Coming to work, working to stay

All but two of the 19 men putting in foundation rebar at the 18th and Vine apartment building last winter had Hispanic names.

And as a crew, a dubious collection of Social Security numbers.

Seven worked under numbers belonging to other people, including those of three women. Another’s was that of a man dead nearly 40 years. Another seven had numbers never issued by the government.

And that was on a taxpayer-subsidized job where scrutiny of the payroll — and the discovery of illegal immigrants at work — was virtually certain.

As Washington fiddles with immigration reform and as more resources are sent to plug the border, the economy of illegal labor — like a small gear surprisingly interconnected within our larger Kansas City economy — spins quietly on.

Although it is everywhere around us, the scope of illegal-immigrant labor is hard to quantify. Often off the books, it probably represents billions to Missouri and Kansas commerce.

Examining the unspoken bargain made with the more than 100,000 illegal immigrants in the two states, The Kansas City Star found that many of us benefit. But not all.

• The winners? Consumers who pocket the low costs trickling down in a hundred ways, from cheap yard work to holding down wages on construction sites. Many employers, from meat packers to cafe owners, also profit from the deal.

• Who loses? Sometimes the government, missing tax revenue and facing higher costs for social programs. Sometimes U.S.-born workers striving for a livable wage. And their honest bosses, bidding for work against unscrupulous employers.

• The migrant workers? They often aren’t paid scale and endure unsafe conditions and high odds of rip-offs.

But they get work, more often and for more money than across the border.

Nationally, one in seven workers is an immigrant in the country illegally. The number is higher — one in four — among construction laborers, farm workers and dishwashers.

Among people earning less than $10 an hour, one in five is an undocumented worker.

Around Kansas City, the numbers aren’t as dramatic; perhaps fewer than two of every 100 in the work force are here illegally. But you see the work of Hispanic immigrants in every neighborhood.

You’ll find them in light manufacturing plants churning out plastics, working at the ovens of commercial bakeries or cleaning up office buildings.

“Work is easy to find,” said Ramon Velasquez, here sin papeles, without the papers needed to work legally. “It’s as easy as playing marbles.”

Send Velasquez back over the border? Fine his boss?

Many insist the time has come to address the unfairness illegal immigration creates in the marketplace.

At Malco Steel, Ray Malone Sr. fights for contracts against firms that he believes exploit immigrants. They trim their costs by acting as if employees are subcontractors. They cut corners on safety with confidence that their illicit crews won’t walk off the job. Or they pay in cash, avoiding payroll deductions for taxes, unemployment and workers’ compensation.

“When they’re not abiding by the laws,” Malone said, “it puts me at a disadvantage.”

Others argue it would be all but impossible to boot out the estimated 11 million to 12 million immigrants in the country illegally and that the cost would go far beyond bus fare.

“You’re not going to pay $10,000 to have your house painted. You’re not going to pay $5 for a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s,” said Robert Patrick, a painting contractor who hires Mexicans on seasonal visas.

“Somebody’s got to do these jobs, and Hispanics are glad to have ’em, and consumers are happy.”

Jobs need filling

Dalton Hermes recalls the disruptions of the last big immigration reform.

The 1986 law granted amnesty to 2.7 million immigrants, set penalties for hiring the next illegal wave and required employees to document their immigration status. Hermes, the CEO of Hermes Landscaping in Lenexa, lost 60 to 80 workers.

For a time afterward, he said, “the immigrant workers available to us were people who had falsified documents (and) were not the best of character.”

In 1998, Hermes tapped into seasonal visas for a legitimate and reliable work force.

Because of government caps on those work permits, however, Hermes hasn’t been able to expand in recent years. In Kansas, 3,800 workers use the H2B, or seasonal, visas. Missouri officials don’t have a count.

Nationwide, the number approaches 90,000. Pending changes could shrink that number. Next year, Hermes said, there might be “nobody to cut lawns.”

Part of the reason is that the pay — $8.07 an hour for laborers and $11.40 for crew chiefs — attracts few local applicants.

Patrick, the contractor, said he can rarely find reliable U.S.-born workers willing to tote paint buckets in Kansas City.

So he recruits much of his crew in Jalisco and Durango states in Mexico on seasonal visas. They’re an alternative to U.S.-born workers’ absences, legal problems, hangovers and lackadaisical approach to a full day’s work.

“There are plenty of rent-a-drunks,” Patrick said, “who think they’re worth $25 an hour.”

Hermes said a third to half of his nonimmigrant job applicants flunk the drug screening at his company.

Analysts arguing for tighter immigration controls point out that between 2000 and 2005, when workers poured across the border, employment of U.S. citizens with a high school diploma or less dropped by 5 percent.

“When people say immigrants do jobs that nobody else is willing to do, what they mean is immigrants do jobs they’re not willing to do,” said Steven Camarota, the director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies. “It hurts the poorest 10 percent.”

Still, that bottom rung of the country’s native labor ladder has been shrinking.

In 1960, one in two workers born in the United States hadn’t finished high school. By 2000, fewer than one in 10 hadn’t graduated. Last year, almost 69 percent of new high school graduates enrolled in college — a record high.

By contrast, one in three immigrants arrives without a high school education.

They are often people like B. Zarate, who arrived in Johnson County from Mexico City two years ago, just 16 with a $1,500 debt to the smugglers who brought her. Short and thin, she worked at a garage door factory where everything seemed big and heavy. She moved on to cleaning tables, washing dishes and chopping lemons and tomatoes at a casual dining chain restaurant. She went to high school last year and is back at work this summer.

People like her fill a void in an economy that needs people to fry fast food, drag a mop over an office floor, stack supplies in a warehouse or pound nails at a furious pace.

