WHEN BUILDER'S STAFF CONCEIVED THIS MONTH'S cover story on immigrant labor more than a year ago (see “Into the Limelight,” page 88), we knew it would be a topic of great interest to our readers. It has since exploded into a front-burner issue across all of America. In the past few months, demonstrations have been held, editorials written, and legislation passed. The entire spectrum of opinion-holders has weighed in: the amnesty seekers, the guest worker proponents, the round-'em-up-and-ship-'em-homers. And the debates promise to continue for some time to come. It seems as if a fundamental principle of the United States, a nation of immigrants and a legendary safe harbor for the world's oppressed, is being called into question.
Builders are just as conflicted about the subject as the rest of their fellow Americans. A survey of our readers reveals that many builders (half of all respondents) admit that undocumented immigrants work on their jobsites. There are benefits, the builders say: They lower labor costs, and they work hard. They also keep housing prices down. Nearly half of the respondents say that they would not be able to build at their current levels without these workers.
On the other hand, 40 percent of the respondents fear that construction quality is jeopardized by workers whose primary language is not English. And even larger groups do not believe that undocumented workers should be eligible for workers' compensation (59 percent) or allowed access to the U.S. court system (57 percent). Written comments strongly suggest that people who came into the country illegally should not be rewarded with American citizenship and all its benefits.
One point of agreement seems to be that the respondents dislike the way things are right now. Those who admit to using illegal workers feel burdened by such unethical behavior. Those who don't, rail against the others and say that they lose business to them because they can't compete.
So, is it possible to reconcile both sides of the equation? And if so, how?
With any luck, congressional legislation will provide a framework within which employers can operate their businesses with the workers they need in a lawful manner.
Such legislation will need to address:
Border security. There is no question that in this post-9/11 age, America's borders, north and south, must be made more secure.
Temporary workers. Although former Sen. Alan Simpson has said that there is no such thing as a “temporary” worker in the United States, some immigrants say that they would prefer to work here for a while and then return home. It is possible that if workers could come and go without fear of reprisal, more would choose this option.
Immigrants already here. Individuals who have been living in this country for some time—working, starting families, and putting down roots—should be given a path to citizenship.