A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Texas Lawmakers Are Told Rebuilding After Hurricane Harvey Hampered by Immigration Policies

Finding workers to rebuild homes and other structures damaged or completely destroyed by Hurricane Harvey this year on the Gulf Coast is a challenge compounded by the fact that the United States does not have a way for undocumented residents to gain legal status. 

That was the message from builders to lawmakers at a recent hearing held in the Texas Senate. 

Via reporter Jeremy Wallace in the San Antonio-Express News

Now the number of jobs could double because of the rebuilding needs after Hurricane Harvey, said Scott Norman, executive director of the Texas Association of Builders. While there are a lot of steps that need to be taken to deal with the shortage, one piece is clearly immigration policy, he said.

“We need comprehensive immigration reform,” Norman told the Texas Senate Committee on Business and Commerce last week. “We need a guest worker program that works.”

Currently, Congress has set a cap of just 66,000 for temporary worker visas — known as H-2B visas — for the types of temporary workers that the construction industry needs. But only a fraction of those visas goes to construction trades.

Norman said the number of work visas issued for the construction trades nationwide is not enough to handle the home-building demand in Houston alone — an area that is producing 30,000 new homes a year.

The problem is not just that lawmakers in Washington have not addressed the nation’s immigration laws since the 1980s. The challenge for Texas is made worse by the passage of Senate Bill 4, the state’s new “show me your papers” immigration crackdown that’s now being challenged in court. 

There was already an “extreme” shortage of workers in Southeast Texas prior to Hurricane Harvey, said Stan Marek, President and CEO of MAREK. 

“Now that we have this terrible catastrophe, I don’t know where we’re going to get the workers to rebuild Houston.” During a discussion held at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston back in September, Marek said the construction industry’s challenge in finding a robust workforce will be much different from the aftermath of previous disasters like Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

On top of the message sent by Senate Bill 4, an improving economy in the rest of the country means there’s more construction work underway in other states, giving many undocumented people even less incentive to relocate to Texas. 

Many workers, documented and undocumented, have refused to show up on Texas construction sites following the passage of Senate Bill 4, fearing local police will round them up.