“Living in the Shadows”
By Michael Milne
There are essentially two categories of Central American and Mexican nationals contemplating an undocumented journey to the United States: those who have contacts in the United States (family or friends who are already here), and those who are recruited to work here by people of their own nationalities (human trafficking) who are already established in the United States in businesses (restaurants, farm work, hotels, construction, etc.), and other occupations (house cleaning, daycare, prostitution, etc.)
Many of these “recruiters” simply act as employment agents, supplying American businesses with a source of inexpensive labor. Many of those they recruit, if they make it here, find low paying jobs waiting for them – with an advantage. They are paid under the table with untraceable, nontaxable cash. Their American employers reap the benefit of usually cheap, hardworking, very reliable labor with the added benefit of avoiding payroll taxes. Many of those recruited to work in American businesses work at jobs many Americans would not accept; as dishwashers, bussers, agricultural workers, or as night cleaning personnel, for example. Many work two or three jobs.
Upon arrival, and once on the job, or before, they generally gravitate quickly to their own national and social groups, moving into apartments and sharing the rent to save money.
Others who accept these offers often fare worse – some much worse. Again, if they make it to the United States, they may essentially become indentured slaves. They are given a place to live by their “facilitator” generally in a small, overcrowded room in a shabby house owned by the same, charged exorbitant fees for rent, paid very little, and obliged to turn over a portion of their meager earnings.
The “facilitator,” often a legal resident or citizen of their nationality who shares their culture, controls them in this manner. They are advised upon arrival by the facilitator that any attempt to flee from his/her oversight will result in severe penalties for the family back home.
The objective of all groups described above is to save and send their money to their loved ones in their respective countries. These money transfers are called “remesas” (remittances). It is interesting to note that these “remesas” constitute the second largest source of revenue with respect to the Mexican GNP (less than number one, petroleum, but more than number three, tourism). In some Central American nations, principally, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Costa Rica, the statistics are more difficult to establish, but remittances are possibly number one on the list of national GNP revenues, or close to it.
These undocumented aliens spend their money here very frugally in order to save cash for their remittances back home. For reasons of language barriers, different cultural norms, and often because they just do not feel that they belong here in the normal sense, they generally do not integrate into American society, but rather stick together and live in the shadows. When you do see them, you will see them cooking or washing dishes when the restaurant kitchen doors open and close, or bussing tables, or walking down the street in small groups. Local grocery and small restaurant entrepreneurs cater to their favorite Latino food preferences.
It would be a mistake to think that all of the undocumented Latinos who live here are a homogenous group. In the restaurant kitchens or on the streets, you may hear them speaking Native American languages such as Zapotec, Mayan, and a variety of their dialects*. Spanish is often not their first language.
Contrary to popular belief, undocumented Latinos in the United States have a lower violent crime rate than that of the American population at large**. Yet crime is crime. Heinous crimes are perpetrated by Latinos and American citizens alike. Of course, there are bad apples in every barrel. But most of the Latino community without legal status here are hardworking family people who don’t really want to be here. Their dream is to make enough money to return to their countries and live the good life there with their wives, husbands, and children in homes their remittances have built, while working in their own small businesses made possible by the same.
What is their impact on local, American owned businesses and their employees? For the most part their presence is beneficial. As mentioned, undocumented Latinos often take jobs that American workers shun and disdain. And although ICE has led a series of raids on restaurants, construction sites, and factories, undocumented Latinos continue to be a boon to American business. They bring down the price of meals in restaurants, hotels and construction, of beef, pork and chicken processing, etc., and their presence as agricultural workers is invaluable to our nation, both in terms of production and price.
On the downside, the presence of children of undocumented, non-taxpaying Latinos in our schools, children who often receive free medical attention, depending on the location, is a burden to American taxpayers, who must pay for all of this. Special free English as a second language programs and lunch programs for the children of undocumented Latinos in American schools are also problematic in that if the schools cannot secure state or federal funding for them, they must divert funds from other programs to pay for them. The current political climate in the United States is causing programs like DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to face a very uncertain future. It is currently a national debate.
In all of this, we are not talking about migrant workers, whose families have arrived in the spring to Michigan for generations and followed the harvest northward as Michigan fruits and vegetables ripen. No. These migrant workers are mostly American citizens and most return to Texas to their homes to spend their winters. But like their undocumented Latino counterparts, they are tireless, productive workers. Many have settled in southern Michigan, some for generations already.
In conclusion, in the balance, the presence of undocumented Latinos in the United States is beneficial to our national economy. The “indocumentados” generally do not displace American workers in the workplace, and they make our food, hotel stay rates, construction costs, and many other essential and nonessential goods and services much more affordable. But there are certainly other issues to consider.
NOTE: This report focuses on the presence of undocumented Latinos in Michigan, although there are many places in the United States where the same or similar intercultural relationships exist.
*Dialects of the Zapotec language are spoken primarily in Oaxaca, Mexico. Dialects of Mayan are spoken in the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, in Chiapas and Quintana Roo, southern Mexico, and in Guatemala and Honduras.