Whatever we do about illegal immigration, somebody suffers


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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Jan 30, 2008 09:44 PM

Let's not forget that wages started to stagnate back in the 1980's and when Reagan broke the unions. And not blame it all on the attractive nuisance that construction work has become for immigrants.    Back in the 1930's the Governor of Colorado massed state troopers at the New Mexico state line to stop immigrants into Colorado. U.S. citizens!   The Governor of New Mexico called out the New Mexico National Guard and gave that plan the 'what for!'      Let's not forget that George Bush has so devastated our economy that we can't get along without immigrants that work cheap. Let's vote the greedy warmongers out and make changes in our country so we don't have to be afraid of our neighbors. 

Jan 31, 2008 03:11 PM

      What much of the discussion about mass illegal immigration into the US leaves out is that average Americans have a right to have immigration laws that their representatives enacted decades ago enforced.  And we know that by scanning visas and putting persons that do not check out on watch lists down to the local police level, and jailing employers who hire illegals will stop illegal immigration without building a 100 billion dollar wall or turning the USA into a police state for law abiding Americans.  Also if one cares about the environment who we might call 'other species citizen' residents (wildlife) of the US have a right not to be annihilated by continual population growth in the USA.  As older Americans know who have talked all their lives with formerly mostly legal immigrants to this country, most hardship in countries of origin were and continue to be the fault of corrupt brutal elites and unbelievable discrimination WITHIN these societies.  The current excuse that NAFTA or the World Bank are responsible for all the problems in Mexico and else where is nonsense as daily news reports about Mexico and many other developing countries indicates.  Mexican officials on one hand brag that they have the lowest tax rates in the world and then we see in the press that Mexico has the third highest number of billionaires in the world.  Evidently there is a lot of work to be done within developing countries and bailing out for the USA is not going to get it done.

     What needs to happen to alleviate the suffering of Mexicans and other developing country persons is for the 100's of thousands of hard working and ambitious persons who annually come here to stay home and march and agitate for significant political and social justice changes in Mexico.  We must be honest.  The current status quo of .5 million illegals moving into this country per year is supported by American business and our political class, because it can make massive profits by paying below living wages to 10's of millions of workers.  The insignificant numbers of people who can escape countries run by criminal elites does little to solve the problems that make them want to leave, and only acts as a 'political escape valve' that enables corrupt elites or families to stay in charge.

Winthrop Staples, Fort Collins



Feb 04, 2008 11:22 AM

Thank you, Phil, and thank you, HCN, for one of the few reasoned and
fair discussions of the immigration topic I have read. I am concerned
that he issue is not being resolved, or discussed as other issue because people with concerns are sometimes labelled "rascist" which rapidly
shuts off reasoned debate. Also, statementsare thrown around which many
people know not to be the case like "doingwork others won't do."
Anyone who has work that takes them to thenorthern tier states of the
U.S. , where local people are obviously doing all the work, has to ask
"why are these church leaders and politicians lying to me"? This
creates suspicion as to their knowledge of the topic and/or
straightforwardness about their motivations.

This topic so strongly calls for an open and fair discussion. This would include discussion of what happens to the legal immigrants if there is
amnesty for illegals, and is it right that people who broke the laws
get rewarded while the people who followed the laws are still waiting in line?.

Finally, the older among us remember when it as considered to be environmentally sound to limit our children so that here would be space and less impact on the environment. Are we now saying that native population growth is bad and immigration is
good, or are we now saying hat population growth does not stress the environment in any important way?

If e allow all the people currently here to be citizens, then their employers would be required to raise their wages and benefits to legal levels. Wouldn't there then be the "need" for construction folksto get new illegals to work at lower rates? And if our economy depends
on cheap labor that cannot pay for families to live here, then is there
ever an end to this cycle as long as other countries in the world are
suffering, or until our economy collapses?

We need to debate, discuss, ask questions freely and be compassionate for the potential winners and losers in all countries, including those who are taking the legal path
to immigration. I wish that we could take steps to encourage Congress to take that approach.

Seeking Solutions

Feb 04, 2008 11:22 AM

I'm not in an HCN Western state, but illegals in construction is also a HUGE problem here in Dallas. And, unlike claims about picking strawberries, house building, etc. IS work that native-born would do, if not deliberately undercut.


As for Mexico, it has increasing problems with its own illegal immigration from Central America. (More and more of the Hispanic illegals here in the U.S. are from places further south than Mexico.)


And, let's not forget that Chinese, Eastern European and other illegal immigrants are part of the problem, too.