The number of Illegal immigrants in the United States has jumped by 25% in the past five years to some 11 million people. Analysts say their economic impact is significant -- not only in providing low-cost labor, but now as consumers. Some U.S. companies are even marketing goods and services to them. But opponents argue that this legitimizes immigrants who have broken the law by entering the country illegally.
At more than a dozen sites in the Washington, D.C. area, day workers wait in the early morning hours to be picked up for low-paying jobs -- often construction, yard work or manual labor of any kind. Many other illegal immigrant work in a variety of jobs, including retail and domestic services. Just outside the capital, in the town of Herndon, Virginia, nearly 100 Hispanic men gather in the parking lot of a convenience store, where many have been coming for more than a decade. Most of them are illegal immigrants.
Controversial Center Approved
Similar gatherings take place in towns across the country, but this one has become a lightning rod in the illegal immigration debate after the local government approved creating a hiring center that would regulate undocumented laborers.
Bill Threlkeld is with Project Hope and Harmony, a faith-based group that intends to oversee the center. He says it will not only provide shelter, but also language classes and job training for illegal immigrants. “We're pro rights for immigrants and we want to make sure people know that those rights exist no matter what their documented status," says Mr. Threlkeld. One of the day labor studies clearly documents that day laborers are sometimes abused. They do not always receive pay and are sometimes left at sites with no way of getting back.”
But many Herndon residents, including Maryann Cerick, oppose the idea of a government-sanctioned center catering to illegal immigrants. “I don't think the town has any business encouraging people to come in. It's bringing disease; it's bringing a bad name to the town of Herndon.”
An Unbalanced Approach to Illegal Immigration
Such conflicting views sum up what University of Houston sociologist Nestor Rodriguez calls a "schizophrenic attitude" Americans have toward illegal immigrants. “On the one hand we seek to expel those without visas. Politically, there is no legitimacy to the status of people without authorization. And we have a police force to round them up and expel them," notes Professor Rodriguez. "On the other hand, we often cater to them and give them the resources to remain in our society. And quite clearly in the economic sector, employers state that they need illegal or undocumented immigrants.”
Many scholars say the low-cost illegal labor helps fuel America's economy. A recent U.S. Labor Department report shows, for example, that half of manual laborers on U.S. farms are illegal immigrants. This is up from 10% in 1990. The report adds that about a fourth of all dishwashers and workers in the meat and poultry industry are also illegal.
Estimates vary, but at least 500,000 people illegally cross the U.S. border each year in search of jobs that pay several times more than what they could earn at home. More than half that number come from Mexico -- a developing nation that shares a porous 3,000 kilometer border with the United States. Tens-of-thousands come from other Latin American countries. But most have at least one thing in common. They come from poor villages and lack education and professional skills.
Nestor Rodriguez of the University of Houston says this sizable population has captured the attention of U.S. businesses looking for lucrative new markets. “Economically, they are seen almost as ‘social’ citizens. You may have mortgage companies that say, ‘Even if you are undocumented, there are ways to apply for a loan to get a house.’ Owners of businesses, retail stores and supermarkets are not asking if you are documented or not. They are asking, ‘Can you pay for the products we sell?’"
Identification Card Embraced by Many U.S. Companies
Millions of illegal immigrant families earn an average annual income of $30,000, injecting about $100 billion into the U.S. economy. Many companies cater to this growing market by selling home loans, cars and health insurance to illegal immigrants.
Mexican Consulates here in the United States have begun issuing "matricula" identification cards to illegal immigrants to help them with basic services like cashing a check.
U.S. financial institutions were among the first to embrace such cards. In the past four years, illegal immigrants have opened more than 500,000 matricula accounts at Wells Fargo Bank, representing 6% of the company's business.
Legitimizing Illegal Immigration?
But many Americans say this in effect legitimizes millions of people who technically have no legal right to be in the United States. Dan Stein, President of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says doing business with illegal immigrants is setting a dangerous trend. “The hiring of illegal aliens is an extension of smuggling and trafficking and it's a form of exploitation. Now we are seeing this broadening to opportunistic, greed-motivated businesses that encourage and reward people who have broken our laws and come here illegally. As long as we continue to tolerate the large-scale employment of illegal workers in this country, illegal immigration will continue to grow and the problem of crime and exploitation will grow as well.”
Mr. Stein says creating a regulated center for undocumented workers in Herndon, Virginia, for example, is merely a temporary solution to the larger problem of illegal immigrants entering the United States and Americans hiring them.
But Jeff Passel, a demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center research group here in Washington, says traditional approaches to curb illegal border crossings have failed. “The numbers have grown even faster since we've built the fences along the Mexican border and greatly increased the size of the border patrol," says Mr. Passel. "The other thing that the United States and its citizens do through laws and regulations is make life more difficult for the undocumented immigrants, presumably in the hopes that they will go home. But clearly this has not worked.”
Most analysts agree that the federal government is unlikely to gather the millions of illegal immigrants now in the United States and send them home. Last year, President Bush proposed one possible solution that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for three-year work permits, which could be renewed as long as they have a job. The idea is controversial, but could offer what some analysts call a possible cure to America's inconsistency in dealing with illegal immigrants.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.