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Question 171: May undocumented workers be employed in violation of the law?

As the recently appointed interim principal of a Catholic school, I have inherited some undocumented immigrant employees who have been paid off the books for several years. My predecessors apparently had no problem with this arrangement.

On the one hand, I realize that employing undocumented immigrants involves technical violations of the law, though many generally law-abiding people seem to be doing it. On the other hand, the present situation seems mutually advantageous to both the workers and the school, since they probably could not get better jobs elsewhere and the school probably could not hire others to do the work so cheaply. Thus, terminating the arrangement would involve rather serious hardships for both parties to it.

I am wondering what I ought to do about this situation, and how grave my obligation is to do it.


This question calls for the explanation and application of norms regarding just wages and conformity to laws. Undocumented workers are willing to work for less not because their work is less valuable than that of other workers but because they need the work more. Employing them to save money unjustly deprives them of the money that is saved. Paying them off the books both violates presumably just laws and wrongly deprives society of tax revenue—things contrary to the common good—and deprives them of the benefit of having paid the taxes that were due on their earnings. Even if immigration laws are unjustly restrictive, employers who violate them are unfair to fellow citizens. Employing undocumented workers also is unjust to citizens and legal immigrants who could do the jobs. A Catholic school that engages in this practice gives bad example to its students, impedes its witness, and risks bad consequences for the Church. Therefore, the questioner should take steps to end the employment of the undocumented workers in a way fair to them.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Although you do not explicitly say the school’s undocumented employees emigrated due to economic hardship in their home nation or nations, I shall assume that was the case. Employing such workers is unjust for several reasons.

Because undocumented workers have little power and are vulnerable in many ways, the employer can take advantage of the need that motivates them to accept wages, hours, and/or working conditions poorer than those that citizens and legal aliens would command. The fact that undocumented workers, constrained by their need, agree to the terms of their employment does not show that those terms are fair. You seem both to recognize that the school is taking advantage of these employees’ need and to offer a typical excuse: “The present situation seems mutually advantageous to both the workers and the school, since they probably could not get better jobs elsewhere and the school probably could not hire others to do the work so cheaply.” While that undoubtedly is true, it is equally true that the school has unjustly deprived these employees of every cent it has saved, since their illegal status and consequent need in no way lessens the value of their work by comparison with that of citizens and legal aliens. At best, what the latter are paid for the sorts of jobs for which undocumented workers compete probably does not exceed the minimum required for justice, and it may even fall short of it (see LCL, 765–67).

Paying undocumented workers off the books, moreover, violates the income tax and social security laws, and deprives the nation of revenues. These wrongs not only are contrary to the common good but unfair to the workers, who both incur liability for failure to pay income taxes and miss out on social security benefits. Finally, the fact that people employ undocumented workers holds out hope to other potential illegal immigrants, and so encourages them to try to enter the country.379 Such attempts sometimes end tragically, and, if successful, add to the problem of illegal immigrants.

On the main issue—the moral acceptability of violating the immigration laws—you might argue that the United States’ present immigration laws are much too restrictive. Since God provides the world and all its resources to meet the needs of all human beings, the argument would go, prosperous countries should admit economic refugees, even at some sacrifice to their own living standards. For those living in comfort to refuse entry to the desperately poor is like people on a lifeboat refusing to take others aboard. Although refusing would be justified if picking up another survivor would sink the boat, people assured of their own survival cannot justly reject others in desperate need merely to maintain more pleasant conditions for themselves (see CCC, 2241; LCL, 862).

I am impressed by that argument, which points to a need for changes in the law.380 Still, I do not see how it justifies employing undocumented workers in violation of existing law. Even if many economic refugees should be admitted to the United States, the country must have and enforce some laws limiting immigration, since otherwise it would be flooded with immigrants. Unrestricted immigration would have several bad results. Without adequate help to establish themselves, many immigrants would suffer grave deprivation; attempting to assist the flood of immigrants, governments at various levels and private organizations would exhaust their resources and/or worsen their deficits; and, competing with immigrants, poorer and less skilled citizens would suffer a deterioration in their already poor economic condition.

I am confident that, if your predecessors and others who employ undocumented workers considered what would happen if there were no immigration laws, they would agree that such laws are indispensable. But people who employ undocumented workers act as if they were exempt from the immigration laws. It is plainly unfair to fellow citizens to expect them to obey the laws while making an exemption in one’s own favor—even if it also were in favor of the particular undocumented workers one has employed and come to know.

Consequently, even if many generally law-abiding people do employ undocumented workers, that does not show that the school is morally justified in doing so. The existing immigration laws are perhaps not entirely just, but the common good is better served by those laws than it would be by no laws, and in practice all laws should be presumed just and deserving of obedience unless the contrary can be shown.

Employing illegal aliens also is unfair to unemployed citizens and legal immigrants who could fill the same jobs.381 Employers often rationalize by saying, “Nobody else wants the job”; but what they mean is that nobody but an illegal alien wants the job on the terms offered. Suppose the job were advertised repeatedly and the pay offered were increased by, say, ten percent each time the ad appeared. In that case, I am sure a citizen or legal alien would be found to fill any opening for morally acceptable work now performed by an illegal alien. If employers were truthful, they would say: “Nobody else will take the job unless I offer better wages, hours, and working conditions.”

