For more than a century, the housekeeping industry has served as an employment point-of-entry for immigrant workers. Today, though, there’s an increasingly strong, nationwide consensus that too many immigrant employees are “illegal” – they’re working without documented proof of their employment eligibility. As a result, the federal policies that govern the country’s entire immigrant workforce have been reviewed and may be dramatically reshaped in the near future.

These coming changes will affect the housekeeping industry more than most – indeed, the current climate of change already affects the industry – simply because cleaning and hospitality businesses traditionally employ so many immigrant workers. “The hotel industry, for example, particularly on the housekeeping side, is dominated by immigrants,” explains Amanda Cooper, a spokesperson for UNITE HERE. Cooper’s organization, a labor union representing housekeepers and other workers, is one of many national groups calling for immigration reform. In a March 28 news release, UNITE HERE states that the current rules have produced “a chaotic system, rife with illegality” that keeps immigrants in the shadows and creates an uneven playing field for employers.

In a way, then, a comprehensive new report from the Pew Hispanic Center contains some positive news for facility managers: chances are still good – four out of five – that they didn’t break a federal law when they hired their current housekeeping staffs. Specifically, the law they may not have broken is called the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It contains penalties for businesses that employ workers who lack the proper government permission to work in the United States. Unfortunately, the report also contains a great deal of numerical information that illustrates why four-out-of-five isn’t good enough.

In immigration, every number is a person. And almost every person is a worker. By the Center’s report, some 11.5 million people work in this country today without the ability to officially document their status as employees. That’s because they’re here, in effect, illegally – they’ve immigrated without authorization from the American government, or they entered the country legally, with visas which have since expired, sometimes because of government inaction or bureaucratic backlogs. Whatever the reason, though, their lack of documentation puts both themselves and their employers in violation of federal law.

These are the numbers, and the people, according to the report:

• The 11.5 million undocumented workers comprise more than 30 percent of the total U.S. foreign-born population.
• They comprise nearly five percent of the total U.S. workforce.
• Seventy-eight percent of the undocumented workers employed in the U.S. today immigrated here illegally from Mexico or Central America.
• Nearly two million undocumented workers are employed in the U.S. cleaning and hospitality industries, comprising more than 17 percent of those industries’ total workforces.

An undocumented workforce of more than 11 million people – in effect, a huge, underground employee pool – would be problematic under any circumstances. Compounding these problems, though, is the fact this pool has filled up so fast. Forty percent of these undocumented employees arrived in the U.S. less than five years ago, and 66 percent have been here for fewer than ten. Those kinds of numbers, say observers and policy-makers, have turned a problem into a crisis.

A system at the brink
“The system is truly at the brink,” says George Tamaras, the director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This is a problem that we, as a country, need to face. Right now.”

Tamaras is talking about the outdated federal policies, complete with loopholes, exemptions and enforcement difficulties, which govern immigration and employment. And about why so many people and organizations – including labor unions such as the AFL-CIO, employer groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, lawmakers including the President and members of Congress, and the millions of people who marched and rallied and protested earlier this spring – all think it’s time to reshape just about everything in this “system at the brink.”

“This was an old system that was put in place 50 or 60 years ago,” Tamaras explains. “It has not undergone any changes that reflect the changing economic needs of the United States.”

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, those needs include, for example, a hospitality industry increasingly dependent on seasonal immigrant labor, even as the number of visas available for such employees has remained capped at 66,000 since 1990. “The cap was hit for the first time in March of fiscal year 2004,” the Chamber reports, “…[and] only three months into the fiscal year in 2005, leaving many U.S. employers, who depend on this short-term visa program to augment their American workforce, in crisis.”

When companies then resort to “illegal” workers, experts say, the ripple effect becomes a tsunami. Such workers are easily exploited – denied fair wages and benefits, for instance, or coerced into working in unsafe conditions – because they fear discovery and possible deportation. The creation of such an underclass then affects legally documented workers by depressing wages and lowering workplace standards. Labor pools of undocumented workers are sometimes used to outsource or altogether replace long-term union workers, thus setting off economic repercussions throughout communities. An undocumented workforce also puts all employers on the defensive, sometimes leaving them to choose between meeting work goals and staying on the right side of the law.

