Federal Immigration Reform Proposals Ignore Workers’ Rights

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Jason Cato, Workers Defense Project
Workers Defense Project Executive Director Cristina Tzintzun unveils study that found half of Texas construction workers are undocumented.

As the immigration debate continues on the national stage, one issue is consistently left out of the conversation: workers’ rights.

Texas has the second-largest undocumented population in the country, and in 2011 the state accounted for 16 percent of construction permits issued in the U.S. (more than Florida and California combined). Many undocumented immigrants take construction jobs, becoming easy targets for employers trying to cut costs by exploiting workers.

The Austin-based nonprofit organization, Workers Defense Project, says workers’ rights need to be part of the conversation as legislators in Washington, D.C. hash out immigration reform. On Thursday the group released a study, “Build a Better Nation,” that found 50 percent of all construction workers in Texas are undocumented. Workers Defense and University of Texas researchers surveyed 1,194 construction workers in Austin, Houston, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio for the study. About 70 percent of construction workers in Texas are concentrated in these areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I think it’s pretty shocking that one in two [construction] workers in the state is undocumented,” says Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of Workers Defense Project. “I think it shows why Texas desperately needs immigration reform, because it’s an industry that’s critical to our state’s economy.”

Roughly “one in every 13 people in the Texas workforce labors in construction, meaning as many as 400,000 Texas construction workers are undocumented,” according to the study. These undocumented workers are exploited more than U.S.-born workers, the study finds. One in four undocumented workers experienced wage theft, while less than one in 10 U.S.-born workers had their wages stolen. Only 14 percent of undocumented workers made a living wage in 2011 in Texas, while 42 percent of American workers did.

The finding comes after another recent study released by the group in January that highlighted violations against construction workers in Texas and the conditions in which these laborers, largely immigrants, live (or die).

Tzintzún says federal immigration reform talks have mostly ignored workers’ rights. President Obama’s draft on immigration reform centered around providing a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, while the Gang of Eight bipartisan senators proposed a similar but slower solution, contingent on further beefing up of Border Patrol.

Meanwhile, she says, immigrant workers are afraid of reporting dangerous working conditions and abuse because employers threaten them with deportation. The problem can be exacerbated with guest-worker programs, which tie an immigrant’s ability to stay in the country to his or her employer.

This has become a favored talking point for conservatives that have recently jumped on the reform bandwagon (mostly businessmen and politicians reeling from low Latino support in the election). Conservatives want immigrant workers to be legally able to come into the country and work when they’re needed, but go home when they’re not.

Tzintzún and other workers’ rights activists, on the other hand, think the guest-worker system is broken and that a pathway to citizenship is the only option that ensures workers are protected. But whether conservatives will be willing to put workers’ rights first and get behind a pathway to citizenship remains to be seen.

Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.