All right, let’s have a show of hands. How many of you have eaten at a restaurant in an American city lately? How many of you have driven through an American middle-class suburb during the past year? How many of you live in a neighborhood where there is new construction, or a city where a lot of renovation projects are underway? Do I see a lot of hands out there? I thought so. Well, if you’re one of those people, then you have been in the presence of, if not actually enjoyed or benefitted from, the underground economy in this country. Lots of those people cooking your meals in the kitchens of those urban restaurants are immigrants — usually recent immigrants. Lots of those lawns you drive by are being mowed by immigrants. Lots of those guys you see in hard hats up on scaffolding wielding a nail gun or unrolling tar paper or using a paint brush are immigrants. Some of them might even be legal. A lot of them aren’t.
That’s what is amazing about DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It’s the one example we have today of the underground economy peeking out of the shadows, and it’s working. In fact, the most prominent argument for maintaining DACA isn’t a moral one, it’s economic. Even Trump acknowledged it with a tweet this week: “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really! . . . ” Turns out, the country agrees with him. A poll taken by Politico/Morning Consult just after Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions announced on Sept. 5 that DACA would be “rescinded” revealed that no less than 73 percent of Americans want those covered under DACA to be protected from deportation. Fifty-four percent want DACA immigrants to be granted some sort of path to citizenship, and 65 percent say that protecting them should be “either an important or top priority for Congress” according to the poll.
The fact that the economic logic behind DACA appears to be taking hold among the public has to be a nightmare for opponents not only of DACA but of immigration reform in general. Because if you accept that the program covering immigrants who are here “through no fault of their own” works, it’s not a gigantic leap to start thinking about applying that logic to the rest of the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants who currently reside within our borders (according to figures published by the Pew Research Center in April of this year). These are the people who comprise the underground economy in this country. Like those covered by DACA, many of them are “accomplished” and “have jobs, some serving in the military,” as our president was good enough to remind us this week.
It’s how the underground economy actually works that isn’t well understood. Opponents of immigration reform, who are against doing anything to formally weave these people into the fabric of America, would like to keep it that way. Why? Because the economy as a whole benefits greatly from those on its margins. There have been studies galore on both sides of this question, with those opposed to immigration finding facts and figures to support the idea that so-called “illegal” immigrants are “taking jobs from hard-working Americans,” and “depressing wages.” There are just as many studies that show just the opposite, that the jobs being done by undocumented workers are, in large part, jobs that would go unfilled if they weren’t there to take them, thus not affecting wages at all. But studies churned out by think tanks and the facts and figures they spew don’t provide much of a picture of how the underground economy actually works.
As it happens, I lived for 15 years in the city that can be thought of as the headquarters of the underground economy: Los Angeles, California. Today, it is described by immigration opponents and supporters alike as a “sanctuary city,” friendly to undocumented workers as a matter of policy. When I lived there between 1992 and 2007, it was just a city with a thriving economy in large measure because of its immigrant population, both documented and undocumented.
I guess it was possible to live in L.A. and not be aware of its underground economy, but I didn’t know anyone who did. When I look back on those years, I realize that I lived in several L.A.s. I lived in the L.A. of the above-ground movie and TV business in which I worked; the L.A. of the Hollywood Hills, where I lived; and in the L.A. of shopping malls and big box stores and funky Melrose Avenue boutiques where I occasionally shopped. But I also lived in the L.A. of Thai, Japanese, Russian, Mexican and other ethnic markets where I did nearly all of my shopping for food. And I lived in the L.A. of Korean and Japanese gray-market electronics suppliers where I bought my computers, the L.A. of Hollywood Boulevard Mexican family restaurants where I took my family for lunch and dinner costing $25 for four, the L.A. of Thai restaurants in the deep San Fernando Valley and Korean restaurants way down Western Avenue where I found food that I’ve never eaten anywhere else, the L.A. of sushi joints in grubby Sunset Boulevard strip malls where you could stuff yourself on fish so fresh it was practically flopping on the little mounds of rice and leave with change for a $20 in your pocket. Over the years, I got to know a number of the proprietors of these places and learned the way the underground economy worked and how much it contributed to the city. Allow me lay it out for you.