“There are so many factors and a lot of different levels to this problem,” says Tamaras. “What needs to be done is some sort of rational immigration reform so that everything else can fall back in order.”

Based on the national outcry of recent weeks, it seems clear that nearly everyone agrees that something must be done. After that, though, opinions scatter. A single, shared consensus on just what, exactly, should be done is nowhere to be found.

Congress looks at the options
The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed its immigration reform bill, The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Act. But many organizations, particularly those involved in humanitarian aid and workers’ rights, condemn the bill’s emphasis on enforcement and penalties; for criminalizing not only the act of immigrating illegally, for example, but also the act of assisting illegal immigration. “A lot of the marches that have taken place recently have been in reaction to this draconian approach,” notes a congressional aide.

The U.S. Senate is also crafting a bill, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Unlike the House version, this bill seems certain to include a “pathway to citizenship” under which workers who are currently here without documents could earn legal status over time. The Senate version of immigration reform is also likely to include some version of a “guest worker” provision that would provide more long-term visas for the lower-skilled immigrant workers who, employers say, are needed to fill gaps in the American-born workforce. Many unions oppose this measure – the path to citizenship solves one problem, they say, while the guest-worker provision would simply reinforce another: the problematic status quo an underground workforce.

One provision that seems certain to prevail no matter what form the new legislation ultimately takes has to do with the way employment eligibility will be verified. “We’re currently on a paper-based system, but it’s taken as a given that some form of an electronic-based verification system will be part of whatever bill is eventually signed into law,” says Lara Flint, a staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It will be phased in over time, and it may only apply to new workers.”

An important point for facility managers to remember, though, is that they are already responsible for verifying the eligibility of all employees. And, the housekeeping industry, with its substantial immigrant workforce, may well expect to face increasing enforcement scrutiny even before immigration reform legislation becomes law.

“No industry is immune”
Whether or not enforcement is a key provision in the new legislation, though, it’s already a new weapon in federal protocols that have changed in advance of the new legislation. After years of taking action almost exclusively against undocumented workers, the government is also going after those who hire such workers.

“Crackdown on the hiring of illegal workers shifts to employers,” reads a recent USA Today headline. In its accompanying article, the newspaper details the arrests of seven current and former supervisors at IFCO Systems North America, the country’s largest pallet supplier. More than IFCO 1,100 workers were also arrested as illegal immigrants, the paper reports.

In addition, owners, managers and superintendents in the construction, restaurant and employment-agency industries have already been charged with criminal violations of federal immigration and employment laws.

“Civil penalties aren’t a deterrent, in our opinion,” says Marc Raimondi, a spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the largest investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security. “That’s why we’re going after companies who harbor illegal aliens, with criminal charges that carry jail time and the potential for enormous fines. And our stance is that no industry is immune from enforcement actions.”

Since they were first made liable, by the 1986 law, employers have decried the burden they say verification puts on them. Employees are allowed to use a variety of documents to prove identification and employment eligibility, they say. How can employers be certain which documents are valid? And if they question those documents, how can they avoid the risk of discriminating against employees who “look” foreign-born? Now, though, the answers to those questions have a new urgency.

Adhering to the law
Raimondi says his agency is sympathetic to employers who wish to stay within the law. He notes that both the ICE Web site and the Social Security Administration Web site provide employers with education and advice on compliance with federal employment and immigration regulations. In addition, though, he advises that employers take the initiative where possible. “They should use all the tools available to them,” he says. “Employers are compelled to have I-9 forms filled out for all employees, for example. And if they get notices from the Social Security Administration that there is a mismatch on the employee’s name and number, they need to follow up on that.”

Some companies, Raimondi notes, have instituted verification programs in which they re-check employee Social Security numbers on an annual or even a semi-annual basis. “There are companies out there that are putting that kind of extra effort in,” he says, “and when they get a mismatch they’re going to approach that employee and ask for an original Social Security document within a couple of days. That’s certainly going to put their company in a far better position to be compliant with the law.”

Mary Erpenbach is a freelance writer based in Rockford, IL.