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Essential, Illegal

Immigration Lawyer Says Undocumented Workers Fill Important Niche


May 18, 2007

Immigrant workers make up a critical part of the state's labor force, says Laura Jasinsky, principal of Jasinsky Immigration Law in Stamford. Jasinsky, 52, of Westport, spoke about immigration issues confronting employers and workers.

Q. The Pew Hispanic Center has estimated that, as of 2006, there were more than 70,000 undocumented immigrants living in Connecticut. Are federal and state authorities cracking down on Connecticut's undocumented workers?

A. Various federal and state governmental agencies or officials - not necessarily Homeland Security - are enjoying a role as "immigration police." I know of undocumented individuals who have been told they cannot get a marriage license. This is not true. This is simply a mistake made by an overzealous town clerk caught up in the anti-immigrant frenzy. Another example: Post-9/11, the Department of Motor Vehicles has written regulations to require proof of legal status in order to obtain a driver's license, when, in fact, the state statute does not give the DMV this type of authority. But not only do you have federal and state agencies and officials taking on the role of immigration police, you have the same thing from private individuals, potential landlords, etc.

Q. Some argue that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from American citizens and depressing wages for all by providing cheaper labor. Is this happening?

A. Employers need to make a profit at a certain level. Profit is a function of the price at which they sell their goods and services, and the costs of producing those goods and services. This is pretty basic. If the labor costs go up, the prices to the consumers go up. If the consumers don't buy at the higher prices, the employers go out of business.

If low-cost labor ceases to be available, employers will either go out of business, or automate if that is possible, or go offshore if that is an option.

The unemployment rate in Connecticut is about 4.1 percent, and it has always been below the national average, so I don't think Connecticut workers are feeling much pain because we have foreign workers here. Everyone, almost, has a job - even the undocumented workers. Help wanted signs are everywhere, especially in the middle- and lower-skilled jobs.

Think about it: We are able to have, albeit illegally, child care for our children, elder care for our parents, have our lawns mowed, our nails manicured, our roofs re-shingled, our trees trimmed, our stone walls built, our restaurant meals prepared and served, and our homes cleaned, at prices that are within reach of most of us, thanks to the immigrants.

There is wage containment. Immigrant workers have kept wages in certain areas low. But the question is, are the wages too low or are they just affordable? We've got a lot of well-off people here in Connecticut who love having these affordable services.

Q. You're saying that Connecticut needs the immigrant workers and the immigrants need the jobs. So how easy is it to legally immigrate to the state?

A. The laws are written in such a way that people who are here illegally can never, never get legal status. Once you've been here illegally for more than six months, you can't apply for a green card.

But if an employer wants to fill a job with a foreign worker, this is how he can do it: The employer can help that foreign worker get a green card, which is basically permanent legal residence in the U.S. But this process can take five years or more, and the immigrant cannot come and fill the job until the process is complete. So it's a little bit incredible to think that an employer who has a need now would seriously consider the green card route. Very few employers know for a fact whom they want to hire - or what jobs will need to be filled - five years in the future, and even if they did know, it still doesn't solve the problem of filling a job vacancy that exists now.

Also, an employer can help the foreign worker get a work visa. The problem is that there is no such thing as a work visa for general skilled and unskilled labor. The only work visas that exist are for individuals who are working in professions that require at least a bachelor's degree.

The scientist, the physician, the systems analyst - they can get a work visa. But these visas have very limited availability due to the annual quota. For the upcoming fiscal year, the entire [work visa] quota was used up in a single day and, in fact, approximately half of the applications were returned to the sponsoring employer because there were not enough [work] visas available. So these employers must wait until next year, and try again.

There are no realistic solutions for hiring foreign workers to fill current job vacancies. This is the reason why we hear so many proposals in Congress about a guest worker visa. It is meant to fill this huge void.

Q. You advise hundreds of employers. What problems do they face?

A. Employers are walking a fine line, because when a prospective employee presents documents, if the documents look real the employer has to accept them at face value. If he were to investigate further due to ethnicity, that's discriminatory. The employer is in a tough situation. If he discriminates, he could get sued. If he accepts an employee with forged documents, he's exposed in another direction.

I probably get 15 calls a day from employers asking me what they need to do. Sometimes what they need to do, which is very difficult, is to terminate good [undocumented] workers that they rely on.

If they can't find ways to hire these workers legally, American workers take the jobs at higher wages, and this will greatly increase the cost of living for all of us.

I think we have to have the same approach to the movement of human capital that we do with physical capital, more of a free-market approach.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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