The Voice of Reason

The immigration debate is charged with emotion. But some see a solution.

Mark L. Johnson / December 2018

Last March, during a panel discussion in Houston and later posted on RationalMiddle.com, political scientist Tony Payan, Ph.D., explained that it’s incorrect to say the nation is facing a crisis over immigration.
    
“There isn’t an immigration crisis. There really isn’t one,” said Payan, director of Mexico Center at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. “It is a manufactured crisis.”
    
Four years ago, Payan and economist William C. Gruben of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas studied national data on migration. Their 2014 paper, “‘Illegal’ Immigration on the U.S.-Mexico Border: Is It Really a Crisis?”, urged policymakers not to give in to “the moral panic that sometimes pervades the public narrative on immigration.”
    
AWCI members agree with that conclusion. Level heads are needed to provide a solution, they say.
    
“The answer to the whole immigration thing just has to be a quick and easy legal way to get people working, so that nobody has to be tempted to circumvent the system,” says Craig Daley, president at Daley’s Drywall & Taping, Inc., Campbell, Calif.

Moderating Views
Most Americans favor helping immigrants in this country. A national survey conducted in June by Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Americans would be willing to grant permanent legal status to immigrants brought to the United States illegally when they were children, such as the status conferred by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Only 20 percent oppose such policies.
    
Pew Research also notes that the proportion of Americans who favor increasing legal immigration into the United States has risen 22 percentage points, from 10 to 32 percent, since 2001. The share wanting to decrease legal immigration declined 29 points, from 53 to 24 percent, over this period, and 38 percent say legal immigration should stay at current levels. In other words, the views on immigration are moderating.
    
The Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry has a balanced point of view on the subject. AWCI updated its immigration policy in 2015. It calls for “the creation of a guest worker program,” while ensuring that “U.S. workers are not displaced by foreign workers.” AWCI recommends screening foreign workers to discourage illegal immigration, which would also strengthen national security. Ultimately, the association wants to help care for the “future economic needs for workers.”
    
“We’re all for enforcing that workers are legal,” Daley says. “But, on the other hand, we want to make it easy to be legal.”
    
Thus, AWCI’s board of directors supports “a clear, sensible reform of the immigration system” that “practically addresses undocumented workers already in the United States.” The question arises: Why not legalize the 10 million to 11 million undocumented immigrants who already live in the United States, most of whom could start paying taxes?
    
“It just makes sense,” says Stan Marek, CEO at Marek in Houston. “They have been here a long time. They have skills. They may not have a lot of safety training, but they are very employable.”

The Rational Middle
Marek has several practical ideas for dealing with the immigration problem.
    
“Those [undocumented immigrants] who’ve been here five years, or maybe three years, could come in and get a background check,” Marek says. “If you pass, you get a photo ID, are entered into E-Verify, and you can go to work for an employer who pays payroll taxes. We’ll treat you like a guest worker.”
    
Such a solution, he says, represents the middle ground on immigration. It boosts government coffers by increasing tax payments and protecting the country, but also gives employers a new labor pool from which to draw.
    
Marek was approached by filmmaker Gregory Kallenberg and former Houston Chronicle columnist Loren Steffy over a year ago with the idea of using a middle-of-the-road approach to addressing immigration.
    
Kallenberg gained recognition in the business world after he directed and produced the 2009 film, “Haynesville: A Nation’s Hunt for an Energy Future.” From 2012 to 2014, Shell Oil Company and Center for Houston’s Future sponsored Kallenberg’s next project, a series of 21 short films called “Rational Middle Energy Series,” which explained oil and shale gas exploration in a straightforward way.
    
“[The energy industry] used the films very successfully in communities where they were going to drill,” Marek says. “We needed to try this approach with immigration.”
    
Now, Kallenberg and Steffy have produced a new documentary series of films on immigration. The films are presented by Center for Houston’s Future. Marek is a director on that non-profit’s board.
    
“We contracted for 10 videos at $500,000, about $50,000 an episode,” Marek says. “We have six on RationalMiddle.com, each on a different aspect of the immigration issue.”
    
The films educate voters on the middle ground of immigration while also providing cover for politicians scared of alienating their constituents, Marek says. And, the message of the rational middle is gaining attention in Texas, he says. Without the benefit of any coordinated marketing campaigns, the first two “Rational Middle: Immigration” films—”The Burden of a Broken Immigration System” and “The Immigrant’s Promise”—garnered 250,000 views online within the first six months of their release, he says.
    
“And now, we’ve raised $1 million for a marketing campaign that will start in Texas and, hopefully, move across the country,” Marek says. “The construction industry in Texas is solidly behind it.”

Stuck in Limbo
Construction companies rely on immigrant workers. The National Association of Home Builders says foreign-born workers comprise about 25 percent of the U.S. construction workforce. The figures are higher in California (42 percent), Texas (41 percent), New York (37 percent), Nevada (37 percent) and Florida (35 percent). By trade, plasterers and stucco masons have the largest share of immigrant workers (54 percent), according to the NAHB’s analysis.
    
But, what lies ahead for these immigrant workers?
    
