Undocumented Workers Research Paper Starter

Undocumented Workers

(Research Starters)

For the United States, the presence of undocumented workers -- those workers without a visa or other paperwork authorizing them to work -- raises considerable economic, social, public policy, security and even moral questions. An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, and many work as day laborers and in low-pay, physically demanding industries such as construction and domestic service, though they face the ever-present threat of deportation or exploitation. Debates rage over whether the United States should grant amnesty or a path to citizenship to undocumented workers, offer a guest worker program to supply cheap labor to vital segments of the economy such as agribusiness, or simply deport as many undocumented workers as possible and fortify the U.S.-Mexican border to keep them out of the country. With the U.S. Latino population rising, and predicted to surpass the majority white population sometime in mid-century, discussions about what to do regarding undocumented workers, many of whom are Latino, has taken on added social, political and demographic significance at the start of the 21st century.

Work & the Economy


Undocumented workers continue to pose public policy challenges for American politicians, while also presenting economic implications for American workers and taxpayers. Undocumented workers in the United States are those foreign workers, particularly from Mexico and Latin America, who are not legally authorized to work in the United States. They are undocumented because they do not have work papers allowing them to be properly documented and taxed by local, state, and federal government authorities.

Undocumented workers are often referred to as illegal immigrants, to contrast them with the millions of foreign-born residents who live and work in the United States legally. In truth, undocumented workers are but a subset of the larger illegal immigrant population, which is also comprised of the children and other relatives of undocumented workers. Many undocumented workers and their families and relatives remain in the United States year-round, sometimes migrating from state to state or region to region in search of construction, service, factory, and agricultural work. A large percentage of undocumented workers set aside a portion of their income to send back to relatives in their impoverished homelands (Preston, 2008).

The issue of undocumented workers is not restricted to the United States and its Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking immigrants. Rather, as one looks at the global pool of migrant workers and the ebbs and flows of migrant labor, it becomes clear that the phenomenon is occurring across the globe (Appleyard, 2001). This is the case in nations and regions as distinct as South Africa (Human Rights Watch Africa, 1998), East Asia (Chia, 2006), Belgium (Grzymala-Kazlowska, 2005), the Netherlands (Van der Leun & Kloosterman, 2006), and Great Britain (Anderson, 2001). Much of both legal and illegal immigration has been to cities, including those identified as part of Friedmann's world city hypothesis (Friedman, 1986) for human migration in the twenty-first century. A number of countries around the world have taken measures in recent decades to control immigration, including that subset of migrants referred to as undocumented workers or illegal immigrants (Cornelius, Hollifield, & Martin, 2003).

This essay will focus on the sociological, economic, and political aspects of undocumented workers in the United States' labor force. It will begin with history and demographics, proceed to the economic and cultural dimensions of undocumented workers, and conclude with the ongoing public policy debate over the place of undocumented workers in American society.


Since the later twentieth century undocumented workers in the United States have arrived as part of a wave of migration primarily from developing countries. This has happened for three reasons: 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which changed the longstanding system of immigrant quotas based on country of origin; new legislation in the 1960s allowing for political refugees to emigrate; and an influx of undocumented workers as "part of the worldwide emergence during the 1960s of labor migration from less developed to more developed countries" (Bean, Telles & Lowell, 1987, p. 672). By 1981, the final report of the nonpartisan Select Committee on Immigration and Refugee Policy, established by President Jimmy Carter, concluded, "One issue has emerged as most pressing--the problem of undocumented/illegal migration" (cited in Bean, Telles & Lowell, 1987, p. 673).

This shift in migration from European and other developed nations to migration from the developing world has had several effects within the wider US population. First, it made these largely non-white, non-English-speaking immigrants more visible. Second, since many of the new immigrants were poor and had few job skills, their arrival shifted the general population's assertion that immigrants were a net bonus to the economy to a perception that immigrants were a net drain on the economy, therefore breeding varying degrees of resentment. Attention has turned primarily to Hispanic undocumented immigrants because they make up the great majority of undocumented workers in the United States (Bean, Telles & Lowell, 1987, p. 672).

As in other nations, there have been recent moves in the United States to limit legal immigration from impoverished nations while increasing the number of visas given to workers with in-demand skills such as nursing and information technology (Marshall, 2007, p. 5). But most of the debate about immigration to the United States in the early years of the twenty-first century has focused on undocumented workers, whom a sizable part of the American electorate refers to simply as illegal immigrants. The debate largely revolves around the economic impact of illegal migrant labor, either on wages and the cost of living, or on the utilization of social services paid for through taxation. There are also questions of pragmatism, ethics, and morality that form the backdrop for the economic discussion.

Since the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, amnesty for undocumented workers has been often discussed. The 1986 law gave legal status to 1.7 million undocumented immigrants who had been living in the country before 1982, and another 1.3 were allowed to come to the United States as special agricultural workers (Tienda & Singer, 1995, p. 112). Amnesty has proved to be a more difficult proposition in the political climate of the early twenty-first century, and other solutions, such as the guest worker program proposed by President George W. Bush, have been proposed as less-volatile alternatives.

Further Insights

The Worker's Role in the Labor Market

Ever since they became a large part of the American economy beginning in the southwestern United States in the late nineteenth century, Americans have had an uneasy relationship with illegal immigrants and undocumented workers. On one hand, undocumented workers have been seen as vital to several large segments of the US economy, agribusiness in particular. Undocumented workers are perceived to be willing to do the jobs that few Americans are willing to do, especially at the wages provided.

