Just before daybreak one Sunday earlier this year, ASU Foundation executive Michael Boulden went for a ride on his mountain bike. By 6:23 a.m., he was pedaling east on Pinnacle Peak Road, nearing Tatum Boulevard in Scottsdale.
Meanwhile, Four Seasons Resort hostess Yesenia Angulo-Gastelum was driving a 1999 Chevrolet Malibu from her home in Glendale to her job in Scottsdale. She was running late.
Angulo pulled onto Pinnacle Peak, headed east, and picked up speed until she was going 55 mph, exceeding the speed limit on the two-lane road through the desert.
Boulden was just ahead.
Until that day, Angulo was just another one of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant workers who comprise Arizona’s shadow work force. Illegal immigrants work in plain sight, but they try to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
Business leaders say immigrant workers are crucial to the state’s economic viability. The hotel, restaurant, construction and agriculture industries, among other business sectors, depend on them. But no one has any reasonable idea of how many illegal immigrants are in the shadow work force.
Making matters worse, procedures employers are supposed to follow to make sure they don’t hire illegals are easily sidestepped. And enforcement against both employers and employees engaged in illegal work is nearly nonexistent.
“Most employers in the state of Arizona unknowingly are hiring people who are not legal,” said Jason LeVecke, CEO of LeVecke & Co., a Guadalupe-based family business that operates dozens of Carl’s Jr. and Pizza Patron restaurants, and two Bill’s Ghost and Spirits convenience stores, statewide.
Angulo unwittingly drew attention to Arizona’s shadow work force on Feb. 18.
She smashed into Boulden’s bike as she sped along Pinnacle Peak Road that morning. The violent impact broke Boulden’s skull, neck, ribs and sternum, and tore his right lung. He died a short time later at a hospital.
But Angulo kept driving. She never called for emergency help for Boulden. Instead, she called her boyfriend on her cell phone and drove back home in her severely damaged car. Her boyfriend gave her a glass of water and drove her to the Four Seasons in his pickup truck.
Another motorist called 911.
Angulo arrived at the Four Seasons Resort nearly an hour late for work.
Eleven days later, when police confronted Angulo, investigators said she told them she didn’t have a driver’s license and left Boulden dying on the road because she was afraid of being identified as an illegal immigrant and being deported. Police arrested her on charges of leaving the scene of a traffic fatality.
Four Seasons executives said they believed she was in the country legally. She had what appeared to be proper documentation.
Don Wehbey, the state’s senior economist, says the number of illegal immigrants in Arizona’s work force is anyone’s guess.
“We know they’re out there, but they are not isolated and identified in any of the data we review,” Wehbey said.
“You’d be very hard pressed to step out on any street corner and ask, ‘Whoever is illegal, raise your hand?’ Or, ‘How many employers are hiring illegal immigrants?’ Or, ‘Who among businesses and people are involved in illegal activities?’ It would be a silent crowd,” he said.
The Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center estimated that immigrants comprised 19.5 percent of Arizona’s work force in 2004. But the study, which was released in August 2006, did not differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants.
Once illegal immigrants make their way into the United States, sliding into the labor pool is surprisingly simple.
They merely have to present potential employers a few pieces of identification showing they supposedly are in the country legally. Forged documents are readily available, said Leesa Morrison, director of the Arizona Department of Homeland Security.
Counterfeiters sell “three-packs” of fake IDs for $160 a bundle, she said. The standard pack features a resident alien card, a Social Security card and an Arizona driver’s license.
The state Department of Homeland Security has headed a multiagency task force that has made hundreds of purchases using undercover agents posing as illegal immigrants.
To date, the task force has bought 453 resident alien cards, 447 Social Security cards and 163 driver’s licenses. In addition, the task force has seized 2,049 fraudulent documents.
The number and quality of fake IDs in Arizona puts employers in a difficult position, LeVecke said.
“I have 65 managers that need to be educated and take care of that process every day. They’re presented with documents and they have to try to decipher who is and who isn’t here legally,” he said. “These folks can’t tell.”
And while there is a pilot government program that allows employers to cross-check job applicants’ names against Social Security numbers, there’s no way to authenticate that job applicants actually are the people their IDs show them to be, LeVecke said.
“We’ve created an underground here where people are creating ever-better documents that are not real.”
Illegal immigrants go to considerable extents to avoid any sort of detection, said Martin Manteca, of Somos America, an immigrant advocacy group based in Scottsdale.
They avoid public places whenever possible and tend to segregate themselves in neighborhoods where they can more easily blend in. They are reluctant to report crimes or workplace violations.
Illegal immigrants often work for “unscrupulous” employers who take advantage of their status and cheat them on pay and hours, Manteca said.
“They stay in those jobs, because they’re afraid if they walk away from them they won’t find another job,” he said.
ENFORCING THE LAW
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in Arizona is just beginning to address the issue of workplace enforcement of existing immigration law.
“We are trying to identify the most egregious companies,” said Alonzo Pena, who was named ICE special agent in charge of Arizona in October.
“We’ve tried to get a working group together — state, local federal, county — and look at companies that are flaunting the law, that are using coyotes to smuggle people, that are harboring them,” he said.
“Those are hard cases to make because you have to prove that the people are knowingly doing this, not that just someone gave him a Social Security card and a driver’s license and he hired him. Yeah, he might not have been able to speak English, but not everybody does. We have to prove malice,” Pena said.
Certain business executives are worried that the opposite is true. They are particularly concerned about proposed state laws that would close businesses found to have hired illegal immigrants.
“If you follow the law, that in no way ensures you have a legal work force. That is the untold story,” said Farrell Quinlan, spokesman for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, a business association with more than 100 corporate members.
Business owners are at the mercy of a system that doesn’t ensure they can hire a legal work force even under the best of circumstances, he said.
“If you say, ‘Well, of course, if 80 percent of your work force speaks Spanish, you’ve got to know that most, if not all of them, are illegal.’ Well, OK, which ones?” he said.
“That’s where businesses are right now and that’s why we are so concerned about what’s happening at the state Capitol and hoping the federal government takes responsibility and fixes this problem,” he said.
If illegal immigrants were able to come out of the shadows, they would become more regularized in society, Manteca said.
They would be more able to travel between the United States and their countries of origin and obtain driver’s licenses, insurance, financing and housing.
“I believe that their contributions economically and culturally in society could not be measured. We would all benefit just like when we benefited when the Italians, the Irish, the Polish, the Germans and the Chinese came,” he said.
Such a move also would be welcomed by LeVecke, the fast-food franchisee.
“I just want to sell burgers. That’s all I got into this business for. I did not want to be a Border Patrol agent or ICE or INS or any of those things,” he said.