02/16/2011 02:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Deeper Into the Shadows: The Unintended Consequences of Immigration Worksite Enforcement

President Obama's budget request, now before Congress, aims to continue an immigration enforcement policy whose unintended consequences are pushing tens of thousands of people deeper into the shadows and into the underground economy. While the president has long advocated an immigration plan that would bring illegal immigrants "out of the shadows," his administration's enforcement strategy is doing exactly the opposite.

Since April 2009, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has touted its new approach to worksite enforcement -- one that places more emphasis on checking the paperwork of targeted employers than on company raids and worker roundups. If ICE audits show companies have employees whose papers don't check out, the firms must lay off workers or face penalties. As a result, thousands of workers have lost jobs. But after contributing to the U.S. economy while establishing families and livelihoods in the United States, returning home to their native countries where they may face poor economic prospects or violence is generally not a viable option. Instead they stay and retreat into society's margins

For seven years, Alondra (not her real name -- workers interviewed for this article are referred to by first names or pseudonyms) helped clean the heated skyway tunnels that link buildings in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. The 33-year-old immigrant was an employee of New York-based ABM Industries, one of the largest building-services contractors in the U.S. She and her partner, Juan -- also an ABM worker -- were living the American dream with a new house and a baby boy. But in October 2009, their world turned upside down when they lost their jobs. An ICE audit of ABM's personnel files determined the couple had "suspect" documents. Unable to produce the necessary papers, Alondra and Juan were fired along with some 1,250 other ABM employees.

Alondra, who has lived in the U.S. since 2000, went from her steady $528-a-week income with a union contract and benefits to barely scraping by. When she is able to find work such as housecleaning, dog walking and washing laundry, she is paid in cash. Juan works part time for a fraction of his previous pay. They don't seek medical care even when they need it.

But despite their challenges, the couple has no intention of returning to Ecuador. Instead, they are earning money off the books, paying fewer taxes, and living in society's margins.

"I have my home here," Alondra said. "I put a lot of money into it. I have my child. I have nothing back in my home country."

The evidence that migrants are not returning to their home countries is more than anecdotal. A recent Pew Hispanic Center study found that the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States as of March 2010 (estimated at 11.2 million) was "virtually unchanged from a year earlier."

The growth of underground communities and black-market economies has a ripple effect that extends beyond the migrants themselves. Perhaps the best description of the wider effects of this policy came from President Obama last summer. A speech on immigration serves as a concise if unintentional description of the consequences of his own enforcement policies.

"[B]ecause they live in the shadows, they're vulnerable to unscrupulous businesses who pay them less than the minimum wage or violate worker-safety rules -- thereby putting companies who follow those rules, and Americans who rightly demand the minimum wage or overtime, at an unfair [dis]advantage," said the President. "Crimes go unreported as victims and witnesses fear coming forward. And this makes it harder for the police to catch violent criminals and keep neighborhoods safe. And billions in tax revenue are lost each year because many undocumented workers are paid under the table."

According to ICE, in fiscal year 2010 (October 1, 2009 through September 30, 2010), auditors identified 25,690 suspicious Employment Eligibility Verification forms (I-9s). It is safe to assume that the vast majority of the employees who submitted those forms were terminated as a result of the audits.

What happened to the fired workers and their families? The experience in Minneapolis offers some clues. At our request, local 26 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents janitors, conducted a survey of 50 people it was able to reach. Among the findings: half came to the U.S. before 1999; most have U.S.-born children; most are working, but are making 40 percent less than at ABM wages. Of those, just 14 said they would report their wages to the IRS.

The Twin Cities has been hard hit by the audits. In addition to the dismissals at ABM, about 100 employees of two St. Paul cattle processing firms were laid off after ICE audits last year. More recently, the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain fired at least 100 people. The company won't say exactly how many employees lost jobs. Workers' advocates believe the number may be as high as 700. Interviews with area residents show some of the effects of the audits:

  • After he lost his Chipotle job, Alejandro makes deliveries and cleans offices. He's willing to take $6 an hour.
  • Jaime, a former cleaner with ABM, got a seven-day-a-week janitorial job where he was paid $25 a night in cash.

Some people are exchanging services and work for barter so that no money changes hands. Miguel shovels snow or tunes up cars in exchange for childcare.

Advocates for workers question the government's priorities. The stated focus of the ICE worksite enforcement program is to target "egregious employers who knowingly exploit illegal labor," but ICE appears to be casting a wide net, going after companies such as ABM Industries that provide workers with well-paying, union jobs and decent benefits.

"It's a strategy that has a high political value in trying to prove they're doing enforcement" says John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. "But the reality is that ABM did not have a serious record of being a bad actor. Why was that a priority?"

As for Chipotle, even though it is non-union, labor leaders say the company is "definitely above the bottom tier" in its overall treatment of workers.

Brett Dreyer, head of ICE's worksite-enforcement unit, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. I would have liked to have known more about his agency's priorities and the unintended consequences of a confusing immigration policy.

Journalist Jeffrey Kaye is author of Moving Millions: How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration (Wiley). This article is adapted from an article that originally appeared on the website of the Immigration Policy Center.