Volume 7, Issue 8 - September 2006

Immigration Reform 
If proposed legislation goes through will there be workers available to run the machines, to keep the plant running?
Find out what manufacturers think of the proposed legislation before Congress and the impact it may have on their businesses. 
by Megan Headley

Immigration can be a controversial topic. DWM found evidence of this in the reluctance of many door and window manufacturers to comment on how they feel about immigration issues—from nationwide protests to Congressional bills—that have been much in the news lately. But, as in other industries, many fenestration manufacturers are hearing multiple languages being spoken on the shop floor—and are consequently also hearing more about the pros and cons of immigration reform. 

The Melting Pot
Bob Pecorella, president of Northern Building Products in Teterboro, N.J., says he can’t imagine sitting down at a conference table with his employees and hearing only one language crossing the tabletop. While he says that his diverse staff does offer some challenges, he focuses on the positive aspects offered by the variety of backgrounds among the company’s 115 employees. 

“There are challenges, and there are some really remarkable things that come from having people join your family from different parts of the world,” says Pecorella. “We have people here in engineering applications that have remarkably diverse, educational backgrounds. I think that’s one of the reasons we can do so many of the things that we do.”

Pecorella says that many of the foreign born-workers he employs come to him “with real education in their background.” 

And while Pecorella admits “language is always a barrier,” cultural differences provide unique perspectives for employers. 

Alan Levin, president of Northeast Building Products in Philadelphia, notes that many of the workers at the company are from Puerto Rico and speak English. 

“Language barriers … we don’t find too much of an issue here,” he says. “Even when there is a non-English speaker, there is always someone who can translate.”

He stresses that workers are not “penalized” for not speaking English, but are placed with someone who can assist them. 

The Challenges of Immigration
While bringing together people with broad cultural perspectives can offer employers benefits, there are also some very real challenges manufacturers must face when it comes to immigration. In particular, Joe Le Vangie, testing technician and project manager at Deceuninck North America of Monroe, Ohio, points out that small door and window manufacturers do find themselves competing with companies that hire illegal workers. 

“My family is among several small business owners who are in the building arena. We employ only legal immigrants and/or people with a legal work status. Other small businesses, body shops, mechanics and family-run farm operators that I know locally do the same thing,” says Le Vangie. “These people work hard at their jobs and some of them are extremely talented craftsmen. Competition from unscrupulous companies that hire illegals at low wages takes advantage of lax enforcement of our laws.”

And for employers, verifying whether workers are in the country legally can be a challenge. 

“Getting two pieces of identification is probably the biggest challenge for legal and illegal workers,” says Levin. 

He adds that even when he can get two pieces of identification, “We really can’t verify whether they’re giving us counterfeit pieces.”

As Le Vangie explains, companies that hire illegal workers do not have to spend money on health care, vacations and other benefits—and that means there is no protection offered to these employees. 

“If a contractor hires illegal workers and the individual gets hurt on the job, who pays for the medical expense? What compensation will be paid to the worker who is incapacitated? Is compensation paid to survivors of those who suffer fatalities in the course of their work?” asks Le Vangie. “What protection does an illegal have if someone does not pay him fairly or demands a kickback as part of his employ?” 

He adds, “The reality of the situation is, for many citizens, our high taxes pay for the benefits we generously provide.” 

Potential Reform
More than 20 percent of the current residential construction workforce nationwide is comprised of foreign-born workers, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). Similar questions are being asked of their employers and coworkers, and especially the immigrant workers caught in the middle of the heated debate. 

The debate has culminated in two Congressional bills. The House of Representatives first introduced bill 4437, the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Reform Act,” in December 2005. It was the passage of this bill—which would make it a felony to be an undocumented worker or to assist an illegal immigrant, and which called for the mass deportation of 11 to 12 million people—that sparked protests across the country. 

In May 2006, the Senate passed the more moderate bill 2611, the “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act” (CIRA), which proposes a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants. 

The CIRA legislation would create a tiered system for the nation’s illegal immigrants, dividing them into three categories:

  • Those who have lived in the United States for at least five years, estimated by the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) at about 7 million people, would be offered eventual legal residency without having to leave the country. They would be required to pass national security and criminal background checks and pay a fine and prove they have paid all federal and state taxes.

  • Illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for two to five years, approximately 3 million people, would have to travel to a U.S. border crossing and apply for a temporary work visa. They would be required to meet all stipulations for temporary workers (pass background checks and pay any taxes owed). They would be eligible for permanent residency and citizenship over time, and it is estimated it would take up to 10 years to receive a green card under this program.

  • Those here less than two years, estimated at approximately 1 million, would have to return to their countries of origin and apply for a temporary work visa from their home country, though they would not be guaranteed acceptance into the program.

Both the House and Senate bills include plans for increasing border security, including building a fence at strategic points along the U.S.-Mexico border and increasing funding for border patrol staff. Both bills also include stiff penalties for employers who employ undocumented workers knowingly.

House and Senate committees are still working to combine the two bills into one the entire Congress can accept.

The “immigration reform” bills have caused nearly as much discussion as the problems they address. 

“I believe that it is time to overhaul many of our laws,” says Le Vangie. “Companies that are proven to hire illegals should face felony charges. The law which automatically makes any person born in the United States a citizen should be rescinded. Health care for illegals should be provided only on the basis of the recipient of the care will be deported after treatment (most of the charges are high enough to constitute a felony if we did not pay them).”

Le Vangie says he strongly opposes making undocumented workers legal. 

“It would be better served to work with foreign embassies and agencies to increase the legal immigration,” he says. “I do not oppose legal granting of work visas, if there were controls in place to minimize the risk to U.S. citizens and guarantee workers rights to those who are recipients of the visas.”

The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) advocates a guest worker program that allows immigrants to legally apply for temporary work in this country as long as they meet other standards while in the United States. Those standards include learning English, paying outstanding and current taxes and undergoing background checks. 

“We should make work visas simple to acquire and legally place the workforce,” says Le Vangie.

“I do believe in allowing a guest worker program,” adds Levin. “It’s hard enough to find people to do this work, and if we had to find just citizens to do the dirty work I think it would be very tough.” 

“The security of our nation’s borders requires that we address not only the desire of immigrants to come into our country to work, but also the need our economy has for these employees,” says ABC national chairperson Jack Darnall. “Any type of immigration reform package that fails to include this important element will not fully meet the nation’s most critical needs.”

Levin adds he feels “it would devastate the door and window industry” if immigrant workers were not available. And while he says immigration issues haven’t been a big problem for him in the past, he does know several other manufacturers who say that they’re worried. 

“This reform package is critical to our nation’s safety and economic health,” says NAHB president and home builder David Pressly of the Senate’s broad-based immigration bill. “S. 2611 would achieve a number of important national goals. It would protect our country’s proud heritage as a nation of immigrants, enhance our security and support our economy by helping to keep America working.”

One concern of manufacturers is that immigration reform would add to industry labor shortages. CIRA aims to address that concern with its path to citizenship and its guest worker program, both designed to keep an influx of immigrant workers coming into the country. Critics argue that the path to citizenship would reward illegal immigrants, while a program for accepting temporary guest workers would bog down an already overloaded system, making this one of many points of contention in Congress.

Pecorella says that even if the immigration reform laws pass Congress, he does not worry about seeing labor shortages. 

“I guess that our country has always grown on the backs of people who are coming in looking for a better way of life,” he says.

Megan Headley is an assistant editor of DWM. 

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