Meritage Homes recently got a glimpse of what the future of home building might be like if stringent homeland security and immigration reforms that are pending ever become law. In the fourth quarter of last year, the federal border patrol relocated one of its checkpoints in Arizona to within a stone's throw of Meritage's active adult community in Green Valley, 19 miles south of Tucson. As a result, “we were scheduled to close 40 homes but couldn't because we didn't have enough labor,” recalls Steve Hilton, Meritage's CEO. It seems that immigrant workers there–some, if not most, of whom lack proper documentation—weren't eager to be seen in public. “The cops were getting their coffee at the same Dunkin' Donuts as the immigrants,” Hilton says.
The housing industry's dependence on the nation's mushrooming immigrant workforce is now at center stage, as lawmakers grapple with what to do about the millions of undocumented workers already in the United States and hundreds of thousands more who dash across the U.S.-Mexico border illegally every year. That immigration wave, say builders, has been critical to their companies' abilities to meet buyer demand and keep home prices from escalating higher than they have already. But the country's live-and-let-live attitude toward undocumented workers mutated into skepticism and fear after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington five years ago. Immigration policies got mixed up with homeland security, and the ensuing debate struck a nativist nerve about the shrinking job prospects for unskilled native-born workers.
“Unauthorized” immigrants now number nearly 12 million versus just under 3 million two decades ago. They hold one in 20 jobs in America, and one in seven construction jobs, according to a highly regarded study that the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center released in March (see “Filling the Gaps,” above). That report helped humanize what for many Americans may have been an abstraction, but it also provided ammunition for hardliners who adamantly oppose granting legal status to anyone who entered the United States illicitly, no matter how badly some industries might need these workers. In the March 23, 2006, edition of News-week, the magazine's economics columnist, Robert Samuelson, wrote that legitimizing this constant flow of workers from other, poorer countries into the United States is akin to “importing poverty.” He notes that since 1980, the number of Hispanics with incomes below the government's poverty line—around $19,300 in 2004 for a family of four—has risen 162 percent, while the number of non-Hispanic whites in poverty rose 3 percent.
A sizable number of home building companies also object strenuously to letting more immigrants into the United States illegally, based on our “Immigrant Worker Impact Survey” of nearly 800 builders and contractors that BUILDER conducted in February and March. Half of the respondents admit to having at least some undocumented workers on their jobsites. But they differ—dramatically so, in some cases—about the impact that the flood of immigrants into the United States has had on their ability to compete for jobs with companies that use this lower-paid labor, on the quality of homes being built, on jobsite supervision, and on the ethics—and even the morality —of hiring people who have entered the country illegally. One contractor in Boston, whose population has been transformed by mass arrivals of Brazilian immigrants, complains that his company was outbid for two multifamily projects by a competitor who, he claims, regularly hires undocumented workers. Another builder laments, “You become less competitive when you follow the law” by hiring only native-born workers.
Forty-five percent of the survey's respondents maintain that they could not sustain their current production levels if the illegal immigrant work-force suddenly disappeared or was seriously reduced by new laws. Jerry Wade, president of Artistic Homes in Albuquerque, N.M., says that his company would have to cut its production by one-third without undocumented workers. Several respondents and other builders who were interviewed also expressed concern that the loss of immigrant labor would lead to higher wages as well.
Angelo Amador, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports a guest worker program, says that the problem with current immigration laws is that “they don't reflect worker demand.” Some builders and contractors couldn't agree more and say that even if they wanted to hire legal workers exclusively, there simply aren't enough Americans willing to tear off a roof or sheetrock a wall for the “prevailing wage” that contractors are paying and have been under little pressure to raise as long as they can draw from an illegal immigrant workforce that is in no position to demand more money. “We need labor. The American labor force isn't providing it. Immigrants ... appreciate the chance to work, and they work hard,” says another of the survey's respondents.
Others, though, reject any suggestion or evidence that undocumented workers fill jobs that Americans don't want. “By employing illegal workers, subcontractors are complicit and encourage the influx of illegal immigration, [which is] a severe threat to our national security in more ways than can be discussed in this forum,” says one respondent.
OUT FROM THE SHADOWS The current immigration debate brings to mind a scene from Mel Brooks' movie Blazing Saddles, in which townsfolk grudgingly accept a black man into their community. “But no Irish,” shouts one citizen, to the raucous applause of his neighbors. The United States has a long history of welcoming, and then showing hostility toward, new arrivals. Still, hordes continue to seek opportunity or refuge here: Over the past decade, America granted permanent legal status to 900,000 immigrants per year, and 12 percent of our population is now foreign born.
What's causing all of the commotion is the ease with which people are coming into the country without going through proper channels. Pew estimates that since 2000, a net average of more than 500,000 per year has entered illegally and stayed, mostly to escape their own countries' crushing poverty and to find employment.
That “silent minority” rose up in force this spring at some of the biggest rallies in America's history to support migrants' rights and to protest a federal bill that threatens to criminalize undocumented workers and those who help them, and to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border. Those rallies poured gasoline onto an already emotional debate—one of the builders polled compares resentment against undocumented workers to “a lynch-mob mentality”—that Congress is struggling to sort out (see “Immigration Impasse,” below). What makes this national dialogue fascinating, and at times perplexing, is that both sides have valid points, making the debate far less cut and dried than what strident politicians and apoplectic talk-radio hosts or news anchors have been braying about.