Business owners once said they needed illegal workers because there weren't enough Americans willing to do dirty and lowly jobs. Now, unemployment is nearing 10 percent, and citizens are lining up for jobs they once would have rejected. Yet, some say, many employers still want illegal immigrants.
"They prefer immigrants, especially now," said James Lee, an electrician who hasn't found work since Thanksgiving. "I don't think it's fair when there's so many of us in the shape we're in now."
Lee, 47, said American workers can't compete against immigrants who are willing to work for low pay and under unreasonable conditions. And now that jobs are scarce -- nearly a quarter of construction workers nationwide are unemployed -- Lee is one of a growing chorus who say that illegal immigrants are leaving citizen workers with fewer options.
"It's just more people out there competing for what little work there is," said Franklin Tigner, a Louisburg construction subcontractor who was searching for a job last week.
Such concerns prompted legislative action. More than two dozen state lawmakers proposed a bill this month that would require North Carolina companies getting federal stimulus money to verify that their workers are in the country legally. They say the $787 billion plan should benefit U.S. citizens.
"With unemployment in North Carolina approaching 10 percent, with the layoffs we've seen, we have plenty of Americans who need those jobs," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican who is one of the bill's co-sponsors.
Some, however, argue that the equation is not so simple.
Immigrants don't just fill jobs; they also create them by buying cars, groceries, homes and services.
"If they weren't here, I'd have less people employed here, no question about that," said Durham car dealer Kyle Ollis, who sells about a third of his cars to Hispanic customers.
And many business owners say that the vast supply of dependable labor that immigrants provided was responsible for much of the growth in industries such as construction and landscaping. Without immigrant labor, they say, their companies couldn't have created so many jobs in North Carolina.
Now, in a time of shrinking profits, some say those productive and loyal workers could mean the difference between survival and failure.
Bill Downey, a Durham construction company owner, said immigrants have been willing to work harder and more reliably than native workers -- and those are the types of workers that employers will keep as they try to remain solvent in a tight market. He said he doesn't employ illegal immigrants, but he acknowledged that many laborers are in the country illegally.
"When it comes down to the bottom line, more people are going to be interested in good workers than whether they're legal," Downey said. "I've got a good worker, and I'm going to send him away? I don't see that happening."
Some workers, immigrant and native alike, say that illegal immigrants have earned their place in the American economy, in good times and bad.
"We have been taking care of work that people don't want to do," said Carlos Reyes, a legal U.S. resident from Honduras who runs a Raleigh painting business. "Now you want to throw us away? That's not fair."
A surplus of labor
An estimated 300,000 illegal immigrants poured into North Carolina in the past decade, lured by plentiful jobs in construction, landscaping, manufacturing and hospitality. Now, those industries are taking the brunt of the recession, and there is a growing surplus of low-skilled workers.
National unemployment among high-school dropouts reached 12.6 percent in February, compared with 4.1 percent for college graduates.
Still, many immigrants are not eager to return to the countries they left. The flow of new immigrants has slowed, and some are going back to their home countries, but many are hanging on in North Carolina, scrambling for work and hoping for federal immigration reform.
Antonio Rodriguez, who was working at a Raleigh construction site last week, said he will stay in the United States as long as he can. He said work here is getting harder to find, but it is still more plentiful than in his native Mexico City, where he would return to certain poverty.
"It's not our country; it's your country, I know," said Rodriguez, 51. "But the problem in our country is we don't have jobs."
He said many of the problems American workers complain about -- immigrants who work for less and don't stand up for their rights -- could be solved if undocumented people such as him had more legal protections. Without them, he said, he is forced to do whatever his employer asks or risk being fired.
"If they say your pay is going to be less than the white man, what do you say? OK," Rodriguez said. "If they tell us to work in the snow, in the rain, whatever, we do it. No complaints, because it's so hard to find a job."
Employers have, unquestionably, benefited from workers such as Rodriguez. And without those workers, some experts say, many businesses could face disaster.
Doug Woodward, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina, said native workers have less at stake than immigrants. Because of that, he said, they can't match immigrants' productivity.
"The Latino work force, they're hungry and eager to work as many hours as they can get," Woodward said. "They'll start on the worst tasks and work themselves up to something better. There's such an incentive to hire them because it's the difference between being profitable and not being profitable."
A shortage of work
Even some American workers say they can't begrudge people willing to work their way out of poverty, often braving perilous journeys and family separation to do it.
Steve Corliss of Wake Forest has been unemployed since losing his job in information technology several months ago. While he is unlikely to face competition from illegal immigrants in his search for a new tech job, Corliss is also shopping for a job in his former profession, welding.
Corliss said Americans should remember that the labor of illegal immigrants has given them cheaper goods and services, and a higher standard of living.
"For the longest time, they did work that no one else would do," Corliss said. "Now there's a shortage of work, but I don't see it as 'us' against 'them.' Everybody's in it together."
Andre Jones of Raleigh is searching for a hotel housekeeping job. He said it looked like his best prospect since losing his job in the mail room of a technology company about six months ago, even though he might have to compete with immigrants.
He said people like him willingly ceded such jobs when times were better. "I don't think we really wanted to get dirty before," Jones said. "Now we're desperate to get dirty, but they already filled those spots. They were hungry before we were."
Even Tigner, the Louisburg subcontractor, said he understands why many construction contractors would rather hire illegal immigrants. He said he employed immigrant workers in the past -- and that he preferred them over most U.S. workers.
"They show up every day; they work from sunup to sundown," Tigner said. "Us Americans, we're more mouthy. We get out there and say, 'I'm not going to do this until it's right.' We want vacations and all that good stuff. ... The Hispanic workers, they just come out there, and they do it."
But others, such as Lee, balk at the stereotype that Hispanics work harder. "They can't outwork me," Lee said. "I was raised to work. I'm not a lazy person."
Vernon Briggs, a labor economics professor at Cornell University, said the picture for U.S. workers will only get worse if employers continue to have their pick of a vast supply of vulnerable immigrants.
Briggs said strict enforcement of immigration laws is the only salvation for the unemployed.
"We need to start putting some employers in jail," he said. "No one wants to compete with people who will work the longest for the lowest pay, under the worst working conditions, and that's what the illegal immigrant is."
Meanwhile, Lee is trying to figure out how to pay his bills.
After a decade of steady work in construction, he said he now has no prospects. His unemployment ran out a few weeks ago, and he carries his tools in the back of his car, hoping to pick up odd jobs.
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