For a gringo working in the Fort Worth construction industry, sometimes it’s hard not to feel embattled by the legions of Mexican immigrants who saturate the work force.
They work as masons, plumbers, roofers, sheetrockers, metal building fabricators, framers, electricians, carpet-layers, ceramic tile installers, painters, landscapers, and more. They operate the chow wagons – and the formerly gringo-oriented fare is gradually being taken over by selections of tacos, burritos, and barbacoa. Even the port-a-potties, which used to be full of crude gringo graffiti and inane Anglo commentary are now filled with Mayan hieroglyphics and unintelligible (to some of us) musings in Espãnol.
For the record, let me say that it’s not true that Mexican immigrants are here doing only the jobs that we gringos don’t want to do. I like my job just fine, and there are plenty of Mexican immigrants after it. In fact, the supply houses I go to would be wise to hire bilingual counter attendants.
Is this a good thing or bad thing? I’m not sure. It depends on your perspective.
As a construction worker, I’m ticked off about the fact that the availability of so many Mexican immigrants keeps my wages ridiculously low. The cost of everything is going up, but the wage scales of some trades haven’t risen in 30 years. And there’s no chance they’ll improve as long as José Q. Immigrant is eager and willing to replace me for peanuts because he’s living with 30 other guys in a jefe-furnished double-wide. In fact, many Mexican immigrants are employed as contract labor and paid cash, which means they don’t even have to pay taxes.
I’m also ticked off about the fact that many competitors of the company I work for hire Mexican immigrants to keep their bids ridiculously cheap-so we can hardly compete with them. And finally, I’m also ticked off about the fact that many construction companies here in Fort Worth – many of the same folks who used to clamor so much about “buying American” – unblushingly hire immigrants instead of hometown help.
But illegal immigrants are not just infiltrating the ranks of the construction industry. They work in manufacturing, food processing, textile factories – anyplace where employers are looking for cheap labor.
If you’re a white-collar worker, I guess it’s OK to have Mexicans around to do the heavy lifting for a pittance. You probably don’t like to get your hands dirty anyway. But for many blue-collar gringos, it’s a big deal. They’re taking our jobs.
The issue has evolved into a ridiculous political piñata. Talk show hosts are saying we should arrest the Mexican immigrants and deport them. Elected officials are saying we should build a wall to keep them out. Yokels and bigots are patrolling the border with guns and dogs.
As frustrated as I am with the challenge their presence poses to my livelihood, I bear Mexican immigrants no ill will. They’re exploiting the near-universal laws of market supply and demand. I can’t blame them for coming up here and taking advantage of the opportunities. The blame for this problem and any hostility my gringo cohorts and I may feel toward our Mexican counterparts should be directed at the companies that take advantage of them and the political officials who allow it to happen.
Local construction companies could hire only legal workers and still survive – if they all did it and if they were willing to reduce their profit margins. And that’s the dreaded chupacabra of American capitalism. We shrink from that solution like the plague, because – in the short term at least – everything boils down to the red, white, and blue bottom line. Greed is prized more than ethics. Greed is valued more than buying American. Greed is held in higher esteem than taking care of our own.
It upsets me, but I’m not naïve. Local construction companies are just taking a page from the playbook of corporate America. Large corporations are outsourcing our jobs overseas to folks who’ll do our jobs for less; local construction companies are simply insourcing to folks who’ll do our jobs for less. Either way, the reeling American middle class is being further disenfranchised.
President Bush is now sending National Guard troops to our border to keep Mexican workers out; why doesn’t he send them to the plush offices of the tax-break-laden multinationals that peddle our livelihoods overseas? If no one is going to rein in unscrupulous corporate America, why pick on opportunistic local construction firms?
I’ve driven through the shantytowns that stretch for miles and miles outside Mexico City. I know that some of the Mexicans who show up here have endured squalor that most of us could never begin to imagine. I know many of them just want a piece of the American dream. And I know that the gringa who stands on Ellis Island used to welcome thousands of folks just like them every day.
I don’t begrudge Mexican immigrants their dreams and ambitions. And I don’t profess to have the answers to the immigration problem. All I know is that the commerce and labor policies of the cabrons who run our government are increasing the number of “tired and huddled masses” who already reside within our borders. And the economic footing of too many middle-class Americans is being undermined by outsourcing – and insourcing.
E. R. Bills is a local construction worker and freelance writer.