The Underground Workforce: Immigrants

 

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

A little over a month ago, I traveled to Queens to go pick up my 10th wedding anniversary cake from a family friend. To give you some context, I live in Long Island, NY (the forgotten borough, unless you talk The Hamptons) so anytime I want food or goods related to my West-Indian culture (and this cake was a West-Indian cake) I go to Queens or Brooklyn usually. Since I am approximately an hour and 15 minutes from Queens I try to maximize my trips by ensuring I get all the West-Indian goodies I want before returning home. This day, I did just that and went to my favorite Singh’s Roti Shop in Ozone Park to get my roti, doubles, pholourie and the like. The line in Singh’s on a Saturday is usually long but is made more pleasant by the people watching, aromatic scents and beautiful Soca and Calypso music playing while you wait.

I found something more at Singh’s this day and it involved a woman standing behind me on line.  I remember turning and smiling at her and she asked me: “If the line here is always this long?” I replied: “Yes, always!” She then went on to ask me if I was a Trinidadian and I said: “Yes, with a mix of Guyanese too”. She proceeded to tell me that she was so hungry as she has been working as a live-in aide to an elderly woman in Upstate New York and the family does not so much as grant her but 15 minutes to go and procure food for herself.

She went on to share with me the deplorable way in which the family treated her patient. She also shared that she told them she had some affairs to take care of so she got two days off. She took two trains and a bus by memory to get to Singh’s as it was the only place she remembered having food that would nourish her and make her feel a little like she was back in Trinidad.

I asked her why she stays if she doesn’t like the way she is being treated? She mentioned that she was working to put her kids through school. On the brighter side, she was going on an interview for a new patient the next day with a family she felt more aligned with. I told her I would pray for her that her interview went well.

I was then called up to place my order, so I said a quick goodbye. As I waited for them to package my order, I watched her with sadness thinking she was carrying the weight of her space in the world on her shoulders (and it showed). She reminded me of any number of my aunts. As I paid for my food, I went over to her and told her she is a strong woman and I wished her well with a parting hug.

As much as our encounter uplifted me –it also made me angry that she was being used and abused for cheap labor by an American family because they can and more importantly, because her labor and toil are convenient for their lifestyles.

In a time where the discussion of undocumented immigrants is so contentious, it is unfathomable to me that we have such hypocrisy at play where this issue is concerned. Essentially, our position is we don’t want you illegal and undocumented people here; except for in instances where you present a cheaper option that makes our lives simpler. I wonder if it has ever occurred to the lower half of the economic scale that their prized 1% white male and women counterparts are to blame for the undocumented numbers in the U.S.? I am here to shed some light.

Your prized 1 percenters are the ones who actively seek out women like this woman I spoke with to be wet nurses, doulas, companions and live-in nannies at a much lower margin than what any U.S.-based nanny would charge. I know because some of my own family members have had flights, housing, cell phones, wages and expenses paid for them to come here from abroad and do this work.

To further back what I already know to be true, I dug up some statistics from Pew Research Center. Here are some things you should know about undocumented immigrants and their impact on our workforce:

  • In 2015, there were 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. This number has been mostly unchanged given estimates made for 2009 – 2016 since there was a smaller sample size and a large margin of error in the numbers. According to this same study, unauthorized immigrants peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million a whopping 4% of the U.S. population. So much for undocumented immigrants taking over the U.S. and all of the “good” jobs.
  • Surprise…surprise! Mexicans are not among the majority of undocumented immigrants. Statistics from the same Pew Research Center study, suggest that from 2009 – 2016, the bulk of undocumented immigrants are coming from Asia and Central America countries outside of Mexico. I guess an Asian influx isn’t a problem, but let us also not forget their particular knowledge, skills, and abilities also facilitate our culture of convenience.
  • The U.S. Civilian Workforce includes 8 million undocumented immigrants accounting for 5% of those who were either working, unemployed or looking for work. How can undocumented immigrants be so unwanted and at the same time so assimilated into our workforce? More convenience and hypocrisy.

There are many moving parts to this discussion. My annoyance with it all is that our economy, businesses, and lives run on immigration. Yet, we dehumanize these people, throw around propaganda about banishing them and still when it suits us we hire them to do the work that no one else is willing to do. As HR professionals, we have to be just as willing to talk about how we improve societal conditions as we are to talk about the latest best practices to improve company culture. We also have to recognize that while our obligations are to the organizations we serve, we are on some level tied back to the overall perverted web of labor that exists here in the U.S.

We must seek the truth. Protect the truth and recognize when our ideals and practices are dissonant. I hope this helps.

To read the full article with statistics from The Pew Research Center study click here.