STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Undocumented workers often invisible, but necessary to MI economy

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Undocumented immigrants are integral to many low-wage industries, like farm work and service jobs.


Throughout your day, you’re likely meeting undocumented workers everywhere you go: the server at a restaurant.The stylist at the salon.The yard worker cutting your lawn.


“You can’t really go a single day without encountering one of them,” said Teresa Hendricks, the director and senior litigator for Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids. “Although you wouldn’t know it because they’re living under the radar.”


Hendricks works with “mixed families” at Migrant Legal Aid – families who have some members who are legally present in the United States, and others who are not.


And U.S. employers are blurring the lines even further by hiring undocumented workers, like farmers who need help harvesting crops before they spoil.


“We have U.S.-based people from other countries that want the work and have to do it under this wink-and-a-nod system where they pretend that they’re authorized to work, and the employers pretend that they’re authorized to hire them just so they can get the crops out.”


But many of those companies that hire undocumented labor want the immigration system to be reformed.


“They can’t do their work without the immigrant labor,” Hendricks said.


“They’re the first ones that will be able to explain why they hire immigrant labor, and why they're constantly worried about whether or not their labor force is lawfully present or lawfully able to work.”


Hendricks says it’s easy to blame immigrant workers for working undocumented, but things get murky when employers have to meet the market demand for employees.


“It leaves the market, which is the labor supply, ahead of where our regulations are. And [employers] have to continue to do what is necessary in order to get their businesses moving and keep profits coming in.”


And it’s not just agricultural jobs at issue. Industries like hospitality, construction, and landscaping contribute to the 11 million undocumented worker pool in the U.S.


Without these workers, many of our businesses would be hit hard.


“Business would stop,” Hendricks said. “It would be nearly impossible to thrive without the immigrant labor here.”


As for high-skill foreign workers, they can’t get visas until their potential employers can prove to the government they already searched for U.S. citizens with the same skill sets.


And even if an undocumented worker can secure a job, there’s no guarantee they won’t get deported. Hendricks says even a trip to the grocery store can end in “absolute tragedy” for a mixed family.


“If they are to get pulled over, and a police officer starts to ask about immigration status, they can be deported and separated from their families.”


Meanwhile, America’s undocumented workers pay about $50 billion into Social Security every year, Hendricks said, which is money they’ll never get back.


She says it's time for the government to make a change.


“They have to eventually acknowledge that they’re a part of our society, they’re part of our workforce, and that they’re the necessary group to contribute to the ongoing strength of our social security system.”



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