The dirt under Mike Mendenko's nails reveals more than his 52 years at Village Nurseries in Hightstown, N.J., where he has worked since he was a teenager.
As owner of a seven-acre tree farm and landscaping company, he's facing the toughest job of his life — finding workers. And if Mendenko challenged the fragile documentation of the workers he's got, he might have no business at all.
Immigration advocates say he is not alone. If all small-business owners did the same, whole industries — landscaping, restaurants and construction — might collapse.
For Mendenko, it's hard to compete against big-box retailers, and, it's even harder to find labor, especially as the debate over the role of immigrants has escalated in the presidential nomination campaign.
"Very few American folks are willing to do this kind of work anymore," said Mendenko, whose son left the nursery to study white-collar science at Cornell University. "We're desperate for the help."
Mendenko has stopped trying to find teenagers to do the backbreaking physical work. These days, he says he relies on a legal — "if you believe what people tell you" — immigrant work force.
Just last week, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney fired the undocumented Guatemalan landscapers who mowed his lawn and cleared the debris from his tennis court. The former Massachusetts governor has made illegal immigration central to his campaign message and has accused his opponents of being soft on the issue.
"Romney's own family is faced with the truth that most people in Massachusetts and the rest of the country already know," Ali Noorani, head of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, Massachusetts' largest pro-immigrant group, told the Boston Globe. "America runs on immigrants."
Republicans may have adopted softer tones at a debate televised by the nation's leading Spanish-language network Univision this week, but they still take a hard stand on border security.
Even the Democrats, who are pulling back some of the traditional Hispanic vote lost in recent years to the Republicans, are taking a tough stance.
"I have to believe these candidates know better, but they are willing to say anything to get elected," said Craig Regelbrugge, vice president for government relations for the American Nursery and Landscape Association.
Immigrants on Campaign Trail
Some say seeking the presidential nomination would be impossible without employing the services of illegal immigrants, given the hotels and restaurants that host events and the industries that provide candidate services.
"It's inevitable that … one day we'll get to a broad-based comprehensive approach to immigration, but at what cost?" Regelbrugge asked. "The longer we wait, the more intractable the problem."
The problem, according to pro-immigration voices, is the nation's dependency on 7.2 million undocumented workers who dominate a cluster of industries that make the economic engine hum.
They say a labor shortage — caused by a rising demand for consumer services and a shrinking birth rate — is the elephant in the political living room that the presidential candidates are too afraid to talk about.
In the last three years, Congress has stalled on a tangled web of proposals for immigration reform, guest worker programs and border fences.
"The politicians have skillfully manipulated people's worst fears," said Regelbrugge. "They have created the illusion that hardworking immigrants are ripping us off, undermining our security, stealing our welfare programs and taking our jobs. None of that has panned out, and it appeals to voters' worst instincts."
And this week, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report said municipal crackdowns on illegal workers threaten the economic competitiveness of American business and put the squeeze on small company owners like Mendenko.
According to a 2005 Pew Hispanic Center analysis, illegal immigrants account for nearly 5 percent of the American work force. They make up an even larger share of certain industries, like farming (24 percent), cleaning (17 percent), construction (14 percent) and food preparation (12 percent).
More than half of these unauthorized workers are employed in two sectors — construction and services like landscaping.
'Quite a Shock'
If homeowners like Romney fired contractors who hire illegal workers, the economy would feel "quite a shock," said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at the Pew Hispanic Center.
"It's hard to trace this down to dollars and cents, when you look at the impact on the labor force," he said. "The most serious impact would be on the construction, landscaping and household and business services."
Regelbrugge believes the Pew estimates on illegal workers are low, based on a census survey that gives a "snapshot" of the numbers in March — at the "low ebb" of the agriculture and landscaping industries.
He claims more than 70 percent of the farm force, and more than 25 percent of the landscaping help are undocumented immigrants.
"The big story out there is what happened to Romney could happen to anyone who hires a trade person," he said, noting that it's hard to tell who is legal and who is not.
For about $150, an illegal worker can buy a fake ID package that includes a green card and a Social Security card, which provide cover for employers who can plausibly say their workers are legal. It also means workers can be paid by the book with payroll tax deductions.
As far as New Jersey landscaper Mendenko is concerned, his workers are here legally. "Is it the responsibility of the employer to go and investigate?" he asked.
Under a pilot program, the government provides a Web site where employers can check whether a worker is legal. But, according to Regelbrugge and Mendenko, the process is prone to error and can yield false information. If a worker's name and Social Security number match, the system deems him legal.
Mendenko says his morals guide him most of the time, but there are situations where it's hard to make the right call.
Two years ago, one of his Guatemalan field workers hired a criminal to slip his brother into the United States. Once the brother arrived, the coyote began "shaking him down," said Mendenko.
"My employee asked me for money, and I was between a rock and hard place," said Mendenko. "If I said 'no' based on morality, it was because I didn't want to encourage an illegal act. If I said 'yes,' out of humanitarian reasons, I kept a good employee happy."
In the end, Mendenko gave his landscaper $500, which the employee paid off by working extra hours.
"When they get in a jam, I try to help my workers out," he said. "But when you have to start compromising, when are you going to stop?"
Now, with new regulations, it's even hard to hold on to legal workers. Recently, Mendenko lost an Ecuadorian employee when the motor vehicle department would not renew his license because his student visa was soon due to expire.
"It's hard to find labor and virtually impossible this time of year," said Mendenko. "There are not a lot of folks out there who are, A, looking for work, or B, legal."
Labor experts also say a shortage of H2B visas — designated for nonfarm workers — is putting the crunch on employers. The government provides only 66,000 such visas for a wide swath of industries from landscaping to hospitality and even minor league baseball players.
Landscapers hire about 350,000 undocumented workers a year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
A measure that extended visas for returning workers was not renewed by Congress, according to Regelbrugge, leaving 100,000 landscape workers in the lurch.
"No one is paying attention," said Regelbrugge. "All these people are lined up at the rim of the punch bowl with a drinking straw. It's a drop in the bucket."
Mendenko sympathizes with the contractors who were fired by Romney. "They were caught in this political mess," he said. "But it's none of Mitt's business. Does [the contractor] have to sign an affidavit for everyone who works for him? Most people don't care as long as their leaves are raked up."
If employers are held accountable for illegal workers, the ripple effects could be more than economic, according to Mendenko.
"Can you imagine what would happen?" he asked. "These immigrants would have no income. They have families and rent and car loans to pay. If you pull the rug out from under them, they will do whatever they have to to survive. They will steal it, scam it. And who's going to pay for that?"