The Hidden Workers | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Hidden Workers 

Immigrant workers keep Utah’s economy humming. No one really wants to know if they are documented.

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Javier smiles as he tries to pronounce the words. A co-worker has been trying to teach him to say the all-too-hip phrase, “What’s up?” But to Javier, it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t help that his teacher has gradually modified the phrase from its already very colloquial form to, “What up,” and further to, “S’up?” Javier just keeps laughing.

Undocumented Workers Stay That WayThe road to immigrating to the United States may be a hard one, but it still could be the easiest part about staying in this country. In fact, lifting the undocumented status from one’s shoulders may be nearly impossible, says one local attorney.

Marti Jones, director of the non-profit legal service for immigrants called A Welcome Place, says that as the law stands now, undocumented workers will never be allowed to apply for permanent legal status unless they return to their home country for up to 10 years.

U.S. law will not permit people who are in the United States illegally to apply for citizenship while they’re working. That goes for everyone, says Jones, even those who have children or spouses who are U.S. citizens. Regardless of their eligibility for citizenship, if they have been in this country for more than 180 days they will have to return to their home country. After three years, they can apply for legal residence—which can be rejected. And if an illegal immigrant has been in the United States for more than a year, he will be effectively banished from the country for 10 years, Jones says.

It hasn’t always been this way, she adds. Before 1997, people ready to apply for permanent residency could run through the entire procedure while continuing to work and reside in the United States.

Immigration law allowed illegal immigrants to pay a fine of $1,000, and prove they had no criminal record, no HIV or other serious medical condition, and a healthy income. Not only could they stay in the country and at their jobs, but the government generated a hefty bit of revenue by collecting the fines, Jones says. Although residency seekers still had to fulfill the same requirements they do today, lawmakers decided the law gave immigrants the chance to “buy their residency.” Consequently, the U.S. House of Representatives killed it.

“If a person is in favor of keeping them illegal, they would want to keep the 10-year bar,” Jones says.

There is, however, one recourse undocumented workers can use to gain legal status, Jones says. After 10 years in the United States, undocumented immigrants can turn themselves in and voluntarily start the deportation process. They have the right to a trial if they can prove deportation will cause “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” on a relative who is in the United States. But Jones says only people who care for others with severe medical problems can expect to gain residence through those efforts.

The law, Jones says, does nothing to deter more undocumented immigration, it only serves to isolate an entire class of people. “These people do not exist in a vacuum,” she says. “It is shortsighted and ultimately stupid to create of these people a class that can never get legal.

“They have employers, spouses and kids that are U.S. citizens. By creating a situation where they are barred from ever gaining legal residence status we are not just hurting them—we are hurting ourselves,” she says.

A week ago, Javier began a second job at a local fast-food restaurant. His eyes look tired, but Javier says it’s not a big deal. That’s why he came to the United States, he says. Although, he has been wondering lately if that is sufficient explanation.

While sitting on a concrete ledge outside one of the restaurants where Javier works, he tries to find the reason. “The truth is, one regrets coming here after making the trip,” says Javier in Spanish. “But in the end, it’s the only thing you can do.

“The only reason anybody comes here is to work, and after you earn a small part of everything that you hoped for, you just want to be able to return to your country,” Javier says.

There are many folks like Javier who wash the dishes in the restaurants, vacuum office buildings and scrub factory floors all across the Salt Lake Valley. They work as carpenters, cooks and landscapers. They work behind the scenes, and the money they earn supports thousands of families in Mexico and other parts of Central and South America.

With its booming economy and low unemployment rate, the Salt Lake area has become a prime destination for people who leave their homes, and many times their families, south of the border. But when they get here, an assortment of mixed messages slaps them in their faces as they continue to work and send their earnings home.

Finding work in Salt Lake wasn’t very difficult, Javier explains. The trip here, though, was a different story. Javier crossed the border illegally, and although he seems like a valued guest—welcome in many ways in the Salt Lake Valley—he asked City Weekly to keep his real name secret. Because by crossing the border, he becomes to many nothing more than a criminal.

