Housing Slump Takes a Toll on Illegal Immigrants
April 17, 2007
Many Mexican workers toiled on farms on the West Coast until they got construction jobs several years ago. But building jobs dried up in October.
By EDUARDO PORTER
HURON, Calif. Some of the casualties of Americas housing bust are easy to spot up and down Californias Central Valley.
Unemployment Statistics May Not Tell the Whole Story
From Fresno to Sacramento, big tangles of wire and PVC pipes clutter vacant lots in silent subdivisions, waiting for houses to be built some day. Dozens of For Sale signs already dot the lawns across new residential communities. And right next to the ubiquitous billboards from builders are fresh signs offering homeowners help to avoid foreclosure.
But another set of losers is less visible: the immigrant workers, mostly illegal, who rode the construction boom while it lasted and now find jobs on building sites few and far between.
Offering more than $10 an hour as well as new skills and a shot at upward mobility, construction provided many illegal immigrants the best job they ever had, a step up from the backbreaking work reserved for those toiling without legal authorization, which in the Central Valley mostly meant pruning and picking in fruit and vegetable fields.
The growing presence of illegal immigrants in home building, mostly working for small labor contractors, might help explain why government statistics have recorded only a small decline in construction employment, despite the collapse in residential investment.
Technically they dont fire them, said Myrna Martnez, coordinator for the Fresno office of the American Friends Service Committee, a nonprofit organization working on social assistance projects for immigrant workers. They just tell them that there is no more work.
As building jobs have grown scarce, many of the workers who left farm labor a few years ago are returning to where they came from. They can be seen once again hunched in clusters under the unremitting sun, cutting heads of lettuce or slicing off spears of asparagus for minimum wage, clinging to the hope that home building will resume again.
If another construction job comes up, Ill go there, said Cresencio B., a former Mexico City policeman who arrived illegally in the United States in 1991.
Cresencio B. toiled on farms up and down the West Coast until he got a job cutting wood segments on a construction crew two years ago, making about $11 an hour. But building jobs dried up in October. In early April, he was in a tomato field nearby, brandishing his hoe for $7.50 an hour, clearing out the weeds and the leftover garlic sprouts from last years crop.
(The Times is using only the first name and last initial of the workers.)
There are quite a few in this situation, Ms. Martnez said. This construction boom that started five or six years ago just suddenly started to fall apart.
Illegal immigrants played a big if quiet part on the supply side of Americas housing boom. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington, immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries account for about one in five construction workers. Those who arrived since 2000 who are likely to be unlawfully in the United States because they had virtually no way of immigrating legally account for an estimated 7 percent of the construction work force.
They were mostly pulled in by the building frenzy of the first half of the decade. According to the analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, based on census data, Hispanic immigrants took 60 percent of the million new construction jobs created from 2004 to 2006. Those recently arrived took nearly half.
While there are no equivalent statistics at the state or local level, a glance at a construction crew anywhere in the valley confirms the overwhelming immigrant share. There are only Mexicans, said Adrin L., an illegal immigrant from Oaxaca who does interior work on homes here. Now not even the supervisors are American.
Like no other job, construction allowed many immigrants a shot at the American dream. After more than five years in construction, Adrin L. was making $25 to $35 an hour leading a 15-strong team for a company building new tract homes in the Central Valley.
Farther north, construction work also allowed Jos Manuel J. to aspire to a better life. An illegal immigrant from Guanajuato State in Mexico, he left the fields to sweep construction sites eight years ago. By last year he was making $25 an hour running a small crew laying roofs. He got a mortgage and bought a home in the United States. He bought land and built a house in Mexico.
For Cresencio B. a construction job meant his wife, Marta M., could afford to stay home and care for their 2-year-old son, ngel.
But when home builders stopped building, they stopped calling. Hoe in hand, Marta M. is back at work these days, hacking alongside her husband at the weeds in a tomato field from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. ngel is left in the care of his 18-year-old sister.
Unemployment Statistics May Not Tell the Whole Story
Adrin L. and Jos Manuel J. have resisted going back into the fields, making do with piecemeal work: putting up a roof here, re-tiling a bathroom there. But they are near the end of the line. If work doesnt pick up, Jos Manuel J. said, in May I am going to have to go to pick in the cherry crop.
The nations great housing bust has not shown up so far in official employment data. According to the Labor Department, employment in residential construction has declined by only 28,000 jobs or some 3 percent since its peak last fall.
It is sort of surprising that construction employment numbers havent gone down more already, said David F. Seiders, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders. Im not sure about the quality of the data.
The statistics seem to belie the debacle that has overwhelmed home building. In February, there were 15 percent fewer homes under construction and 27 percent fewer homes started than in the corresponding month of 2006. In California, 42 percent fewer building permits for new residential units were issued in February than a year earlier.
Because we have fewer homes sold, we have slowed down the building of various phases in some communities, said Joel H. Rassman, chief financial officer for the home builder Toll Brothers, which expects to deliver 6,000 to 7,000 homes in 2007, down from 8,600 in 2006. We have delayed the start of some communities, and we are letting less work out to our contractors.
Mr. Seiders suggested that reported employment might not be falling as starkly as other statistics because builders do not employ construction workers directly. Instead, they use subcontractors to build different parts of a development. These often use labor contractors, who may also turn to subcontractors to fill their crews.
Jos Carlos J., Jos Manuels nephew, has not formally lost his job as a roofer. But the contractor he works for has hardly called him in recent months. Since November Ive laid only four roofs, he said.
Most of the workers disgorged back into the fields are in a similar situation. Milling about in a park near downtown Stockton after work on a recent afternoon, Jos Manuels brother, Raymundo J., who is the foreman of a crew picking asparagus near Stockton, pointed to several former construction workers from his hometown in Mexico who are now in the field.
There was his other nephew, Roberto, who used to tear roofs down for $15 an hour, and Manuel S., who used to spray stucco on houses in the San Francisco Bay Area. Antonio R. lost a $14-an-hour job cutting wood last October. Chuy R., who got a job wiring homes immediately after arriving in the United States in May 2006, lost it at the end of the year.
They all hang on to the hope that construction will rebound. Most fear, however, that times will never again be as good. Said Jos Manuel J., I dont think building houses will pick up for several years.
The growing season is barely starting in the Central Valley. Demand for farm workers will peak in the summer, at around 450,000. But many growers are concerned that tight border controls will continue to cut deeply into their labor force and that, as happened last year, crops will be left to rot in the fields.
Still, as farm workers once lured into construction are returned to the fields, there are signs that the labor supply on some California farms is increasing.
Luawanna Hallstrom, chairwoman of the California Farm Bureaus labor committee and general manager of Harry Singh & Sons, a large tomato grower north of San Diego, noted that more workers were showing up at greenhouse nurseries than last year.
She pointed out that the lull in construction, combined with the frosts this year that devastated the states citrus crop and part of the nut crop, are freeing workers for other farms.
Theres an opportunity for some areas in agriculture to attract labor who would have been doing other agricultural jobs or tied up in construction, Ms. Hallstrom said.
The immigrants agree. There are too many people for too little field work, Jos Manuel J. complained. People are scattering up to Oregon and further north because there is little work here.