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Illegal immigrants toiled for governor

Guatemalans say firm hired them

December 1, 2006

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This story was reported by Jonathan Saltzman and Maria Cramer of the Globe staff and by Globe correspondent Connie Paige and was written by Saltzman.

SUCHITEPEQUEZ, Guatemala -- Outside his aqua-colored concrete house here, Rene Alvarez Rosales paused under an almond tree to answer questions about a subject with which he has surprising familiarity: Governor Mitt Romney's Belmont lawn.

For about eight years, Rosales said, he worked on and off landscaping the grounds at Romney's home, occasionally getting a "buenos dias" from Romney or a drink of water from his wife, Ann.

"She is very nice," said Rosales, 49.

About 6 miles away in Copado, a 37-year-old man who recently returned to Guatemala from the United States told a similar story, describing long days tending Romney's 2 1/2-acre grounds.

"They wanted that house to look really nice," said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous. "It took a long time."

As Governor Mitt Romney explores a presidential bid, he has grown outspoken in his criticism of illegal immigration. But, for a decade, the governor has used a landscaping company that relies heavily on workers like these, illegal Guatemalan immigrants, to maintain the grounds surrounding his pink Colonial house on Marsh Street in Belmont.

The Globe recently interviewed four current and former employees of Community Lawn Service with a Heart, the tiny Chelsea-based company that provides upkeep of Romney's property. All but one said they were in the United States illegally.

The employees told the Globe that company owner Ricardo Saenz never asked them to provide documents showing their immigration status and knew they were illegal immigrants.

"He never asked for papers," said Rosales, who said he had paid smugglers about $5,000 to take him across the US-Mexican border and settled in Chelsea.

The workers said they were paid in cash at $9 to $10 an hour and sometimes worked 11-hour days.

Romney never inquired about their status, they said.

In addition to maintaining the governor's property, they also tended to the lawn at the house owned by Romney's son, Taggart, less than a mile away on the same winding street.

Asked by a reporter yesterday about his use of Community Lawn Service with a Heart, Romney, who was hosting the Republican Governors Association conference in Miami, said, "Aw, geez," and walked away.

Several hours later, his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, provided the Globe with a statement saying that the governor knows nothing about the immigration status of the landscaping workers, and that his dealings were with Saenz, who is a legal immigrant from Colombia.

Fehrnstrom said that Romney would look into the matter further.

"We'll see what happens from here on out," Fehrnstrom said. "If the Globe has information on people that are in the country illegally, obviously that would have to be verified. . . . We've already taken the first step in that direction by calling Mr. Saenz."

The situation underscores the extent to which illegal immigrants permeate the US economy. Even as Romney travels the country, vowing to curb the flood of low-skilled illegal immigrants into the United States, some of those workers maintain his own yard, cutting grass, pruning shrubs, and mulching trees.

Saenz said he met Romney through the Mormon Church and said Romney has used his company's services for a decade. Saenz said Romney never asked him if his workers are legal immigrants.

"He doesn't have to ask," Saenz said. "I'm a company."

Saenz asserted that all the workers he used were in the United States legally. Told by reporters that his employees said they were in this country illegally, Saenz responded: "What you've heard is not my problem."

Saenz said he had never requested any proof from his employees to show they are here legally.

"I don't need to tell them to show me documents," he said. "I know who they are, and they are legal."

Federal law calls for employers to examine the documents, such as green cards or Social Security cards, that establish an employee's identity and eligibility to work in the United States.

The Globe received a tip in July alleging that Romney was using illegal immigrants to landscape his property. Reporters then observed the lawn service workers outside Romney's house more than a dozen times, sometimes as frequently as twice a week.

Reporters tracked down four current and former employees of the company at their homes in Chelsea and in Guatemala. All had landscaped Romney's property while working for Community Lawn Service with a Heart, and their tenure ranged from one worker who had joined the company just a month ago to another who had worked there 10 years.

The workers said they found the jobs at the landscaping company through other Guatemalan immigrants after arriving in Chelsea.

