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.
Ever eat at the Iron Horse Grill, the consummately polished restaurant just around the corner from the
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
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
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.”
And then there’s the crime. According to Russell, there are up to 200 illegal immigrants in county jails at any given time. “Illegal aliens are obviously unchecked for criminal records,” he says. “The defendants in two brutal rape-
murder cases committed last spring in
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
“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
“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
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
But if small businesses like McGrath’s and Uzzo’s are compelled to pay a living wage in
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
How many are without documents? According to the
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
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
“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
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
But, McGrath points out, there’s little employers can do to ensure that documentation is legitimate. “You can go down to
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
In the meantime, like 60,000 other undocumented immigrants in
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
Dave Donelson, a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine, lives in