Immigrant workers play important role in Illinois


Amelia Detwiler

Immigrant workers play important role in Illinois

By Jackie Murray

Recalling a time when the paychecks she was receiving from her job were zero dollars, Communication and Media Innovation 2017 alumna Alejandra Rodriguez said she had to make a living from the tips she did not have to report.

A then-undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. with her parents from Aguascalientes, Mexico, when she was 6 years old, she did not have a valid social security card and feared to report the work-related wrongdoings because she needed the job to pay for her classes at Richard J. Daley College and could not receive financial aid.

“My checks were literally always zero [dollars],” Rodriguez, now a high school representative for the Illinois Institute of Art, said. “Even if I did the math where it had to add up to at least making minimum wage, I wasn’t making that. There was always 15–20 percent missing from at least meeting that minimum-wage mark.”

When she became a naturalized citizen by marrying her husband, she realized how different her work life became and grew aware of the injustices employers are committing toward undocumented immigrants, especially when comparing wages between documented and undocumented co-workers, she explained.

“Being able to experience both sides [of immigrant status] makes you grow as a person because you get to understand how hard it is to be undocumented because you lived through it,” Rodriguez said. “If you have the opportunity to adjust your status, you’ll see the big difference.”

One in seven Illinois residents is an immigrant, 48 percent being naturalized as of 2015, and one in six workers is an immigrant, representing more than 20 percent of Chicagoland’s business owners, according to an Oct. 4 American Immigration Council report. 

“If you earn minimum wage and part of that wage is stolen, there is no chance you are going to make a living,” said Jorge Mujica, strategic campaign organizer for Arise Chicago, an organization that fights workplace injustice. “So you live in a poor neighborhood [with] poor schools, poor education, poor transportation [and] decaying buildings. It’s an eternal cycle.”

The study shows 24 percent of Illinois’ immigrant population, 450,000, is undocumented—3.5 percent of the state’s total population. Undocumented immigrants often think they do not have rights, Mujica said, especially when confronting workplace injustice.

In small businesses, such as car washes, Mujica said immigrant workers often do not receive their full paycheck, and when a worker is not paid properly, it is hard to break out of the poverty cycle. Organized labor unions are the best method to address these issues, he said.

Finding communities within the workplace is important because a lot of work that immigrant workers do is isolated, said Xanat Sobrevilla, immigration organizer for the Latino Union of Chicago. Jobs in childcare and house cleaning tend to not foster relationships between co-workers, Sobrevilla said, noting that LUC serves as a space for these workers to come together.

The labor that many immigrant workers perform is often minimized, despite how important it is, she added.

“They’re in our homes—are caretakers for our elders and children. They help clean our homes [and] help with construction,” Sobrevilla said. “They’re integral to the function of our society.

The industries that employ most Illinois immigrants are manufacturing, health care and social assistance, accommodation and food services, and retail trade, according to the report.


Immigrants’ work is “indispensable” for particular industries, such as hospitality, restaurants and small businesses in Chicago, Mujica said.

To help solve issues posed to immigrant workers, Arise Chicago is promoting the implementation of a Chicago Department of Labor, Mujica said. This is necessary so the city can have an enforcing mechanism to make sure minimum wage is being given to every worker, especially those who are not currently receiving it, he said.

To advance better work environments for immigrants in the state, Sobrevilla said there needs to be support for workers charging sexual harassment and gender violence at work.

“[The city needs to] make sure that they are backed by an accessible justice system and also [have] ability to make sure they are not violated because they are minorities or seen as easily exploitable,” Sobrevilla said.