Longform

Alien Nation

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In reality, according to many local businessmen, several of Arizona's industries are in bad shape even if the current population of immigrants, illegal or not, does not increase.

"I'd say we're as close as 10 years away from a very serious worker shortage in Arizona," says Marshall Whitehead, the immigration attorney and Arizona Chamber leader. "It's going to get particularly bad in skilled positions in construction."

Nearly 46,000 houses are being built each year in Arizona.

The average age of the American construction worker is now 51 years old, nearly a decade older than the average in the 1980s.

What this means, Jones says, is that young Americans are no longer becoming construction workers at a rate that keeps pace with the construction getting done in the country, especially in the Valley.

Jones says the decrease fits with the change in American values and demographics. Fewer Americans live on farms, where craftsmanship and handiwork are valued, and more Americans believe going to college is a prerequisite for a prosperous and successful life.

"Starting with the baby boomers, there came a stigma with not going to college," says Jones, a former state representative and manager of two large construction companies in Indiana before moving here. "That motivation in this country has been lost to pass on or learn the skilled crafts."

Not so in rural Mexico.



"What you often see coming from Mexico is a young man who has spent much of his life proudly working with his hands on a farm or a ranch," Jones says. "They have skills that Americans no longer have. And because of their backgrounds, they're often much closer to being skilled construction workers than most Americans."

At some point in the near future, Jones says, the United States will need to set up a "functional guest worker program" of some sort.

"Otherwise, be prepared to take five years building your house," he says.

Neither Jones nor Whitehead, nor anyone else, for that matter, can estimate how much of the construction or hospitality industries -- or any other blue-collar industry in the Valley -- is made up of undocumented workers.



Guesses range everywhere from 10 percent to 30 or 40 percent.

Amid unlicensed contractors, which Jones estimates do about $25 million of work a year in the Valley, he ventures that about 90 percent are undocumented.

These are the guys state construction regulators claim they want to see gone.

"They're not paying taxes, they're not insured, and they're not carrying the same safeguards," says Israel Torres, Arizona's Registrar of Contractors. "The whole industry gets hurt when people go for the blue-light special."

But Arizonans do go for the blue-light special. And so do some Arizona businesses. And this cash economy, more so than on-the-books payments to federal funds, is where Arizona citizens may see the biggest direct benefit from illegal immigration.

Who's your nanny?

Your lawn guy? Pool guy? Bug guy? Landscaper? Do you grab a few day laborers for projects around the house?

"Right there is the only place the average guy is going to see any real financial benefit," Camarota says. "If you can save a few thousand on a landscaping job, then, well, maybe a taxpayer can come out even in the equation."

At the same time, though, are you killing a local small business person who plays by the rules?

Such small business owners, contends Prop 200 committee co-chair Pearce, made up one of the strongest pro-Prop 200 groups.

"The small businessman is tired of getting hurt for playing fair!" he declares.

There's also a notion that illegal immigrants significantly drive down the prices of all goods and services in the regions where they live, which many researchers dispute.

"As far as lowering prices nearby, the benefit has historically been very small," says ASU professor Brian Gratton, an expert on border migration and economic patterns. "You're talking a few percentage points, when people think it's something huge."

That's because labor costs are only about 10 percent of the costs for, say, building a house. Even if wages are increased 50 percent, that's still a marginal increase in the overall price.

"Although that's always the argument by farm or hospitality sectors, the price to the consumer probably goes up little without illegal workers," Camarota says. "And particularly in farming, you see technological advances quickly appear when there isn't an abundance of people willing to work for depressed wages."

Gratton throws in one last interesting twist regarding the issue. In the early 1980s, he says, Arizona had a sizable seasonal migration of construction workers from Oklahoma, Texas and other states. As salaries haven't kept pace thanks to an abundance of immigrant laborers, that migration has virtually stopped.

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Robert Nelson