Volume 45, Issue 8 - October  2006

Across the Border

Building Product Companies Sound Off About Immigration Reform
by Samantha Carpenter

Immigration reform is a controversial subject for the building products industry. SHELTER found that out when it contacted subscribers to get their opinions on immigration reform and how it would affect their customers’ and their own businesses.

Requiring Proper Identification
A large number of those who responded said that immigration reform would not affect their businesses because they currently do not have illegal workers work for them.

Some companies research the immigration status of their employees extensively; other’s don’t. 

Steven Johnson, general manager of Nelson Truss Inc. of Edgerton, Wis., says, “We require a valid and fully-completed I-9 form, which requires two forms of ID including a valid social security card that can be verified through the government website, driver’s license, green card, birth certificate, etc.”

“We have not had to deal with this issue in many years. Our corporate office is very strict on its manufacturing plants having workers that have IDs that are valid,” says Mike Mask, who’s in sales with Loxcreen Co.

“We have not had to verify legality for employees to date, regardless of their ethnic background,” says one SHELTER subscriber that wishes to remain anonymous. “We do require social security information, current and past address information, past employers, military records/information if any, birth date, etc.”

And some companies have a system of checks and balances as well as specific rules for foreign nationals they employ.

“There is no resource or agency to verify if an individual is domiciled … I am 100-percent certain that the people that work for me are U.S. citizens. We have to send their names to the insurance company for verification of driver’s license,” says Andy Hann, owner of Fountain Hills Door and Supply of Fountain Hills, Ariz. “We require that workers be able to communicate in English. [There are] too many dangerous machines in the business. We must have clear, concise communications. No hand gestures.”

Yet, it comes down to a glance—and even then, it can be hard to verify every single worker’s legal status.

“The problem today is that it is very difficult for an employer to identify false documents,” says Kurt Hutton, chief financial officer and executive vice president of Shelter Products Inc. of Portland, Ore. “Our customers are construction contractors and subcontractors. Given the stringency of labor laws on the West Coast, it’s likely that their employees all have documentation. The question is, ‘How many of those documents are genuine?’”

Potential Courses of Action
The immigration debate has culminated in two Congressional bills. The House of Representatives first introduced bill 4437, the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Reform Act,” in December 2005. The passage of this bill would make it a felony to be an undocumented worker or to assist an illegal immigrant. It is this bill, which also includes provisions for the mass deportation of 11 to 12 million people, that sparked protests across the country. 

In May 2006, the Senate passed the more moderate bill 2611, the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act” (CIRA), which proposes a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants. 

The CIRA legislation creates a tiered system for the nation’s illegal immigrants, dividing them into three categories:

  • Those who have lived in the United States for at least five years (estimated at 7 million people) would be offered eventual legal residency without having to leave the country. They would be required to pass national security and criminal background checks and pay a fine and prove they have paid all federal and state taxes.
  • Illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for two to five years (estimated at 3 million people) would have to travel to a U.S. border crossing and apply for a temporary work visa. They would be required to meet all stipulations for temporary workers (pass background checks and pay any taxes owed), but would be eligible for permanent residency and citizenship over time. It is estimated it would take members of this group up to ten years to receive a green card under this program.
  • Those here less than two years, estimated at approximately 1 million, would have to return to their countries of origin and apply for a temporary work visa from their home country, though they would not be guaranteed acceptance into the program.

Both the House and Senate bills include plans for increasing border security, including building a fence at strategic points along the U.S.-Mexico border and increasing funding for border patrol staff. Both bills also include stiff penalties for employers who employ undocumented workers knowingly.

House and Senate committees are still working to combine the two bills into one the entire Congress can accept.

The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) advocates a guest worker program that allows immigrants to apply for temporary work in this country legally as long as they meet other standards while in the United States. Those standards include learning English, paying outstanding and current taxes and undergoing background checks. 

“The security of our nation’s borders requires that we address not only the desire of immigrants to come into our country to work, but also the need our economy has for these employees,” says ABC national chairperson Jack Darnall. “Any type of immigration reform package that fails to include this important element will not fully meet the nation’s most critical needs.”

“This reform package is critical to our nation’s safety and economic health,” says National Association of Home Builders’ president and home builder David Pressly of the Senate’s broad-based immigration bill. “S. 2611 would achieve a number of important national goals. It would protect our country’s proud heritage as a nation of immigrants, enhance our security and support our economy by helping to keep America working.”

Workers in Question
Since the immigration reform subject has become so prevalent, many companies have reexamined the immigration statue of their workers, and firing them has affected their business. 

“I know one of our customers that had to let several workers go because they could not furnish valid IDs which created some problems for him for several weeks until he could fill those slots,” says Mask.

“To the extent that some companies have employees who are working under the guise of false identification, those employers will be affected by immigration reform to the extent that the reforms require reverification of documentation …,” says Hutton.

“Many of our customers are homebuilders and the current legislation could affect them since there can be a lot of minority immigrant workers laboring in construction. For us, our customers’ issues with immigration legislation affects them, and their production of homes directly affects us in our ability to ship product (roof trusses) to them,” says Johnson.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, “Estimates show that there are a total of 7.2 million unauthorized workers in the U.S. and more than 2.5 million of them, or 35 percent, arrived between 2000 and 2005. Unauthorized workers, as a whole, make up nearly 5 percent of the U.S. labor force. Short-term unauthorized migrants account for just under 2 percent. The short-term unauthorized are concentrated in a few sectors of the economy. More than a million are employed in the construction and hospitality industries.”

Samantha Carpenter is editor of SHELTER magazine

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