Plenty of work to do? Photographer: Stephen Morton/Bloomberg 
Plenty of work to do? Photographer: Stephen Morton/Bloomberg 

Using data from the U.S. Census, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that there were eight million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. labor force in 2010. The Migration Policy Institute estimated the number a bit lower -- 6.4 million -- in 2011, with retail trade employing 920,000, construction 910,000, agriculture 540,000 and manufacturing 520,000. Even using the lower Institute number, that means there is more than one undocumented worker for every one of the six million employers in the U.S.

Who is employing them all?

Well, a guy I've known for years is one. He owns an east-coast landscaping and plant business with around 100 employees, at least half of whom are undocumented Mexican immigrants.

About a dozen years ago, one of his biggest competitors started using undocumented Mexican laborers. At the time, the landscaper’s firm suffered high turnover and low productivity, and finding employees to do the actual landscaping -- his company's bread and butter -- was difficult.

“We’ve never had anyone come in here looking for work,” he told me, on condition that I withhold his name. He found many of the Americans he has hired over the years to be unreliable and unwilling to work hard. Sometimes they quit; other times he has fired them.

Gradually, he started hiring Mexican laborers. All of them were able to provide Social Security numbers, though he understood they were bogus. “We have to have paperwork on these guys,” he said. “We just don’t have to have it be legitimate.”

The Mexican laborers live together in a poor neighborhood in a small city, drive to work together and take as many hours as the boss offers – seven days a week when possible. He pays them the same wages he pays Americans -- one top earner makes $25 per hour, well above the median U.S. wage. Because they're undocumented and most don't have their families with them, the men don't make much of a dent in the U.S. consumer economy. Instead, they send their savings home to their families in Mexico.

There are, of course, complications. The landscaper said he has paid thousands of dollars to coyotes and illegal services to secure passage back to the U.S. for workers who returned to Mexico to visit family. If his employees are stopped at the U.S. border and don't make it back to work, which is happening more frequently, he isn't charged. “I lost a key man," he said, "a skilled stone mason who couldn’t get back in the country.” If his employees do make it back to work, he said, they inevitably reimburse him for the coyote fees.

As the business grew, the landscaper's Mexican workforce also became his recruiting service. “The Mexicans are self-policing,” he said. “If a guy is not working hard, they get rid of him. I don’t even have to say anything. The only people I have to fire are Americans.”

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)