How many of today’s $17-an-hour construction laborers are tomorrow’s $90,000-a-year project managers? During the partisan opera unfolding over immigration in Washington, D.C., the question is worth asking. It’s also a good time to re-emphasize that construction needs the 690,000 workers who were protected by the Obama administration’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy—and not just as a source of labor but also as the industry’s future high-skilled craftworkers, project managers, superintendents and project executives.
Statistics gathered by pro-immigration groups show that three out of four DACA recipients are employed and one out of five is in school but not employed. After the DACA protections were extended in 2012, recipients say their pay improved by an average of 45%, to an hourly wage of $17.29 an hour from $11.92. Most research shows that about one out of 10 DACA recipients works in a construction-related job, followed by restaurant employees. Almost half the DACA recipients live in California and Texas. The L.A. metro area has the most (89,000), followed by New York, Dallas, Houston and Chicago. Average age: 24.
Legal and illegal immigrants account for almost a fourth of all construction workers, reports the National Association of Home Builders, using data from the American Community Survey. Yet those 2.5 million immigrants are fewer than the number of workers in construction before 2007’s housing crash. The immigrants now working in construction are replacing the workers who exited the industry and have been slow or reluctant to return.
Immigration opponents recently have tried to chip some of the varnish from the image of the average DACA recipients as students, first responders and noble, family-minded people. They point out the immigrants’ comparatively low pay and claim that being “in school” can mean taking a single high-school class; further, many are still young and are not yet as “tied” to life in the U.S. as pro-immigration groups assert. If this population were subtracted from the labor force, legal residents doing the same jobs would become a more sought-after commodity and receive higher wages, immigration opponents say.
Of course, any group as large as 690,000 will include winners, losers and everyone in between. In construction, DACA recipients have been on the job for years. While the average hourly pay remains low, these workers are receiving the training and work exposure that prepares them for raises and supervisory roles. Some will blossom into organizational leaders rich in project management know-how. Should a compromise be reached that includes President Trump’s goal for border protection, these immigrants could find themselves working on parts of a border wall. Congress must put these valuable future citizens on the right side of any new barrier.