By Stan Marek
As the flood waters left behind by Hurricane Harvey begin to recede around our great city, the questions of how to rebuild and who will do the work are top of mind. Following the passage of a ban on “sanctuary cities” in Texas, we were already faced with a quickly depleting workforce. Many construction workers, both documented and undocumented, have begun fleeing our state because they’re concerned local police will start rounding up immigrants.
With a massive rebuilding effort set to get underway, the need is greater than ever for an alternative to deportations and a wall meant to keep out many of the very people who will be responsible for restoration of the Gulf Coast.
When Tropical Storm Allison devastated Houston in 2001, causing $9 billion in damage, thousands of workers — many of whom were unauthorized — flocked to our city to help with the rebuilding. Many were exploited by unethical employers who refused to pay them. Very few were covered by accident insurance and could only receive emergency room treatment if they were injured.
But they were here and they got the job done. Today, the situation is different.
Texas is no longer seen as a welcoming place for immigrants without papers. The “sanctuary cities” ban that was set to take effect this month sent a clear message: If you’re undocumented, you are not welcome. Thankfully a court has blocked enforcement of the law for now.
On top of that, a recovering economy in the rest of the country means there is so much construction underway in other states that many workers will not see an advantage to leaving those places and traveling to Houston.
So how will we rebuild our city?
First, we need to find a way to attract our own kids into the construction industry. That will take a higher starting wage and the prospect of a career instead of just a job. Parents always want better for their children. Proper training and a safe working environment are essential. Many contractors in the Houston area have started the process through an initiative called the Construction Career Collaborative.
Meantime, the fastest and most permanent fix is to find a way to grant the roughly 600,000 undocumented people the Houston area some type of legal status. Many business leaders in Houston and around Texas have been advocating for a common-sense plan called “ID and Tax.”
Simply put, the government would offer legal status to anyone who’s resided in the United States for a certain number of years, consents to a background check and receives a tamper-proof photo ID. Once it’s been shown they have committed no felonies, they would be required to work for a sponsoring employer who pays and matches payroll taxes and provides accident insurance. This is similar to the arrangement for anyone who utilizes a work visa.
All of this would move us in the right direction.
I’m afraid it will not work, though, unless Republicans and Democrats in Congress along with the Trump Administration find the courage to make the Dream Act a permanent solution for the 800,000 who have signed up for protection.
These “Dreamers” took the risk of giving all their personal histories to a government that is now considering deporting them. There is no way the undocumented in our city are going to trust the government until something like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, becomes law. President Donald Trump’s announcement this week that DACA will end in six months is unfortunate. But hopefully it will put pressure on Congress to do the right thing and fix the law.
Even if Congress acts, it will be difficult to gain the trust of our immigrant communities. But the promise of legal status and the ability to get a Texas driver’s license, as well as be a part of the communities in which they live, will begin the process of building trust.
Another benefit of legal status is that law enforcement would have hundreds of thousands of extra eyes and ears that otherwise would be afraid to report criminal activity in their neighborhoods, doctors and nurses could identify who they are treating with reliable medical records, and our schools would see many more parents willing to show up and become involved in their child’s education.
Employers like myself would find the employees we need to rebuild this city — not with labor that will be exploited because of immigration status, but with legal workers paying taxes and protected with insurance.
It’s a win-win for the city and our undocumented population.
Please write or call your member of Congress before they could vote to approve funding for building a wall and instead tell them to help us rebuild Houston through common-sense immigration reform.
Let’s ID and tax the undocumented people in our country as soon as possible.
Marek is president and CEO of Marek, a Houston-based specialty subcontractor with operations in eight states.