Anyone who’s honest about construction in America knows that much of what’s built in this country is built by people who aren’t legally supposed to be here. Claudia, a 46-year-old electrical subcontractor in Dallas, is one of those people. Since entering the United States without authorization 13 years ago from El Salvador, where she studied electrical engineering, Claudia and her husband have worked on buildings of every kind, large and small, residential and commercial.
Now she is wondering how long they can continue. “There are people I know that are afraid to come to work and haven’t been going to work,” Claudia says. “I’m afraid and my husband is afraid, but we have no other choice. We have children, and we take care of my mother, so we have to keep on working.”
The reason for that fear, of course, is the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. While the president has said he’s focused on deporting the “bad hombres” (a policy that would largely mirror President Barack Obama’s), the statistics indicate something different. In the current administration’s first 100 days, arrests of undocumented immigrants jumped 36 percent, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While three out of four had criminal records, the biggest increase by far came in the arrest of immigrants with no record. Those apprehensions more than doubled as federal agents averaged more than 400 arrests a day.
Simply reciting the statistics, however, feels inadequate. The numbers alone can’t convey the thousands of personal stories behind the arrests as well as the growing apprehension and anger in the primarily Latino immigrant community that is being targeted. Federal agents have apprehended a father dropping his children off at school, a man who stopped by court to pay traffic fines, a student who was waiting on a street corner for a friend. They have raided homes and workplaces across the country, including construction sites in the states of Washington and Texas.
Indeed, the administration’s policies could have a profound impact on the building industry and everyone working in it, including architects. A growing number of voices have begun to decry the consequences, which could have a devastating effect on an industry that took years to rebound after the Great Recession and is already struggling with a labor shortage. In the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey and Hurricane Irma, as Houston and Florida start the long process of rebuilding, those consequences will be impossible to ignore.
“Its impact is going to be overwhelming. It’ll take a little bit of time. … But ultimately, the ones who are undocumented are going to stop going to work because of fear,” says Moises (Moe) Vela Jr., former executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, who also served in the Clinton and Obama administrations. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or an economist to tell you that if a disproportionate number are immigrants and a portion are undocumented, then ultimately the impact will be felt on the industry and on the economy.”
In the U.S., the construction industry is second only to agriculture in its dependence on immigrant labor. Nearly 15 percent of the workforce in construction—about 1.25 million men and women—are undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Another 240,000 undocumented immigrants work in a category Pew defines as “installation, maintenance, and repair.” The common perception of undocumented construction workers may be of day laborers waiting to be picked up in a parking lot, but in truth they are heavily represented in several skilled building trades. Pew’s research estimated that, as of 2014, 31 percent of all drywallers, 29 percent of roofers, 26 percent of painters, and 25 percent of masons are working in the U.S. without legal authorization.
The proportion of undocumented workers is much higher in several parts of the country. “The reality is that in the state of Texas, up to 50 percent of the construction workforce is undocumented,” says Jose Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project, an organization that works with low-income workers in Austin.
Carlos Martín, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who focuses on housing and communities, says the lag in collecting and analyzing data means it will probably be the end of the year before the impact of President Donald Trump’s policies is documented. But “clearly,” he says, “mass deportation is going to have an immediate effect on the construction industry.”
Fear in the Labor Force
Many builders and contractors say they are already seeing the effects of Trump’s policies. “Have I seen this? Yes, I’ve seen it. In January, when we all had these raids, that added to that fear. I’ve seen it in our own city. I’ve seen it in Dallas. I’ve seen it in Houston,” says Frank Fuentes, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, based in Austin.
Garza says concerns in Texas have been heightened by SB4, a new state law currently being challenged in court that gives local law officers the right to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they stop. But he adds, “I think it’s important to point out that the policies of the Trump administration have absolutely played a role in this.”
