April 13, 2009 -- Danny Fowler used to run a small construction company in California.
Unlike most of his competition, Fowler refused to hire illegal immigrants. But time after time, other contractors got the job because they had cheaper labor.
"When half your crew is illegal, you can underbid by 10 percent anytime," Fowler, 50, said.
On his visits to construction sites, he said, he saw illegal workers everywhere.
"They're there by the hundreds, not the tens," said Fowler, who's from Modesto. "It's pathetic. They're out in the open and nobody's doing anything about it. I don't blame [the illegal workers]. Everybody's trying to just get by."
So last year -- partially because of the economy and partially because of the competition -- Fowler closed his business and enrolled in a local junior college to become a family counselor.
"I would like to say, 'Yeah let's just lock up the borders, let's send everybody back and let's just take care of our own because that would be the easy solution," he said. "But I don't know we've already gone too far to ever come back to what we were as a nation. It's like the Pledge of Allegiance is gone, this is gone, that's gone. It's a different world. I've got kids coming up in this world, and I'm not too thrilled with it."
The immigration debate is once again surfacing in Washington, with President Obama saying he will soon make a big push for a plan. A major speech on the topic is expected in May, with working groups meeting this summer and legislation maybe by fall.
Among the options: creating some kind of amnesty program for illegal workers already in the country and allowing those workers to start down the path to citizenship.
But with many Americans worried about the security of their own jobs, Obama is going to face an intense debate on the issue, especially if the economy sours further.
And it's not just fear of illegal immigrants that needs to be overcome.
Marie works in the financial sector in the Northeast and worries about the Asian and Indian workers her company brings legally to the United States to work.
"I don't understand why we are hiring so many noncitizens when there are unemployed Americans of all ethnic backgrounds in abundance," said Marie, who, fearing reprisals from her boss, asked for anonymity. "When I've been on hiring teams, we do not receive resumes from HR for non-Asian candidates."
Marie has applied for several new jobs at her company, only to lose out to people from other countries.
"At least 15 to 20 of them have been brought in over the last year to jobs that would be considered a promotion for me," she said. "It changes the culture of the workplace. I respect diversity and working with different cultures but, basically, the American culture is being replaced with that of a foreign country."
But supporters of changing immigration law say that Americans have nothing to fear. They say that bringing everybody into legal work would raise wages and working conditions for all Americans.
"In this economy, it's really important that we do something to help and protect workers and improve workers' rights, and you can't do that as long as you have some 12 million people flying below the radar screen," said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Immigration Law Foundation, an educational-charitable nonprofit dedicated to increasing public understanding of immigration law.
Johnson understands that many people believe a change in immigration law might push legal citizens out of their jobs, which he said isn't true. He said the illegal immigrants already have jobs.
"They're working shoulder to shoulder and living next door to U.S. citizens," he said. "When they lose their houses, that affects the houses of their neighbors. If they don't have rights to push back against employers who are looking to take advantage of them in these difficult times, then that affects the workers that are standing right next to them on the assembly line or in the construction industry."
Johnson said that legal workers pay more taxes, open bank accounts instead of keeping cash under their mattress and apply for credit to make big purchases like cars. All of that would benefit the economy, he said.
"These folks wield an enormous amount of purchasing power," he said.
Any debate about immigration is also likely to center on race, and bring up some long-running tensions.
"There are certainly folks whose opportunities and rights have been ignored long enough that they are assuming that their success depends on somebody else's failure," Johnson said. "But most people in the African-American community, certainly most leaders in the African-American community, know the answers to those problems are not to ask for people to fight for scraps falling off the table. It's to give African-Americans the job opportunities, the job training and the incentives they need to succeed."
Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director of the New York-based National Employment Law Project, said there are "a lot of ways that our dysfunctional immigration policy hurts people.
"But one of the most pernicious is how lack of status plays out in the workplace," she said. "It really disempowers workers in their ability to claim their rights because of the fear of the employee retaliation and reporting them to immigration."
The Path to Citizenship
Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Washington, D.C.-based progressive think-tank and advocacy group that is pushing for change in immigration law, also agreed. He said that letting illegal immigrants move down the path to legal work and citizenship will help all workers.
"If anything, it will help low-end workers across the country because it would remove the trapdoor under the minimum wage," he said. Right now, these workers are "driving down wages for you. They are creating unfair competition."
Rosenberg said immigration reform is not going to cause an influx of new immigrants into the country.
"You against an illegal worker, you lose that fight every time," he said. "The worst possible thing for American workers is to have a vast pool of undocumented immigrants in the United States."
There are some business owners who say immigration changes would only increase the cost of doing business and drive up prices for all.
Rosenberg says to them: "I think the idea that we are accepting illegal exploitation of workers to prop up businesses, there's a question as to whether those businesses should be in business in the first place.
Ultimately, Rosenberg believes that change in immigration law reform would be good for the country, economically and socially.
"It will take the air out of the balloon of some of the most virulent racism that we've seen in America in generations," he said. "There is publicly sanctioned racism against Hispanic-Americans in this country today in a way that is very unhealthy and morally unacceptable in the age of a bi-racial president."