It’s 6:30, and I’m eating breakfast at a café north of Denver with a man I’ll call Bob. Born and raised in Denver, Bob sprays custom finishes on drywall and has owned his own company for 18 years: “At one point we had 12 people running three trucks.” Now, the business is just his wife and him: “Things have changed.”
What’s changed is immigration. When he started 25 years ago, Bob says, the construction business employed almost all native-born workers. Today, estimates of the number of immigrant workers in northern Colorado range from 50 percent to 70 percent of the total construction workforce. Some trades, like pouring concrete and framing, use immigrant labor almost exclusively. Come in with an “all-white” crew of framers, another small contractor tells me, and people do a double take.
Bob’s an independent contractor, bidding on individual jobs. “Guys are coming in with bids that are impossible,” he tells me. After all his time in the business, “no way can they be as efficient in time and material as me.” The difference has to be in the cost of labor. “They’re not paying the taxes and insurance that I am.” Insurance, workmen’s compensation and taxes add about 40 percent to the cost of legally employed workers. When you add the lower wages that immigrants are often willing to take, there’s plenty of opportunity for competing contractors to underbid Bob and still make a tidy profit. He no longer bids on the big new construction projects, and jobs in individual, custom-built houses are becoming harder to find.
“I’ve gone in to spray a house and there’s a guy sleeping in the bathtub, with a microwave set up in the kitchen. I’m thinking, ‘You moved into this house for two weeks to hang and paint it, you’re gonna get cash from somebody, and he’s gonna pick you up and drive you to the next one.’”
In this way, some construction trades are turning into the equivalent of migrant labor. Workers don’t have insurance or workmen’s comp, so if they are hurt or worn out on the job, they are simply replaced. Workers can be used up, and the builders and contractors higher up the food chain can keep more of the profits for themselves.
“The quality of life has changed drastically,” says Bob. “I don’t want to live like that. I want to go home and live with my family.”
Do immigrants do the jobs Americans don’t want to do? I ask. “My job is undesirable,” Bob replies. “It’s dirty, it’s messy, it’s dusty. I learned right away that because of that, the opportunity is available to make money in it. That has served me well.” But he now travels as far away as Wyoming and southern Colorado to find work. “We’re all fighting for scraps.”
Over the years, Bob built a reputation for efficient, quality work, as I confirmed in interviews with others in the business. That was enough to secure a good living. Now, though, like another man I interviewed who recently folded his small landscaping company -- “I just can’t bid ‘em low enough” -- Bob is thinking of leaving the business.
He doesn’t blame immigrants. “If you were born in Mexico and you didn’t have enough food or clothing, you would do the same thing,” he tells me. “You would come here.”
What I’ve learned by doing interviews with construction workers on Colorado’s Front Range confirms what economists studying the issue say: However we tackle immigration, there will be winners and losers. If we reduce immigration levels, then good people in Mexico and Guatemala and elsewhere will have to forgo opportunities to make better lives in the United States. If we enforce our immigration laws, then good people like the illegal framers, concrete workers and electricians I’ve met will have their lives turned upside down.
Meanwhile, if we fail to enforce our immigration laws -- perhaps granting illegal immigrants amnesty, for good measure -- we forfeit the ability to set legal limits to immigration. And if immigration levels remain high, hard-working men and women like Bob and his wife will continue to see their wages driven down, increasing economic inequality in our society.
No option is particularly appealing. But this is what we face, and that, I have come to believe, is the beginning of wisdom on the topic of immigration.
Philip Cafaro is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an associate professor of philosophy at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he is researching a book on the ethics of immigration.