The Boston Globe ran a story on Sunday (no link available) about the ways in which undocumented workers become workers at construction worksites. Article by By Jonathan Saltzman and Yvonne Abraham, June 18, 2006:
A Globe analysis of nine recent public works projects — from dormitory construction at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth to the building of the new Middlesex County Jail — revealed that of 242 workers on weekly payroll lists, more than a third appeared to lack legitimate Social Security numbers. On one of the payrolls reviewed, for masonry work on the UMass dormitory project, nearly two-thirds of the contractor’s 87 workers had bogus or questionable Social Security numbers.
The numbers used by the workers in many cases appeared obviously fraudulent. One laborer who helped build the new jail in Billerica submitted a number that should have immediately raised eyebrows: 666-66-6666. Some numbers belonged to people who were long-deceased, the Globe found. Others were matched to people who live out of state and had no idea their numbers had been appropriated.
The findings, though a small snapshot of the vast number of public projects undertaken throughout the state, suggest how the use of undocumented workers has extended into almost every corner of the economy. Republicans in Massachusetts trumpeted plans last month to stiffen fines on companies that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants, which is illegal under state law. But there is no requirement that employers, including those receiving public funds, demonstrate that their workers are legal, and undocumented workers employed on the projects say that contractors are all too happy to look the other way.
Obtaining an authentic-looking Social Security card with a made-up or stolen number is easy, according to undocumented workers, who said they purchased them outside T stations or from friends. In the age of laser printers and graphics software, fake cards can be had for as little as $80.
The Globe obtained weekly payroll reports filed with state and local authorities on the nine public projects examined. Reporters and a Globe researcher ran the workers’ Social Security numbers through three on line personal information databases that compile valid Social Security numbers. Many yielded no matches in those databases, or they matched other people , including deceased ones . In other instances, the names of the workers came up, but so did the names of other people, making those numbers questionable.
In interviews with state, local, and county government officials and managers of companies that received contracts, a clear pattern emerged: none of them considered it their responsibility to verify that workers on the public projects were here legally.
The state and municipal officials said they take no steps to check on the workers’ status, saying that duty lies with the contractors. Contractors, in turn, said they obey federal laws that call for them to ask for employees’ documentation, but do not require them to inquire further.
Under federal law, employers must complete a so-called I-9 document after hiring an employee. The employer must examine sets of documents that establish the employee’s identity and eligibility to work in the country. Some identification cards are sufficient to ful fill both requirements, such as a green card or a certificate of US citizenship. Other times, employees rely on a state or locally issued photo ID card, such as a driver’s license, to establish their identity, and a Social Security card for their work eligibility.
Federal immigration guidelines only require that the documents “appear to be genuine” and stress to employers that they are not expected to be “document experts.” Raymond W. Houle Jr. town administrator in the small town of Blackstone on the Rhode Island border, said he was “quite surprised” to learn payroll records show that six of the eight workers for M K Painting of Michigan, which painted a million-gallon steel water storage tank in his town, had bogus or questionable Social Security numbers. But he said he expected the contractor would have checked.
John Bethell, superintendent of M K Painting, said he was unaware his company had hired workers who lacked valid Social Security numbers. “We ask them for their documents, and they give us their documents,” said Bethell, whose company brought workers to Blackstone from Texas and the Midwest. “We’re not private eyes.”
Romeo D’Agostino, an owner of D’Agostino Associates Inc. of Newton, which had 19 instances of workers with bogus or questionable Social Security numbers on public school projects in Littleton and North Easton, said he received about a dozen letters from the Social Security Administration last year informing him that the agency found various workers’ numbers did not match any of their records. Occasionally, when a worker’s Social Security number does not match the name on tax documents, the SSA sends out such letters asking the worker to resolve the discrepancy. D’Agostino said the law requires him only to pass the letters on to the employees, which he did. Some of those workers still are employed by him, he said.
Specialists on both sides of the immigration debate agree the federal government has done a dismal job of enforcing immigration laws, and that that is why so many undocumented workers — and the companies that employ them — thrive. The workers are attractive to some construction firms because they will typically work for lower wages and are less likely to complain to authorities about labor violations.
In interviews, two undocumented immigrants who worked on public construction projects said it was easy to obtain the Social Security numbers and get on the contractors’ payroll. An immigrant from Brazil who said he worked from 2001 to 2005 for D’Agostino and then Lighthouse Masonry said that he bought his bogus Social Security card from a friend of a friend for $80. The 24-year-old, who overstayed his visa after it expired in 2001, said his friend encouraged him to make up a 9-digit number for the card, so he used part of his mother’s phone number in Brazil.