Im­mi­grant work­ers

Har­vey un­der­scores the need to fix our bro­ken sys­tem as Hous­ton re­builds.

Houston Chronicle - - WORLD -

As most bor­der res­i­dents will con­cede, the Rio Grande is a rel­a­tively mod­est stream, nei­ther great nor grand com­pared to, say, the Mis­sis­sippi or the Nile. A lat­ter-day Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton would have no trou­ble hurl­ing a sil­ver dol­lar from one bank to the other.

To hear bor­der-se­cu­rity ob­ses­sives tell it, though, the Rio Grande is a ver­i­ta­ble River Styx, the dread­ful bound­ary be­tween Earth and the fifth cir­cle of Hell (to bor­row from Dante). For Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s po­lit­i­cal base, it’s bet­ter to wall the river off, politi­cize and mil­i­ta­rize it, than risk death, dan­ger and con­tam­i­na­tion from the fright­en­ing other side.

What the would-be bar­rier builders are re­luc­tant to ac­knowl­edge are the his­toric ties — cul­tural, eco­nomic and fa­mil­ial — that vault the river, that strengthen and en­rich both the United States and Mex­ico.

Of course, we need to pro­tect our bor­ders. We must com­bat Mex­i­can drug car­tels, hu­man traf­fick­ers and other dan­gers, and, yes, we need to cur­tail un­doc­u­mented im­mi­gra­tion. But to ac­tively work to cut vi­tal ties that bind the peo­ple of neigh­bor­ing na­tions, whether it’s dec­i­mat­ing NAFTA, un­der­cut­ting the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram or en­forc­ing anti-sanc­tu­ary city leg­is­la­tion, makes lit­tle sense. Whether it’s Pres­i­dent Trump’s ill-in­formed bor­der blus­ter or White House ad­viser Steve Miller’s dark “Amer­ica First” dreams, anti-im­mi­grant ef­forts hurt this na­tion.

Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, Hous­ton’s need for la­bor in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. Even be­fore the hur­ri­cane had its way with this city, 69 per­cent of Texas con­trac­tors were hav­ing dif­fi­culty find­ing qual­i­fied peo­ple to hire, as Todd Hitt, CEO of a Vir­ginia-based pri­vate eq­uity firm, noted in the Wash­ing­ton Post re­cently.

An es­ti­mated 200,000 Hous­ton homes need ex­ten­sive work or com­plete re­con­struc­tion. “Who will build these houses?” Hitt asks. “What about the com­mer­cial in­fra­struc­ture and pub­lic schools, high­ways and bridges that also sus­tained so much dam­age?”

As Hitt points out, we’re fac­ing a

na­tion­wide prob­lem, one that Har­vey merely ex­ac­er­bated here in south­east Texas. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Home Builders, 77 per­cent of U.S. builders can’t find enough peo­ple for their fram­ing teams. Sixty-one per­cent can’t find enough dry­wall in­stal­la­tion work­ers. The num­ber of con­struc­tion jobs avail­able in the United States rose in June and in­creased again in July.

Hitt echoes a warn­ing lo­cal con­struc­tion-com­pany owner Stan Marek made in the Chron­i­cle last month. “Be­fore Har­vey, we were fac­ing an ex­treme short­age of work­ers,” he said. “I don’t know where we’re go­ing to get the work­ers, le­gal or un­doc­u­mented, to re­build our city.”

Work­ers who are liv­ing in the U.S. with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion are es­ti­mated to con­sti­tute half the state’s con­struc­tion work­force and are vul­ner­a­ble to abuse and ex­ploita­tion with­out le­gal re­course, Marek said. Har­vey un­der­scores the need to fix our bro­ken im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem — if, that is, Congress and the pres­i­dent are in­ter­ested in so­lu­tions rather than scape­goat­ing. We’re try­ing to func­tion with a deeply flawed im­mi­gra­tion model, circa 1986. Doesn’t it make more sense to cal­i­brate la­bor sup­ply with de­mand by re­work­ing our visa sys­tem? Shouldn’t la­bor­ers with skills we des­per­ately need have op­por­tu­ni­ties to legally work in this coun­try, as long as they’re not dis­plac­ing Amer­i­cans?

As U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., pointed out in a New York Times opin­ion piece, our sys­tem also should make room for those whose pri­mary skill is the will­ing­ness to do unglam­orous and of­ten ex­cru­ci­at­ing work — “mov­ing sprin­kler pipes, dig­ging ditch, chop­ping hay or keep­ing a bro­ken-down feed truck run­ning for just one more year.”

In Flake’s words, “these Amer­i­cans by choice are some of the most in­spir­ing Amer­i­cans of all.”

Hous­ton needs work­ers. In the midst of our need, it’s only fair that we’re at the fore­front of ef­forts to fix a flawed im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem. We have an obli­ga­tion to bring the un­doc­u­mented out of the shad­ows.

Work­ers who are liv­ing in the U.S. with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion are es­ti­mated to con­sti­tute half the state’s con­struc­tion work­force.

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