Undocumented Workers

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Undocumented Workers







Undocumented workers are foreign-born workers who lack the legal documentation required to work in the country in which they live. As outlined by Charles Kelly in a 1977 article, these individuals may have crossed a national border without going through the required inspection process, they may have entered with counterfeit documents, or they may have overstayed legitimate tourist or working visas. In the United States, an undocumented worker is someone who is foreign born, is not a permanent resident, and is not a U.S. citizen. An undocumented worker can be deported for being in violation of U.S. migration and naturalization law and for not possessing permission to work in the United States. These workers, like others in a country illegally, are often referred to as “illegal aliens,” or “illegal immigrants.”


Because of their clandestine status, it is usually difficult to know exactly how many undocumented immigrants there are in a specific country or region. Demographers have created statistical methods to estimate how many undocumented immigrants exist in a population. According to estimates made by Jeffrey Passel, a researcher with the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington D.C., there were 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States in 2005. Of these, 7.2 million were unauthorized migrants employed in March 2005, accounting for about 4.9 percent of the civilian labor force. The other 3.9 million were home-stay woman and children. The same report showed that undocumented workers made up a larger share of the workers in certain occupational categories, including 24 percent of all workers employed in farming occupations, 17 percent in cleaning (or janitorial occupations), 14 percent in construction, and 12 percent in food preparation (Passel 2005, p.1). Passel also found that in 2005 undocumented immigrants made up 30 percent of the foreign-born population in the United States and were largely from Latin America, with most unauthorized migrants coming from Mexico.

In 2005 there were 6.2 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico in the United States. Passel’s study found that between 60 and 75 percent of the more than 11.1 million undocumented immigrants in the United States entered the country illegally and without inspection, in most cases entering across the 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexican border. The other 25 to 40 percent entered legally and subsequently overstayed visas or violated the terms of their admission. If a foreign national enters a country legally and then overstays a visa or violates the terms of admission, he or she automatically becomes an undocumented immigrant. If the same person gets a job, then he or she becomes an undocumented worker.


The forces of globalization and market competition have encouraged the hiring of undocumented workers worldwide. By employing such workers, companies can compete more easily in the global market economy and make more profits. Increased profits are made by paying low wages to undocumented workers (in many cases under the minimum wage); by not investing in safety measures or appropriate working equipment, which can be very expensive, and therefore forcing the undocumented workers to labor under dangerous conditions; by not paying overtime; by denying workers benefits such as health insurance; and by paying them under the table.

For these reasons, such employers generally avoid investigating whether documents presented at the time of hiring are authentic. Workers are supposed to be asked by employers at the time of hire to provide proof that they are allowed to work in the United States. Foreign workers can present a Permanent Resident Card (also called a Green Card) or a working permit (or working visa), as well as a Social Security card. Some employers, however, just take a copy of the Permanent Resident Card and the social security card from the prospective worker and file it in their records, just in case they are investigated by immigration authorities. They can then demonstrate that they were given documentation, and that this documentation suggested that the worker was authorized to work in the United States.

Most undocumented workers, however, can buy fake documentation from counterfeiters in the informal markets of global cities for just a few hundred dollars. In most cases, Social Security numbers are made-up numbers, but in other instances they match the numbers of real citizens. According to a 2005 New York Times article by Eduardo Porter, as many as three quarters of the undocumented workers in the United States pay payroll taxes, contributing between $6 billion and $7 billion in Social Security funds that they will be unable to claim later in life.


In an attempt to control undocumented immigration, the U.S. Congress passed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Art (IRCA), which awarded amnesty to and legalized the status of more than three million undocumented immigrants. At the same time, a new federal law, known as the Employers Sanctions Provisions of IRCA, Immigration and Nationality Act, Section 274a, prohibited employers from hiring undocumented workers and threatened them with large fines if they did so. As a result, many companies changed their strategies of hiring undocumented workers directly, and instead subcontracted out the work. Thus, the employer could not be blamed for having undocumented workers on their premises. If they are caught, the company could (and still can) argue that they had merely hired the subcontractor and that they were not aware of the legal status of the workers.

