Illegal immigrants establish labor pool vital to U.S. economy

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CHICAGO – She lives in Rolling Meadows, Ill., teaches catechism at her church, attends parent-teacher meetings at her children’s schools and files tax returns on her earnings from a $7.50 per hour restaurant job.

Rosa and her factory-worker husband are not unlike millions of working parents struggling to improve their lives except for one important difference: They are here illegally.

The Mexican natives are part of a large and growing pool of illegal workers whose presence in the local economy is an open secret that persists because of mutual accommodations between migrants hungry for jobs and employers hungry for cheaper labor.

As immigrant rights advocates prepare to take to the streets Monday in another of the mass demonstrations that have jolted cities across the country, illegal workers no longer are invisible. Their role in the economy is being hotly debated, but few deny their importance.

“Many industries rely on them as important components of their workers,” said Rob Paral, a Chicago-based consultant and research fellow at the American Immigration Law Foundation. “Many operators would not be in business if they didn’t have this labor.”

In Illinois, where greater Chicago is a magnet for immigrants, there are an estimated 285,000 illegal workers, a population nearly twice the size of the city of Rockford. More than three in four are from Mexico or Latin America, based on national figures from the Pew Hispanic Center.

Collectively they gross an estimated $3.7 billion in annual wages in Illinois, a conservative estimate based on the state’s minimum $6.50 per hour wage, said David A. Jaeger, economics and public policy associate professor at the College of William and Mary.

In construction, where one in five workers is undocumented, they are insulation workers, drywall installers and tapers, brick and stone masons, painters and helpers. In factories and warehouses they operate machines and pack boxes. They work as cooks, janitors, mechanics, meat packers and maids.

Their presence keeps the price of lawn service and hamburgers and hotel rooms down. It also tends to depress wages in low-paying jobs and increase competition for native citizens with little formal schooling, even while opening opportunities for immigrants who build neighborhoods, buy homes and start businesses of their own.

Not all are poor, but many take jobs that others turn down because of low pay or tough conditions.

“Native born people come to my job and they only last a week. They don’t want to do all the jobs I do,” explained Rosa, 40, the Rolling Meadows resident who has worked for a decade at a fast-food restaurant. She and other illegal workers interviewed for this story are identified by first names to protect their identities.

She is typical of tens of thousands of illegal workers whose visits to Chicago-area relatives turned into indefinite stays. The petite, soft-spoken native of Jalisco, Mexico, arrived on a six-month visa in 1996 with her husband and 3-year-old son.

“My brother found a good job for my husband and asked if he wanted to stay,” she recalled, sitting on a worn sofa in her family’s small, four-room apartment in a rental complex crowded with illegal immigrants.

She paid $120 for a fake Social Security card and applied at the restaurant where she has worked six days a week ever since.

Her boss, who relies on her to train new workers, has told her she could be an assistant manager if only she spoke better English. So she takes classes at a community center.

Her fear of being deported is yielding to a conviction that illegal workers need to speak up. With the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, an advocacy group for low-wage workers, she helped organize a petition drive last year backed by local churches. The petitions urged her restaurant’s franchise owner not to take action after the Social Security Administration sent “no match” letters.

The routine letters listed names of employees whose Social Security numbers didn’t match the agency’s databases.

“We told (the manager) that our Social Security numbers were not good, and we could not go to Social Security” to change them, she said, adding, “He already knew.”

So she and her co-workers continue using fake numbers, paying taxes for benefits they never will collect.

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Meanwhile, Rosa and her husband blend into a burgeoning community of illegal immigrants whose lives revolve around family, work and school. Their 5-year-old daughter is a U.S. citizen. Their son, now a high school freshman, likes rap music and plays on his school’s soccer team.

They sit down together for dinner at 4 p.m., a meal sandwiched between her husband’s 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift and her 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. job.

They live paycheck to paycheck on a combined annual salary of about $25,000 after payroll taxes, sending $50 a month to Rosa’s mother in Mexico.

“When I have more, I send more,” she said.

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Asked if they are getting ahead, she hesitated, then said, “I think so. My children, I want them to study while we support them so they will have better jobs, and they won’t have to work the way my husband and I work.”

In another northwest suburb, Fernando is facing deportation after an arrest for driving on a revoked license. But his boss at a chemical plant welcomed him back to his physically demanding, $13.90 per hour job even after he served time in a county jail.

