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What Immigration Reality Looks Like for Workers

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As the debate about illegal immigration rages at the national level thanks to the vitriolic rhetoric of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, it's high time for all of us to take a look at how the broken system is negatively affecting people right here in our own community.

My entire career has been spent in construction, so I've been perfectly positioned to see how this mess has evolved over the past few decades. Rather than rehash arguments I've made previously - arguments I will continue to make in the future - I'd like to share with you the story of a young woman whose experience is all too common here in Southeast Texas.

After giving a speech to a class of graduating seniors in construction science at Texas A&M, I was approached by a young Latina who had just completed a yearlong internship with a construction company in Houston and would soon be starting her own career in the industry.

She appeared to be a hard-working, ethical young woman who was in a quandary. She wanted my opinion about a situation that had unfolded before her eyes on a project where she had spent several months as an intern.

This student was working for an electrical contractor on a very large project. The general contractor is one of the largest in town and has an excellent reputation for quality and safety on its job sites.

Despite that, the story she told is disheartening.

One of the major subcontractors on the job had hired a staffing company to provide manpower to supplement their own hourly workforce. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. There are many staffing companies that do an outstanding job.

But there's a difference between what is essentially a temp agency in construction versus "labor brokers," which typically find undocumented people to work on job sites for very little pay with none of the protections enjoyed by legal residents.

That's exactly what was happening, the woman said. Workers who were being abused approached her because she spoke Spanish and they hoped she would relay their concerns to the people in management positions who only spoke English.

According to the workers, the crew for the subcontractor building the interiors of the project had a total of 60 people, 45 of whom worked for the labor broker. No surprise to me, there was a huge disparity in their pay.

The workers for the labor broker admitted to her that they were undocumented and were making $14 per hour while the 15 documented workers were getting $22 an hour for doing the exact same work. Also, they were asked to work overtime because the job was behind schedule, but they were not offered the time-and-a-half received by the legal workers.

The safety director for the interior contractor gave the undocumented workers their checks every Friday.

With the knowledge of what these men were going through, the young woman felt a great weight on her shoulders to do the right thing but didn't feel she could approach the general contractor or her own employer for help. After all, her own employment opportunity could vanish if she rocked the boat. She felt simultaneously terrible for their plight and helpless to do anything about it.

Unfortunately, there isn't much the student could do about it on her own. No, we all need to come together - Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals and independents - to create an immigration system that puts an end to this kind of abuse.

A robust guest worker program that couples technologically advanced tamper-proof ID cards with the mandated use of E-Verify would give employers some certainty that applicants are eligible to work and pay taxes. It would also give workers needed protections in situations like the one described by the frustrated young woman who shared her story with me. Unethical employers should be run out of business if they routinely engage in wage theft and ignore our wage and hour laws.

The practices described by the student are commonplace in Texas and elsewhere. The status quo cheats the workers, who are caught in the shadows and exploited at every turn, as well as the rest of us who carry more of the freight when unethical companies dodge payroll taxes by paying people under the table.

This article was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.

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