Immigration, both legalized and illegal, has long plagued American craftsman and has far-reaching implications that communities and federal, state, and local governments have yet to realize, according to those who have worked in the construction industry. “If you wait 20 years, you’re going to see what happens to all of these houses and buildings,” said Kevin Larsen, a veteran brick mason with 33 years of experience.
Larsen left his trade several years ago and now works at a railroad yard. He applauds the federal judge’s February 16 decision to halt President Barack Obama’s executive order that protects as many as five million immigrants crossing the border illegally from deportation.
Larsen said the federal government should have taken a tougher stance on immigration years ago. He is dismayed at the Obama administration’s reaction of continuing to prepare to accommodate the undocumented immigrants and the Department of Justice appealing the federal court’s order. “If you’re illegal, it’s easy for you to hide everything because nothing is questioned by the administration or questioned by the government,” he said. Meanwhile, millions of American workers have lost good jobs due to lack immigration policies. “I knew if I didn’t leave when I did that I wouldn’t be able to work at all,” Larsen said.
The former bricklayer said he recently talked with a longtime friend in New Orleans. His friend’s family owned the largest masonry company in the city. The company went out of business and his friend, who has 30 years experience, has not worked in a year. “He can’t get work,” Larsen said. “He is down to where all he has is electricity in his house. He had to sell his truck to pay the taxes on his house,” Larsen commented.
According to Larsen, problems in New Orleans began after a large immigration population settled in the city after Hurricane Katrina. Hispanic workers, who had no experience in construction or brick masonry, began taking all the work and agreeing to work for as little as $5 an hour. No legitimate company could compete, especially on large-scale projects that require larger crews.
Larsen said the same scenario is playing out in major cities across the country. In Atlanta, where he worked in construction, contractors started hiring no one but undocumented immigrants. He said he was turned away from two jobs, a museum and baseball stadium, with the foreman telling him they would only hire Hispanic workers. Moreover, e-verify laws have done little to relieve the situation, Larsen said. In many cases, construction companies have figured a way around them.
As is the case with many instances of illegal immigration, the undocumented workers give the contractor bogus identification, Social Security number, and other documentation. The employer submits it through e-verify, which gives the employer 90 days leeway to work with immigration before a decision is made. If the e-verify is declined, the employer informs the undocumented worker they must obtain proper documentation in order to continue working.
Larsen said the workers often buy more bogus papers and turn them in so that the 90-day cycle begins again. Under current immigration policies, Larsen commented that this situation could continue indefinitely. Moreover, Larsen said that contractors are starting to suffer as much as craftsmen because illegal immigrants are figuring out ways to become contractors instead of just maintaining worker jobs. “If they have a brother or cousin who is a legal citizen, they simply put the business in his name.” According to Larsen, contractors’ greed is now returning to hurt their livelihoods. “They all thought they were going to get rich by hiring all the illegals. It’s biting them in the butt because the illegals are becoming contractors and now they can’t find work.”
Larsen also said another consequence of immigration is that many buildings built back in the 1980s and 1990s are already starting to deteriorate because the undocumented workers involved in the projects did not perform their jobs to basic standards. Many of those construction flaws went undetected because of lax state laws regarding inspections. One prime example of such error is all the bricks on Atlanta’s Olympic Village had to be replaced because of construction flaw. Moreover, local governments owning these substandard buildings will end up paying for significant repairs, which will subsequently fall on taxpayers.
Larsen attributes these construction flaws to not only immigration issues, but also a lack of training and experience. In many cases, most undocumented workers have no knowledge of craftsman trades like brick masonry, carpentry, and drywall. “Brick laying is a craft. It’s an art. It’s not something you can teach someone in a short period of time. It’s a trade. You have to learn that trade,” Larsen enthused.
Opinion By Melody Dareing
Personal Interview With Kevin Larsen