On the other hand, undocumented workers have been seen as a drain on the economy because, some have argued, they drive down the cost of labor, thus pricing native-born laborers out of the market. When combined with moral zeal--the desire to punish undocumented workers for breaking the law--the negative attitude toward undocumented workers can spill over into plans for mass deportation. Such mass deportations of undocumented Mexican laborers took place in the 1930s and 1950s (Hoffman, 1974), though in between, during World War II in 1942, the federal government's Bracero Program brought 4.5 million Mexicans to the United States to help alleviate the labor shortage in agribusiness. For most of the past century, Mexican workers, in particular, have been "treated as disposable workers, easily returned to Mexico when no longer needed, brought back when economic conditions improve" (García, 1981, p. 122).


Estimates of the number of undocumented workers in the United States vary widely, with some putting the number as high as 20 million (Marshall, 2007, p. 1), and it is often difficult to disentangle political motivations and arrive at reliable statistics. An estimate by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center in 2002 put the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States at 7.8 million (Bean, Van Hook, & Woodrow-Lafield, 2002). These numbers include 5.3 million undocumented workers over the age of 18 in the labor force (Bean, Van Hook, & Woodrow-Lafield, 2002, p. 2). An estimated 29 percent of all foreign-born US residents in 2004 were illegal immigrants (Passel, 2005b, p. 2). A 2005 Pew Hispanic Center report estimated 10.3 million illegal immigrants in 2004, with the number expected to reach 11 million in 2005 (Passel, 2005a, p. 1). The following year, the Pew Hispanic Center indicated the presence of an estimated 11.5 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States and an additional 3.1 million children of illegal immigrants who are American citizens (Escobar, 2006; cf. Hoefer, Rytina & Campbell, 2007). The US Department of Homeland Security estimated the presence of 11.6 million illegal immigrants in 2010, and in 2011 released statistics showing a slight drop in the number to 11.5 million. The report cited that this was likely the result of increased border control enforcement and improved economic conditions in Mexico, while the unemployment rate in the United States was high (Reuters, 2012). The Pew Hispanic Center, in contrast, reported 11.1 illegal immigrants in 2011 (Passel & Cohn, 2012). The center had reported similar numbers for 2009 and 2010, and its reports for these years showed a decline in the population since its peak of 12.2 million in 2007. The Pew Hispanic Center also cited a decline in Mexican immigration as the reason for this dropping number. However, in 2013, the Pew Hispanic Center reported an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants once again. According to their research, 11.7 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States in 2012 (Passel, Cohn, & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2013).

Most of the illegal immigrants in the United States in 2004 were from Mexico (57%) and Latin America (24%), followed by Asia (9%) and Canada/Europe (6%) (Passel, 2005b, p. 2). According to many researchers, "a great majority of the Mexican-origin and Central and South American origin population that arrived since 1990 is undocumented" (Bean, Van Hook, & Woodrow-Lafield, 2002, p. 2). According to the Homeland Security report, as of January 2011, approximately 59 percent of illegal immigrants had come from Mexico (6.8 million), with El Salvador a distant second (660,000) (Reuters, 2012). According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 52 percent of undocumented immigrants in 2012 came from Mexico.

Figure 1. Undocumented Immigrants in the United States

Year Total Number 2002 ~7.8 million 2004 ~10.3 million 2005 ~11 million 2006 ~11.5-12 million 2007 ~12.2 million 2010 ~11.2 million 2011 ~11.1 million 2012 ~11.7 million (Taken from Bean, Van Hook, & Woodrow-Lafield, 2002, 2002; Passel, 2004a; Escobar, 2006; Passel & Cohn, 2012; Passel, Cohn, & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2013.)

About one-sixth of all illegal immigrants in 2004 (1.7 million) were minor children, while almost no undocumented workers were over the age of 65 (Passel, 2005a, p. 3). Only 29 percent of all illegal immigrants were women. In 2009, the Pew Hispanic Center reported 6.3 million men, 4.1 million women, and 1.5 million children as unauthorized immigrants (Passel & Cohn, 2009). The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that out of the 11.1 illegal immigrants living in the United States by 2011, 1 million of them were minors under the age of 18, and 4.5 million children born in the US had unauthorized parents ("Nation of Immigrants," 2013). Geographically, illegal immigrants and undocumented workers are spread over a much wider area than they were in the past. While in 2004, 68 percent of illegal immigrants lived in just eight states, this was down from the 88 percent who lived in only six states in 1990 (Passel, 2005b, pp. 2-3). Nevertheless, the majority of unauthorized immigrants have continued to live in six states: Florida, Texas, California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. (Passel, Cohn, & Gonzalez-Barrera, 2013).

Undocumented workers from Mexico and Latin America, who form the great majority of undocumented workers in the United States, tend to have low levels of education and job skills. In a study of undocumented Mexican immigrants coming to the United States between 1992 and 2002, researchers at Mexico's Instituto Tecnológico de México found that "over three-fourths of unauthorized Mexican immigrants had less than eight years of formal education; 11% had no formal education at all; and one-third had less than four years" (cited in Marshall, 2007, p. 5).

Perhaps complicating discussions of illegal immigrants and undocumented workers is the fact there has been a considerable amount of legal immigration from Mexico and Latin America. Indeed, it may be the case that "[b]ecause almost all undocumented immigrants are Hispanic or Asian in origin.…, the increasing numbers of legal Hispanic and Asian immigrants may have fostered the impression that the volume and impact of undocumented immigration has been greater than it actually has been" (Bean, Telles & Lowell, 1987, p. 671).


(The entire section is 6064 words.)