Immigration Directive Adds to Construction Gamesmanship

How the reordering of immigration law could help - and harm - the industry.

Mon December 08, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

President Obama’s arbitrary reordering of immigration law will have both negative and positive impacts on the construction industry. Primarily it will make the cynical business even more cynical.

“If you ask the contractors, all of their workers are documented,” a Florida equipment dealer said about the situation a few days after Obama announced his immigration directive. If that indeed is true—the dealer clearly was skeptical—an influx of undocumented workers into construction is not likely to occur. What is more likely to happen is that the sector’s work force will become more legal as workers come out of the shadows. That’s good.

On the other hand, it is reported that illegal workers who now formally register their presence in the county will have an advantage over documented workers: They will not be eligible for Obama’s health care law. In a shining example of unintended consequences, the law lets employers save money by openly hiring the quasi-legal immigrants without paying the Obamacare fee. That’s bad for documented workers.

The other downside to opening the doors to millions of heretofore illegal workers is that U.S. citizens as well as documented immigrants now will have to vie for jobs with people willing to work for less. Construction unemployment has dropped over the last year as the industry began to get back on its feet. The lateral movement into the market of these newly empowered workers—many of them from agriculture—will change unemployment dynamics.

Cesar Chavez, the famous leader of the United Farm Workers four decades ago, said it was the responsibility of the U.S. government to keep illegal workers out of the country and out of the workforce. It was as true then as it is now that a shadow workforce plays havoc with a labor market. Many construction industry employers hire furtively and otherwise take advantage of the turmoil because they are able to do so; business, after all, is business.

Cynical government policies leave industry employers no choice but to play the game by the rules given them, but don’t call it progress.

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