Searching for recognition: Undocumented workers seek legal rights to work

(originally posted on September 28, 2006 by The American Observer)

Outside a convenience store, a 38-year-old man waited to get paid for the construction job he did earlier that day. Wearing a baseball cap and a dirty navy blue T-shirt, he watched the contractor carefully give money to the other workers.

“I came from Guatemala eight years ago to help my family back home,” he said as his eyes wandered from the contractor to the floor.

“They say we’re terrorists, but we’re not,” he said. “All I want is to get my papers, so I can work legally. We help this country by working. We just want an opportunity.”

Every year, millions of illegal immigrants come to the United States for the opportunity to not only walk down streets paved with gold but to help pave those streets.

Since Sept. 11, “border security” has become the buzz term in the discussion about immigration. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency under the Department of Homeland Security, recently has focused attention on workplace enforcement.

Agency officials said that while the Immigration and Naturalization Service brought
25 criminal charges against employers for hiring illegal immigrants in 2002, the new agency has made 445 criminal arrests of employers this year.

Ronald Boyd, a spokesman for customs enforcement, said the old agency did not investigate enough.

“We had a case in Baltimore where Indonesian immigrants were being exploited,” he said. “They weren’t allowed to use the bathroom, so they would urinate on themselves.”

Under the old system, that business would have been fined, Boyd said.

“ICE got them on money laundering, and the owner got 30 years in prison, and we seized their money and cars,” he said. “It was a strategy shift.”

The agency recently introduced ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers, or IMAGE. Boyd said employers that choose to participate in the program will receive training about how to avoid hiring illegal workers.

Almost 75 percent of business owners see illegal immigration as a serious problem, according to an online member poll conducted by the National Association for the Self-Employed.

“We have received a growing number of calls from businesses asking us for help,” said Boyd. “We owe it to companies that want to do the right thing.”

While Boyd said the initiative is a response to the concerns of business owners, Angelo Amador, director of immigration at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the initiative will not be effective because employers appreciate immigrants — illegal or not.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see many businesses volunteering for the program,” Amador said. “Immigration is an asset. It’s what has kept this economy growing. They are really a benefit to society.”

Amador said the government should “create a system in which employers could hire these people legally. If you could hire them legally, then they wouldn’t come here illegally.”

Juan Carlos, director of the National Capital Immigration Council, said the immigration system is broken. The government should come up with “creative ways to bring them out of the shadows,” he said. “They should create a path for citizenship.”

If this path to citizenship existed for illegal immigrants, it would lead to a home in a quiet Jewish community in Silver Spring, Md.

A 51-year-old occupant said he used forged documents to come to the United States from San Salvador, El Salvador, in May 1979.

“I came to work,” he said.

The man said he earned $2.90 per hour washing dishes at an eatery at Marymount College. He said he got a higher-paying construction job when he was 25. After 10 years on the job, he became the owner of his own construction company and became a U.S. citizen after marrying a woman from Puerto Rico. The couple has two children who had the opportunity to attend private school most of their lives.

“The government has a right to stop the influx of people,” he said. “Yet, there should be more mechanisms to let people come to the country legally so that they could work.”

Chrissy Shott, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, a part of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, said that while the association does not condone hiring undocumented workers, lawmakers should develop comprehensive legislation.

She said the legislation should include a border security measure. She also said the government should create a program that allows undocumented persons to pay a fine, pay taxes and learn English.

While immigration legislation is stalled in Congress, a 34-year-old day laborer sat on a curb outside a McDonald’s in Langley Park. He said the government should give undocumented workers like him an opportunity because they have earned it.

“We make houses,” he said. “If it weren’t for us, what would happen to the construction? Who would make the houses?”

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