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As the Trump administration targets undocumented workers, key Louisiana industries could suffer a crippling labor shortage


April 12, 2017
By Annie Ourso
Originally Posted on Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

In 1997, 18-year-old David Ozuna left his poverty-stricken neighborhood in Acapulco, Mexico, and headed to the United States in search of work. He found it—and more—in Louisiana.

After a short stint working at a restaurant, Ozuna got a job as a painter in Baton Rouge. Within three years, he realized the work demand was so great he could afford to take a chance at starting his own business. In 2000, he launched Ozuna’s Painting, a painting and stucco company, in Denham Springs. No one seemed to mind at the time that Ozuna was undocumented and barely able to speak English.

“Nobody cares who you are or where you’re from as long as you do what you say you’re going to do,” says Ozuna, who has since become a U.S. citizen and is fluent in English. “If you work hard, people will hire you.”

Today, however, the atmosphere surrounding immigrants—especially those who come to the U.S. undocumented, as Ozuna did—is growing increasingly hostile and is more polarized than any time in recent memory. The issue has reached a boiling point under President Donald Trump, whose controversial statements, beleaguered travel ban, calls for a border wall and mass deportations have fueled the flames of one of the most hotly debated national issues of the day.

And yet, not many people in the Louisiana business community want to talk about it—at least not on the record. A number of business owners in the construction, agriculture and hospitality industries declined to comment for this story, though they rely heavily on immigrants—documented or not—to fill workforce shortages.

Business owners who are willing to talk say immigrant labor is an essential asset to builders, farmers, landscapers, restaurateurs and others who cannot find domestic workers to fill jobs. Some worry Trump’s hardline stance on immigration could drastically reduce the already-strained labor pool and leave gaping holes in their workforces.

“The stance the president is taking is a concern,” says Dwayne Gafford, owner of Gafford Builders and president of the Capital Region Builders Association. “At a National Home Builders Association meeting in January, one big topic was the labor shortage. This had nothing to do with immigration. Generally speaking, we have a labor shortage. Since then, the president’s agenda on labor and immigration has become more of a concern to builders.”

HELP WANTED

Among the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, roughly 70,000 live in Louisiana, which is up 27% since 2009, according to Pew Research Center. This population comprises 2.2% of the state workforce, which is also aided by another 16,000 immigrants who legally work in Louisiana through visas.

Baton Rouge’s construction industry—particularly residential builders—may stand to lose the most under an immigration overhaul. Local builders say immigrants represent a majority of workers on construction sites, and a large percentage typically are undocumented. Unlike agriculture, most builders don’t use visa programs because their work isn’t seasonal.

What typically happens, according to Gafford and several other builders, is smaller companies hire subcontractors to complete a lot of their work. And while the subcontractors they hire are legal citizens, their workers may not be.

Labor shortages have been pronounced in the Baton Rouge area following the 2016 flood. Carol Smith, co-owner of Harvey Smith Construction and a former CRBA president, says Capital Region homebuilders are inundated with work, exacerbating the workforce issues. If the government cracks down on immigration, these problems will only worsen.

“I am concerned,” she says. “We do have a lot of immigrant workers. There would definitely be a shortage. Who would step up? I’m not sure.”

Common arguments against immigrant workers—that they displace American workers and depress wages—don’t hold much weight in the local construction industry. Immigrants can’t displace domestic workers when not enough Americans want the jobs, builders say.

Smith adds prices and wages don’t change whether a subcontractor has a legal or illegal crew. There’s enough work available that if a laborer is not paid fairly, they can easily find another construction job with better wages. Smith points to turnover rates on local work sites as evidence of this.

“You may have seven or eight framers working on a job, and they are not the same every day,” Smith says.

Hundreds of workers—roofers, painters, framers, stucco crews, concrete finishers and more—come and go on construction sites, Smith says, adding it would be impossible for builders to keep up with them all.

“We have rules,” she says, “but, Lord, we can barely keep up with the work.”

Gafford and Smith say there’s a push from builder associations to develop workforce training programs at community and technical colleges to help create local labor pools instead of relying so heavily on immigrants.

The National Home Builders Association supports a wholesale skills training and education effort, but Randy Noel, vice chairman of the organization, says that’s a long-term solution. For now, his organization is lobbying for migrant work visas.

“Labor is a huge problem for us,” says Noel, past president of the Louisiana Home Builders Association. “Most of us use subcontractors, and we don’t know who they hire. We’ve got to have someone do the work. We have to make the administration understand that we need the labor.”

Industrial contractors also count on immigrant workers, but their large worksites come under more scrutiny than residential or commercial builders, so the immigrants they hire have documents or work visas. But without them, contractors wouldn’t have an adequate workforce, says Turner Industries CEO Roland Toups, who takes a more sympathetic approach to immigration issues.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” he says. “But it’s a touchy situation.”

Although illegal immigration doesn’t directly impact his business, Toups understands why it’s a dilemma for smaller businesses in agriculture and construction facing workforce shortages. He says the problem is there aren’t enough people who want to do the work.

