The New York Times had an interesting article last week about a survey of 2660 day laborers at 264 hiring sites in 20 states across the country. Among the findings were that 75% of day workers are illegal immigrants, and that most are Hispanic. The survey also found that nearly half had been cheated out of wages, and many reported unsafe workplace conditions.

One of the researchers, Abel Valenzuela Jr. of UCLA, said "This is a labor market that thrives on cheap wages and the fact that most of these workers are undocumented. They're in a situation where they're extremely vulnerable, and employers know that and take advantage of them."

The Birmingham News has a special series of reports on immigration in the South that looks at some of the social and political issues, how immigration affects the community, and, through personal accounts of their experiences, how immigrants are adapting. I haven't read it all yet, but I found this interesting:

Read more after the jump...

About 35 percent to 40 percent of all Hispanic immigrants in Alabama are believed to be illegal - roughly 35,000 in 2004 out of an estimated 98,388. Most of them are Mexican, according to population experts Jeffrey Passel and Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington.

Nolasco is part of a massive entry of Hispanic people into Alabama and five other Southeastern states since 1990, a migration that has increased the population of Hispanics in the area by 456 percent, or 1.3 million people, according to Pew reports released this summer.

Growth in construction, poultry processing, farming, service and hospitality industries is fueling the migration. The impact is being seen at churches, retail stores, hospitals, public schools, social service agencies and law enforcement throughout Alabama and the Southeast.

Illegal immigrants see mixed messages coming from the United States. It's illegal to cross the borders without documentation, but once they're here, business owners are eager to hire them; counterfeit Social Security cards are available for $50 to several hundred dollars; and a shortage of immigration enforcement officers makes policing and deportation unlikely.

"I came to get a better life, to help my dad pay for the farm and get whatever he needed," Nolasco said. "We are not coming to destroy America, we are coming to help America. And they (Americans) can help us, too."

Facing a wait of several years for a legal visa as an unskilled worker, Nolasco chose the way that was immediate - as an illegal immigrant. He packed his ID, school papers, family snapshots, a few clothes and cassette tapes from church, and walked six hours in the desert. He paid a human smuggler - known as a "coyote" - $100 to drive him in an RV to San Diego.

Relatives told him about jobs in Birmingham.


Within weeks of coming to Alabama, Nolasco was taking care of horses on a Birmingham-area farm. At a horse show, he was offered another job in Atlanta. Then he returned to Birmingham.

His story echoes the experiences of other Hispanic immigrants.

After a trip in 1999 to visit his family in Mexico, Nolasco had a tougher time coming back. Coyotes demanded $1,500 to help him cross the border. Walking through the desert to sneak back to the United States, Nolasco was attacked by other would-be migrants who wanted his jewelry.

"We were in the middle of nowhere and these people pulled out guns and took my clothes, my money, everything," Nolasco said. "I prayed real hard that if they kill me, my family find me - and if I get there, I will make sure I get my papers legal."

Nolasco called another coyote, who charged him $1,800 to bribe a border officer and drive him to the United States. He spent a night in the rain, crawled through tunnels near the border and took a pre-arranged taxi past the border officer into the United States the next day.

The case of illegal vs. legal immigrant isn't always a simple one. From time to time, the federal government has given temporary opportunities for illegal immigrants to become legal. It happened in 1986 and again in 2001.

Nolasco took advantage of the opportunity offered for a few months in 2001 to pay a fine, prove his new American roots and become a legal U.S. resident. Nolasco now manages a carpet warehouse in Trussville; he and his American wife, Danielle, own a house in Leeds.
What this story illustrates is how badly these people want to be here, and how they are willing to work and pay taxes and become productive citizens.

What some of the statistics show, however, is that our immigration policy isn't working to help people come here legally and become members of our society. Instead, it has created an underground social and economic environment in which government looks the other way while businesses exploit illegal immigrants, where everything is done off the books on a cash basis and no taxes are paid and no benefits are available, and where crime and corruption are standard business practices to get illegal workers here and keep them here.

Here in Tennessee the problems are exacerbated by our "driving certificate" program which allows anyone to obtain a state issued photo ID without proof of citizenship as long as they can show they are residents and pass the driving tests. There have been numerous arrests related to crime rings transporting illegal immigrants to the state to obtain the IDs. More recently, licensing examiners employed by the state were arrested for allegedly taking bribes to issue IDs without any documentation or testing at all.

While conservatives have no qualms about discussing immigration as a failure of policy that threatens our economy and social infrastructure, liberals and progressive types are afraid to touch it for fear of appearing racist or xenophobic. This is a shame, because we need a rational, progressive immigration policy that at minimum protects immigrants from abuse and exploitation while requiring employers to follow the law.

If progressive political leaders won't step up, we cede the problem to the right and the only policy forthcoming will be more "solutions" such as building walls and deploying "minutemen" vigilantes along our borders while denying illegal workers already here access to health care, education, and other social services that cater to basic human needs.

So, what does a "progressive" immigration policy look like? I don't know, but the first step towards defining it is admitting there's a problem.

OK, then.