Someone will object: Granted, every job would be filled by a well-qualified citizen or legal alien if the terms were attractive enough, but those who employ illegal immigrants simply cannot afford to offer such terms for menial jobs. If that is the case, however, the employers should do without these services, just as many poor people must do without professional services they cannot afford. And if employers find it difficult or even impossible to do without the services currently provided by illegal immigrants, they should acknowledge the importance of those services, and stop regarding the jobs as menial.

For a Catholic school to employ undocumented workers gives the school’s students a bad example of disrespect for law and risks grave damage to the Church. The students are hardly likely to remain ignorant of the unlawful practice, and if it is publicized in the wider community, the Church’s reputation will suffer and legal penalties may be imposed. Moreover, every Catholic organization should give an example of good citizenship as well as justice toward the poor; if they do not, their wrongdoing is likely to provoke the antagonism of public officials, non-Catholic citizens, and, not least, poorer and less skilled citizens who suffer most from the competition of undocumented workers. This antagonism is likely to hamper the Church in carrying out her mission. A Catholic school administrator should avoid running such risks.

Therefore, my advice is that you discuss the school’s employment of these undocumented workers with diocesan officials and/or your other superiors, with a view to terminating the practice promptly and in a way that is fair to the workers. Considering everything that is at stake, your obligation to do this is, in my judgment, a grave one.

Perhaps some way can be found for the school to employ these people legally, while rectifying the injustices done them by your predecessors. If not, they must be discharged. In doing so, however, you should make fair restitution to each of them for the low pay he or she has received, which also will soften the blow of losing their jobs. Moreover, the income tax and social security payments on their off-the-books wages must now be paid, together with all required interest and penalties.

You might argue that the school cannot afford all these payments. Duties in justice, however, should be accorded a very high priority; to meet them, you should reduce less urgent expenditures and, if necessary, borrow money. You also might argue that these undocumented workers and others like them will be worse off if you and other employers discharge them. But assuming you cannot find a way rightly to continue employing them, you must discharge them, even if that worsens their condition. Still, mercy also requires that those who have resources help people in need, and the Church has done a great deal to help needy migrants and refugees. Therefore, when you talk with diocesan officials, seek their help in finding some legitimate way to help meet these people’s needs.

Of course, the school still will need the services that the undocumented workers have been performing. I suggest that you explain the situation to the parents and others who support the school, and enlist their help in solving the problem. They might be willing and able to contribute enough for you to continue employing the workers lawfully, if possible, or else replace them. The students and their parents also might be willing to contribute some of the services the school needs. A well-organized program of contributed service would not only reduce costs but build up the community. If those involved in the school invest more time and work in it, they will love it more, and in working together they also will grow in solidarity.

Does it follow that it never could be right to employ an undocumented worker? No. When someone in extreme need begs for help, the best response sometimes may be to give him or her a temporary job, thus providing immediate help and enhancing the needy person’s self-respect, while one also perhaps looks for a more lasting way to help. According to current (January 1997) U.S. law, people need not ask for papers, report payments, or pay taxes on behalf of individuals they employ for casual domestic work in their private homes when three conditions are met: (1) the employment is on a sporadic, irregular or intermittent basis; (2) cash wages paid to all such employees total less than one thousand dollars during each calendar quarter; and (3) cash wages paid to any one such employee total less than one thousand dollars during any one year.382 Under these conditions, therefore, an undocumented worker could be employed briefly without violating justice, provided one paid a just wage, supplied decent working conditions, and violated no other legal requirement unless it were reasonably judged to be inapplicable under the circumstances.

Nor is it difficult to imagine a case in which applying the law and deporting an illegal immigrant would be gravely unjust. In such as case, someone able to pay a just wage and provide suitable working conditions might have solid grounds for judging that the violation of relevant laws was justified. If such a person had no other responsibilities that made breaking the law too risky, he or she might then employ the alien as an undocumented worker without unfairness and perhaps even as a true work of mercy.

379. The U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration, One Family under God (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1995), 11: “We must face squarely the extent to which the presence of persons in illegal status in this country is directly related to our own willingness to use and dispose the labors of these people how, when, and where it suits us.” This document as a whole provides a well-balanced treatment of the ethical aspects of immigration policy.

380. However, changes in U.S. law during the 1980s greatly expanded opportunities for legal immigration, and assimilating still more immigrants would pose greater challenges; see Elizabeth S. Rolph, Immigration Policies: Legacy from the 1980s and Issues for the 1990s (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand, 1992).

381. See Philip L. Martin, Illegal Immigration and the Colonization of the American Labor Market, CIS paper 1 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Immigration Studies, 1986).

382. See United States Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, Household Employer’s Tax Guide for Wages Paid in 1996, publication 926; United States Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Handbook for Employers (Nov. 1991).