In 2005 several Wal-Mart stores were accused of hiring undocumented workers. Wal-Mart authorities were not able to argue lack of knowledge of the problem because federal agents had taped a conversation that showed that Wal-Mart executives knew that the subcontractors they used had hired illegal immigrants. Moreover, an article carried by the Associated Press and other sources revealed the conditions that undocumented workers faced at Wal-Mart: “Many of the janitors—from Mexico, Russia, Mongolia, Poland and a host of other nations—worked seven days or nights a week without overtime pay or injury compensation, said attorney James L. Linsey. Those who worked nights were often locked in the store until the morning, Linsey said” (Associated Press 2005, p. 1). This is a damning illustration of the conditions faced by undocumented workers in America.

U.S. immigration law has opened the doors for numerous immigrants to enter the country, but this door is mainly open to skilled workers. Unskilled workers have very few options when applying for a visa, with the result that most such workers have to enter the country illegally. According to Rob Paral, a Research Fellow with the Immigration Policy Center, only one category of visas in U.S. immigration and naturalization policy is targeted to low-skilled workers, and only 5,000 of these are issued per year. Most visas are reserved for high-skilled occupations, and 130,000 of these are allowed per year. According to Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson, the authors of Global Migration and the World Economy (2005), highskilled workers find it much harder to mask an illegal status and secure illegal employment that fully exploits their skills. Low-skilled jobs, however, are less likely to

require the licenses, certifications, and other documentation that might reveal legal status. They also point out that the wage differential between the countries of origin and destination is much larger for low-skilled work than for high-skilled work. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that undocumented low-skilled workers are disproportionately represented in current immigration flows.

Undocumented workers are protected by labor rights in the United States and several other countries around the world. According to the Workers’ Rights Handbook, examples of the kind of labor rights that undocumented workers may be awarded include the right to get paid at least the minimum wage, to get paid overtime, to receive workmen’s compensation insurance, and the right to organize. Unfortunately, in most cases, undocumented workers do not fight for their labor rights even when they are violated due to the fear of losing their job or getting deported if they complain.


The phenomenon of undocumented migration and undocumented workers is not unique to the United States. Globalization and the demand for cheap labor in the global market economy have created an underground demand for undocumented workers all around the world, especially in the most developed nations. Structural adjustment programs in developing nations and the expansion of free trade have caused thousands of workers around the world to be displaced from their jobs, leading to very high rates of unemployment. Sometimes referred to as a new form of slave labor, undocumented workers in developed nations are paid low wages for doing jobs in which they work under unsafe conditions, are not given any labor-related benefits, and are often forced to work for long hours without being paid overtime, among other abuses. Even conservative estimates claim that the number of undocumented immigrants around the world is about 10 million (see Skeldon 2000). Nation-states all around the world are currently fighting the problem of undocumented workers, who some claim displace citizens from jobs and lower wages in the country of destination.

The majority of undocumented immigrants around the world enter the country of destination illegally through the use of a smuggler, who either smuggles the person into the country or finances the cost of undocumented entry. The cost of smuggling can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars depending on the place of origin of the migrant, method of smuggling (by earth, by air, or by sea), and how strict the border enforcement has become at the port of entry. In 2007, smuggler costs to get into the United States were on average between $1,500 to $3,000 for Mexicans and $5,000 to $10,000 for Central Americans (Flores, 2007). According to Ko-Lin Chin (1999), author of Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States, the fees paid by the Chinese range from $30,000 to $60,000. Family and friends often cover the cost of the smuggling fees at the time of arrival to the United States. In other instances, the debt the worker incurs is taken out of the wages earned when the immigrant begins to work in some kind of shop or restaurant that is owned by intermediaries of the smuggler. If the money was provided by family and friends, very rarely the debt is forgiven. In most instances, undocumented workers spend large amounts of time (several months or years) after their arrival trying to pay back their debt for smuggling fees.

Undocumented workers are less likely to bring family members with them because of the dangerous circumstances under which they are smuggled, and because they are more likely to get caught if they travel with family members. Thus, undocumented workers with family members in the country of origin are more likely to move more frequently back and forth between the two countries. In the case of the United States, tighter border enforcement has not helped to reduce the flow of undocumented immigrants, but it has increased the rates charged by smugglers and redirected illegal crossings to nontraditional ports of entry. These changes have resulted in a death toll of about 400 deaths per year since the border was militarized in 1993 (see Massey et al. 2002). Tighter border enforcement has also helped to increase the number of undocumented workers who stay longer in the United States, because it is more difficult for undocumented workers to continue with their traditional circulatory flow. Despite internal immigration enforcement laws, such as those enacted by the U.S. Congress, governments tend to poorly enforce their immigration laws due to political and economic factors. Moreover, the demand for workers to fill jobs not easily filled by native-born or documented workers only reinforces the dynamics of undocumented immigration, despite border enforcement.


