Thursday, March 5, 2009

Stimulus dollars may end up helping illegal workers

By Franco Ordoñez
fordonez@charlotteobserver.com
Posted: Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009

Some construction jobs created as a result of federal aid could go to illegal immigrants.

Thousands of N.C. jobs and millions in wages created from the federal economic stimulus package could wind up going to illegal immigrants.

Congress stripped language from the $789 billion package that would have required employers to verify the legal status of workers paid with stimulus money.

The White House estimates the package will generate or save an estimated 105,000 jobs in North Carolina over the next two years.

While it's impossible to say definitively how many illegal immigrants will get jobs, multiple studies estimate at least 14percent of the construction labor force is in the U.S. illegally. Experts say actual numbers are likely much higher.

North Carolina could get $1.3billion for highway and school construction, which, based on federal estimates, could mean more than 5,000 jobs for undocumented workers.

“That's not right,” said Jon Holstead, 24, a Charlotte electrician helping to build Salome Church Road Elementary School near Lowe's Motor Speedway. “You have Americans out of work, but you have illegal immigrants coming to work.”

The stimulus package was a popular topic this week at the school construction site where Americans and immigrants work side-by-side. Several immigrants on the project told the Observer they are working without proper legal papers.

A masonry worker, Juan Luis, 28, said Latinos are struggling as much as anyone.

“People say Latinos take our jobs, but no one wants to do the kind of work we do,” he said. “Americans just don't see it that way.”

More than $770 million of the state's stimulus money is expected for roads. A 2006 Observer investigation found illegal immigrants – using Social Security numbers that were fake, stolen or belonging to dead people – working for major N.C. road-building companies. Using a sample of payroll records from large contractors, including Rea Contracting and Blount-Sanford Construction, the newspaper found questionable Social Security numbers for a third of 85 workers.

Observer calls to several road companies were not returned Wednesday.

The unemployment rate in North Carolina was 8.7 percent in December; in South Carolina, 9.5 percent. Last year, S.C. Gov Mark Sanford, who's one of a handful of Republican governors who are considering turning down money from the stimulus package, signed legislation that requires S.C. businesses to verify immigration status. North Carolina has no such law or policy.

The House of Representatives included an amendment in the original stimulus bill that would have required all recipients of stimulus money to use E-Verify, a federal program that checks Social Security numbers. House and Senate negotiators removed the requirement in the final version.

U.S. Rep. John Spratt, a Democrat from York County, S.C., has voted for verification systems and supported the House bill with the E-Verify provision included. But he noted, “I don't think E-Verify should be made mandatory until it is made accurate and reliable.”

Supporters of E-Verify acknowledge errors but say the program still effectively identifies illegal immigrants.

“Would it keep out every illegal? No,” said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates stronger immigration enforcement. “Like in anything, is there going to be fraud? Sure. … The point is this could be an important tool to deter illegal employment.”

Although they voted against the overall stimulus package, local GOP legislators such as Rep. Sue Myrick, supported keeping verification in the bill.

The office of Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Cherryville Republican, said he joined other Republicans in a letter disagreeing with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which recommended not including E-Verify in the stimulus package.

Sen. Richard Burr, a Winston-Salem Republican, said in a statement: “E-Verify is an important tool to help us enforce laws already on the books, and it is unfortunate the Senate was not given an opportunity to vote on the provision.”

Opponents of E-Verify says it would hinder the economic recovery.

In a recent statement, the Immigration Policy Center, a pro-immigrant research group, said E-Verify is “deeply flawed and ensnares American job-seekers in database errors, adds to the costs incurred by employers required to use it, and does not actually prevent undocumented immigrants from getting jobs.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that expanding the federal verification program could cost $17 billion over the next 10 years.

A 2006 study by the Kenan Institute at UNC Chapel Hill estimated that Hispanics poured more than $9 billion a year into the economy even after saving or sending home 20 percent of their income.

The spiraling economy has sent some immigrants back to their home counties. Those who remain are vying for far fewer jobs – often in competition with blue-collar American workers.

During a break from installing fire sprinklers at the Salome Church Road school, Thomas Peck, 29, and Robert Vanderburg, 26, sat in Peck's truck to discuss the economy and their hopes for the stimulus package. Looking over at the Latino masonry workers, they said friends could use some of those jobs.

“The more immigrants come over here the less jobs we have,” Vanderburg said. “They come and work for $6 or $7 an hour. An American needs $15 to $16 to get by.”

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