Welcome to the United States

Five hours had passed, and Javier was relieved to see the van waiting for them. They had just finished walking through the hills outside Aqua Prietas, Mexico, a border town South of Douglas, Ariz.

The long hike was significant, because Javier and his companions had at some point crossed the border between Mexico and the United States. For Javier, it marked the end of a month’s worth of preparation and planning.

Earlier in the day, a surprise had left Javier somewhat discouraged. He had planned to pay the man who was helping him cross, known as a coyote, $600. When he arrived in Agua Prietas, however, Javier learned that the price had gone up. It would cost him $1,600. The coyote knew Javier had arrived with only the $600, so he offered Javier a job in the United States where he could earn $1,000 in a month and pay his debt. Javier had always planned on heading directly to Utah, where a friend had been expecting him with a place to live. But the coyote had a job for Javier in Indiana, 1,500 miles to the east.

The long walk had left Javier tired and sweaty, but it really was only the beginning. The group, all men, had to pile into the same van to make the trip into Phoenix. Javier says about 15 people squeezed together in the open van and rode for the rest of the day. Arizona was their home for almost a week.

They crossed in Cochise County. There, over the past two years, ranchers and the group Concerned Citizens of Cochise County have banned together to stop what they call illegal trespassing and an “invasion” from the south. One of them, rancher Roger Barnett, is famed to have apprehended more than 3,000 undocumented immigrants. It was in this county that Javier and the group with whom he traveled received their premiere welcome to the United States.

Eventually they were to drive to Indiana. The coyote was, in a certain sense, contracted by the owners of a Chinese restaurant outside Indianapolis to find dishwashers. After a month of work, Javier would receive $1,000 and could use that to pay off the coyote and head to Salt Lake. Not a bad sacrifice at the time, Javier thought, although he didn’t realize exactly what a month’s worth of work was going to be like. They worked every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., scraping dishes and cleaning the kitchen. When the month ended, Javier got a check for $850.

“The coyote told me that it wasn’t his problem,” Javier said in Spanish. “I would have to work until I paid him the money.”

Four more weeks went by, and when Javier found someone who would take his place the coyote left him alone. Finally, Javier made the trip to Utah and found work. He cooks at a restaurant in Salt Lake City earning $6.50 an hour.

He had planned to send money to his family in Mexico within a couple of weeks after crossing the border, but too many things got in the way. After five months, he gathered enough cash together to send $100 to his wife.

Javier now lives with two other “undocumented” workers in a house in Salt Lake City. They are expecting five more to arrive within the next two weeks. All of them will be living under the same roof.

“I decided to come to the United States because I wanted to work and have a better life. I wanted to be able to give my family more comforts and to give my son a better education,” Javier said. “I never thought I was going to have to go through so much.”

He plans to go home to Mexico in December.

The Reality

“When they come here, they all think that they will be going home someday,” said Juan Carlos Arbezu, a native of El Salvador who owns a barber shop on 1700 South and West Temple. Arbezu recently got into the business of sending money to Mexico. “They end up feeling more and more comfortable, and then they send for the rest of the family. That is when they make the commitment to stay.”

In an open room, six or seven chairs sit waiting for a customer who needs his hair trimmed. Arbezu meets with people throughout the day in his office, just to the side of the hairstylists. The current exchange rate for U.S. dollars to Mexican pesos is posted prominently on the wall. On the desk, Arbezu has records of all the transactions he’s taken care of that month.

Arbezu began the cash-sending service to Mexico in March, and business couldn’t be better he says. The first week in June, more than 60 people used Arbezu’s barber shop to send money back to their families in Mexico—about 75 percent of their earnings he estimates. The only way they can afford to send so much back to Mexico is by living in crowded houses and apartments around the city to cut down living costs as much as possible, Arbezu explains.

“They work very hard and send it all to Mexico,” he says in Spanish. “They just do what they have to do.”

In an office stuffed away on the bottom floor of a nondescript building on 3300 S. Pablo Alcalde, owner of Amigo’s Services and Insurance yells into a phone. Jumping from Spanish to English, Alcalde works out the details of an auto accident that left one of his clients without transportation. Diplomas and certifications blanket the office walls. Alcalde laughs at a stapled bundle of paper sitting on his desk. On it, a bill of sale scratched out in poor handwriting marks the change of ownership of an old Buick.