“That made me feel like a family, comfortable,” said the 38-year-old native of Tonatico, Mexico, who settled in the Chicago-area in 1989. “They support me, I support them with my job. I do my best.”

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The chemical plant owner has had a hard time finding workers, Fernando said.

“They get scared when they see the work and don’t come back,” he explained. “It is hard, it is heavy. At the end of the day you feel really dirty.”

He works from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., getting home after midnight and rising at 6:30 a.m. to get his two daughters off to school. Some mornings, he helps a friend who owns a landscape business.

The first time he entered the United States illegally, in 1985, he made his way to Northbrook, Ill., where he found work in a restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue, washing dishes and clearing tables.

He lived with five other illegal workers in a house the restaurant provided, working for food and lodging but no pay.

“The manager liked how I was helping, and he decided to open a second shift, and there was a lot of work and they started paying me,” he said. “They treated us pretty good.”

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Now, illegal immigrants are so much a part of the American economic fabric that in some instances banks lend them money to buy homes, using special nine-digit numbers issued by the Internal Revenue Service for taxpayers who don’t qualify for Social Security numbers.

“We really don’t see a whole lot of difference between people who are here documented and the undocumented,” said Mark Doyle, chief executive of Second Federal Savings, with branches in largely Hispanic neighborhoods. “We’ve seen this work ethic and pride of ownership; families, schools and churches that are all benefiting from this presence.

“These are good quality, sound loans,” he said of the bank’s $83 million portfolio of loans to 750 borrowers using individual tax identification numbers.

One such borrower is Gregorio, a 42-year-old with graying hair and gold-rimmed glasses who is in the process of getting legal status.

He met last week with his loan officer at Second Federal’s Cicero, Ill., branch to finalize papers to buy a three-bedroom, $145,000 home in Joliet, Ill. The thrift helped him access a state program for low- and moderate-income borrowers.

The father of three, educated as an engineer in Monterrey, Mexico, came with his family to live near his sister in Berwyn six years ago. He works nearby as a diesel truck mechanic, a skill in short supply, while taking classes at Morton College to get U.S. engineering credentials.

“It’s an American dream” buying a home, he said. “The importance to me is keeping my family together. If my family likes the house, we can get a future.”

But the system that permits immigrants to work illegally also sets the stage for exploitation of workers like Jose, whose American dream became a nightmare.

A small, soft-spoken man reluctant to share his woes, he is injured, out of work, out of money for medicine though in great pain, and no longer sends money to his wife and four children.

He can’t leave, he said, until he can afford back surgery here or in Mexico for the injury he suffered three months after arriving in the U.S.

A small factory owner in Mexico whose business went bust, he chose Chicago because of its ties to his native Michoacan and upon arriving over a year ago was hired by someone he knew back home.

A smuggler charged $1,700 to bring him to Chicago, and it took three months of construction work to earn the money.

“I went to work for people from my city, but they treated me so badly,” he said. “They would say, “You have to work harder. You have to work 10 hours and you must work six days.”‘

He would earn as much as $400 a week, and send $300 home.

While working a construction job, he lifted a large chunk of wood and felt the pain immediately in his back. He quickly went to a hospital.

“The boss said “Don’t worry.’ He said he would take care of the hospital bill and the money for medicine, but after four days he stopped answering my calls,” Jose said.

To survive, he collected junk metal for sale. But lately he quit that work since he cannot lift heavy objects. He lives with friends who do not ask for his share of the rent.

“It is very hard to live here,” he said. “It is hard to adjust.”

In Chicago, Rosa, 36, also knows the world of living in the shadows, and she is tired of it after 15 years of working in low-wage factories and garment shops.

If there’s a new law that will allow illegal immigrants like her to stay on the U.S., then she will remain here, she said.

“But if there’s no new law, I’m going back to Mexico at the end of the year,” she said.

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She, too, has fake identification papers, which cost her $150. But she doesn’t use them.

“They are not good. People know they are fake,” said Rosa, who lost part of a finger to a machine in an accident at a garment shop.

In a month her company will move to Indiana, and she is worried that she will not be able to find another job in Chicago.

“It is worse than 10 years ago. It is different,” she said with a slump of her shoulders and broad frown “Everyone wants (identification) papers, and if you don’t have papers, you have a problem.”



(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-29-06 1600EDT

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