Issues far less controversial and complex than the question of what to do about the United States' estimated 12 million undocumented immigrant workers can get us in our respective corners, ready to come out blasting at one another. We're a people who tend to polarize, moving forward, sideways, upside down, and backwards in a perpetual tug-of-war with one group or another, and sometimes with ourselves. It's the American way. When we agree, we agree vehemently. And when we disagree … .

The people who are here whom our laws say do not belong here, have been, and will continue to be, a flashpoint issue, and not merely because the approaching mid-term election effectively will serve to put the matter into Congressional limbo for the rest of the calendar year.

Our national borders' porous nature is a hot-button issue that pits American against American in more ways than we can count. It's an issue that puts just about all of us on different sides, and whose tentacles of pain and consequence touch us all deeply and to varied effect. There are numbers and the unnumbered, and then there are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers.

There's the “them” that our nation's borders, laws, and policies define, and there's the “us” within the confines of definition and social compact we might once have believed were safe and enduring. There's what we can argue in rational terms about causes and effects, and then there are subjective gray areas of the debate, and beneath all of that, there are profoundly visceral parts of the struggle that weave together in helices that fasten us somewhere in the middle of disagreements about business, legality, values, principles, and truths. Whether you're a “have” or a “have-not,” there's no escaping the far-reaching societal, economic, educational, health-care, and household implications of illegal immigration, let alone the emotional charge.

The United States needs its borders. And Americans need both exterior and interior enforcement. And the country needs a comprehensive and fair documentation plan that will not contribute to the multimillion-dollar business of false identifications. There will be a price to pay to get there, particularly in industries, such as new-home construction, that have structurally bought into illegal immigrant labor as a means of scaling and controlling costs. There don't appear to be right answers. At least, one can bet, fear won't lead to them.

For production home builders, we look in this issue at the economics of illegal immigrant labor not as a lens that will provide a complete understanding of the matter, but as part of a framework aimed to help you clarify where you are in the argument and, hopefully, smarter use of judgment.

At the BUILDER 100 Conference in Santa Barbara, Calif., in early May, Kimball Hill CEO David Hill spoke about the issue. Whatever your politics, he said, “read the proposed legislation.” Now it looks as if neither the bill passed by the House of Representatives in December 2005 nor the Senate immigration bill will see their way to law. President Bush's attempt to draw the sides together in a reconciliation bill, too, is almost certain to fall to the wayside as Congress lets out for vacation in August and attentions turn toward the mid-term elections in November.

Hill's point is this: Don't let the issue pass you by. There's too much to lose. On the labor economics side, particularly in a declining market where sales have slowed and builders are looking for even more opportunity to cut costs, the jolt to the system if one suddenly subtracts all falsely documented or undocumented workers could be paralyzing. What's more, many of these 11 million or 12 million undocumented or illegal immigrants are factored into the future home buyer equation that serves as the light at the end of the tunnel for builders trying to get through this tough market. What if that light disappears?

Read the proposed legislation, and when it re-emerges for debate and deliberation next year, read it again. Be informed. Don't just let it happen to you.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Santa Barbara, CA.