By some estimates, there are as many as 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, toiling in farm fields, restaurant kitchens and construction sites. They're in the country illegally, but the employers who hire them are also breaking the law.
But the presence of illegal workers on a home renovation crew, and the contractor's insistence on payment in cash don't dissuade potential clients. As one contractor points out, "When you go into a restaurant, do you ask if everybody is legal in the kitchen? No! You know, people don't do that. When you go to get your car fixed, no. So nobody does it in construction, either."
That said, the contractor - who prefers not to use his name - figures he pays his workers better than the average for illegal labor. "I try to give people a living wage," he says, "so nobody makes less than $10 an hour. We're not out to abuse anybody, which a lot of people are. They want to pick somebody up and just work them for $4 an hour."
Whatever the wages, operating on a cash-only basis saves contractors like him on payroll, taxes and insurance. Still plenty of employers do pay taxes and insurance on illegal workers.
Many workers carry fake Social Security and green cards, and when they're hired, employers file those fake numbers with the federal government. There is a way the employer can tell if those numbers are fake. As Chris Bentley of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explains, all it takes is a toll free phone call, which "allows them to, in a matter of seconds, take the information and verify it against 450 million social security administration files, and an additional 65 million Department of Homeland Security files."
But few employers make the call. The program is voluntary and only 4,400 employers are signed up nationwide. Companies can't be held responsible for failing to spot forged documents. And although federal law prohibits employing illegal workers, it is rarely enforced, according to Kevin Jeffrey of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles. "We can fine employers," he says, but points out "it has been an issue where a lot of those fines are settled for pennies on the dollar, and if you got a multi-million dollar business, what's a $10,000 fine?"
He says there's a larger issue for American society to decide: "do we really want employers to go to jail for doing this or do we want to just do what we've been doing and winking at them and, you know, kind of letting it go by the board?"
For example, Mr. Jeffrey says, his 400 agents oversee a huge district that includes most of Southern California and parts of Nevada. They deal with port security, airport security, money laundering, narcotics, financial fraud, and organized crime, as well as trade in counterfeit goods, state secrets, and human beings. Weeding out illegal workers, he says, is just not a major concern, unless you're talking about a work site with national security implications, like Los Angeles International Airport or a nuclear plant. "To be perfectly honest, people who are working at Rigoberto's Taco Shop, they're way back on the back burner. With the limited people and all these responsibilities that we have, we just can't be everything for everybody."
That situation exasperates those who feel that American citizens are losing out to a black market system that lowers wages and cuts into the tax base. Joseph Turner heads Save Our State, a Southern California group opposed to illegal immigration. In his view, "When you have other people who are undercutting or gaming the system and doing things that are illegal, and where there's no prosecution or enforcement of those laws against these people who are cheating the system, it forces many people who would like to play by the rules to in fact break the rules, because otherwise, they would be out of business, or starve."
Like it or not, though, that's the reality employers face, especially in California, and states with large illegal immigrant populations.