“In general, we care because as Americans we need agricultural products and we want people to work in the jobs we don’t want to do,” Toups says. “It’s too cavalier to say we want to preserve our jobs but don’t have people who want to work.”

‘THEY’RE JUST SCARED’

Even business and labor groups in Louisiana are hesitant to touch the controversial immigration issue. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber didn’t want to provide comment or take a position, and the Louisiana AFL-CIO did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, meanwhile, emailed a prepared statement.

“Immigrants and native-born workers both make up productive pieces of our workforce and will continue to do so,” writes LABI Communications Manager Camille Ivy-O’Donnell, “but there is no reason that should ever undermine efforts to crack down on illegal immigration and ensure everyone in the country is here legally and abiding by the laws of the land.”

Two of the area’s largest homebuilders also declined to speak on the record. One worried that due to the company’s size, it could be a prime target for immigration enforcement officials. But both echoed concerns of smaller builders about the president’s stance on immigration, saying that without immigrants, there would be no one on their job sites.

The unease is heightened among local immigrants. David Rozas, an attorney in Baton Rouge who deals with immigration law, says the Capital Region has a significant immigrant community, noting its two Spanish radio stations and several Spanish church services. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates East Baton Rouge Parish has a foreign-born population of nearly 23,000, roughly 14,000 of which are not U.S. citizens. After the 2016 election, Rozas has been hearing from this population much more often.

“There is so much fear from the media and Trump—my phone has been ringing off the hook,” Rozas says. “They’re just scared.”

Most immigrants come to Louisiana for work, Rozas says, and they are needed because the country does not have enough domestic workers for all available jobs. There also aren’t enough visas available, which is why some employers hire undocumented workers. And contrary to popular belief, he adds, many undocumented workers pay taxes.

“We can’t survive without these workers,” Rozas says. “They’re working for corporations and businesses that drive our economy. These businesses have no problem hiring them. They are the backbone of the economy.”

Not only do immigrants help fill gaps in the workforce, some start their own businesses. The Partnership for a New American Economy estimates there are some 6,000 undocumented entrepreneurs in Louisiana, as Ozuna, the Ozuna’s Painting owner, once was.

Though he held no documentation or command of the English language, Ozuna was able to apply for a tax identification number with the Internal Revenue Service, register with the Secretary of State’s Office and obtain an occupational license in his parish. As long as his contracted work did not exceed a certain monetary amount, he didn’t need a state license, which he has since acquired.

Today, the soft-spoken 38-year-old businessman is a husband and father. He gained a green card after he and his wife, a citizen, married in 2003, and he earned citizenship a decade later.

“I encourage everyone to start a business regardless of status,” Ozuna says. “Working and starting a business is not the difficult part. Becoming a citizen is more difficult.”

GROWING CONCERN

Another industry that depends heavily on immigrant labor is one of Louisiana’s most important: Agriculture. Behind the oil and gas industry, agriculture is the second-largest contributor to the state economy, with an estimated $12 billion annual economic impact.

Industry leaders say none of it would be possible without immigrants. Farmers gave up long ago on getting Americans to work in their fields, but most don’t have to risk hiring undocumented workers. Because their work is seasonal, agricultural businesses have a legal alternative: The federal H-2A and H-2B visa programs. They allow employers to bring in temporary migrant workers to fill seasonal jobs, as long as employers prove they cannot fill those jobs with American workers.

“I call it a life-preserver program,” says Brian Breaux, associate commodity director for the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation. “Our ship is sinking. We have no one to plant sugar cane, no one to peel crawfish. This is our life preserver.”

Most farmers use the H-2A visa program, which is for temporary foreign agricultural workers. The H-2B visa is for temporary non-agricultural workers, but it’s also important to the industry because it fills jobs in sugar cane mills and seafood processing facilities.

Louisiana ranks fifth in the nation for H-2B employment, with 4,434 certified visa workers in 2016, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification. In H-2A, Louisiana ranks sixth, with 8,301 certified agricultural workers last year.

“H-2A and H-2B visas are important to Louisiana and American businesses,” says Mike Strain, the Louisiana commissioner of agriculture and forestry. “They support American jobs. Each H-2B worker is responsible for saving 4.6 American jobs. These are jobs American workers don’t want. They have first shot at them.”

Under the Trump administration, agriculture experts have concerns about changes to immigration and visa programs, but say they worry about changes every year, no matter who the president is, because lawmakers constantly scrutinize the visa programs.

Trump’s border wall and plans to deport undocumented immigrants, however, could indirectly impact legal visa workers. If the undocumented population is sent home, scared off or blocked from entering the country, Breaux says, businesses that need those workers may turn to visa programs for help.

“Trump is more business friendly, but he’s very passionate about slowing illegal immigration,” Breaux says. “If other industries try to get in on the visa program, can it accommodate 1 million or so more applicants? Could the application process get slowed down with more visas? Yes. It’s worrisome for farmers.”

Louisiana Farm Bureau also has concerns about merit-based immigration, favoring higher-skilled workers, which Trump supported in his first address to Congress on Feb. 28. H-2A and H-2B workers generally perform low-skilled labor, compared to their high-skilled counterpart H-1B, a visa for specialty occupations.

