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BORDER AMERICA

Illegal -- but Essential

Experts say undocumented immigrants are a driving force in the economy, despite a toll on public services and unskilled workers

October 01, 2006|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

"It would be a horrible negative," said Jeff King, co-founder of King's Seafood Co., which owns Ocean Avenue Seafood in Santa Monica and the Water Grill downtown. "You cannot get Americans to come in at entry-level wages. You'd have to pay a premium."

That might be good for the workers, but King contends it would bring on economic disaster. Prices would go up. Diners would balk. Sales taxes would fall, employment tumble. (King stressed that the 2,000 King's Seafood employees are all legal, as far as the company can tell.)

By working for less than a native citizen would, Lissette Rodriguez is helping her employers' bottom lines.

To an extent, she's also helping taxpayers, although unintentionally. The hotels deduct the usual taxes from her payroll checks. But she won't see a refund or, later in life, a Social Security check.

"That money is just gone," she said. "Most illegals are scared to do tax returns."

Rodriguez is the admirable and problematic face of immigration in 2006. She crossed the border without permission and obtained a bogus Social Security number. She knows she is breaking the law.

Yet she wants only to do what legal immigrants have done throughout U.S. history: work hard and sacrifice mightily to get ahead. In less than two years, she has become deeply embedded in the local economy and the community.

All of these contradictions in one person. All of them in 12 million people. And more tomorrow.

"I miss my children," Rodriguez said. She wants to bring them -- a 6-year-old girl, a 15-year-old boy -- to Los Angeles. This is her home.

david.streitfeld@latimes.com

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