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
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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