Photo credit: U.S. Air Force/Kemberly Groue
From the Houston Chronicle:
by Chris Tomlinson
Hurricane Harvey has given federal officials the perfect opportunity to round up undocumented immigrants.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents should stake out hardware stores and follow trucks loaded with drywall or other building materials to flood-ravaged neighborhoods. After all, there's at least a 1-in-4 chance (some say even odds) that a Houston construction worker will not have the proper papers to be here, according to a Pew Research study of Houston's workforce earlier this year.
The agents could put a dent in the 575,000 people living in Houston who entered the country illegally, and fill paddy wagons full of hard-working people trying to live the American dream.
As tough as President Donald Trump has talked about boosting deportations, though, I bet ICE won't be launching any roundups in Houston anytime soon.
Bashing foreign workers may be good Republican politics, but deporting them is bad economics. If more than a quarter of Houston's construction workers were deported, rebuilding Houston would take that much longer.
Perhaps Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will force elected officials and anti-immigration zealots to face facts. Undocumented workers make up 5.1 percent of the U.S. workforce and deporting them would send the economy into recession from lost productivity, and send inflation soaring because of the subsequent spike in labor costs, according to a study last year by Moody's Analytics, a financial analysis firm.
To avoid an economic tragedy, to rebuild Houston quickly, and to avoid further hypocrisy, Congress needs to overhaul immigration laws. And most importantly, they need to grant legal status to the millions of hardworking, law-abiding, tax-paying immigrants who literally build this country every day.
But first, let's dispense with the myth that undocumented workers take jobs from American citizens.
Before Harvey struck, the National Association of Home Builders reported a 75 percent labor and subcontractor shortage in carpentry, which pays $20 an hour or more. About 70 percent of construction companies say they can't find enough workers, according to a survey last month by the Associated General Contractors of America.
Nationwide, there are 6.2 million job openings, the most since 2001. The U.S. unemployment rate is near a 16-year low.
The Houston area's unemployment rate is 5.1 percent. Those without work may not have the skills needed for construction or else they'd be at work. Reconstruction in Houston cannot wait until apprenticeship programs and community colleges train fast-food workers to rewire a home or hang drywall.
"We were experiencing a labor shortage before the storm," Scott Norman, executive director of the Texas Association of Builders, told my colleague Ileana Najarro. "There is not enough skilled labor to meet this challenge today."
Undocumented workers have flocked to disaster zones for generations, ready to work long days and sleep four to a hotel room so they can make extra cash. Cowardly politicians, who are quick to cast scorn but never really address illegal immigration, traditionally turn a blind eye to accelerate recovery.
After Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush waived the requirement that government contractors verify a laborer's legal status. Officially, the Bush administration said too many construction workers had lost their identification and Social Security cards in the storm, but everyone saw through the flimsy excuse as immigration agents steered clear of New Orleans.
A quarter of Katrina reconstruction workers were undocumented, according to later research, which created a bigger problem with wage theft. Since people in the country illegally have little recourse, unscrupulous contractors low-balled bids and then paid undocumented workers less than prevailing wages or simply didn't pay them at all. Half of the undocumented Katrina workers surveyed by advocacy group Interfaith Worker Justice said they were not paid what they were promised.
U.S. construction companies rely on undocumented workers, which is why they want immigration reform. They also lobby hard for fewer workplace raids, fewer employee audits and lower fines for companies that hire undocumented workers. Federal and state officials, including the new president, have largely complied because they understand what's at stake.
If the goal of U.S. lawmakers is to help American citizens and to be honest leaders, then their best move is to provide amnesty. That would allow one-quarter of the construction workforce to come in from the shadows, demand fair wages and level the playing field so Americans no longer have to compete against underpaid, undocumented labor.
Read more from the Houston Chronicle.