‘Here I can afford to feed my children’
GREELEY – Antonio Cabrera’s breath turns to steam as he chats in Spanish with Antonio Aguilar and David Loya outside the Panaderia Juarez on 11th Avenue and 5th Street in Greeley.Cabrera pulls his hood up over his ears and buries his hands in his coat pockets as he tries to stay warm on this winter morning. Cabrera, an illegal immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, is waiting for someone to drive by and offer him work. This popular spot for day laborers is where Greeley’s underground economy starts. Cars and trucks park in the dirt lot, looking for men willing to work in jobs ranging from roofing and construction to landscaping and house moves. They are promised between $6-$10 an hour to be paid in cash at the end of the day, tax-free. For men like Cabrera, the work presents an opportunity to earn almost as much in one hour as he would in a day of similar work in Mexico. For the employer, the men offer cheap labor that comes tax-free. “We’re helping them and they’re helping us,” said Cabrera, 34, who six months ago spent two days crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on foot near El Paso, Texas.No one has determined exactly how many illegal immigrants live in the U.S – estimates range from 8 million to 20 million – but the Bear Stearns investment bank in New York believes they are gaining a larger share of the job market. Bob Justich, a senior managing director of Bear Stearns, estimates that illegal immigrants make up about 8 percent of the job market.
Barron’s financial magazine estimates this underground economy accounts for about 9 percent ($970 billion) of the goods and services produced by the real economy. Some, like these day laborers in Greeley, will be paid in cash under the table. Others work in more formal companies using fake Social Security numbers and documentation. “The toleration of illegal immigration undermines all of our labor,” said Vernon Briggs, a Cornell University labor economics professor. “It rips at the social fabric. It’s a race to the bottom. The one who plays by the rules is penalized. It becomes a system that feeds on itself. It just goes on and on and on.”No papers neededThe employers who arrive at this Greeley parking lot don’t ask for Social Security numbers, proof of residency or citizenship. A willingness to get your hands dirty will get you work here. Cabrera, Aguilar, Loya and Juan Guerrero agree most of the men that arrive here are illegal immigrants. A few, like Aguilar and Guerrero, are legal residents or U.S. citizens. “If I had my papers, I would be working in a company,” Cabrera said.But Aguilar, who was born in El Paso, and Guerrero, a legal resident and green card holder, refute Cabrera’s assessment. They tell Cabrera that just being legal doesn’t earn you work with companies who would rather employ illegal immigrants because they can pay them less.On this day, Cabrera, Loya, Guerrero and Aguilar go home without work after waiting three hours. In Greeley, the underground economy isn’t always buzzing.
In the winter, about five to 25 men gather at the Panaderia, and work is far from guaranteed. Only one man secured a job today, a cement job that paid $8 an hour. The summer, though, is much better. They said as many as 80 workers will show up, starting at 6:30 a.m., and most get jobs. Cabrera sends money home to his five children and wife in Chihuahua; he would like to bring them to the U.S. “Here, I can afford to feed my five children,” Cabrera said. Cabrera and Loya, 39, know that agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement could send them home for being in the U.S. illegally, but they don’t worry. Neither has ever seen “la migra,” or ICE agents here. They say trucks that pull up to offer work do it openly and without worries. “This is like Mexico,” Cabrera said. “I feel like I’m at home. I come and go as I want and nobody bothers me. If you work and behave well, they treat you well here.”Change of climateA coalition of conservative Republicans in Colorado, frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress on the issue, want to change this climate. “We want to put out the message that people here illegally are not welcome in Colorado,” said Rep. Dave Schultheis, a Colorado Springs Republican, alluding to Arizona’s Proposition 200. “The word gets out instantly, and they start going to other states.”Schultheis supports the work of former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm and Defend Colorado Now, who are working to get a measure on the 2006 ballot that will be similar to Arizona’s Proposition 200, which barred illegal immigrants from access to state services including state-funded health care and financial aid for education.
This session, he and his fellow Republican legislators plan to introduce a host of immigration bills that will crackdown on both illegal immigrants and those who employ them. Schultheis will introduce a bill that would require law enforcement officials across the state to work with ICE to enforce immigration law. “All of these bills that we are introducing are with that goal in mind: to make this a difficult state for people to live in illegally,” Schultheis said. Cabrera has his own solution – create a guest worker program that would charge $1,000 to interested workers and require background checks in both the U.S. and Mexico or the immigrant’s home country. He said it will work for both sides if they make sure none of the criminals from Mexico are bringing their problems north. “Who wants bad people?” he said. But Schultheis calls guest worker programs worthless unless they are rigid. To he and his group, the bottom line is the rule of law.”There is no other side to the issue – you obey the law or not,” he said. “If you’re not obeying, you should get out.”The Associated Press contributed to this story.Vail, Colorado