A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Undocumenting Our Interests

Originally published in the Houston Chronicle.  Reprinted with permission.

As someone intimately familiar with the economic realities of the situation, I am quite disappointed by the immigration arguments made by the Texas Attorney General’s Office before the United States Supreme Court last week.

Regardless of your position on President Obama’s executive action protecting immigrants from deportation or the State of Texas’ claim that driver’s licenses for them would be an unfair burden, one fact is inescapable: they are here and they are not going anywhere.

An estimated 2.5 million are in Texas and many of them are doing a majority of the construction work, usually for low wages and under dangerous conditions. They’re also cooking our food, mowing our lawns, cleaning our buildings and performing many other necessary tasks.

Why are our state officials ignoring the fact that once many of Houston’s 600,000 undocumented immigrants are protected from deportation, they would have to start paying more taxes like the rest of us?

Every credible independent study on the subject has shown that undocumented immigrants are a net benefit to the Texas economy. The only state-conducted study on it, back in 2006, found they boosted the Texas economy by $17.7 billion and have not been a drain on state government. It’s been a decade since that Comptroller’s study. My suspicion is our leaders haven’t seen fit to do another one because the results would not be politically beneficial to them during election cycles in which Republicans compete with each other to appear as anti-immigrant as possible. That style of politics laid the groundwork for the rise of Donald Trump.

The relatively insignificant cost of issuing driver licenses would be minuscule when compared to the state and federal taxes these hard-working individuals would be forced to pay if they were granted legal status. Plus, we would finally know exactly who is here by requiring them to register with local and state governments.

Identifying immigrants and compelling them to pay taxes has been a mantra for some of us in the business community for years. Most members of Congress – Republicans and Democrats – feel the same way. So, why are we allowing the politics of the few to set the agenda for the entire nation?

Instead of arguing against our own interests before the highest court in the land, Texas should take the lead in solving the problem. In the last session of the Legislature, a bill was passed out of a Texas House committee to issue driver permits to undocumented immigrants. Governor Greg Abbott should sign that into law next year. It would be a good start.

In the construction industry, which I have worked in all my life, large numbers of undocumented workers are paid “off the books,” laboring in unsafe conditions with little to no safety training, working long hours on weekends with no overtime pay, and using the emergency room as their workers’ compensation provider. It sickens me and it is costing all of us taxpayers dearly.

None of this should be acceptable to anyone.

What we have long held as an honorable profession has been relegated to a commodity that some owners and contractors take advantage of. Sure, you can say it’s a government problem. They should solve the immigration mess. But somewhere along the way we all have to stand up and do what is right.