In addition to high levels of exploitation, undocumented workers face high levels of racial discrimination. In most nations around the world, undocumented workers tend to be members of racial minorities. As in the case of the United States, where numerous undocumented workers look Hispanic or Latino, in other places around the world undocumented workers are easy to spot, and they can then be subjected to racial profiling and discrimination. In Germany, Turkish undocumented workers are often visually distinctive, and African undocumented workers are easily spotted in Spain because of their physical features and the color of their skin. Racial discrimination associated with undocumented migration status is considered a new form of racism, especially in the United States.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States reached new heights during 2006, leading to millions of undocumented immigrants marching in the streets of major U.S. cities and protesting immigration laws that threatened to convert those who offer help to undocumented immigrants into felons. As a result of the nationwide protests, hundreds of new immigration laws curtailed the ability of employers to hire undocumented workers, forcing the police to inquire about the legal status of those who they detain, and allowing landlords to deny renting to undocumented immigrants. In most instances, these local laws have been revoked in federal courts given that such laws have been declared to be unconstitutional and according to federal law, only the federal government and not the local government can inquire about immigration status of any person (Rubinkam 2007). In addition, a 700-mile-long fence along the U.S.-Mexican border was approved by the Congress and signed by President George W. Bush. Other bills have been debated in Congress, including one that would award amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants. A backlash against illegal immigration all over the United States has caused thousands of workers to be deported, so that families have been suddenly separated and children terrorized when they returned home from school to find that their parents had been taken away. Despite the deportations and the new laws, there is no sign that the flow of undocumented workers to the United States and other developed countries will come to an end any time soon.

SEE ALSO Underemployment.


Associated Press. “Wal-Mart Mops Up Immigrant Flap.” 2005. Washington, DC: CBS News, March 18. Available from http://www.cbsnews.com.

Baumer, Bennett. 2006. “Far-Right Bill Targets Immigrants, Punishes Helpers.” Newstandard News, March 8. Available from http://newstandardnews.net/content.

Capps, Randolph, and Michael E. Fix. 2005. “Undocumented Immigrants: Myths and Reality.” Washington, DC: Urban Institute. Available from http://www.urban.org/.

Chin, Ko-Lin. 1999. Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Flores, Nadia Y. 2007. “International Migration from El Salvador.” Texas A&M University, Department of Sociology, College Station, Texas. Working Paper.

Friebel, Guido, and Sergei Guriev. 2004. Smuggling Humans: A Theory of Debt-financed Migration. Bonn, Germany: Institute for the Study of Labor. Available from http://www.iza.org.

Friends of Farmworkers. “Workers’ Rights Handbook.” Available from http://friendsfw.org/Undocumented_Rights.

Hatton, Timothy J., and Jeffrey G. Williamson. 2005. Global Migration and the World Economy: Two Centuries of Policy and Performance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

International Organization for Migration. 2003. World Migration Report: Managing Migration; Challenges and Responses for People on the Move. Geneva: International Organization for Migration.

Kelly, Charles B. 1977. “Counting the Uncountable: Estimates of Undocumented Aliens in the United States.” Population and Development Review 3 (4): 473–481.

Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone. 2002. Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Paral, Rob. 2006. “No Way In: U.S. Immigration Policy Leaves Few Legal Options for Mexican Workers.” Immigration Policy in Focus 4 (5). Available from http://www.ailf.org/ipc/nowayin.asp.

Passel, Jeffrey. 2005. “Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.” Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center. Available from http://pewhispanic.org/reports.

Porter, Eduardo. 2005. “Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security with Billions.” New York Times, April 5.

Rubinkam, Michael. 2007. “PA. Immigrant Law Voided: Judge Strikes Down Hazleton’s Tough New Anti-Illegal Immigration Law.” The Associated Press, July 26, 2007. Available from http://biz.yahoo.com/ap/070726/illegal_immigrants_crackdown.html?.v=1.

Skeldon, Ronald. 2000. Myths and Realities of Chinese Irregular Migration. Migration Research Series 1. Geneva: International Office of Migration.

Nadia Y. Flores