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Undocumented immigrantsWorking the system is easy for undocumented immigrants

By Travis Putnam Hill

Published 16 December 2016

This is the economic and social reality in which millions of unauthorized immigrants find themselves: a country so reliant on cheap labor that substantial portions of the economy are built largely on the backs of immigrants willing to do work most Americans won’t, and for lower pay. An underground labor market provides abundant employment opportunities for undocumented immigrants in the United States. But working in the shadows often means accepting exploitation.

Though it’s illegal, brothers Israel and José Martinez have no shortage of work, moving from one construction job to the next in the ongoing building boom of Central Texas. They’ve worked on homes in affluent communities along the Upper Colorado River and renovated sprawling apartments in North Austin. They were on a crew that erected a new health center at a high-end retirement community, and as expert masons have built luxury pools, interior chimneys and backyard grilling stations.

Their compensation often falls below minimum wage. They might receive just $90 for a 14-hour workday, or about $6.42 an hour — and that’s when they do get paid. On more than a few occasions, the brothers have gone days, weeks and even months without receiving payment for their grueling labor.

In all their years in Texas, Israel and José — pseudonyms, since both asked that their real names not be published — have experienced a lot. One thing they say they haven’t seen: U.S. citizens doing the heavy lifting on construction projects.

“We’ve never seen any Americans carrying cement, picking up stone, working from sunup to sundown,” Israel said. “Never.”

This is the economic and social reality in which the brothers, and millions of other unauthorized immigrants, find themselves — a country so reliant on cheap labor that substantial portions of the economy are built largely on the backs of immigrants willing to do work most Americans won’t, and for lower pay.

The United States, and Texas in particular, has beefed up border security in recent years to keep immigrants out while paying less attention to one of the main factors drawing them here: There are almost always jobs waiting for them, even if securing and maintaining those jobs becomes a test of physical and emotional endurance.

Various loopholes, backdoors and private arrangements allow undocumented workers and their employers to skirt the prohibitions on hiring workers illegally. 

Workers pay hundreds of dollars for fake Social Security cards or other documents to show employers, or they work as independent contractors so they don’t have to show any documents at all. Employers aren’t required to verify the authenticity of documents they are shown or obligated to check the immigration status of independent contractors.

Many undocumented immigrants also find informal work paid in cash under the table, often at rates far below minimum wage, and the employer can pretend they were never hired.