With a heated debate now underway on Capitol Hill over whether to grant amnesty to 11 million illegal workers already in the United States—a position backed by President Bush—the home building industry is taking stock of what it needs to do to deal with the issue.
Although most home builders have legal documentation for their own employees, that is not always the case for the industry's subcontractors. And as immigration authorities look to crack down on employers' handshake agreements with subs over keeping illegal immigrants off the job site provide little legal protection.
“I'm not sure we're giving [the topic of immigration] as much attention as we should,” says Bert Selva, CEO, Shea Homes, the nation's largest private builder. “If that [issue] goes south, our industry will be screwed in a lot of ways.”
“I would advise big builders to take a low profile,” says Patrick Slevin, CEO of the Slevin Group, a public relations company. “It has become a political lightening rod, and a big builder who is ensnared cannot come out of the debate untainted.”
Nevertheless, plenty of builders argue that there has been a decade-long labor shortage that has complicated the issue.
Michael Worley, a Florida-based custom home builder and former president of the Tallahassee Builders Association, says the labor market is so tight in the Sunbelt that the agriculture sector and construction industry are both competing for the same workers, a problem that is only intensified seasonally.
“We need bodies to build homes, and in my opinion, we have a workforce that is willing to work for the American dream. A motivated worker is a hard worker,” says Worley.
In a nationally televised speech on May 15, President Bush said he favored a new approach for illegal immigrants, rejecting either mass deportation or automatic amnesty for those here illegally. “We will fix the problems created by illegal immigration, and we will deliver a system that is secure, orderly, and fair,” he said.
But there are plenty of people who say there is no easy solution. “Mexican labor in this country is artificially suppressing wages for Americans. If you are a wage earner, this is not okay. If you are purchasing a house or strawberries, if you want your lawn cut, are looking for a nanny, are a business owner willing to hire illegals, things couldn't be better,” says Michael Donnelly, chief economist for Progressive Business Publications in Malvern, Pa.