The 'unauthorized workers' debate

August 11, 2010


The immigrants' rights marches that brought millions into the streets of America's cities on May 1 stirred up a lot of vitriol, not the least of which had to do with whether "The Star-Spangled Banner" should be sung in a language other than English (even though the U.S. has no official language).

First, let's look at the facts, as supplied by the Pew Hispanic Center, Washington, D.C. (

  • As of last March, the "unauthorized population" in the U.S. was estimated at 11.5–12 million. (An "unauthorized migrant," according to the Pew staff, is a person who is not a U.S. citizen, has not been admitted for permanent residence, and is not in a set of specific authorized temporary statuses permitting longer-term residence and work.)

  • More than half (6.2 million, or 56%) of unauthorized migrants come from Mexico; another 2.5 million, or 22%, come from the rest of Latin America, primarily Central America.

  • About 7.2 million unauthorized migrants were "unauthorized workers," some 2.5 million (35%) of whom arrived between 2000 and 2005; the latter are referred to as "short-term unauthorized workers."

  • Unauthorized workers make up 4.9% of the U.S. labor force. Short-term unauthorized workers account for 2% of the total workforce.

  • Of the 7.2 million unauthorized workers, about 20% are employed in construction. For the employed native population, about 7% of all workers are in construction.

  • Unauthorized migrants account for 14% of all workers employed in construction.

  • More than half of all short-term unauthorized migrants are employed in two sectors: construction and "services" (hospitality, leisure, etc.).

You get the picture: There are millions of unauthorized workers out there, 1.4 million of them in construction.

With Social Security cards going for as little as $50, and with no legal requirement for contractors (or any employer) to verify that workers' names and numbers match Social Security records, the risk to unauthorized workers is low compared to the upside. As of March 2005, unauthorized male workers' earned about $580 a week; for short-term unauthorized workers, weekly earnings averaged about $480. That's a lot better than what they're paying back home.

At this writing, the House and Senate are locked in a struggle to resolve their differences on a new immigration law. The House version, which touched off the early immigrants' rights marches, is much more draconian than the Senate's, making the possibility of a Solomonic compromise highly unlikely.

There's no way, at this stage of the debate, for either political party to win this one. My guess is that nothing will happen before the November interim elections. After that, it may be back to the streets for the unauthorized and their supporters.

Cast your vote on immigrant rights' marches


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