An Exposé on Oregon’s Undocumented Labor Force
By: Nico Hamacher '15 (3rd generation Ponzi)
Photos by: Nico Hamacher
On November - 28 - 2012
Each day, while business people work in offices and students study, produce is picked and packaged only miles away, dry wall is placed in homes, and hotel rooms are cleaned. As many people would assume, the majority of these jobs are done by immigrants from Central America and Mexico, and a portion of these workers have immigrated here without papers. Many, brought here as children, now regard the United States as their home and have few memories of their country of origin. Without them, our economy would suffer, since few American citizens are willing to do the same work. So why then, do some people feel undocumented residents should be deported, even if they, like many citizens, have spent their whole lives here? This three-part feature explores undocumented immigration and its effects on immigrants, employers, and organizations.
Part I: Oregon’s Economic Dependency on Latino Labor
Since before Oregon’s founding, Latino people have contributed to our state’s economy and have been a part of our community. As Oregon has grown, so has our dependence on Latino workers. According to a report by the immigrant rights group CAUSA, Oregon’s Latino community makes up around 12% of our total population and provides a backbone for many of our state’s main business sectors, including agriculture, construction and hospitality.
Much of our state’s growth is linked to these Latino people, who whether legal, illegal, working or not, contribute to our society through their culture and taxes. A study by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis found that between 2000 and 2010, 43% of Oregon’s population growth could be attributed to the Latino population. While the majority of these immigrants are legal, there are up to 220,000 Latinos here without papers, many of whom have been here for the majority of their lives and consider themselves citizens.
Many people worry about Oregon’s high rates of undocumented immigration and its effects on our economy. During an interview, Jim Ludwick, the founder of the anti-immigration organization Oregonians for Immigration Reform, voiced concern about undocumented workers taking jobs from unemployed American citizens and the burden undocumented people place on our economy.
However, undocumented immigrants are some of Oregon’s most important workers as they prop up much of our economy, pay taxes, and spend much of their money here. The Oregon Center for Public Policy found that in total, these immigrants contribute around 230 million dollars per year to Oregon. Additional revenue is generated through taxes paid by employers in their names.
Furthermore, the programs they pay money into will never help them directly as they are prohibited from accessing them. These programs include Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, temporary cash assistance, Social Security, and unemployment benefits. The money they pay into these programs helps raise the quality of life of American citizens.
Very few undocumented immigrants work in high paid positions. As one young undocumented immigrant stated, “When you go to a household where the majority of the people are undocumented, they’re not going to be working in nice offices; they’re usually working in greenhouses, construction, restaurants and other types of heavy, physical labor.” The majority of this labor is low paying, and few if any American citizens will take these jobs. In places with stringent anti-immigration laws like Arizona and Alabama, this phenomenon has proven to be the case. Even in states such as Washington, where immigration laws are less stringent, there has been evidence of employers struggling to adequately find laborers in the absence of migrant workers.
In a recent report aired on NPR in October, a Washington farmer stated that many apples were rotting on the trees due to the lack of available immigrant labor and the unwillingness of American citizens to do the highly physical work. The same situation happened in Alabama, where, according to a report by the Center for American Progress, one tomato farmer reported having only five of his 25 field workers show up to pick tomatoes the day after the Alabama legislature passed the strongest anti-immigration law in the US. After airing ads for the unoccupied jobs on the radio, the farmer hired 20 American citizens, the majority of whom quit almost immediately.
As citizens won’t work in these positions, it is unclear what employers would do if Oregon were ever to pass severe anti-immigration laws like Alabama and Arizona. One Oregon farmer, who supplies produce to stores around the Northwest, stated that without Latino immigrant labor he would have to downsize his business to 5% of its current size. Of the six hotels, nurseries, and farms contacted, all employ Latino immigrants and only the hotels felt they would be able to find replacements for these Latino workers. The majority of businesses reliant on immigrant labor would be greatly affected if Oregon passed severe anti-immigration laws, and the farms would be forced to significantly raise the price of the produce they sell.
This situation would leave both legal Oregon residents and undocumented people in a difficult place. All citizens are dependent on undocumented workers for labor, and undocumented workers are dependent on our state for employment. Without them, you would not be able to eat as many of the foods you enjoy and our economic growth would be stunted. However, many people are displeased with the current situation, and maintain that immigrants should come here legally, on a green card or some other visa. However, for the majority of immigrants, this isn’t a feasible option.