Action will heat up soon in the Senate on an immigration bill that may differ sharply from one the House passed in December. Construction officials, grappling with worker shortages, hope the final Senate version will include a provision to let immigrants stay in the U.S. temporarily, with an option to seek citizenship.

Foreign-Born Hispanics in Construction
# In Job
% In Job
Plasterers & stucco masons
Drywall & ceiling tile installers/tapers
Cement masons, concrete finishers, terrazzo workers
Grounds maintenance workers
Hazardous materials removal workers
Construction laborers
Painters, construction and maintenance
Brick masons, block masons and stonemasons
Helpers, construction trades
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Pew Hispanic Center; 2004 annual avg.

When the Senate Judiciary Committee starts debating an immigration measure March 2, its starting point will be a Feb. 24 proposal from Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). It has a temporary-worker program to allow foreigners to come to the U.S. for up to six years. They would need proof of employment and have to return home after visas expire. It also requires a federally implemented electronic employment-verification system for employers to use.

The House bill focuses more heavily on border enforcement and security. Associated General Contractors is encouraged that the Senate panel is taking a comprehensive approach. “We need some level of enforcement, but we can’t do that without addressing labor needs,” says Kelly Knott, congressional relations director for human resources and labor.

AGC and Associated Builders & Contractors back a “guest worker” plan so immigrants can fill skilled and unskilled jobs that U.S. citizens aren’t taking. “Our critics accuse of us of only wanting cheap labor,” Knott says. “Construction workers are earning $19.65 an hour. We’re not looking for cheap labor.”

AGC favors a plan with 400,000 new visas in the first year. Visas would span three years, with an option for three more. A worker could seek citizenship, but visa status would end if he or she were not employed for 45 days. ABC suggests workers with visas could apply for citizenship with a record of meeting all of the program’s provisions.

About 20% of U.S. construction workers are foreign-born and Hispanic immigrants filled 40% of new construction jobs in 2004, says Rakesh Kochhar, associate research director at Pew Hispanic Center, Washington, D.C.

Rene Garcia, commercial building division director for Zachry Construction Corp., says contractors in the San Antonio-based firm’s home area last year felt a labor squeeze, which tightened after the Gulf Coast hurricanes. “We’re struggling and concerned about how to meet the needs of the economy,” he says. “The issue is the need for additional labor. Should we get it from Mexico and who’s responsible to see that the workers are legal and tracked?”