As part of a burst of activity on Day One of his new administration, President Joe Biden has called for sweeping changes—through a presidential directive and proposed legislation—to overhaul federal immigration policy. These would include a new path to citizenship for undocumented workers and a strengthening of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
There are estimated to be tens of thousands of undocumented employees in the construction industry.
Biden on Jan. 20 signed a presidential memorandum directing the US Dept. of Homeland Security to take actions to “preserve and fortify" DACA. The program provides a temporary shield against deportation for Dreamers, undocumented people who immigrated to the U.S. as children and since then have studied and worked here for years.
The DACA program withstood Trump administration attempts to end it and scored a U.S. Supreme Court victory. But a Biden administration background document, explaining the reason for the new directive, states that “those opposed to DACA continue to challenge the program, threatening its continuance.”
Biden also proposed comprehensive immigration legislation, which would let undocumented people apply for temporary legal status—a green card—after five years, if they clear criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes.
Under the proposed bill, Dreamers—along with individuals who have Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and certain immigrant farmworkers would be on an even faster track—would be eligible for green cards right away.
TPS applies to immigrants to the U.S. from countries such as El Salvador and South Sudan that have experienced armed conflicts, hurricanes or other natural disasters or epidemics.
The Associated General Contractors of America, which has supported a path to legal status for undocumented workers, is “intrigued and notionally supportive” of Biden's immigration plans, Brian Turmail, an AGC spokesman, said in an interview.
Turmail says Biden's proposed path to citizenship “goes a little bit further than where we’ve been, but we’re certainly open to the idea.”
He says AGC would like to see immigration legislation also include a program providing temporary work visas for immigrants seeking employment in construction.
Jimmy Williams, a general vice president at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), says the Biden directive and proposed legislation are “enormous steps in the right direction for the construction workforce in general.”
In particular, Williams sees benefits for construction workers under TPS. “They can breathe a big sigh of relief,” he said in an interview. Because of Trump administration TPS rollbacks, Williams says, “These workers have been working in fear, for the last few years, of deportation because they were working in the ‘shadows.’ ”
IUPAT has many members in the TPS program. He says that in California and the MidAtlantic region, “We've had local unions that were 90 to 95% TPS recipients.”
Williams doesn't think temporary visas have been used “appropriately” in industry. He says they are often tied to individual employers. “We've seen horrible, horrible examples” of individual employers who apply for visas on behalf of workers. “I can tell you horror stories of things I've seen, where workers are forced to live in man-camps.”
He adds, “I've seen armed guards escort workers to a job site. Nobody knows what [the workers] are getting paid.”
Williams suggests that an industry-wide visa program might be a possibility, but adds that it should be tied into Davis-Bacon or other prevailing-wage programs.
Williams says that what's needed is federal legislation for comprehensive immigration changes.
Turmail says AGC also would like to see a bill enacted “that provides at minimum a path to legal status for undocumented workers” plus a construction work visa.
But, he says a comprehensive bill is “a heavy lift.” Many immigration proposals have been floated on Capitol Hill over the years, with no success.
“We've been down this road many times in the last 20 years,” Turmail notes. “Just about every stone and pebble is hiding a mine on this issue.”
One inauspicious signal came from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). just hours after Biden talked about unity in his inaugural address, McCarthy issued a statement saying that “it's unfortunate that the first legislative plan that will be sent to Congress by President Biden, along with one of the first presidential actions, will prioritize help for illegal immigrants and not our fellow citizens.”
Story corrected on 1/21/2021 to say that AGC of America has supported a path to legal status. ENR's original version incorrectly had said "a path to citizenship."