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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There was a moment in last night's Republican presidential debate when Mitt Romney posed the question that many of middle-class Americans has had occasion to ponder. The former Massachusetts governor criticized Rudolph Giuliani for allegedly going easy on illegal immigrants in New York City when he was mayor. And Giuliani fired back with the gist of a story that The Boston Globe reported last year. For several years, Romney hired a small company called Community Lawn Service with a Heart of Chelsea, Massachusetts to mow the lawn and do some landscaping at his home. The Globe interviewed four people who had worked for the company and three of them admitted that they'd been in the U.S. illegally.

To Romney's charges that Giuliani had been running a sanctuary city, the New Yorker replied Romney had been running a sanctuary mansion, to which Romney said this.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican, 2008 Presidential Candidate): If you're a homeowner and you hire a company to come provide a service at your home, paint the home, put on the roof, if you hear someone that's working out there, not that you've employed, but that the company has, if you hear someone with a funny accent, you, as a homeowner, is supposed to go out there and say, I want to see your papers. Is that what you're suggesting?

SIEGEL: Well, in a country with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, that is not the most hypothetical of hypothetical questions one can ask. And to sort it out, we've called on Susan Gzesh, who is director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Chicago.

Professor Gzesh has devoted much study to issues concerning the labor and human rights of immigrants and refugees. Welcome to the program.

Professor SUSAN GZESH (Director, Human Rights Program, University of Chicago): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, as a matter of law, I hire someone to mow the lawn or replace the siding on the house or paint the bedroom, he shows up with two guys who speak no English - could be U.S. citizens, could be here illegally - what am I obliged to do?

Prof. GZESH: Well, if they're working for him, it's clear that he's the employer. It's when you've employed somebody who's an individual that you get into some grey areas about whether the person is an independent contractor or your employee.

SIEGEL: Well, where is the grey area?

Prof. GZESH: Well, the grey area has to do with control. I mean, it's clear if you pay, for example, as - I'm guessing Romney did, a monthly fee to a company that just sends some guys to mow your lawn, that they are the employees of the company because it's the company that's giving them the equipment, that's controlling what hours they work, et cetera. But if you went to The Home Depot and you hired somebody that come out to your house and dig a ditch for you and you said, I want the ditch to be exactly three feet long, and I want it right here, and here's my shovel, and I'm going to watch you while you do it, that seems to be an employer-employee relationship because you're really directing what the person does. So even though we would like the law to draw bright lines, it doesn't always do that.

SIEGEL: Let's talk ethically here. Should someone in the situation that Mitt Romney was in and that a great many Americans have been, should they be asking, by the way, that person you brought over, these two guys you brought in to do the work, are they legal?

Prof. GZESH: Well - naturally, I think it's really an ethical question. I think it's a question of what kind of society do we want to be living in. Legally, he has no obligation to do it because they're the employees of the guy who brought them. But the question is whether we want to all turn ourselves into mini ICE agents and be about questioning anyone whose ethnicity is different from ours about the legality of their being here. And I don't think that's the kind of society that you and I want to be living in.

SIEGEL: In effect, has the independent contractor become the cut-out man? The convenient fraud by which people get their landscaping done, their houses painted, all sorts of home repairs by people who really don't have a legal right to be working here?

Prof. GZESH: Well, for certain kinds of services, there have always been middlemen. I mean, the landscaping service has been pretty much steadily, you know, all along been something where homeowners contract with a company who sends a crew in. And so that's not any kind of fraud.

But it is true that there's a growing layer of brokers and middle people who are trying to mediate the legality of employment. And it's not to anybody's benefit in some of the situations because you may have brokers and middle people who are willing to take on the burden of liability for being the employer. But they're also taking away some of the wages of the hardworking immigrants who are going through them to get employment.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Gzesh, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. GZESH: You're welcome. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Susan Gzesh of the University of Chicago.

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