I was sitting at the counter of my favorite Hollywood sushi joint one day at lunchtime. It was slow that day. The only two customers were me and a friend who had a business distributing blank video tapes to porn producers. A guy came in and started talking to the sushi chef, who I took to be the owner of the place. He opened a thick catalogue on the counter and they began haggling over the price of something. I was curious, so I scooted down the counter to have a look. The catalogue was written in Japanese. I asked what was going on. It turned out that the sushi chef wasn’t the owner of the place. His sister was. She was the one with the green card, who signed the lease on the storefront in the strip mall and opened the bank accounts and applied for the necessary city permits. The sushi chef was “illegal” and working on getting his green card — which would take several years — but in the meantime, he ran the place. He was buying a new desktop computer and a large restaurant-size rice cooker from the Japanese guy with the catalogue, who was a “legal” immigrant with a business importing stuff from overseas. He did business exclusively with the immigrant community — hence the catalogue written in Japanese.
I asked the sushi chef why he didn’t just go to one of the big box stores selling electronic stuff like Fry’s to buy his computer and rice cooker. Turned out he saved about a thousand dollars on the computer and more than a hundred on the rice cooker buying from his friend with the import business. His friend put me on to a guy in the Valley who would build a desktop to my specifications — this was in the days when memory was in megabytes and a hard drive cost as much as a monitor. I saved myself $1,500 the next time I upgraded my computer. The “store” run by the computer guy in the Valley was in an old ’50s motel that had been converted into offices and storefronts. The motel had been a run-down shell before a bunch of undocumented immigrants moved in, spruced up the place, and set up their businesses. Oh, and I picked up a home size rice cooker for $20 from the Japanese guy with the catalogue.
I saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars shopping in Hollywood ethnic markets for food. Red onions that were $1.09 at Gelsons were 19 cents at the Thai market on Hollywood boulevard. Shallots that were $3.25 for three were 69 cents a pound at another market just down the street. Baby back ribs that were $6.99 a pound in the Valley were $2.99 a pound at a local Russian market. Lettuce that cost $1.19 at Mayfair was 39 cents at the Farm Market, a Mexican/Russian/Korean supermarket on Sunset Boulevard.
But how much I saved on groceries and how much the sushi chef and I saved on electronics was only a small part of what was going on there. The undocumented sushi chef and his green-card-holding sister were paying rent to a landlord for their storefront in a sketchy section of mid-’90s Hollywood. The landlord took the sushi guy’s rent, invested in some improvements, and during the time I lived there, the block that strip mall was on turned from one good sushi joint and some massage parlors and empty storefronts to funky punk boutiques, a couple of vegetarian restaurants and at least one accountant and a small law firm. The sushi chef bought a van and had a guy in the Valley upgrade it with refrigeration and drove it to the fish market every morning. He bought gas from gas stations run by Indian and Pakistani families that were moving into the area. His sister fronted for him when he bought a house out in La Cañada Flintridge.
You see where I’m going with this? The sushi chef and his sister, operating with one foot in the underground economy and one foot out, started a restaurant that helped turn a neighborhood around, and they took the money they made selling sushi and recycled it into the aboveground economy by buying goods and services and paying taxes to the city, which proceeded to respond to the improvements in that sketchy part of Hollywood by filling potholes in the streets and putting in new streetlights and fixing the cracks in sidewalks. By the time I moved out of L.A. in 2007, sketchy Hollywood had turned into hip Hollywood. The undocumented woman from Guatemala who worked for my wife and I as a housekeeper had, with our help, become a citizen. She and her husband owned a house in Glendale. The Mexican guy I hired to paint the first house I renovated had three crews working for him, was driving a brand new truck, had his green card and had just bought a vacation home in Mexico on the water on the Baja peninsula.
I covered a Trump rally held out here on Long Island in Bethpage last year, just as he was ramping up his campaign and starting to win primaries. It was held in an old hangar at the Grumman factory on Route 107, and the crowd was so big I had to park a couple of miles away and ride a bus to the rally. As I was riding along Route 107, I looked out the window of the bus and suddenly realized that Trump had come to Bethpage, New York, for his rally, but he’d ended up in Kabul, Afghanistan. Virtually every storefront along the road housed an Afghan business of some sort — Halal groceries, restaurants, boutiques selling Afghan fashions for women — on and on. Later, I would drive back down the street and count 45 Afghan businesses in Bethpage total. There were two guys on the bus sitting behind me lamenting how the neighborhood had changed. One guy said to the other, “You notice how all the pizza joints are owned by Mexicans now?” The other guy said, "Yeah." “Know how they do it?” the first guy asked. “Some Mexican comes, gets a job cleaning up and washing dishes, and the next thing you know, he’s got his family moved up here and he owns the place!” “Terrible, just terrible,” said the other guy. “They’re taking all the jobs. They’re taking over everything.”
That’s what happens when the underground economy peeks out of the shadows. If they like what they see, they don’t take, they buy. It’s the American dream, schmuck. Even Trump is getting the message. Deal with it.