The following article originally was published in December for the Construction Dimensions website of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry. (Certain time elements have been changed to reflect the new year.)
By Mark L. Johnson
Stan Marek takes the call while driving in Houston. It’s sunny and 78 this Tuesday in October. The cheery CEO of Marek Construction Companies loves to chat about immigration reform and has figured it all out.
“Give me 30 minutes, and I’ll email you my op-ed for the [Houston] Chronicle,” Marek says to the reporter on the phone. “You’ve got to read it. I have the answer—ID and Tax.”
One of the AWCI community’s foremost authorities on immigration and a fighter against unscrupulous labor brokers that exploit foreign workers, Marek says the solution to immigration is simple: Give undocumented workers tamperproof IDs and five-year work permits, and let them pay taxes. Millions would enter the labor pool legally.
“It would solve a lot of issues in the construction trades if we could put undocumented people on our payrolls,” Marek says.
Many in the wall and ceiling industry agree. They would like to see Congress and the Trump administration pass comprehensive immigration reform. Most Americans—72 percent, according to an August 2019 Pew Research Center poll—favor charting a path to legal status for the 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in this country. If it were possible to put “illegals” to work legally, most AWCI member contractors would jump at the chance, say Marek and other industry executives. Undocumented immigrants would come out of the shadows. Employers would bid more jobs. The economy would grow.
“Trump would look like a hero,” Marek says, “and that’s what we’re trying to explain to him through friends of mine that are going to visit with him.”
Will he listen?
Contentious Right Now
Donald Trump is stoking people’s fears by casting immigrants as undesirables and invaders. The October 2019 “Frontline” film, “Zero Tolerance,” says Trump used “resentment over immigration as a political weapon” during his presidential campaign. When announcing his candidacy in 2015, he accused immigrants from Mexico of transporting drugs and being rapists. In a 2016 campaign speech, Trump compared immigrants collectively to a lethal snake that bites its innocent caretaker, representing the American people. In January 2018, Trump told lawmakers assembled in the Oval Office: “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”
“Trump’s most insulting—and violent—language is often reserved for immigrants,” says the Washington Post.
By painting foreigners as dangerous, the president has rallied his base. Restrictionists in his administration want to cut immigration quotas further and send immigrants home. To them, a problem looms. A record 44.4 million immigrants resided in the United States in 2017—13.6 percent of the nation’s population.
Undocumented migration into the United States, however, is plunging. “The net increase of immigrants in the American population dropped to about 200,000 people in 2018, a decline of more than 70 percent from the year before,” says the New York Times. The number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico, a country that has historically supplied many skilled drywallers and finishers, fell 29 percent from 6.9 million in 2007 to 4.9 million in 2017, Pew Research Center notes.
The figures are dire for construction employers. U.S. builders “crave more immigrants” to put to work, says the Times. But politicians don’t normally talk about it. Some prominent Republicans (Eric Cantor of Virginia, the then House Majority Leader, for example) have lost seats in Congress for proposing immigration reform. Even Democrats hesitate to hash out ideas at a time when little can be done about them.
“It’s so contentious right now for people in the House and the Senate,” Marek says. “The parties are totally divisive on immigration, and they are afraid to do anything because Donald Trump might get [incensed] at them.”
No wonder the zeal needed to reform immigration is stagnating. It’s becoming “an old, old issue,” Marek says. The debate has devolved into a discussion strictly about security. Trump’s talking points center on completing the U.S.–Mexico border wall and toughening border security, not the economic benefits of supplying legal immigrant workers.
“I have talked to people in the House and people in the Senate and their comment is, ‘It’s not the time. It’s not the time,’” Marek says. “They don’t want to mess with it. They feel that even if they pass something in the House, which is approved by the Senate, the president would not sign it. On the Republican side, if you have a primary coming up, you want to be tough on immigration. So, yes, it doesn’t feel like the timing is right, and yes, that’s a cop-out.”
But, you never know what this president will do.
“He may decide tomorrow to make a big shift and do it with an executive order,” Marek says. “I have friends who give him a lot of money and are supposed to meet with him in a couple of months to talk about ID and Tax possibly being an executive order.”
ID and Tax
Marek says business owners in Houston, where a worker shortage is especially pronounced, have been discussing ID and Tax for a while. Employers there would like to hire legally the undocumented workers who make up more than 30 percent of Houston’s 300,000-person construction labor force, according to published sources.
Under an ID and Tax program, the nation’s employers would bring undocumented workers on their payrolls straight to the Department of Homeland Security. The employers—not the government—would pay for each worker’s background check, fingerprinting and permanent ID. If they pass the criminal check, the worker would be entered into E-Verify and issued a five-year work visa.
“It is just common sense,” Marek says. “Why put these people in the underground economy and lose their labor? A lot of these guys have been here a long time.”
Marek has key constituencies ready to endorse the program:
1. Law enforcement loves ID and Tax, he says, because undocumented workers would be given proper identification cards. True criminals would be apprehended.
2. Health care providers would properly care for injured workers. “These people would have workmen’s comp, so when they get hurt they wouldn’t just wind up in ER,” Marek says.
3. Educators would be thrilled to see newly documented workers participate in their children’s lives. Parents would join their kids in school activities and attend their soccer games without worrying that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents will show up to deport them.