“If they look at merit or value, they should base it on value to the industry,” Breaux says. “These workers are worth millions to us.” 

Another issue the agriculture sector faces is the threat of a cap on H-2A visas, which could be detrimental to farmers who deal with perishable agriculture products, Breaux says. If there are more visa applications than the cap allows, and some farmers don’t get applications granted before the cap is reached, they won’t get their workers on time and their crops could perish as a result. This is why H-2A never had a cap, but H-2B does.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have discussed a replacement visa bill for the H-2A program, which might include a cap on visas. Breaux says Louisiana Farm Bureau would back a replacement bill—so long as there’s no cap—because it would open the visa program to dairy, livestock and poultry farmers who are currently excluded because their work isn’t seasonal. But if the bill includes a cap, the Louisiana Farm Bureau may not support it. 

“The most important part of H-2A is that it is uncapped,” Breaux says. “They’re talking about replacement programs, but if they include a cap, we might have to fight it.”

The H-2B program has an annual cap of 66,000 visas, with 33,000 available per six months. Louisiana H-2B employers have struggled to get visa workers in on time due to the cap.

‘SO MANY MISCONCEPTIONS’ 

Amid all the political discourse, even some Louisiana farmers who use legal visa workers to make a living declined to speak on the record. Critics on both sides of the aisle often slam migrant workers as cheap laborers who undercut American workers, but Breaux says in the case of the H-2A and H-2B programs, nothing is further from the truth.

“The visa program is well conceived. Employers have to prove they cannot fill jobs to use it,” he says. “They have to pay thousands to advertise jobs, and if any American comes along, they get the job.”

The problem is no Americans come along. Or if they do, they don’t stay. Labor unions have argued Americans don’t go after farm jobs because wages are too low. But the 2017 wage rate for Louisiana H-2A workers is above minimum wage at $10.38 an hour.

“We’ve had farmers offer to pay $20 to $25 an hour,” Breaux says. “It’s not the pay. It’s the job task.”

Sugar cane and crawfish are the top two commodities in Louisiana that rely on H-2A workers. Nick Leonards, a farmer in Crowley with 1,500 acres of crawfish ponds, hires six H-2A workers each year. He doesn’t know any farm the size of his or larger that doesn’t use migrant workers.

“The crawfish industry would not exist without foreign workers,” Leonards says.

Clay Pinson, co-owner of Massengale Grounds Management in Baton Rouge, hires 60 H-2B workers each year to support his landscaping business. This year he got his workers in on time—before the H-2B cap reached its limit—but he knows other landscapers who did not.

The frequent changes and challenges to visa programs leave employers like Pinson in a cycle of uncertainty. Massengale is one of the larger landscaping companies in the area, and like other H-2B employers, landscapers count on visa workers because most Americans don’t want their jobs.

“We really don’t sleep well until we know they’re here,” Pinson says. “We have a tremendous workload. Without labor to do work we’re contracted to do, it could be game over for a lot of companies.”

Pinson says visa workers are paid well and make great employees. The current H-2B wage Pinson pays is $12.64 an hour, and he says the paperwork and administrative burden to get them here is tremendous.

“People are scared to talk about this because there are so many misconceptions,” he says. “The fact is that Americans don’t want these jobs. H-2B workers are here simply to make money for their families. And they pay the same taxes we do.”

Visa programs need defined, consistent rules, Pinson says, and he’s optimistic it can happen, even under Trump. Pinson says he isn’t advocating for citizenship, but for a stable legal process to bring in labor to fill workforce voids.

CERTAIN UNCERTAINTY

By all accounts, no one is sure yet what’s to come under the Trump administration regarding immigration reform and visa programs.

On the campaign trail, Trump railed against illegal immigrants, portraying them as violent criminals pouring into the country and taking American jobs. His top promise was to build a wall along the Mexican border, and he vowed to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. So far, Trump has stuck with his hard-line stance, signing an executive order to expand deportation priorities, and his border wall is in the works—though funding for it may not come this year.

But where the president stands on comprehensive immigration reform remains unclear. In his speech before Congress, he suggested moving away from lower-skilled immigration toward a merit-based system. Otherwise, Trump has yet to issue any rules or guidelines on pathways to citizenship or work visas.

For someone like Ozuna—who has first-hand experience navigating the immigration process—the solution lies neither in deporting all 11 million illegal immigrants nor granting them all amnesty, but somewhere in between.

Without marriage, Ozuna wouldn’t have had another path to citizenship in the U.S., even though he’d been working, paying taxes and running a business in Louisiana for years. Citizenship should be earned, he says, but it should also be accessible.

“Don’t make it easy,” Ozuna says, “but make it possible.”

He suggests a sensible pathway to citizenship would require immigrants to spend five years working in the U.S. and paying taxes—and keeping out of legal trouble—which would benefit both the country and those seeking to be citizens of it.

“Do that,” he says, “and you can accomplish the American Dream.”