Alien Nation

Undocumented workers constitute the biggest political issue in Arizona. But do we want to send them packing?

Once a year, Social Security officials run names and numbers from W-2 forms against names and numbers in their database. If numbers don't match, the earnings in those accounts go into "suspend mode" and a letter is sent out to each employer.

According to Leslie Walker, a Social Security spokeswoman, about 130,000 letters go out to employers regarding nearly 7.5 million workers each year. She was unable to give numbers specific to Arizona.

The employer is told to send the employee to the nearest Social Security office to rectify the problem.

If all illegal immigrants from Mexico left, would Arizona's economy suffer a death blow?
Mark Poutenis
If all illegal immigrants from Mexico left, would Arizona's economy suffer a death blow?
Prop 200 opposition leader Alfredo Gutierrez
Prop 200 opposition leader Alfredo Gutierrez

According to immigration officials and to several illegal immigrants interviewed, the employee probably never goes to the Social Security office.

"You become someone else," says an undocumented worker looking for day-laborer work along Arizona Avenue in Chandler.

In time, the money collected by the federal government on the fraudulent number is released unencumbered into the general fund.

It's like free money. Or, as some see it, a sort of de facto fee to the United States for working here illegally.

Social Security officials make no effort to track employers with unusually large numbers of unmatched Social Security numbers. Indeed, when asked by New Times for a list of employers in Arizona who received letters, Walker said, "There's no way for us to break down such data."

Several other Social Security officials told New Times the same thing.

Regarding illegal immigration, then, it's clear that the only widespread and fully enforced policy is the policy of looking the other way.

In late August, a satirical movie opened in Phoenix called A Day Without a Mexican.

The premise: If all the illegal immigrants from Mexico left one day, the United States would grind to a halt.

While the premise may not be true for the whole country, it's far more likely that it's true for Arizona.

"I'd venture to say the state would collapse," says David Jones, president and CEO of the Arizona Contractors Association.

Two Scottsdale resort managers, who wished not to be identified, concurred.

"We'd go kaput pretty fast," one says. "We're not hiring people we know are here illegally. But you know they're somewhere in the mix. And you know they have to be in the mix [for our business to survive]."

In reality, according to many local businessmen, several of Arizona's industries are in bad shape even if the current population of immigrants, illegal or not, does not increase.

"I'd say we're as close as 10 years away from a very serious worker shortage in Arizona," says Marshall Whitehead, the immigration attorney and Arizona Chamber leader. "It's going to get particularly bad in skilled positions in construction."

Nearly 46,000 houses are being built each year in Arizona.

The average age of the American construction worker is now 51 years old, nearly a decade older than the average in the 1980s.

What this means, Jones says, is that young Americans are no longer becoming construction workers at a rate that keeps pace with the construction getting done in the country, especially in the Valley.

Jones says the decrease fits with the change in American values and demographics. Fewer Americans live on farms, where craftsmanship and handiwork are valued, and more Americans believe going to college is a prerequisite for a prosperous and successful life.

"Starting with the baby boomers, there came a stigma with not going to college," says Jones, a former state representative and manager of two large construction companies in Indiana before moving here. "That motivation in this country has been lost to pass on or learn the skilled crafts."

Not so in rural Mexico.

"What you often see coming from Mexico is a young man who has spent much of his life proudly working with his hands on a farm or a ranch," Jones says. "They have skills that Americans no longer have. And because of their backgrounds, they're often much closer to being skilled construction workers than most Americans."

At some point in the near future, Jones says, the United States will need to set up a "functional guest worker program" of some sort.

"Otherwise, be prepared to take five years building your house," he says.

Neither Jones nor Whitehead, nor anyone else, for that matter, can estimate how much of the construction or hospitality industries -- or any other blue-collar industry in the Valley -- is made up of undocumented workers.

Guesses range everywhere from 10 percent to 30 or 40 percent.

Amid unlicensed contractors, which Jones estimates do about $25 million of work a year in the Valley, he ventures that about 90 percent are undocumented.

These are the guys state construction regulators claim they want to see gone.

"They're not paying taxes, they're not insured, and they're not carrying the same safeguards," says Israel Torres, Arizona's Registrar of Contractors. "The whole industry gets hurt when people go for the blue-light special."

But Arizonans do go for the blue-light special. And so do some Arizona businesses. And this cash economy, more so than on-the-books payments to federal funds, is where Arizona citizens may see the biggest direct benefit from illegal immigration.

Who's your nanny?

Your lawn guy? Pool guy? Bug guy? Landscaper? Do you grab a few day laborers for projects around the house?

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