In Illegal Immigration Debate, To Hire Or Not? In Arizona, the immigration debate is taking place in the very homes where illegal workers make a living. Everyday families who hire undocumented workers to trim trees or paint walls are now deciding whether to keep breaking the law -- or to stop paying these workers under the table.
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In Illegal Immigration Debate, To Hire Or Not?

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In Illegal Immigration Debate, To Hire Or Not?


In Illegal Immigration Debate, To Hire Or Not?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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As precarious as some teachers' jobs may be right now, the jobs of illegal immigrants are even more so. An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, and most of them have come here to work. And in Arizona, many work for citizens, the same American citizens who elected the officials who recently passed an immigration security law.

Peter O'Dowd reports on the underground economy from member station KJZZ in Phoenix.

PETER O'DOWD: Out here in the Western United States, it's not hard to find someone who hires illegal immigrants. The real challenge is finding someone who will admit it on tape.


(Soundbite of door closing)

O'DOWD: That's why we've agreed to use this woman's middle name. Annette owns a two-bedroom condo in Phoenix, which she rents out. Her last tenant just moved away.

ANNETTE: She wasn't supposed to smoke in here. I think she did, because it smells like it.

O'DOWD: To fix the problem, Annette needs a paint job.

ANNETTE: I will need to have these dark walls primed and then painted a lighter color, a more neutral color.

O'DOWD: Annette's painter is not authorized to work in the United States. 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. But Raphael...

ANNETTE: Five hundred.

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

ANNETTE: You know, if Raphael didn't come, he would work in a maquiladora in Juarez and maybe make a dollar an hour, or $2 an hour, whereas here he can make 500 in, you know, a matter of five hours. So I have no problems giving him the key to this condo, because I know he'll do a good job.

O'DOWD: 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 individuals like Annette in Arizona. One provision of the state's controversial immigration law makes it a crime to slow traffic while picking up day laborers. That's a common practice on some Phoenix street corners.

Mr. TOM MAROUN: That's a non-issue for me.

O'DOWD: A non-issue for Tom Maroun, because he hires men who come directly to his door. He and his wife, Patricia Butler, stand near their gurgling, backyard swimming pool. About a half-dozen palm trees tower 50 feet above them. The couple pays Spanish-speaking men who roam their neighborhood, seeking work, about $30 apiece to trim the messy trees.

Ms. PATRICIA BUTLER: And they will come here and climb up to the very top, everything will be clean - meticulously - in our yard and the yard next door. And you can...

Mr. MAROUN: It was just done a couple of days ago.

Ms. BUTLER: And there's no evidence of it.

O'DOWD: Butler says she likes the industriousness of her workers, but she doesn't ask them to prove their citizenship.

Ms. BUTLER: It would be profiling if I really asked, hey, can I see your papers? Are you undocumented?

O'DOWD: Even without asking, the couple believes their landscapers are in this country illegally.

Ms. BUTLER: I'm positive.

Mr. MAROUN: If any of them were here with documents, I'd be shocked, now that I look back on it.

O'DOWD: A couple miles south of here is Suzie Perry's backyard. It's already 100 degrees at 10 am. The cicadas are buzzing like mad in the summer heat.

Ms. SUZIE PERRY: You know, nothing is swept off. The leaves are all over the patio and, you know, it's messy.

O'DOWD: The yard is messy because Perry no longer hires the undocumented workers that she had paid for 15 years to maintain it.

Ms. PERRY: We didn't really even think about its legality before. And now we -that's kind of in the air. You know, like, should we be doing this, or shouldn't we?

O'DOWD: Ultimately, Perry decided she shouldn't - 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.

Ms. PERRY: If you build it, they will come. If there is something available for them to do, then they'll fill that position.

O'DOWD: 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.

Ms. PERRY: The decision-makers will be forced to make some sort of a decision.

O'DOWD: Meanwhile, Tom Maroun and his wife will continue hiring their landscapers. I asked them if they believe they're partly responsible for fueling an underground economy.

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

O'DOWD: And everyday American families giving them work. The question is, when decision-makers do tackle comprehensive immigration reform, how will they deal with that reality?

For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.

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