4. Employers would have a fresh labor pool. “Landscapers, restaurants, janitorial services—none of us has enough people,” Marek says.
5. Though not yet signed on, the federal government would have assistance in establishing and maintaining national security, as employers identify large blocks of undocumented workers. The program would free up resources that could help secure the borders. Social Security coffers would gain $6.75 billion, Marek says, for every one million people brought onto legitimate payrolls.
“It would be a great bill,” says Marek, who is crisscrossing the country trying to garner support. “I just haven’t been able to get both sides to agree to sit down and talk about it.”
AWCI sees immigration reform as a way the industry can gain workers and level the playing field for employers, while supporting border security and American jobs. Giving undocumented workers the legal opportunity to stay and work would also contribute to developing a more stable and better-trained construction workforce.
But reform has to be done correctly, Marek says. “But by God, let’s don’t issue more H-1B and H-2B visas,” he says. “Let’s take the people that we have here, background check and ID them, and get them out on job sites.”
Already, individual states and certain municipalities are trying to outflank the federal government by making sure independent contractors are properly treated.
In October, Pennsylvania’s Construction Industry Employee Verification Act will require state construction employers to use E-Verify. Legislators modeled the law after Arizona legislation, which is “designed to ensure that ‘unscrupulous’ construction industry employers do not ‘hire individuals not authorized to work in the United States for their construction teams,’” Construction Dive says.
Last year, the Minneapolis City Council rewrote the municipal code to give Department of Civil Rights city attorneys the authority to enforce its law against wage theft. The council members hope to reduce, MinnPost.com says, the “underpayment that disproportionately affects communities of color and immigrants in Minnesota.” The ordinance is the first law of its kind in the state and part of a large-scale effort among state leaders to crack down on wage theft by unscrupulous employers.
Granted, these actions don’t necessarily focus on immigration, but immigration is invariably tied up in them, and AWCI executives are seeing such actions taking place more and more in northern states.
For example, Mike Poellinger, president of Poellinger, Inc. in Wisconsin, says labor brokers are starting to increase in numbers in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where his firm operates. The brokers are drawing upon non-union workers—some being immigrants—to man some light-commercial projects. It’s happening because, Poellinger says, some area general contractors are self-performing their work. They’re breaking up these project scopes.
“Most architects don’t like to break out the packages,” Poellinger says. “They want the framer, the board guy and the finishing guy to be the same for warranty issues.”
But these self-performing GCs will bear the risks. Since Poellinger is signatory to union finishers, the trade is losing some work. It’s a sign of the times—labor brokers (who often hire undocumented immigrant workers) are popping up in more places, though most operate in the southern United States.
“Remember, this is not a huge issue for 47 states,” Marek says. “It’s a huge issue for Texas, California, Florida. It’s really not an issue for California because they give them [undocumented workers] a driver’s license and health care. It’s a sanctuary state.”
“I just got back from Napa Valley,” he adds. “They have compounds for these people in the vineyards way out hidden from ICE. They take good care of them—$25 an hour and health care. I mean, man, I think all of our Mexicans [in Texas] are going to go to California.”
No Cost to the Government
Over the last two decades, immigrants and their children have accounted for more than half the growth of the population of 25- to 64-year-olds, according to Pew Research Center. Over the next 20 years, employers will have to plug the hole left by retiring baby boomers. That will put a drag on industry growth.
Robert Aird, president of Aird, Inc. in Maryland, would like to hire just 30 qualified and reliable workers. He says he could put them to work within a week, and his firm’s project volume would jump by 10 percent.
“Our experience suggests that many, if not most, of the immigrant workers come from a country and culture where working with your hands and in all kinds of weather is not undesirable,” Aird says.
But Aird can’t find 30 workers, despite offering competitive wages and benefits and year-round employment. And Washington isn’t helping much.
Last year, the Social Security Administration sent “no match” letters to employers asking them to verify certain workers. Marek says about 577,000 employers received such letters. When the workers’ names and Social Security numbers on W-2 forms do not match Social Security Administration records, many employers assume the worst and terminate the employees rather than risk a visit by ICE agents. Inevitably, the terminated immigrants turn to the underground economy for work, Marek says.
“I lay off a guy, and he goes to a labor broker. He’s on somebody’s payroll the next day, making less money,” Marek says. “But they don’t pay taxes, so their take-home pay is huge. Contractors like me are having a hard time competing with that.”
The solution, Marek says, is to secure a work permit for undocumented employees by working with the Department of Homeland Security. No, the worker would not be eligible to vote or to collect welfare benefits, Marek says, but he or she could now hold a job legally—and pay taxes.
“This process would bring millions of undocumented immigrants out of the shadows without costing the federal government a cent,” Marek says.
As simple as it sounds to enact, doing so won’t be easy.
“There needs to be a movement away from the nationalist, racist, prejudiced attitudes of people who feel threatened by the immigrant population,” says Aird. “The immigrant population—including some who do have documents—are paranoid about having ICE or local police or sheriff’s deputies arrest or detain them just because of their non-white appearance.”
Mark L. Johnson writes for the wall and ceiling industry. He can be reached via linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.