“The bosses know we will do anything for the job,” said Manuel Gomez, a carpenter from San Luis Potosi, Mexico, who has traveled much of the East and Midwest in the last six years. “We put the work first.”

Looking over shoulders

Johnson County lawyer Mira Mdivani, who represents employers seeking visas for immigrant workers, notes how the economic need for plentiful labor is at odds with immigration rules, making it less likely employers will follow the law.

“We have illegal immigration,” she said, “by design.”

Last year, illegal workers were nabbed in building or remodeling projects on some military bases, including four at Whiteman Air Force Base.

Mexican Jorge Botello has a work permit, but he knows plenty of fellow Latin American carpenters pounding together barracks at Fort Riley are here without papers and make little secret of the fact.

“My people are coming out,” he said. “We’re here, and we’re working, and we plan to stay.”

As immigration reform has become an election issue, federal officials stepped up enforcement. From October 2005 to April 2006, more than 12,000 people were arrested on immigration charges, about half on the lam from earlier deportation orders. In the last three weeks, more than 2,100 arrests have been made in what officials say is an effort to target child molesters, violent gang members and people who were deported before.

Work-site arrests had plummeted from 2,849 in 1999 to 445 in federal fiscal year 2003, but rose to 1,045 the next year.

IFCO Systems North America pallet company was raided this spring. Of 1,187 employees arrested nationally, more than 30 were in the Kansas City area. Although most arrested used bogus Social Security numbers, agents didn’t use data bases. The case, instead, grew from human tipsters.

Businesses can do little to check the 29 possible forms of identification from prospective workers. While Social Security offers various ways to check numbers, few employers bother.

Whatever the enforcement level, insecurity at the workplace provides constant anxiety for immigrants who crossed illegally. When the Kansas City, Kan., social service agency El Centro Inc. asks about immigration status, family size, household income or even criminal behavior, it regularly gets surprisingly candid and precise answers from local immigrants.

But when the agency asks about employers, even anonymously, the response plummets to just 2 percent.

“They’re more scared of getting on the wrong side of their boss than of getting caught up with Homeland Security,” said Melinda Lewis, El Centro policy advocacy and research director. “They came here to work.”

Because they apply for jobs in such a vulnerable position, always looking over their shoulders for immigration agents, they’re especially susceptible to exploitation.

Take, for instance, Roberto from El Salvador. He sneaked into the country five years ago, just 18 and speaking almost no English.

When he got fed up with washing dishes 16 hours a day for six days a week for $1,000 a month at a Chinese restaurant north of the river, he demanded his last paycheck. The boss threatened to call immigration agents. Roberto went unpaid. Soon after, he and several friends put a roof on a large house. Their reward? Bogus checks.

Now comfortably bilingual, he mostly organizes his own remodeling jobs.

“It was easier to take advantage of us,” he said, when “we didn’t speak English.”

An altered economy

Immigration’s windfall most benefits the financially comfortable. Immigrant labor has brought down the price of household services that the well-off use, such as housekeeping and gardening, a little more than 1 percent, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found.

“Immigration,” wrote researcher Patricia Cortes, “generates a redistribution of wealth.”

Bill Keeton, an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said immigration is largely “good for the economies of Kansas and Missouri.”

It makes them more agile — providing ready labor where and when it’s needed. As downtown Kansas City sees a building boom, for instance, immigrant laborers offer plenty of manpower for the sweatiest, grittiest jobs. As an added benefit, the reviving urban core gets an infusion of Latin culture that makes the city more cosmopolitan.

In rural Kansas and Missouri, entire towns have been revived by people fleeing the busted economies of Latin America. Even in urban Kansas City, where census tallies show Hispanic growth outpacing other demographic groups, immigration girds against a decline in Midwest population.

Yet Keeton stresses that too much unskilled labor in one place can be bad because a concentration of low-wage workers can mean the consumption of social services outruns the taxes their wages produce. Also, bosses spoiled by cheap manpower become reluctant to invest in labor-saving technology.

He suggests putting more effort into educating and training those workers — both to increase their earning power and to make them better able to adapt to the next swing in economic demand.

Meantime, experts say millions of undocumented workers have pushed down wages in the short term.

Pay for those least-skilled workers stands at 8.9 percent below what it would have been without the pressures of immigrant competition. Harvard economist George Borjas said that over time wage depression will be less dramatic but that pay for high school drop-outs will remain 5 percent lower than it would have been in an immigration-free economy.

Immigrants, of course, make even less. In 1940, a newly arrived Mexican could expect to earn 29 percent less than his native counterpart. By 2000, the gap was 53 percent.

Some low-skilled Latinos born here or who immigrated legally say employers get so accustomed to paying bargain wages to their illegal workers that anyone with brown skin is a target of exploitation.

“They try to take advantage of all of us,” said Sergio Herrera, a 32-year-old carpenter born in Texas.

Today, one in 20 people on the job in this country was born in Mexico, up from less than one in 100 a generation ago.

In the end, it’s all about money, the quick fix of cheap labor.

In late May, a Kansas City homeowner hired Mike Johnson of Independence to replace his roof.

Johnson had only a few days and not enough crew. So he drove to Southwest Boulevard under Interstate 35 and picked up two immigrants.

He didn’t ask them their status. If he had, he would have learned that Gonzalo Alvarez has a green card, but Francisco Juarez is an illegal immigrant who has only been here six months.

Johnson said he was conflicted, “but I have to get this job done on time.”

At the end of the day, he pulled out his wallet and paid them $80 each — cash.

@ For an interactive presentation with a slide show, map and stats, go to

•Nationally, one in every seven U.S. workers now is an illegal immigrant.

•Today and tomorrow, The Star examines the phenomenon and its effects on us, our community and our economy.