Will Texas And Florida Really Need Immigrant Labor To Rebuild?

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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As Texas and Florida begin the arduous journey of rebuilding in the wake of devastating hurricanes, immigration advocates and some business groups are insisting that a surge of immigrant labor will be needed to do the job.

The claim is based on a supposed nationwide labor shortage, particularly in the building industries. As evidence for the shortage, journalists frequently cite the National Association of Home Builders, which says that three-quarters of its members are experiencing moderate to severe difficulty in finding enough carpenters, drywall installers, framing crews and other construction workers.

In an editorial published Thursday, the Houston Chronicle picked up on those claims, arguing that bringing “undocumented [immigrants] out of the shadows” is the best way to furnish the city with the workers it needs to rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. The Chronicle quoted a local construction company owner, who worried if there would be enough immigrants to hire:

“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.”

Houston won’t have to look very far, says Steve Camarota, the research director at the Center for Immigration Studies. As it turns out, Texas is home to hundreds of thousands of low-skilled, native-born men who are currently not in the labor force.

Camarota crunched data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ current population survey and found that, in the first half of 2017, there were 559,000 native-born men ages 18 to 29 without a college degree not working in Texas. The story was much the same in Florida, which had 367,000 similarly situated men.

These unemployed men constitute an enormous pool of potential workers that could be hired for building jobs in Texas and Florida without resorting to guest worker programs or illegal immigrant labor, according to Camarota.

“The large amount of federal funding that is likely to flow to these states for rebuilding efforts offers a real opportunity to retrain and draw some of these young men (and women) into the labor force,” he wrote Thursday in a blog post.

Groups calling for more immigrant workers in the rebuilding effort often emphasize the construction industry’s dependence on cheap foreign labor. The American Immigration Council (AIC), a nonprofit funded by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, reported last month that immigrants occupy about 40 percent of construction jobs in Texas and about 30 percent in Florida. As builders gear up to replace destroyed homes, offices and schools, they will have no choice but to keep hiring immigrants to meet the extra burden, AIC claims.

“Immigrants — documented and undocumented alike — will be desperately needed for these recovery efforts,” the group wrote in September.

Camarota disputed that assertion, noting that a total of 260,000 native-born Americans already work as carpenters or construction laborers in Texas and Florida, with thousands more that could be recruited from prime working-age men who are out of the labor force.

“Bringing in foreign workers is one of the main ways immigration lawyers make their money, of course, so it is not surprising that they would disregard the enormous number of Americans who could be put to work in these states doing hurricane cleanup and rebuilding,” he wrote.

‘The idea that no American does this kind of work in these states is simply wrong,” Camarota added.

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