industry sectors that rely on immigrant workers would suffer chronic labor shortages without them, said Pam Perlich, a senior research economist with the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business.

"It's pure and simple hypocrisy to say you want the cheap labor but don't want to have the illegal workers here. They aren't taking jobs that native workers want. If not for these workers, we wouldn't have had the infrastructure and venues in Utah ready for the 2002 Winter Olympics. The Interstate 15 freeway system or even the Gateway Mall wouldn't get built," she said. "We would have a chronic shortage of labor in hotels, restaurants and agriculture, and employers would have to raise wages to entice native workers. The cost of living would go up, and with more baby boomers retiring and low fertility rates nationally, we'd have an absolute labor shortage."

Existing legislation fails to adequately protect undocumented workers from being exploited, Perlich said.

"Because of their undocumented status, these workers have no recourse if they don't get paid or if they are injured on the job. And the probability of injuries among undocumented workers is higher because of the language issue," she said.

Even as immigration becomes more problematic, the number of undocumented immigrants is expected to grow by 500,000 annually, the Center for Immigration Studies said. The Urban Institute estimates 9.3 million illegal immigrants in the country as of 2002. About 6 million of them are working.

"The internationalization of labor markets and of production and capital markets -- these same forces that are driving outsourcing are also driving immigration," Perlich said. "You can't stop the movement of people and ideas. The genie is out of the bottle."

In this global market, low-skilled American workers without high school diplomas are perceived as a less-attractive hiring option compared with immigrant workers, she said.

"Because you don't need English to work in construction, landscaping or baby-sitting, a foreign worker is a close substitute for a low-skilled native worker," said Orrenius, of the Dallas Federal Reserve. "The wages of blue-collar native workers have been dropping in real terms since the late '70s also because of increasing returns to education given by the market place, growing international trade, immigration and rising technology."

The wage penalties of dropping out of school are higher now, Orrenius said. Nationally, the wages of low-skilled native workers such as operators, laborers and fabricators have dropped between 2.2 percent and 2.9 percent, or up to $700 a year, as a result of growing immigration.

But Perlich says other factors are pressuring wages across the lower end of the pay structure in Utah. The average wages of low-skilled workers in Utah are traditionally lower than the national average partly because of low levels of union activity and because a sizable number of the working population is young.

On the other hand, the Urban Institute's Passel said some evidence suggests a fair majority of undocumented workers nationwide are working in jobs that show up in payroll statistics, as opposed to stereotypical perceptions that most are working in the underground economy.

"Illegal immigration is a problematic issue. Park City lives on the service industry. Without those workers to fill the void, the service industry can't exist. Most high school kids don't have the work ethic that those immigrants have. It's beyond these kids to work as a housekeeper or a dishwasher," Bear Creek Country Kitchens' Rosoff said.

But amnesty for illegal immigrants isn't the answer either, he said. Businesses such as Bear Creek Country Kitchens want a ready source of dependable, cheap labor, but they also need a reliable, efficient way to verify that their employees are legal, he said.

Rosoff proposed temporary work internships, in which foreign workers with technical skills can be trained in the United States with the possibility of obtaining a long-term work visa.

"These workers support and promote the economic strategy of this country, especially when we can't find workers here to do the job," Rosoff said. "So why not try to legalize some of those workers so our socio-economic structure doesn't fall apart?"

Tough to be legal

But under existing laws, immigrant workers seeking legal work status in the United States have to undergo a complicated process. That situation becomes even murkier for undocumented immigrants because they are precluded from applying for a permanent resident identification card -- green card -- if they came into the United States illegally.

Gabriel Mendoza's difficulty in obtaining a green card is common. Like many other immigrants, he doesn't have family members who are U.S. citizens, nor does he know of any legal immigrants or an employer who could make a petition on his behalf.

But Ochoa, the Salt Lake immigration attorney, maintains there are ways for immigrant workers to obtain legal work status.

"Immigrant visas can also be obtained through petitions for political asylum," she said. "But there are lots of things that impede an illegal immigrant's ability to petition for a visa, such as criminal records or prior deportation."

"That's why many of them don't apply, because if they don't qualify they are subjecting themselves to deportation," she said.

In addition, other limitations exist, including a quota on the number of green cards and H-2 visas for agricultural and unskilled workers, Passel said.

Only about 15 percent of green cards are issued for employment purposes. Most of the green cards are given to relatives of U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, Passel said.

And most employers are reluctant to petition for green cards on behalf of immigrant workers because they have to provide their companies' financial information such as tax records to U.S. immigration authorities.

"The employers have to prove to immigration they can afford to pay these people they are petitioning for. Green card applications often take more participation on the part of the employer," Ochoa said.

Local immigration officer David Ward said he is sympathetic to undocumented workers' plight and their desire to seek a better life in America. But that desire doesn't justify stealing or forging Social Security information to obtain jobs and credit, he said.

"This country is built on a system of laws. There are legal and illegal ways of getting into the country," he said. "What's it worth to be an American citizen?"

A matter of intent

Mendoza said he likes how people in the U.S. have respect for the law. "Where I come from, there is terrorism, assassinations, theft, kidnappings. Too many homeless kids becoming criminals."

Even though he knows he violated immigration laws by overstaying his tourist visa and using fake Social Security information to get work, Mendoza believes he and his family deserve a chance to work for a better life.

"I pay taxes to the American government, which I won't benefit from because of my immigration status. I have tried to be a good citizen by not breaking other laws. I didn't come in illegally," Mendoza bristled.

He said his situation was unlike that of many Mexican illegal immigrants who cross into the United States through the Sonoran Desert on the southern border -- one of the most inhospitable places on earth -- and often die either from the heat during the day, from cold at night or from predatory bandits, in cars that break down during the journey, or from simple thirst.

Still, like most undocumented immigrants, Mendoza is resigned to the possibility of deportation.

"I'll lose a lot," he said, "And I'll have to start all over again."


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