This story was originally published in Builder.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which operates under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, this week amped up its scrutiny of immigrant workers in residential construction across the United States.

An executive at one of the nation's largest home building organizations confirmed yesterday that Federal officials from ICE had contacted the company very recently, notifying senior executives it planned to do an extensive audit of documents of the enterprise's entire employee population.

What's more, ICE officials seeks details on the company's roster of jobsite firms and laborers, indicating it may inspect jobsites and hold employers to account for documentation compliance among subcontracted trade crews.

Already besieged by chronic and, in some places and among some construction trades, acute capacity constraints among semi-skilled and skilled workers, now, builders need to worry whether more than one of every four people currently working on construction job sites will safely show up with his or her crew.

A number of industries—agriculture, restaurants, convenience stores, landscaping, to name a few—are profoundly reliant on workers not born in the United States, and already, some of them have felt the reverberations of a recent and growing government crackdown on undocumented people in their workplaces.

Meanwhile, Congress and the White House have reached a stalemate on immigration policy, having failed to debate and make progress on the issue despite intensifying urgency that they clarify a cohesive strategy that would apply to guest workers here now, and a flow of them for the future.

A recent New York Times article on Fed tactics to enforce immigration compliance notes that the ICE campaign is intensifying, and hits at employers with a doubly painful impact—both in loss of productivity and potential fines and penalties. NY Times staffer Natalie Kitroeff writes:

“We are taking work-site enforcement very hard,” said Thomas D. Homan, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in a speech in October. “Not only are we going to prosecute the employers who knowingly hire the illegal aliens, we are going to detain and remove the illegal alien workers.”

When agents raid workplaces, they often demand to see employees’ immigration documents and make arrests. But after the agents leave, it is difficult for the government to meaningfully penalize businesses that hire unauthorized immigrants.

Instead, according to law enforcement officials and experts with differing views of the immigration debate, a primary goal of such raids is to dissuade those working illegally from showing up for their jobs—and to warn prospective migrants that even if they make it across the border, they may end up being captured at work.

Home building, as we know it today, would suffer an untold blow if audits, inspections, and, possibly, jobsite raids sweep extensively into the residential construction landscape. While the flow of new immigrants into residential construction trades has slowed since the Great Recession, the percentage of the whole construction labor force, and the importance of this group of people in an already supply-constrained business sector is hard to overstate.

The National Association of Home Builders notes here that an estimated 24.4 percent of today's construction labor force—as reported through the Census' American Community Survey and ACS Public Use Microdata Samples—is made up of immigrant workers. We've written here about the 10 construction trades with the highest share of immigrant workers.

From left, NAHB Chairman Randy Noel, Rep. Steve Scalise and First Vice Chairman Greg Ugalde.
From left, NAHB Chairman Randy Noel, Rep. Steve Scalise and First Vice Chairman Greg Ugalde.

NAHB officials met this week with members of Congress to spell out priorities, including ones that address residential construction's labor shortages and the role of immigration policy in addressing them. Here's the association's stated position on immigration policy as a priority:

Immigration Reform. NAHB supports immigration reform that protects the nation’s borders. In addition, it must:
1. Ensure that employers continue to be responsible only for verifying the identity and work authorization of their direct employees—and not the employees of their subcontractors.
2. Create an efficient temporary construction industry guest-worker program that allows employers to recruit legal immigrant workers when there is a shortage of domestic workers.

A volley of harsh wintry weather patterns that continues to pound northern mid-western and north eastern states, and heavy, flood-producing rains in the Ohio and Mississippi River areas are already factors impacting early Spring start-to-completion construction schedules and labor patterns.

"We're confident our employee population is 100 percent in compliance," the executive who reports his organization has been contacted this week by Federal agency officials says. "When it comes to what's going on with the workers on our jobsites, I'm not so sure."

If ICE turns up the heat on construction sites and employers, all bets are off as to what level of impact that might have on new housing activity for the foreseeable future, as builders continue to explore construction technologies aimed at weaning from their over-dependence on on-site workers.

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