Builders fret over immigration laws

DALLAS — In the debate over how to fix the nation's immigration laws, few sectors have more at stake than the construction industry, one of the country's economic bright spots.

One of every four workers in construction is an immigrant, according to government statistics.

And as orders for new housing have soared over the past decade, the industry's future has become increasingly intertwined with that of the immigrant work force.

"There's a lot of demand for people out there, and [immigrants] know that and they want to work," said Javier Huerta, a Mexican immigrant who co-owns Carrco Painting Contractors in Garland, Texas.

For the past several years, construction subcontractors, the firms that perform the actual work, have been suffering from a shortage of workers, thanks in large part to the housing boom.

Now the industry faces a double whammy: a rebound in commercial and public-works building projects and the Hurricane Katrina rebuilding effort. Those developments are pinching the labor market even tighter.

More than ever, filling the labor shortfall will depend on tapping the flow of immigrants, both legal and illegal.

As a result, the construction industry is lobbying for policies such as a temporary guest-worker program and legal residency for some of the country's 11 million undocumented migrants.

"We believe the nation must do something sooner rather than later," said Danielle Ringwood, director of legislative affairs for the Associated Builders and Contractors, which represents 23,000 construction firms.

The group is warning that without the immigrant work force, construction would screech to a halt in the United States. It estimates that the industry will need 185,000 new workers over the next 10 years just to remain at current levels of growth.

The number of foreign-born construction workers has more than quadrupled over the past decade, government statistics show. Construction also employs more newly arrived undocumented workers than any other industry, according to figures from the Pew Hispanic Center.

On any given day, 117,600 mostly immigrant workers around the country either work as day laborers or are looking for such work, according to a recent survey.

"The immigrant work force is still keeping the housing market afloat to some extent," said Jerry Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Homebuilders.

Immigrants increasingly form the industry's backbone, taking on dangerous and grueling work often for less pay than native-born Americans would demand. In many instances, they're performing jobs that the native-born won't do.

Economists and construction firms say that new housing and office space would cost much more and take longer to build without these workers.

Though no one has come up with any national estimate of the size of the savings, a recent study found that the absence of Hispanic workers would have cost North Carolina, for example, up to $10 billion in lost construction-related revenue in 2004.

That includes up to 27,000 houses that would never have been built.

"A huge amount of our work force is immigrant," said Mitch Beckman, director of human resources for AUI Contractors in Fort Worth, Texas. "They know the trade and are willing to do the work."

Construction is the only goods-producing sector of the economy that is expected to add jobs from 2004 to 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That comes on top of phenomenal growth during the past decade, when average annual industry employment reached a high of 7 million workers in 2004, up from 5.3 million in 1995.

Unlike some firms that use so-called day laborers, AUI, which handles civil and commercial projects, doesn't pay its immigrant workers less than native-born Americans. It also conducts background checks on new hires.

Still, the company, which employs 265 workers, is anxiously awaiting the outcome of the political wrangling on Capitol Hill.

"Whatever side a piece of legislation is going to land on, it will have an impact on us," Beckman said.

From time to time, Bailey Family Builders hires Hispanic construction workers for jobs that it can't find native-born Americans to perform, said Thomas Bailey Sr., owner and president of the Plano, Texas, custom homebuilder.

The jobs involve such tasks as digging ditches and hauling trash. Usually the assignments last two weeks and pay $10 an hour.

Like other builders, Bailey favors a guest-worker program. "It would help us be more certain about what our costs will be for a six-, eight- or 12-month period," he said.

Even as companies scramble for workers, a growing number of immigrants are moving up the industry's ladder. Increasingly, they are forming firms of their own, employing other immigrants.

Twenty years ago, Huerta, of Carrco Painting, left Mexico City for Dallas, intent on building a more prosperous life.

The 38-year-old now runs a business that employs 97 workers, mostly immigrants who paint everything from hotels, hospitals and parking garages to Wal-Marts, schools and the Dallas police headquarters.