As Immigration Reform Looms, Workers Ponder Legalization

By Jill Replogle
January 23, 2013

Citizenship for Undocumented Immigrants

Pedro Rios, the director of American Friends Service Committee and member of the newly-formed San Diego Table on Immigration Policy, and Ted Hilton, the founder of Taxpayer Revolution, talk to KPBS about a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
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Day laborers wait near a Home Depot home improvement store in hope of finding work for the day in Los Angeles, California.

SAN DIEGO -- Within just a few miles of each other, two, very different groups of construction workers had begun their day.

One group was building a large apartment complex just across the street from San Diego State University. The workers here have steady jobs. They get morning breaks and they’re covered by workman’s comp if they get injured.

The other group was drinking coffee and chatting in the parking lots and sidewalks around Home Depot, waiting for someone to drive by and offer them a job. Most of the members of this group are undocumented immigrants from Mexico.

This second scene plays out every morning all across the country. As many as one in six construction workers is undocumented.

Does this group compete with the workers over on the apartment complex for jobs? Sometimes.

“Just depending on what your trade is,” said David Yanora, a heavy equipment operator at the apartment site.

“Because most of these guys out here are just out here as laborers. They don’t have a specific trade they’re good at, they can just pretty much do anything.”

Yanora said he doesn’t personally face much competition with undocumented immigrants because his is a more skilled trade. The ones doing the dirtiest, most backbreaking construction jobs — like hauling rubble — are the ones who face competition.

“Big companies are looking for people that can work cheaper,” Yanora said. “I mean that’s just the bottom line.”

The guys standing out front of Home Depot are often cheaper. They usually can’t afford to be picky, so their wages vary a lot.

“One day you can earn $150 and the next, $60 or $50,” Vladimir Estorga said.

Another worker, Jorge, who’s been picking up jobs outside of Home Depot for 13 years, said he’s been paid really well, and he’s been paid nothing.

“That’s how it is here on the corner when you don’t have papers,” he said.

So now imagine — and it may not be so far off — that Jorge, Vladimir Estorga, and possibly tens of thousands of other construction workers get their papers, and can legally compete with their colleagues up the street.

Won’t they take jobs away from Americans?

Won’t they depress wages for native workers?

Economists say not likely, because these undocumented workers are already in the labor force. They’re already working.

“The labor market effect on wages and employment is something that happens when people come into the country,” said Pia Orrenius, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Many illegal immigrants have been working in the U.S. for decades, so whatever effect they might have had on the labor market happened decades ago.

At the same time, if immigration reform is well policed, employers will find it harder to pay undocumented workers under the table. Contractors will have to pay workers' compensation and payroll taxes for newly legalized employees, which means construction costs could go up.

On the flip side, this kind of immigration reform could help companies who have always played by the rules compete. Workers at the apartment complex, like Mike Loftus, a plasterer, say they want the playing field to be even.

“I think it’d really help if everybody had their papers, a lot,” Loftus said.

The bigger issue, economists say, is fiscal — how will legalizing undocumented immigrants affect tax revenues and social welfare programs?

Newly legalized immigrants who don’t already pay taxes will start paying, and that will be a boon to public coffers. But they may also qualify for federal benefits, like food stamps and tax credits.

“Legalization is really more a problem down the line if you think that these people are going to be disproportionately using welfare programs or entitlement programs,” Orrenius said.

Broken Border: Immigration Reform in the Southwest

Our series, Broken Border, peels apart the complex tangle of the immigration debate to explore what matters.

Look for that issue to be hotly debated, and to affect how a reform bill is crafted.

The biggest benefit of a path to legalization would be to the undocumented workers themselves. Most economists say their wages are likely to go up. They may have more job security, and legal recourse if they get injured or stiffed by an employer.

Jorge said if he were to get his papers, he’d ditch the Home Depot parking lot and get a steady job.

“I’d be working in a company, in a restaurant, or in a store,” he said. “Every day, my eight hours, as the law mandates.”