- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Important American industries including top Republican campaign contributors see President Bush’s proposal to create a foreign guest-worker program as the best way to address labor shortages in their fields.

Employers from farm and construction work to restaurateurs and Main Street stores say the current system that allows millions of illegal workers to enter the country and work under the table for subminimum wages is not serving businesses or workers well.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million small businesses across the country, supports the plan as a simple acknowledgment of reality: Despite strict rules against hiring illegal workers, the practice is widespread and growing.

“Our immigration system is broken,” said Randel Johnson, a vice president at the Chamber of Commerce. “Our immigration and visa policy must ensure employers are able to fill jobs critical to our economy when American workers are not available.”

The plan would allow U.S. employers to fill job openings with qualified workers from other countries if Americans are unwilling to take the jobs. It also would provide temporary work permits to an estimated 8 million undocumented workers already in the country.

Businesses that stand to benefit from tapping into a potentially huge pool of cheap foreign labor are major donors and political activists campaigning for the president, helping him to set fund-raising records early in the 2004 campaign cycle.

Even some businesses that have been caught in the Bush administration’s enforcement net for employing undocumented workers, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., contribute largely to President Bush and Republican causes, though Democrats traditionally have provided the political base of support for immigration-reform legislation.

Mr. Bush and other advocates of such legislation say providing a legal avenue for immigrant labor would enable the government to focus its enforcement efforts on the most pressing threats from abroad: terrorism and illegal drugs.

Underground economy

Advocates say it also would take a step toward redressing some of the hardships faced by workers trapped in the illegal underground economy.

“The way it is now, the aliens stand on street corners and take what they can get,” accepting pay as low as $4 an hour with no insurance or other benefits, said “M.A.,” the owner of a New Mexico contracting company that installs home spas.

Employers not only get away with paying illegal workers less than the $5.15 federal minimum wage, but they don’t pay the workers’ income or Social Security taxes, said the contractor, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used.

Despite the hardship for workers, employers take advantage of their inexpensive labor because they save so much money, said M.A., who employs about 65 people, both legal and illegal, at 10 locations in the Southwest.

The Washington area has attracted many undocumented workers because of the booming housing market and the higher wages available here. Contractors and homeowners alike cruise by street corners in Langley Park, Springfield, Alexandria and other areas where immigrant workers gather and can be hired on the spot.

One local real estate agent said the need for workers has become so dire that illegal laborers are earning a minimum of $10 to $12 an hour for simple yard work or home-maintenance projects.

“If you’ve got a hammer in your hand, a builder’s going to hire you,” no questions asked, she said. She asked that her name not be used.

While all employers including homeowners who hire somebody for a weekend painting project are required to obtain proof of legal status, many such small employers appear to be oblivious to their responsibilities because enforcement is so rare, the real estate agent said.

The practice of hiring laborers off street corners is accepted, she said.

“I don’t think fear of enforcement is an issue,” she said, noting that one street corner in Springfield where illegal workers gather is next door to a police station.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security deported 140,000 illegal immigrants in the last fiscal year, but its emphasis has been on finding and deporting convicted criminals and those who pose a threat to homeland security.

Most run-of-the-mill day laborers and part-time home workers escape enforcement because the government’s few thousand immigration agents are far outnumbered by the millions of illegal workers and people who employ them, enforcement officials say.

In addition, while employers face fines if they knowingly hire illegal workers, pinning the blame can be difficult. Some small employers genuinely are deceived by workers who, for as little as $80, can obtain forged documents such as work permits, green cards and Social Security numbers, sometimes culled from the records of dead people.

Even Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, insisted it did not know that 250 undocumented janitorial workers rounded up in its stores in enforcement raids last year were illegal because they were hired by outside contractors. Wal-Mart says it was treated unfairly because it had been cooperating with federal authorities to go after the real culprits.

Despite substantial damage to its reputation as an “all-American company” caused by the raid, Wal-Mart continues to contribute to Mr. Bush and donate overwhelmingly to Republicans.

Going where the jobs are

Immigrants have gravitated to occupations in which jobs are plentiful but often not attractive to Americans because they are dirty, dangerous and low paying.

While unemployed Americans complain about a “jobless recovery” that has kept more than 8 million native-born workers from finding jobs in the past three years, employers in booming industries like construction complain that they can’t find enough workers.

“The construction industry is creating jobs, but in many cases, no one is there to fill this need,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer of Associated General Contractors, an industry group that supports Mr. Bush’s reform plan.

A recent study by Pew Hispanic Center found that the boom in construction employment is disproportionately benefiting Hispanic immigrants over native-born Americans.

Hispanic males who arrived in the country since 2000 experienced the fastest employment growth in the nation last year, with the construction industry accounting for more than half the 648,445 jobs obtained by such workers, the study found.