Alcalde says more than 97 percent of his clients are Mexican nationals with plans to stay only a short period while they leap over the hurdles of getting through life in Salt Lake City. “Sometimes when they get home to Mexico, they realize that they are not going to make as much and so they come back to work more,” he says.

It’s not such a difficult thing for Alcalde to imagine. Thirty years ago, he emigrated from Peru to get an education here.

The Underground Foundation

Although immigration to the United States and Utah—whether illegal or legal—is nothing new, places like Salt Lake City are witnessing firsthand the modern phenomenon. As workers come alone or in groups to fill the behind-the-scenes jobs in restaurants, office buildings and on construction sites, the community welcomes them with an assortment of mixed messages.

The restaurant industry in particular depends heavily on the labor of undocumented and legal immigrants—most of them from Mexico. In fact, they are vital—something the food service industry couldn’t afford to lose.

“The profitability of the restaurant industry depends on the availability of that type of labor,” said Peter Philips, a professor of economics at the University of Utah. “If you were to eliminate all undocumented workers in the United States, the fast-food and restaurant industries would be fundamentally transformed.”

Undocumented workers will always remain “threatened” workers—more timid and always less politically powerful. That makes them more desirable employees to some businesses, says Philips, who specializes in labor research.

Steven M. Branch, the officer in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s field office in Salt Lake City, was reluctant to estimate the number of undocumented workers in Utah. What he did say though was that undocumented workers don’t have a reason to feel threatened in the land of Zion. “Our top priority is identifying criminal aliens,” Branch said. “Most of the people who are here and are law-abiding, we are probably not going to come in contact with.”

About 90 undocumented immigrants are deported or moved for hearings in Utah every month, Branch said. And although one of the INS’ responsibilities is to seek out and process undocumented immigrants, it doesn’t have the resources or the initiative to hunt down law-abiding workers, Branch says.

So why are they still considered illegal?

“You’ve got to remember that we don’t make the law. The bottom line is that we have to enforce whatever laws Congress passes,” he explains.

The status quo won’t budge on much, especially not immigration issues. Salt Lake City is not likely to see a big change in politicians’ attitudes toward policies regarding undocumented workers.

“I don’t have anything against them individually, but I do think it is wrong,” Rep. Merrill Cook says. “It is a criminal act to come here illegally, and we need more funding to enforce the laws that are already on the books.”

But Cook was unclear on what exactly that meant for people like Miguel Paredes.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘raid’,” Cook says. “I don’t think we are purposely trying to create fear. It is a problem and the INS needs more support.”

If illegal immigration were eliminated completely, Cook says, the door to legal immigration would be opened more.

The Question Nobody Asks

Most immigrants have documentation, City Weekly learned. But whether that documentation is valid or not seems to be a question nobody asks. Most businesses interviewed said they were confident any crackdown on illegal immigration in Salt Lake City wouldn’t affect them at all.

“We are very strict about [employees] having proper identification,” said Catherine Randak, director of human resources for Gastronomy, which owns and operates eight restaurants and service establishments around Salt Lake Valley. Randak said Gastronomy employs about 60 people who don’t speak English fluently.

The state Human Resources Department turns away about 10 “bad” forms of identification a week, she says. After that, there’s really nothing the company can do except trust the individual applicants.

All job applicants must sign an I-9 form, which states that—under penalty of perjury—they fall into one of the categories of people who can be employed legally in the United States.

“If they chose to lie on that form, there is really nothing we can do,” Randak says. “No matter how desperate we are for people, we never put anyone to work without proper identification.”

Alcalde, who spends his days working out traffic-accident disputes and selling car insurance to immigrant workers in Salt Lake City, said he is simply not concerned about the legal status of any person who comes to his establishment.

“They think everybody is going to report them, but nobody does, nobody cares,” Alcalde says. “They come in and tell me they want to insure their car. I say, OK, let’s see what you got.”

While some illegal immigrants worry about losing their jobs and the unforeseen raids of uniformed INS agents at their workplaces, a large group of immigrants have decided to build their lives in Salt Lake City. For them, the threat of arrest or deportation is always hanging over their heads.

