Language Lockout

For Immigrants, Hard Work Yields Few Benefits

The language barrier is only the most obvious indicator of America's great, unresolved debate about its immigration problems, in which the flow of illegal aliens is often depicted as creating a burden on public services. The flip side of the argument is that people like Sanchez and the others on the picket line with her on West 34th Street are doing most of the tough, low-wage jobs in this city and elsewhere around the country. They are the people laying bricks in almost every new building outside of Manhattan, the people cleaning tables in most of the restaurants in midtown, as well as those lovingly tending to the babies of middle-class families where both parents must work.

Several unions recently teamed up to fund an in-depth study of a few square blocks in midtown to find out how much economic activity was being carried out on the backs of undocumented labor. Dubbed the "Black Market Survey," the results are still being sifted, but according to one participant, it revealed "an entire underground economy," with otherwise upstanding, legal enterprises conducting business in cash and relying on a network of low-wage undocumented workers for basic tasks.

These are the workers, argue the unions, who labor in constant fear of being exposed for their status and, as a result, are most easily manipulated and intimidated by employers and least likely to be able to complain about illegally low wages and unsafe working conditions.

Demonstrators outside midtown Medicaid office call for translators.
photo: Shiho Fukada
Demonstrators outside midtown Medicaid office call for translators.

Make the Road by Walking is already making plans to take part in a huge nationwide effort being organized by the AFL-CIO to highlight the dilemma of undocumented workers. Starting later this month, a giant bus caravan of immigrant workers is set to depart from nine major cities across the U.S., converging on October 4 in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, a borough where the latest census figures report more than 46 percent of the residents are foreign-born. Called the Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides, modeled on the great civil rights trips through a then segregated South in the early 1960s, the demonstration is aimed at creating a groundswell of support for new national laws to create a path to legalization for workers like Sanchez.

The end goal for the unions is to create a level playing field at workplaces and enlist new members, while hopefully providing Sanchez and others the on-the-job benefits their hard work deserves, thus keeping them out of Medicaid offices altogether. "This city is beginning to look like the New York of the early 20th century," said Ed Ott of the Central Labor Council, which is organizing the October rally. "For labor, to be in this movement to legalize these workers just makes sense."

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