Undocumented Immigration In California

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Inside Look: Undocumented Workers Employed In The Shadows Of Restaurants

Lesley McClurg / Capital Public Radio

Workers at a Sacramento, Calif. restaurant.

Lesley McClurg / Capital Public Radio

Marcos was lured by the American dream. When he left Chiapas, Mexico he promised his five siblings and his mom, who were living in a single room shack without electricity, that he’d send money from the other side of the U.S. border.

He says he thought, "I’m going to be rich, I’m going to be sweeping money out of the floor.”

After three treacherous attempts to cross the border he successfully arrived in southern California. He was 19 years old and naive. 

“It’s so funny because I didn’t know that in order to get a job in America you need to have social security. I don’t even know what that means,” he says.

He was destitute for about four months while he searched for work. Then he made the necessary connections to get a job in Sacramento as a welder.

"I did what everybody does. I went online. I did make a fake number in order to get a job," he explains. "It’s pretty easy. And everybody in America who has access to computer can do that."

U.S.-born and Unauthorized Immigrant Workers, by Major Occupation, 2012

If you Google "make a fake social security card" you will get more than seven million hits. 

Marcos eyed a Sacramento restaurant for about a year, and then he applied for a job.  

“I start from the bottom. I was doing prep, dishes, then I moved up to the line," he says.

It took him nearly twenty years to rise to the top. Now, he runs the kitchen as the executive chef. 

He wears colorful pants underneath a white apron and flashes a magnetic smile as he directs his staff. 

He believes the kitchen staff at the restaurant could be up to 95-percent undocumented. He says that's common in the restaurant industry because people without papers are attractive hires -- they're willing to grunt it out. 

“They will give me less headache than the people who has papers,” says Marcos.


Executive chef Marcos (on the right) directs employees in the kitchen of the restaurant. Lesley McClurg / Capital Public Radio

Conni is one of the owners of the restaurant. She originally hired Marcos as a dishwasher nearly two decades ago. She says she had no idea that he was undocumented because it’s nearly impossible to tell.

“They present me their papers. A photocopy of a social security card and a photocopy of – I think they refer to it as the green card or the resident alien card – I look at them and they look good to my eyes so you’re hired," she says.

She admits she receives a letter from the IRS every year questioning the accuracy of the social security numbers she’s filed.

"I know that I’m under no obligation to pursue it any further. We have an attorney and he said you’re not," says Conni.

Brian Halpin, a Phd candidate at UC Davis, researches low income workers -- especially in food service. 

"In one of the kitchens where I conducted research, at the end of the year when all the W-2s get sent back there would be a stack of 30 W-2s just sitting there and they’d sit there for six months until the employer would just decide to file them away," says Halpin.

Unauthorized Immigrants and U.S.-born Workers Have Different Occupational Profiles

He says restaurant owners turn a blind eye because people without papers are not likely to complain because they’re scared they’ll get deported.

"And, so that threat is implicit and shapes your kind of mental framework for everything you do, whether it’s driving your car or working or whatever it is," explains Halpin. "And so, the more you can kind of fly under the radar I think the better off people think they’ll be."

Marcos flew under the radar for many years before he was able to gain citizenship through marriage to an American woman. Over time he helped four of his five siblings get established in the U.S. after they crossed the border illegally. In fact, he says at various times all of his four brothers worked in the kitchen of the restaurant using false papers.

"Unfortunately, we don’t like doing this kind of things, but if we don’t have choice, I guess that’s what we have to do," he says.

Editor's Note: This story has been edited after its initial publication on Feb. 1. Two of the people mentioned in this story have asked Capital Public Radio not to use their last names.