And that may be exactly the point, said Theresa Martinez, a University of Utah professor of sociology. “It is terribly difficult to be an immigrant. When we refer to them as illegal aliens, how much easier is it to dehumanize and exploit them? It is horrifying what the language has done to them.”

“[The INS] keeps alive the mythology of a boundary,” she says. “It enforces the boundary and says that it is important and that it needs to be barbed. [But] I don’t think of them as criminals simply because they crossed the border.”

It’s not just university types trying to empathize with the plight of illegal immigrant families in Salt Lake City. To many, they just aren’t criminals in need of punishment.

“We don’t ask,” says Patty Walker, director of the pre-school program at the Guadalupe School in Salt Lake City. “I think it is because we believe everyone has the right to a free education. It’s just not a question that should be asked.”

As an educator who works mostly with the children of immigrants, Walker says the question of legality or documentation is not something that substantially affects the children in her classes.

“I think in the long term it probably does affect them a little,” Walker says.

Staying in Salt Lake City

For Walker, there’s another, more pressing problem. The children she sees every day lack basic health-care services, both medical and dental. Although their parents may see deductions from their checks for Social Security and Medicare, because of their documentation status, they can’t enjoy those same services.

“I see children all the time with huge holes in their teeth, and their parents can’t get them fixed because it is so outrageously expensive,” Walker says. “It’s easy to second guess the parents, but it doesn’t matter because in many cases it is already too late.”

The Guadalupe School offers free “English as a Second Language” courses for people who have decided to stay in Salt Lake City as permanent residents. The courses serve recent arrivals or those who have been her 20 years and didn’t have the chance to learn the language well, says Judy Cohen, director of the Voluntary Improvement Program at Guadalupe.

“There are so many people that need the classes and we are just not filling the need,” Cohen says.

Cohen is consistently amazed at the dedication some of the students show while studying English. They balance two jobs and their families while managing to get to the twice-weekly classes at Guadalupe.

“Sometimes I look at them and think, ‘I don’t know how you are even keeping your eyes open right now,” Cohen says. “One of the reasons people have trouble learning the language is because they are just plain tired.”

New Generation, Old Story

Professor of economics Philips says there are only a couple surefire predictions regarding immigrant labor in Salt Lake City, and across the rest of the nation.

“Immigrant labor will always be with us,” Philips says. “Unlike Japan or Germany or any other modern industrial nation, we are a country of settlers. A world where undocumented workers are completely eliminated is not a world we will see in our country during our lifetimes.”

Javier saw emigration to the United States as the only way he could gain economic stability at home in Mexico. Although he knew many people considered what he was doing illegal, that attitude wasn’t going to stop him, he says.

In Mexico, Javier worked as a bus station baggage handler. He never went to college, but echoed the professor’s words. “Asi es y Asi será”—that’s the way it is, and that is the way it will be.

“I don’t believe that things like that ever change,” he says during a break from work.

Looking down at the ground, Javier says the only thing he is really focusing on now is getting back to Mexico to see his wife and 4-year-old chavo. When he left Puebla, the boy was 2. Although Javier misses his wife, more important ly he feels like he needs to be there to help raise his child.

Bringing the two of them to Utah is the last thing he would do, Javier says. “It’s too much of a sacrifice. I wouldn’t want them to have to go through everything I did.”

Raul Ramos, a professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Utah, said the attitude toward immigrants, whether undocumented or legal, has been as inconsistent as the prices a coyote quotes people he helps cross the border.

“In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, illegal immigration was considered quite a problem—something very negative,” Ramos says. “But during World War II, with the tremendous shortages of labor that existed in this country, all of a sudden undocumented workers were a good thing.”

They are scapegoats, Ramos says. You can predict the headlines exposing the hordes of illegal immigrants invading America based on the unemployment levels in the United States.

No matter what though, illegal immigrants have always worked in the background and on the sidelines of the businesses depending on them.

“Undocumented workers have always been a large part of the hidden work force,” Ramos says. “They have always been put in jobs where they are not seen—out of sight and out of mind in many ways.”

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