Mexican and other Latin American immigrants make up about 80 percent of an estimated 9.3 million undocumented immigrants in the country, including workers as well as their children and wives who do not work, according to the Urban Institute.

Construction businesses employ an estimated 1 million to 2 million of the undocumented workers, according to labor analysts. With $5.1 million in contributions to Mr. Bush thus far in the campaign cycle, they also are top donors to Mr. Bush, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

General contractors in total have contributed $2.3 million to the president. And two prominent developers, Dwight C. Schar of NVR Homes and C. Michael Kojaian of Kojaian Cos., are among Mr. Bush’s top money-raisers, having drummed up $759,500 and $743,401 in contributions, respectively.

Construction businesses have given more than 70 percent of their campaign contributions, or $88.4 million, to Republicans since 2000, compared with $38.3 million to Democrats, according to the politics center.

The National Association of Home Builders, a prominent builders’ group, has spread its $863,000 in contributions more evenly between the parties, with 58 percent going to Republicans and 42 percent to Democrats.

Other critical industries outside of construction also say the flow of low-wage workers from Mexico, Central America, China and other developing countries has become essential for them to stay afloat.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, which organized the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition to fight for immigration reform on Capitol Hill, says a shortage of seasonal workers at hotels is becoming critical because American workers increasingly are college educated and are not interested in low-level hotel jobs.

The business lobbying coalition has 34 large and small members, ranging from the National Retail Federation and American Health Care Association to the Truckload Carriers Association and National Roofing Contractors Association.

The retail group has given all of its $171,776 in campaign contributions since 2000 to Republican candidates.

The National Restaurant Association, whose members employ thousands of undocumented workers, says chronic labor shortages will lead to a 1.6 million shortfall of workers by 2012.

It supports the Bush plan as well as bipartisan efforts at immigration reform on Capitol Hill, and has given more than 70 percent of its $6.2 million in campaign donations to Republicans.

“Long term, we believe there will not be enough workers in the U.S. to meet the demands of our industry,” said Brendan Flanagan of the restaurant group, adding that reform is needed to ensure that immigrant workers get fairer treatment.

“Individuals who work hard, pay taxes and contribute to our economy deserve an opportunity to earn legal status,” he said.

Demanding fair treatment

Major labor groups also support efforts to legalize the vast underground work force. But they say the Bush plan doesn’t go far enough and should provide an avenue for illegal workers to earn permanent citizenship.

“It’s time to take the 8 million hard-working immigrants living in the U.S. out of the shadows and recognize the important role they play in the nation’s economy,” said Jaime Contreras, a local Service Employees International Union official who recently helped form the National Capital Immigration Coalition to fight for broad legalization.

The group accuses the Bush administration of “declaring war” against illegal immigrants by, among other things, proposing to enlist local police officers to enforce the immigration laws up until now the responsibility only of U.S. immigration agents.

Labor advocates say legalization would give immigrants the grounds they need to demand higher wages and benefits such as health insurance, workers compensation and pensions.

That would benefit American workers as well, they say, since studies show that the depressed wages accepted by many immigrant workers have put a damper on the wages and benefits of low-skilled and less-educated American workers.

Legalization also would give recourse to the thousands of immigrants who have become victims of work-related injuries.

Some of the trades that attract immigrants construction, farming, tree cutting, fishing and roofing are among those with the highest fatality and injury rates in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Between 1 million and 2 million of the illegal workers in the country work on farms, ranches, fishing boats and other relatively small agricultural businesses, according to labor analysts.

About a million work in less-hazardous conditions in private homes as nannies, butlers, chauffeurs, chefs, elder-care workers, maids and personal assistants, while millions more work for Main Street retailers such as convenience stores and pizza parlors, the analysts estimate.

“Many domestic workers keep a low profile,” work for less than the minimum wage and don’t pay taxes, said Guy Maddalone, chief executive of GTM Household Employment Experts, a group that provides advice to household employers about their legal responsibilities.

Because of the widespread evasion of federal laws, the government is missing out on billions of dollars in Social Security and income tax revenue, he said, noting that one side benefit of legalization is that it would ensure that illegal workers who do not pay taxes do so in the future.

Some opposition

One prominent group not backing the Bush plan, though some of its 600,000 members most likely employ undocumented workers, is the National Federation of Independent Business.

The small-business group has not taken a position on the plan because its members have been unable to reach a consensus, a spokeswoman said.

For the NFIB, as well as some of the other small-business associations, reform of the nation’s class-action litigation system and health care system, where costs are skyrocketing, are higher priorities than immigration reform.

Many members of the NFIB, the Chamber of Commerce, and other small-business groups are grass-roots Republicans who contribute their time and money to Republican causes.

Their reticence about the immigration plan may in part reflect the split within the GOP between social conservatives, who generally oppose legalization, and economic conservatives and businesses, who generally support it.

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