Building America: The immigrant construction workforce
President-elect Donald Trump has already pledged to make immigration one of his top-three policy priorities, a promise that will continue the contentious debate over immigration that endured throughout the election season. Lost in that debate, however, has been the value of immigrants’ economic contributions.
Immigrant workers at all educational and skill levels play a central role in building our economy. Construction work is a tangible illustration of this role, with immigrant workers often performing dangerous low-paying jobs. We should recognize the contributions of these workers who are vital to our economy.
Construction work has been a historical launching pad for immigrant communities going back to the 19th century and the formation of the German-Speaking Framers’ Union in New York and subsequent Irish and Italian labor rolls in the 20th century.
Today, the political and economic context and immigrants’ national origins differ from a century ago. But the persistent importance of immigrant workers has been noted by the construction industry, particularly in reducing the costs of building and maintaining our country’s primary capital assets.
About 2.2 million construction workers are foreign born, making up roughly one quarter of the US construction workforce in 2015. A larger share of foreign-born workers is in the cleaning and maintenance sector and in the agricultural sector, but their numbers are smaller. Only about 450,000 agricultural workers were immigrants in 2015.
Construction work has long played a critical role for the immigrant community as a fundamental employer, a skill-building opportunity, and a source of entrepreneurialism. Nine percent of foreign-born workers in the United States work in construction and extraction occupations. Over 15 percent of immigrant men work in construction, making it the sector with highest employment of immigrant men.
The immigrant share of the construction workforce has been consistent—and consistently high—over the past decade despite the Great Recession and the global construction downturn. In some areas of the country, such as the Southwest, all work crews are immigrants.
This trend is even more pronounced in some hazardous occupations, like construction laborers, roofers, and drywallers. By some counts, nearly one in four fatally injured immigrant workers in the United States is employed in the construction industry.
Immigrant workers often face disparate treatment in other ways. In major metro areas, for example, median earnings are $45,000 for US-born workers in construction trades and $27,000 for immigrant workers. At the more detailed occupational level, immigrants made the same as US-born construction workers in only a handful of metro areas. As in other sectors that employ many immigrants, skill levels are often attributed to immigrant workers regardless of the individual worker’s previous experience, knowledge, and capacity, characteristics that can be masked by language and communication barriers and that are often exploited. Workforce systems are remade to enforce skill levels and subsequent compensation in ways that crowd out jobs to nonimmigrants. That is particularly true in cyclical industries like construction when demand is high.
The working conditions for immigrant construction workers are complicated by many workers’ lack of legal status. The proportion of foreign-born construction workers who are undocumented immigrants in the formal construction industry (including day laborers) and those working in informal construction activity (like neighborhood handymen) varies by sector and geography. Trump’s hotel in Washington, DC, employed undocumented construction workers in 2015, though Trump has listed “turning off the jobs-and-benefits magnet” among his strategies to reduce the flow of undocumented immigrants.
In construction occupations requiring lower skill levels than others, undocumented immigrants arguably depress wages. This makes construction more affordable, but leads to pay disparities between US- and foreign-born workers. Undocumented construction workers often face wage theft and occupational safety violations throughout the country.
But the past has shown us that there are many bright lights for immigrant construction workers. The social networks fostered in these occupational niches often lead to increased awareness of hiring opportunities and to organizing. Technical expertise developed from years of hands-on experience often yields higher supervisorial, management, and even professional-level advancement. Workforce participation in construction has also led to entrepreneurialism and the growth of small businesses. Today’s construction laborer is often tomorrow’s trade and construction company owner.
Construction work in this country—viewed as increasingly immigrant—has always been immigrant. Regardless of the future, evidence demonstrates how immigrants are building this country—literally.
Construction workers help carry a huge American flag in a march to the Metropolitan Detention Center during one of several May Day immigration-themed events on May 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Demonstrators are calling for immigration reform and an end to deportations of undocumented residents. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images