Alien Nation

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Therefore, the only sensible purely economy-based policy would be to limit illegal immigrants by increasing border enforcement and, more important, begin enforcing federal laws barring businesses from hiring illegal immigrants, laws that now go virtually unenforced.

"We have been directed to focus on the border," Russell Ahr, an agent and spokesman for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in Arizona, informs New Times.

"Real workplace enforcement would be critical to any serious policy to limit illegal immigration," Camarota says.

And here you begin to see the rift that has opened between policy and reality, between policy-makers and their constituents.

That rift starts in the workplace.

Deep inside the economic numbers is one of the dirty little secrets of illegal immigration.

Without illegal immigrants, America's Social Security and Medicare systems would be in much worse shape than they already are.

Camarota estimates that illegal immigrants pump a net benefit of $7 billion a year into Social Security and Medicare funds.

Here's what's happening:

The majority of illegal immigrants actually work "on the books," meaning they work for companies that send a percentage of their paychecks to Social Security and Medicare.

Weakened federal immigration laws, and the lack of workplace enforcement of these laws, make it easy for an illegal immigrant to get hired and for an employer to avoid punishment. Basically, if an illegal immigrant has a Social Security card, fraudulent or not, the employer can hire him and say he or she was shown proper documentation.

These fraudulent Social Security cards are actually a boon for the federal government.

That's because illegal immigrants are paying into Social Security and Medicare with no hope of ever collecting from those federal programs upon retirement.

New Times found that Social Security officials do an excellent job of avoiding policies that might stop this lucrative fraud.

For example, employers don't have to verify that a Social Security number given to them by an employee is legitimate.

The worker just starts working and the employer starts sending money to the federal government from the employee's paycheck under the worker's name and Social Security number.

"I truly believe that the majority of employers try to audit for fraud," says Marshall Whitehead, an immigration attorney who sits on the immigration subcommittee of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. "But there's no doubt it's not always that way. If you're short workers, you can get to where you hire whoever walks through the door with what look like the minimum number of proper documents."

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.

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]."

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Robert Nelson