Salvador Chavarria, owner of Viking Fence in Austin, relies on subcontractors for installation of the fencing the company manufactures and sells in several Texas markets. He uses E-Verify for his own employees, but says, “We were hearing reports from our subcontractors that there were raids and their people were being stopped and arrested, and, basically, it was bringing a lot of fear into their labor force. So, yes, they have been impacted by it directly.”
As his subcontractors struggle to keep or find employees in the current atmosphere, Chavarria says, his company has had to pay more for labor, which has led to raising prices. His lead times have also gone up, and he’s had to turn down work.
The effects will ripple across the industry. “One can expect that projects will be shelved or postponed,” Martín says. “Things are going to take longer and be more costly to build.” Rising housing costs, he adds, could hurt both consumers and the financial sector as fewer eligible homeowners can take out mortgages. Over the longer-term, Martín adds, the impact will depend on the ability of the industry to train replacement workers or rely on increased mechanization to build with fewer people. “It’s going to be a weight on the industry,” he says. “The question is whether it’s going to be an anchor—or just a weight.”
The argument for deporting undocumented immigrants without serious criminal records has long been that they are taking jobs from American citizens and depressing wages. A spate of recent economic analyses, however, disputes those assertions. A study by economists at the University of California, Davis and Colgate University found that in states with an influx of immigrants between 1960 and 2000, native-born workers tended to shift out of the manual labor taken by the newcomers into better-paying jobs, raising their incomes. Another study found that when industries lost immigrant labor they tended to invest in increased mechanization rather than hire native-born workers at higher salaries. Some economists say immigrant labor increases economic growth overall, benefiting both immigrants and the native-born. “The average American worker is more likely to lose than to gain from immigration restrictions,” Giovanni Peri, an economist at UC Davis, told The New York Times.
Economic studies aside, contractors say the industry’s dependence on immigrant labor, both documented and undocumented, is a reflection of a stark reality. “Americans don’t want to do these jobs,” Chavarria says.
A major home builder who did not want to be identified says his company has found that the native-born workers who are willing to take jobs tend to be less reliable. “They have problems. They have no driver’s licenses. Their grandmother died for the fifth time. These Spanish guys, they just show up to work every day, daylight till work ends, at least five or six days a week. You just don’t have problems. All they want to do is work. You need people like that,” he says.
The same builder also says the current system of enforcement allows contractors to maintain a necessary fiction. “You verify your subcontractors, and then they’re providing assurance about their employees,” he says. “So, as far you know, they’re all legal. But you and I know they’re not all legal.”
The most recent survey by the National Association of Home Builders, released in August, indicated that builders are already struggling with a growing shortage of workers and subcontractors. About three-fourths of builders surveyed reported shortages in carpenters and framers, more than six in 10 said they were facing a shortage of masons and concrete layers, while a similar percentage said they needed more drywallers. Overall, they reported significant shortages of workers in 15 different trades. In every case, the situation was worse when it came to finding subcontractors compared to workers hired directly by the company.
Marc Padgett, president and CEO of Summit Contracting Group, a large Florida-based contractor specializing in multifamily construction, believes the shortfall is partly a lingering effect of the Great Recession, when the housing collapse led laid-off workers to seek employment elsewhere. “It’s tougher to get bigger crews like we had 10 years ago. If I had a 30-man electrical crew [then], now we have a 20-man electrical crew. Everybody’s spread a little more thin,” Padgett says. “It’s hard to find people, and I know the subs are having a hard time finding crews.” A further reduction in the job force, he says, could be “devastating.”
Yet, in addition to its crackdown on undocumented immigration, the Trump administration is also backing legislation in Congress that would cut legal immigration by half, favoring individuals with documented skills, education, and fluency with English. The Urban Institute’s Martín says the construction trades do not appear to fall under the bill’s definition of skilled workers. The Pew Research Center estimates that authorized immigrants make up another 12 percent of the construction workforce. Which means that if the legislation passes, the worker shortage could be even more severe.
