John O'Connor
John O’Connor

President Obama will be unveiling a multi-pronged plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration policy, possibly later today. Its most controversial component — a reprieve for the millions who face deportation — could also deliver a huge payoff to senior living operators.

That’s because many of the people who might otherwise be shipped out of the United States would be allowed to stay put, which could only help relieve the tremendous worker shortage that senior care faces. Moreover, some of the people who are already delivering eldercare services “under the table” would be able to gain the dignity and tax-paying requirements that accompany legal employment.

It’s difficult to know how many undocumented immigrants actually work in senior living. It’s sort of like trying to find out how many illegals toil in restaurants or spend their days improving lawns. Those in the know are the people who run the businesses. And they tend to be less than forthcoming about disclosing such information — seeing as what they are doing is what you might technically call illegal.

I’m not going to assert that senior living essentially counts on undocumented immigrants to survive — as is often the case in some other sectors. But it would be naïve and wishful thinking to insist it’s not an issue that affects this field.

It’s probably safe to say that most undocumented immigrants are here for a simple economic reason — they can earn more in the United States than in the nation they left. So they come. They wash dishes. They clean restrooms. They care for the elderly. In other words, they do the dirty jobs that many legal residents won’t. And they do it because, simply put, it’s the best deal they can get.

I realize that immigration reform is a touchy issue. And certainly, each side has its compelling points to make. As the child of two immigrant parents who came to this country legally, I should perhaps be insisting that every additional entrant “play by the rules.”

But it’s funny how “playing by the rules” can mean different things to different people. Is it playing by the rules to cut payroll costs by illegally hiring people who are desperate for work? Is it playing by the rules to expect people in no position to complain to work 16 or more hours a day? Or to have them sleep in cots on the property, just in case a bit more help is required during their off hours? Yet those things do happen, every day.

I grew up in a neighborhood full of immigrants, both legal and otherwise. And here’s what I repeatedly saw along the way: The children of undocumented immigrants tended to be mistreated, while their parents were usually treated far worse. It’s hard to witness unrelenting abuse for years without forming a strong opinion. Mine is this: Any person who thinks undocumented immigrants are gaming the United States and getting a free ride really has another thought coming.

Making life a bit less desperate for undocumented immigrants isn’t just good economic policy. It’s also the right thing to do. The sooner that happens, the better off we will all be.

John O’Connor is McKnight’s Editorial Director.