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Enterprise and Ambition

11 Apr

By Michael Berryhill

Michael Berryhill, chair of journalism at Texas Southern University, was commissioned by “Places Journal,” an online publication sponsored by university architecture programs, to write about Houston and inequality. He focused on the Houston nonprofit organization Neighborhood Centers, which is nationally recognized for its work to improve the lives of immigrants. This excerpt on the politics of immigration is part of a 9,000-word essay, which can be found at

It’s been a rough year for immigrants in the United States. Donald Trump set the tone last summer when he kicked off his presidential campaign by casually slandering Mexican immigrants as drug runners, rapists, and scabs who should be thrown out of the country; later his target shifted to Muslims. Republican presidential candidates fought over who most vehemently opposes a path to citizenship (or “amnesty”) for undocumented migrants, with Houston’s Ted Cruz taking the hardest line.

Locally, the climate is friendlier. Immigrants boost the Houston economy, and business leaders almost unanimously favor immigration reform. Still, the city is segregated by race and income. The census map looks like a broken mirror, with white, black, and Hispanic shards radiating from the center. Immigrants face challenges including unequal access to affordable housing, education, health care, and high-paying jobs. What they have going for them is enterprise and ambition.

I’d argue that there is no better place in North America than Houston to pursue a new way of life. While northern cities such as Cleveland and Detroit have contracted, the Houston area is growing phenomenally, from 4.7 million people in 2000 to 6.3 million in 2013. Much of that growth comes from foreign-born immigrants, who make up 22 percent of the population. (Among major cities, only Los Angeles and Miami have a larger share.)

What makes this city a magnet for immigration, both domestic and international, is an abundance of jobs. Nearly all major oil and gas exploration and production companies have headquarters or subsidiaries here, along with hundreds of firms engaged in biodiesel production, renewable energy, chemical manufacturing, pipeline transportation, global shipping, international finance, and small manufacturing in the first dozen years of the century, the Houston metro led the nation by adding 530,000 jobs. And despite the decline in oil prices, there is still demand for workers with what are called “middle skills”: carpenters, welders, electricians, plumbers. Not a restaurant meal gets served or a hotel room cleaned without immigrant labor, and most new homes are built by immigrant subcontractors.

And yet despite healthy job growth, Houston’s economic mobility is below average. Texas ranks near the bottom of states in caring for poor children, the mentally ill, and the disabled. Eva Deluna, a budget analyst at the nonprofit Center for Public Policy Priorities, said, “Texas is always low in state spending. We do very little – for very few people.”

One of the great mysteries of American politics is that anyone regards immigrants as a drag on public welfare. In truth, nobody moves to Houston for the social safety net, which barely exists. Jobs are the safety net.

Stan Marek understands the immigrant dream as well as anybody. His father and uncles emigrated from Czechoslovakia and founded Marek Construction shortly after World War II, and he worked his way up from union carpenter to owner. Now it’s one of the biggest firms in Houston, but Marek can’t find enough skilled workers. He is an outspoken advocate for immigration reform, on moral as well as economic grounds.

Several years ago his company was audited by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Marek had to dismiss workers whose documents didn’t pass muster. “We had a thousand people, and we had all their I-9s in order,” he said, “but we had 150 people whose names didn’t match their Social Security numbers.” He called Houston’s foremost immigration lawyer, Charles Foster, for advice. “He told me, ‘You can go to jail or you can fire them.’ ”

So Marek let go a tenth of his workers. But they were not deported, he said. They simply went to other construction firms – his competitors – where they worked off the books, classified as subcontractors rather than employees. Subcontracting is the key to keeping undocumented immigrants in the workforce. Middlemen can charge the main contractor $18 an hour and pay laborers $10 an hour, with no health insurance, no retirement or disability benefits, and no workers’ compensation insurance. (Unlike other states, Texas does not require companies to join the state plan.)

Often there is little job training and minimal safety measures. If workers fall off a scaffold because there is no railing, they are taken to emergency rooms for treatment, and the county picks up the tab. If they die in a workplace accident, their families are paid off for as little as $10,000. Undocumented relatives are afraid to complain.

“It’s a social justice issue,” Marek said. “I’m a Catholic and it’s not right. It’s about safety. It’s criminal, but it happens every day.” He observed that nannies, home care workers, janitors, and others are also misclassified as contractors for low wages and no benefits.

The business case for immigration reform is clear. According to a study by the Greater Houston Partnership, an estimated 132,000 undocumented workers in the area earned $7 billion in 2008. If they were employed on the books and paid their full share of Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, and federal income taxes, they would have added $1.4 billion in state and federal revenue. That’s not counting the multiplier effects of economic growth. A recent statewide study estimates that the undocumented workforce generates a net 3.3 million jobs and a net $33 billion in government revenue.

Of course, undocumented immigrants pay state and city sales tax at the rate of 8.25 cents on the dollar, and they pay property taxes indirectly through their rent. Some pay income tax, hoping that a clean record with the IRS will help them gain legal status when Congress comes to its senses. Nevertheless, a lot of public money is falling through the cracks. Immigration reform would not only ease legal risks for employers but would provide revenue to cover the social cost of population growth.

Undocumented workers and their families do place a burden on the health-care system, but it’s not drastic. The former head of county hospitals told a reporter, “The undocumented population is a lot healthier than the average citizen of Harris County. They’re younger. They’re working hard jobs. When they’re in our hospitals or clinics, they’re not getting paid. So it’s not they’re coming to this country for health care. They’re out there working. Eighty percent of the volume of our undocumented is women and children.”

He complained that while anybody can buy home and car insurance, the Affordable Care Act does not allow undocumented people to purchase medical insurance, leaving them with few options for pregnancy and childbirth. Hospitals are further burdened because Texas, along with 23 other Republican-led states, has refused to accept billions of dollars of Medicaid money provided by the Affordable Care Act.

With so many Texan business and union leaders and Republican politicians supporting immigration reform, it’s surprising the state hasn’t been able to create change at the national level. Houston’s Charles Foster, the immigration lawyer Marek consulted, has advised three presidents (George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama) and former presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Foster said he had an immigration reform policy ready to launch early in George W. Bush’s first term, but the 9/11 attacks stopped it.

By the time Bush was ready to try again, he had made the mistake of trying to privatize Social Security and didn’t have enough political muscle to advance a bipartisan bill. Then the recession hit, and the Tea Party backlash prevented congressional action under Obama. After Romney’s defeat, the “adults” in the Senate (as Foster called them) drew up a reform bill that would pass in the House if only the speaker would put it up for a vote, but that never happened.

Reform will have to wait for a new administration.