A Recurring Issue
In a way, this is an old story. “Historically, immigration has always played a key role in construction labor,” notes Martín. German immigrants formed one of the early carpenters’ unions in the 19th century, he says, and Italian and Irish newcomers organized similar groups early in the 20th century. The hard, physical work that comes with building has always been one of the grittier paths of entry into the American dream.
America also has a history of turning against these workers in times of economic stress. Following heavy immigration in the early 1900s, the United States enacted severe limits on who could enter the country. In the 1950s, a reaction against Mexican guest workers in the United States—many of whom came legally under the Bracero Program enacted to supply agriculture with much-needed labor during World War II—led to “Operation Wetback,” in which thousands of Hispanics were rounded up and deported to Mexico.
Some of those taken across the border were either U.S. citizens or here legally, according to historians. Eric Rodriguez, vice president of the office of research advocacy and legislation for the Latino advocacy group UnidosUS (formerly the National Council of La Raza), says the Trump administration’s hostility toward immigrants once again leaves the entire Latino community feeling more vulnerable. Among undocumented laborers, he says, “We’re seeing things like people who get hurt or injured on the job not claiming benefits because they’re afraid of what would happen to them if they did.”
Wage theft has long been an issue among undocumented workers, who know they’re vulnerable and often won’t report the crime. But in March, multiple current and former U.S. Department of Labor officials, speaking off the record, told British newspaper The Guardian that now some undocumented immigrants are even refusing to accept back pay for fear it will allow them to be traced. Immigrants are also increasingly reluctant to cooperate with Labor Department investigators, the sources said, even though the department does not inquire into the immigration status of workers when looking into complaints. “They’re not just refusing to talk to us. They’re running away from us,” one investigator told the newspaper.
Many of the builders I interviewed for this story believe it would be best for everyone if America’s need for foreign labor were acknowledged and legally regulated. “We need to figure this out,” says John Meyer, a project manager for Cobre Building Systems in Tucson, Ariz. “We need to get these people over here, need to pay them more money, need to collect their taxes, need to let them go home and come back legally. Not only would it help us in all the trades, in labor, it would save the country so much money—just look at what we’re spending protecting the border.”
What is less certain is the level of concern among architects. “For many of us involved in the design of cities, we understand that the history of the city has always depended on immigrant labor. So instead of rejecting immigrants, the policy goal should be how to better integrate them,” says Teddy Cruz, a director of the University of California, San Diego’s Cross-Border Initiative, which studies trans-border culture.
Cruz believes many of his colleagues do not share the same concern. “In general, there is not that much awareness, and whenever there is, there is not enough will to challenge it,” he says “Architects … are often complicit in unjust policy through mere acquiescence.”
Peggy Deamer, a professor of architecture at Yale University and co-founder of the Architecture Lobby, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness of labor issues among architects, believes an architect’s contractual relationship with property owners means they are distanced from concern about the workers on projects. She also believes a fundamental class issue comes into play. “Architects don’t recognize themselves as workers, and if you don’t recognize yourself as a worker, you don’t recognize yourself as having affinity with other workers,” she says. “We think of ourselves as the creative class … and because we see ourselves as artists and creators, somehow we see ourselves outside the economy.”
She fears this perspective could keep architects from recognizing the implications of President Trump’s immigration crackdown on the building industry and their own work. “I think the mindset, the ideology, would disconnect a slowdown from architectural responsibility, concern, or activism,” Deamer says. “It would be seen as, ‘Oh, this is another slump in the economy; we’ve weathered these slumps before.’ ”
It appears that the slump, or at least the start of a growing worker shortage, is already beginning. “Right now, we’re seeing less undocumented workers on the sites that we’re working on,” says Claudia, the Dallas-based subcontractor. “Usually just two to four. You used to see a lot more workers that were undocumented.”
Texas has plenty of work for electrical subcontractors, but state law SB4 and the aggressive immigration raids conducted by federal agents have Claudia and her husband pondering their future, and the possibility of finding a less hostile environment somewhere else. “We have our plan B,” she says. “We’re leaving Texas.”