Field trip for a reminder in compassion

I found myself walking around a few construction sites last week at the invitation of a local contractor who has often disagreed with some of my political views in the paper. He wanted me to see and talk to some guys who are working hard and making money but feeling the pinch from competitors who use undocumented workers in the local constructions trades. My takeaway is that most of these guys didn’t feel deep animosity toward individual workers but they don’t appreciate the economic impact of the overall undocumented worker factor. Those “illegal” workers are having a negative impact on their ability to be here and be part of the community.

I couldn’t tell who was “legal” and who wasn’t, if anyone was, at the places I visited. None of the guys I talked to said there was a tidal wave of undocumented workers in the valley, but all said the influx of such workers was a factor and becoming more of an issue as the construction boom continued. I met some guys who travel from the San Luis Valley every day for work where they can make upwards of $22/hour compared to the $12/hour, or so they say is the going rate in their hometown because of the downward pressure caused by undocumented workers. They were employed by a boss who refuses to hire undocumented labor.

My “host” said everyone in the local trades knew who in the valley used undocumented workers and who didn’t. Those who did could undercut legit bids and pocket more profit at the expense of employees. All of the guys I spoke to said they have worked around people at both ends of the valley who came up illegally from Mexico for the jobs and the good wages. They described crews of men who work for well under the market wage but can live super-cheap in cramped quarters and send money back down south. They understand the appeal but are frustrated that it keeps their wages down and they say they can’t live in the same conditions if they want a house and family.

They made it clear that they were basically asking that people really check to make sure people on the job were legal citizens. And if that didn’t happen, they hope that at least the people who defend undocumented workers have the same level of compassion for legal workers trying to make a go of it in this valley that they have for the undocumented workers who are here looking for a better life but doing it illegally. Understandable.

The refrain I heard more than once was that if no one was going to seriously stop undocumented workers from competing for jobs in the valley, then general contractors who hire undocumented workers should do it on a level playing field. Contractors should pay the market wage to everyone, so every blue-collar worker can make a living wage. Make it a fair deal. Their sentiment was that they agreed with Trump’s efforts to tighten up the border to make it harder for illegals to get in to this country. “Let them come here legally and then get the job,” they all said. “Pay the market wage” to the painters and dry-wallers, the laborers and the roofers, so that the rich people building second homes in our pretty well-off valley don’t get a deal that saves them thousands of dollars at the expense of the average blue-collar worker trying to live here.

The guys I talked to were all making a decent wage. The concern was that they were starting to feel squeezed by forces outside of their control and that was frustrating and a bit scary. The concern was that they ultimately wouldn’t be able to afford a decent middle class life in the valley. The concern was that they would have to leave because having a house and family doesn’t allow them to cut the same corners with living expenses as their competition. They are feeling concerned and it was good for me to hear that.

When there is more work than there are people, no one really notices the impact of the undocumented workers. Everyone is making money in the construction boom and while wages might be slightly impacted, time is money and everyone gets a job. When the building boom pulls back, those who have the cheapest bids will get the jobs and sometimes those cheap bids come because undocumented workers can live three to a bedroom at a smaller hourly wage than a guy with a mortgage, a wife and three kids to feed. That could replace a long-term member of the community with a transient laborer here simply for the money.

So it was a good field trip for me. I appreciate the idea of these guys reminding us all that if we have compassion for those fleeing a horrible life and trying to tap into what to them is great pay—we should have compassion for the average blue-collar Working Joe trying to make it on the up-and-up in a valley where it is expensive to have a house and family. Why should the rich people building a second home save some money while the working stiffs pay the price of that savings through a lower paycheck? I understood that as I listened last week.

I have always understood the logic and need for border security. I think it could be done better than it is being done now. Congress could require businesses to use the E-Verify system, which seems to be pretty effective. More judges dealing with undocumented workers could be better funded, as could the system to hear cases of people looking to come here legally. Incentivize people to go through the proper channels. At the same time, I have also understood the reasons so many people want to get up here and out of neighborhoods filled with poverty and violence to start earning money and living a better life. So don’t cut off U.S. aid as Trump has threatened, making their home country even a less desirable place to stay. It seems both goals could be better attained.

Whatever the case, I appreciate the reminder that having compassion for some should spill over to having compassion for all—including those trying to make a living in the trades on the up-and-up.

—Mark Reaman

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