Union leaders and advocates for immigrants criticized Mitt Romney yesterday for railing against illegal immigrants while employing a lawn company that used them at his home. But some business owners were sympathetic to the former governor, saying the immigration system is broken and hiring legal help for low-skill tasks can be nearly impossible.
The Globe reported yesterday that Romney had continued to employ Community Lawn Service with a Heart to mow his lawn and rake his leaves, one year after the newspaper reported that the company was using illegal immigrants for work on his grounds. Romney fired the company Tuesday night, hours after the Globe inquired about the work at his Belmont home.
"There is certainly an element of hypocrisy here," said Mark Erlich, executive secretary treasurer of New England Council of Regional Carpenters. "Here he is positioning himself on an anti-immigrant basis and he's benefiting from the cheap labor that's out there."
But Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C., which favors stricter controls on immigration, disagreed.
"Most people who are serious about enforcement talk about the responsibility of the illegal alien themselves not to violate our laws, the border, employers, the federal government," he said. "In this context, [Romney's] a consumer . . . He asked them to comply with the law. I guess he could have fired them [earlier]. Maybe he shouldn't have given them a second chance."
Romney has made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his campaign for the Republican nomination for president. He has stumped for completing a fence along the US-Mexico border, cutting federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities, and creating a tamper-proof card for employers. He has also promised to punish employers who continue to hire illegal workers with fines and penalties.
Paul Berube, a compliance officer at Waverly Landscaping Associates in Belmont, said he has turned away workers who present him with false papers. But finding US citizens to employ has been so hard, the company must rely on immigrants to fill the jobs, which pay $8.90 to $11 an hour.
"It's very, very difficult - I hate to say it, it's sad - to get an American person to do this type of work," he said.
Waverly, a large firm of about 200 employees, has spent tens of thousands of dollars to bring workers from Central America and pay their attorney and immigration fees so they can secure the proper documents to work legally, Berube said. The company also pays to legalize undocumented workers already living in the United States.
But smaller companies with fewer resources will hire undocumented workers, he said.
"It's tough for them, and the government isn't making it any easier," he said.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said he hopes the revelation about Romney will make politicians speak more thoughtfully about overhauling immigration.
"This is a problem that nobody can escape," he said. "If the candidates start to talk about realistic, humane solutions, the ugliness of the debate will subside."
Berube said the solution is simple. "Give everybody papers that are here undocumented that are hard-working and haven't committed any criminal acts," he said. "Let them better themselves. Then build the wall, and keep out more. That's the only way."