In Illegal Immigration Debate, To Hire Or Not?

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Patricia Butler and Tom Maroun with palm trees trimmed by men they suspect are here illegally. i i

hide captionArizonans Patricia Butler and Tom Maroun don't check the immigration status of the workers who trim these palm trees, but they say they're sure the men are in the country illegally.

Peter O'Dowd/NPR
Patricia Butler and Tom Maroun with palm trees trimmed by men they suspect are here illegally.

Arizonans Patricia Butler and Tom Maroun don't check the immigration status of the workers who trim these palm trees, but they say they're sure the men are in the country illegally.

Peter O'Dowd/NPR

American families who hire illegal workers to trim yards, clean toilets and paint walls are helping fuel the underground economy that attracts some 11 million undocumented workers to the U.S.

In the Western U.S., it's not hard to find someone who hires illegal immigrants. The real challenge is finding someone who will admit it on tape.

Annette — who agreed to give only her middle name — owns a two-bedroom condo in Phoenix, which she rents out. Her last tenant, a smoker, just moved away, and in order to fix the lingering cigarette smell, she needs a paint job.

Annette's painter is not authorized to work in the U.S. In fact, he's not authorized to live here, either. His name is Raphael, and he's cheap. Annette says an American painter quoted her $1,200 for the job. Raphael charges $500.

Annette believes American prices are inflated, so paying Raphael the lower wage is justified.

"If Raphael didn't come, he would work in a maquiladora in Juarez, and he would make $1 an hour or $2 an hour, whereas here he can make $500 in a matter of five hours," Annette says. "So I have no problem giving him the keys to this condo, because I know he'll do a good job."

Annette is breaking federal law. If caught, she could face a $375 fine. She's small potatoes to federal agents. But things are getting more hostile for people like Annette in Arizona. One provision of the state's controversial immigration law that went into effect last month makes it a crime to slow traffic while picking up day laborers. That's a common practice on some Phoenix street corners.

That's not an issue for Tom Maroun, because he hires men who come directly to his door. He and his wife, Patricia Butler, pay Spanish-speaking men who roam their neighborhood seeking work about $30 a piece to trim about a half-dozen palm trees that tower above their pool.

"And they will come here and climb up to the very top, and everything will be clean — meticulously — in our yard and the yard next door," Butler says.

Butler says she likes the industriousness of her workers, but she doesn't ask them to prove their citizenship. "It would be profiling if I really asked, 'Hey can I see your papers? Are you undocumented?' "

Even without asking, the couple believe their landscapers are in the country illegally.

"If any of them were here with documents, I'd be shocked, now that I look back on it," Maroun says.

A couple miles south is Suzie Perry's backyard — which she laments is in disarray. The yard is messy because Perry no longer hires the undocumented workers that she had paid for 15 years to maintain it.

"We didn't really even think about its legality before. And now, that's sort of in the air. Like, should we be doing this or shouldn't we?" Perry says.

Ultimately, Perry decided she shouldn't — but not because she was worried about breaking the law. She wanted to make a political statement. She says she's willing to let the weeds grow if it means fewer illegal immigrants cross into the United States.

"If you build it, they will come. If there's something available for them to do, then they will fill that position," Perry says.

And if the labor force dries up — and yards across the country go untrimmed or condos go unpainted — Perry believes the immigration debate in America might move forward.

"The decision makers will be forced to make some sort of a decision," Perry says.

Meanwhile, Maroun and his wife will continue hiring their landscapers.

So do they believe they're partly responsible for fueling an underground economy?

"If I am, I don't have a problem with that," Maroun says. "This isn't about drug smuggling or criminals. This is about everyday people who are trying to better themselves."

It's also about everyday families giving them work. The question is: When decision makers do tackle comprehensive immigration reform, how will they deal with that reality?

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