The White House has announced its intention to revoke the Temporary Protected Status policy, Commercial Observer says. This would affect 30,000 construction workers receiving TPS.
    
Also, the viability of DACA remains in question. An estimated 70,000 DACA participants work in the construction industry, Commercial Observer says, which is 10 percent of the 700,000 individuals whose work permits were renewed under the program. Thus, DACA workers are stuck in limbo. DACA’s renewal remains a point of conflict in federal courts and in Congress, and President Donald Trump has officially rescinded the program. It is “alive, barely, a year after Trump ended it,” CNN said in September.
    
(Editor’s Note: On Nov. 8, 2018, a federal appeals court ruled that the Trump administration cannot end DACA. The Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to review the injunction.)
    
AWCI members say this is all counterproductive.
    
“We need to take the [proverbial] gun away from every Hispanic’s head,” says Rob Aird, president of Robert A. Aird, Inc., Frederick, Md. “They live in fear of being shipped out of the country.”
    
More threats to immigrants came in October when President Trump said he would sign an executive order that would end the right to citizenship for the children of non-citizens and unauthorized immigrants born on U.S. soil. The president’s authority to strip citizenship with an executive order is unclear, and it would certainly set off a long legal fight. While he had not followed throughwith the executive order at press time, the announcement stoked plenty of emotion, and it rallied the president’s political base a week before the midterm elections.

The Fix
Can immigration be fixed? Sources suggest two elements could and should be put in place:
    
1. Proper identity verification. Current federal law requires employers to complete Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification. The I-9 enables firms to verify an employee’s identity and employment authorization. But according to e-verify.gov, participation in the E-Verify program is voluntary (unless the company has federal contracts). By being a voluntary program, E-Verify lacks teeth. Names and Social Security cards can easily be forged. So, some feel the Social Security card technology should be upgraded, and they suggest further that the United States use facial recognition technology, as other countries do.
    
“We need to document that you have a job, that you’re paying your taxes, that you’re paying your Social Security, and that you are otherwise a good citizen without a criminal record,” Daley says. “That shouldn’t be such a burden to get [done].”
    
2. A legal pathway to work. A legal work pathway does not have to be permanent, nor must it necessarily lead to citizenship. It just needs to set an individual up for paying payroll tax. Perhaps undocumented workers would pay a fine for having entered the United States illegally or for overstaying their work authorizations.
    
“Let them pay a $5,000 fine, but give them legal status so they can go to work, pay taxes and quit worrying about being deported,” Marek says.
    
Other programs, such as a viable guest worker program, could be added later. But for now, put undocumented immigrants to work legally, and have the identification and work authorization protocols functioning at the job-site level, sources say.
    
“You can’t solve the problem until we can hire the men away from the labor brokers,” Marek says. “Those guys would rather work for me—40 hours a week with overtime and safety training. But until I can hire them, labor brokers will keep proliferating.”

What’s at Stake?
Economies grow as their populations grow. The addition of workers fuels economic demand. Those workers will buy things, and that drives additional production output and more jobs.
    
Right now, construction demand is high. And, many AWCI members could take on more work if only they had access to more qualified workers.
    
“We have the capability of getting more volume, and we’re turning work down every day,” says Daley, whose company has a payroll of 500 to 600 construction workers in the Bay Area. “If it was easier to hire, we could see a 20 percent increase in volume easily.”
    
Unfortunately, the politicians lack consensus on what to do, and typically focused on party politics.
    
“The Trump administration wants to stop legal immigration as well as illegal immigration. They don’t want immigrants to be voters,” Marek says. “They want to limit the potential for the Republican party to lose future elections.”
    
However, America needs more workers. The infrastructure and other construction needs of this country are only going to increase. Immigrant workers can fill in the gap.
    
“The Chinese built the railroads. The Irish built our early skyscrapers. We’ve always relied on an immigrant work force,” Marek says. “This is a bad period that our country is going through. I hope we survive it.”

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing communications consultant. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.

SIDEBARS

34 Million Are Legal. Nearly 34 million immigrants are living legally in the United States. And, nearly 20 million are naturalized citizens (immigrants granted U.S. citizenship), Pew Research Center says. To become citizens, immigrants must live in the United States as legal permanent residents (or green card holders) usually for five years, while also meeting other requirements.

Democrats vs. Republicans. While the political landscape on immigration is polarized, most Americans favor programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which grant legal status to immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. when they were children. According to a national survey conducted in June by Pew Research Center, 89 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents favor this policy. In contrast, 54 percent (the majority) of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters support such legal pathways for undocumented immigrants raised in the United States. Only 36 percent of Republicans oppose such a policy.

The Economics of Immigration. The 2016 Foundation Research Series paper, “Immigration: A Solution to Workforce Shortages,” from the Foundation of the Wall and Ceiling Industry, presents the economic reasons why immigration reform could help the construction industry complete more projects. The comprehensive report addresses the topic of employing undocumented immigrant workers. It discusses the convoluted, restrictive immigration system and explains the deleterious “shadow economy” created by unscrupulous labor brokers. You can download the paper here: www.awci.org/foundation/research.