Whenever pro-amnesty groups would claim we need illegal immigrants to do the work U.S. citizens do not want to do, my blood would boil. Maybe I felt that way because in my youth I worked as a dishwasher, floor cleaner, landscaper and factory shop gopher. I disagreed with their exaggerated premise.

Sure, illegal immigrants occupy many lower-paying manual labor jobs, but that’s because their skills and education don’t allow them to “steal” better jobs. Or at least that is what I told myself.

Five years ago my thoughts on legal and illegal immigrants began to moderate. We ran a series of columns in our construction magazines authored by Ricardo Gonzalez, founder of Bilingual America. Gonzalez, who also advises companies on Hispanic labor issues, presented “the rest of the story” for those of us who knew only one side of the debate.

According to Gonzales, many immigrants are chosen by their families to go to the U.S. They pool whatever meager resources they have and send their husbands, sons or daughters to the U.S. They hope to share in the American dream, or at least gather some crumbs from our tables, and send a few dollars back to their families.

Many enter the U.S. illegally because qualifying for a visa can take years or decades, if they even qualify. Often, this means risking their lives by trusting smugglers to sneak them across the border. USA Today recently detailed the roadblocks to legal immigration. The rules clearly are stacked against the common laborer.

If successful in crossing the border, illegal immigrants typically find refuge in overcrowded housing and work as day laborers for whatever cash is offered. Some buy forged documents in order to get low-paying jobs. Few experience anything close to the American dream.

Still, I told myself, illegal immigrants are hurting the U.S. economy. Although I was developing compassion for their situations, what they were doing was wrong. They need us. We don’t need them.

I recently learned I was wrong.

As it turns out, most U.S. citizens aren’t all that interested in doing some of the hardest jobs in our society, especially for low wages. In some cases, we do need them.

One of our construction-focused media brands,Roofing Contractor, holds an annual conference called Best of Success. This year I attended a roundtable among contractors. During this off-the-record discussion, participants transparently shared the realities of hiring and retaining workers in today’s cut-throat construction market.

Their most pressing challenge is finding workers willing to do the hard manual labor that roofing requires. Several companies recently lost workers when Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents found the workers had forged their papers. The employees, including many long-term, high-value workers, were deported.

At the height of the recession, one large contracting company lost 25 percent of its workforce because of deportation. “No problem,” the owners thought. “We’ll get tons of applicants in this economy.”

Guess what? Despite aggressively advertising the openings, they received only a handful of resumes. None of the applicants worked out. The company is still searching.

All but one of the companies represented in the roundtable decried the lack of interest from home-grown local workers. They especially were outraged by interviewees who elected to keep receiving unemployment, rather than accept a job on a roofing crew.

In trying to wrap my mind around this issue, I’m left with two questions. If nationwide unemployment of nearly 10 percent (higher in some markets) cannot stimulate citizens to accept these jobs, what will?

Also, what can we do to improve the increasingly dangerous job of protecting our borders?

My conclusions are diametrically opposed to my position a few years ago. First, I believe it’s time we substantially expand our legal immigration programs to allow entry of more workers with manual labor and service industry skills.

Second, we should develop an amnesty program that allows illegal workers to stay in the U.S. if they have a sponsoring employer, with the caveat that they have verified job skills and a clean record. Adding these workers to our tax roles would go a long way toward mending our economy and filling some holes in our labor force. 

I understand if you disagree with my ideas on illegal immigration. A few years ago, I would not have agreed with me either.

I’ve had the benefit of seeing desperately poor people in Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and South Africa. Put me in their shoes for even one day and I, too, would try anything to gain entry into the U.S. in order to seek work.

Let’s help immigrants legally share in a modest version of the American dream. With new elected officials heading to Washington and our state capitols, now is good time to rethink immigration.

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