Choosing not to hire inexpensive undocumented workers is putting landscaper out of business
By Mark Cromer, Contra Costa Times
March 25, 2007
KIRSTEN STEWART IS not the kind of American that President Bush and the Democratic congressional leadership are likely to bring up as they renew their push for so-called comprehensive immigration reform.
Stewart is not the personification of any of the cliches that Bush and the Democratic leadership enjoy tossing about; she is not an impoverished illegal immigrant "living in the shadows." Nor is she a businesswoman who can’t seem to find an American willing to work hard for a fair wage.
To the contrary, she is an example of the steep price America pays in integrity when its government refuses to enforce its laws, allowing many of its citizens to violate it with absolute impunity.
Stewart is a landscape professional trying to do the right thing by refusing to hire illegal immigrants — a decision that’s effectively putting her out of business.
As a 40-year-old college-educated woman living in Santa Monica, Stewart has pursued her dream of running a landscape design business for four years, the last two of them on her own.
Even in the highly competitive market for well-heeled clients in L.A.’s Westside neighborhoods and along the glittering Hollywood foothills, Stewart was confident that her design talents and strong word-of-mouth referrals would guarantee her a solid customer base for her business.
It almost certainly would have, except for one thing: She won’t hire illegal immigrants for her work crews.
When she submits a bid to a prospective client, Stewart calculates her labor rate at $15 an hour or more depending on the job; it’s a decent wage with which she knows she can hire American citizens. Paying a living wage to her workers is also at the core of the progressive political identity she forged while living in San Francisco.
But she has watched that egalitarian vision end up in the garbage bin as competing designers submit bids with radically lower labor costs — a strong sign they are using illegal immigrants for their work crews.
When she first moved to Santa Monica in 2002, Stewart says she was oblivious to the problem and consequently hired illegal immigrants as well.
Yet it wasn’t long before she began to feel that there was something inherently wrong with her hiring illegal immigrants. She says it became clear that it hurt her community more than it helped her bottom line.
"I realized that my foreman, who has been in the country a long time, doesn’t have any desire to be a citizen. He has such a strong allegiance to Mexico," she says.
But it was Stewart’s pregnant nanny from Brazil, also without papers, that pushed her to make a dramatic change.
"She told me that she was so happy that she was having her baby here because (her child) would get a real Social Security number. She told me how surprised she was at all the ‘free’ neonatal care she was getting and all the other ‘free’ health services," Stewart says. "That’s when the light bulb went off."
Stewart fired her nanny, stopped hiring her foreman and vowed she would use only workers legally in the country.
Almost immediately, she started losing bids.
In a bitter irony, Stewart says many of her prospective clients are dyed-in-the-wool leftists who embrace living-wage ordinances and stronger worker’s rights laws.
"They will invariably ask me why my labor costs are so high," Stewart says. "I tell them point-blank it is because I only use legal workers, either citizens or legal residents. I’ve had a few prospects just stare at me silently after I have told them that, like I have done something wrong. Others have just said ‘OK, well thanks for the bid.’""
The experience of trying to do the right thing has left her feeling helpless and embittered.
"I can’t compete by playing honestly in an industry where most everyone else is breaking the rules," Stewart says. "And they aren’t breaking the rules because Americans won’t do these jobs. They are breaking the rules because they don’t want to pay a decent wage."
Stewart is bracing herself as the cliche-riddled debate over illegal immigration kicks back into high gear, knowing that she is likely to hear politicians rail about a broken system.
"The system isn’t really broken at all," she sighs. "The system would work just fine if the people had the honesty to play by the rules of the system and if the government had the guts to enforce the rules on those who choose to break them."