Of the four interviewed, only one said he was in the United States legally, showing a reporter his Social Security card and a Massachusetts driver's license, which the reporter checked against public databases to verify its authenticity. The other workers acknowledged they had no genuine documents, though some said they purchased fake documents, and described harrowing trips to the United States, eluding authorities and paying thousands for their passage. The interviews were conducted in Spanish.

The undocumented workers appear to be a significant presence at the tiny company. Reporters who observed the company in recent months never saw more than three people working at any time. Typically two men were working on any given day.

Community Lawn Service also provides landscaping for a Massachusetts Port Authority property in Revere and public school grounds in Chelsea. The Globe reported in June that companies using undocumented workers had received state contracts, triggering intense debate on Beacon Hill. Romney and GOP lawmakers have supported an effort to prohibit the practice.

The workers who had landscaped Romney's property seemed unaware of the governor's support for stricter controls on illegal immigration. Several described casual encounters with Romney over the years and said he had never expressed any curiosity about their status.

Rosales recalled Romney sometimes waving as they tended to the grounds, which include a tennis court and swimming pool. Romney occasionally called out, "buenos dias," drawing good-natured laughter from the workers. Ann Romney was friendly, Rosales said, and he said she brought them water on one particularly hot day.

Romney has been critical of illegal immigration as he touts himself to Republican primary voters as a conservative alternative to Senator John McCain, who has teamed up with Senator Edward M. Kennedy to push for a middle ground approach on the issue.

Romney supports construction of a new 700-mile fence along the country's border with Mexico and stationing National Guard troops at the border until it is finished.

He also said that employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants should be penalized. After the Globe's story in June about contractors on public projects using illegal immigrants, the governor announced he would seek an agreement with federal immigration authorities to allow Massachusetts State Police to arrest illegal immigrants for being in this country illegally.

In September, on Fox TV's "The O'Reilly Factor," Romney said the border must be secured and restated his support for the fence along the Mexican border, prompting host Bill O'Reilly to dub it "the Mitt Romney Memorial wall."

The experience of the workers on Romney's property seems far removed from the political rhetoric.

The worker in Copado said a state trooper stationed in Romney's driveway once inquired about his immigration status, about six months ago. Saenz, the company owner, who was at the property at the time, told the trooper that the worker was in the country legally, but had forgotten his papers, the worker told the Globe. The trooper never inquired again, said the worker, who repeatedly returned to the governor's property but avoided the trooper. Saenz told reporters he did not recall the incident.

Both the Copado resident and Rosales said they took the landscaping jobs to earn money for their families back home. After making it to the US-Mexican border, they crossed the Arizona desert on foot. When they finally arrived in Chelsea, where friends and family lived, they did odd jobs and eventually found work at Community Lawn Service with a Heart.

They said they were grateful for the work. About 80 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, according to the US State Department. The workers said they made far more at Community Lawn Service than they could in their Central American homeland.

"It was a good job," said the worker in Copado, not far from a stream where local women wash their clothes. "I didn't make a lot, but I earned $16,000 working for that company." He said he returned to Guatemala after four years because he missed his wife and daughter and has used his earnings to buy a pickup truck and land on which to build a small house.

Another of the undocumented workers, who has been living in Chelsea for two years and joined the landscaping firm a month ago, is finding life here hard.

"The truth is, it's very difficult," the 46-year-old worker said. "One lives day to day."

The one legal Guatemalan immigrant interviewed by the Globe, who has done work at the Romney property numerous times, has been a constant presence at the landscaping company. But he said Saenz regularly hired illegal workers to work alongside him. He said exchanges with the governor on the property are rare.

"The one who talks to us is the wife," said the legal immigrant. "She asks how we are."

The issue of illegal immigrant laborers has been tricky and sometimes damaging to political figures. President Clinton's first two nominees for attorney general, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, saw their chances dim after it was reported that they had employed illegal immigrants as nannies.

In 1994, Republican Michael Huffington lost his bid for the US Senate after acknowledging he had employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny for five years.

E-mail Jonathan Saltzman at jsaltzman@globe.com or Maria Cramer at mcramer@globe.com with your comments on this story.