- By Bob Sechler
- Nancy Flores American-Statesman Staff
If it weren’t for people allowed into the United States under temporary work permits, Bill Carson doubts he’d be in business in Travis County.
The owner of Native Texas Nursery — a 40-acre tree and plant farm in East Austin — says he has trouble hiring U.S. citizens for the physically demanding, outdoor labor.
“And in an urban environment like Austin, (finding employees with agricultural skills) is even worse, because you have people who haven’t grown up on a farm,” Carson said.
He is among the members of the local and state business community — including owners of construction companies, high-tech executives and restaurateurs — who say they worry about the Trump administration’s crackdown on certain categories of immigrants previously exempt from deportation and how it could affect an already stretched Texas workforce.
The administration says it plans to end protections for about 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived in the U.S. for at least the past 17 years. An estimated 36,000 of them reside in Texas, according to the Center for American Progress.
Salvadorans were granted temporary protected status, or TPS, after a pair of earthquakes in El Salvador in 2001, but the policy change means many now could be subject to deportation when it takes effect in September 2019.
Meanwhile, an estimated 700,000 young unauthorized immigrants — including about 113,000 in Texas — are awaiting the outcome of negotiations in Washington regarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, that has provided them with work permits and protection from deportation. The numbers are from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
President Donald Trump has moved to phase out the Obama-era DACA program that helped the so-called Dreamers, but he has also signaled that he is open to preserving it as part of a broader deal that includes increased border security measures.
At Native Texas Nursery, Carson’s several dozen Hispanic immigrant employees either have temporary permits for agricultural workers or various forms of legal status, so they aren’t directly affected by the potential policy changes. Still, Carson said the broad landscaping sector definitely will feel the “ripple effect” of the actions on its ability to hire.
“The people (with temporary protected status) who are now threatened with deportation, well, maybe they have some kids who work in the landscape industry,” Carson said. “Every one of these programs, there is a ripple effect if you remove it.”
‘Lives are in chaos’
Immigrants who have put down roots in Texas — and in some cases started their own businesses — say the end of the programs could be devastating for families.
Edwin Murillo, an El Salvador native living in Dallas with temporary protected status, opened an air-conditioning repair business about four years ago and had plans to expand it.
“Now our lives are in chaos,” said Murillo, whose wife is a CPA assistant who also has temporary protected status. “Our daughters don’t understand why their parents have to go back to an unsafe country.”
Murillo said the most difficult part has been trying to explain the news to his U.S.-born children, ages 10 and 4. He said he’s already noticed his 10-year-old’s grades plummet since the family broke the news to her.
Many members of the Hispanic immigrant community — even if they aren’t subject to deportation themselves — say they have been rattled by the Trump administration’s actions and are mulling what to do if loved ones are forced out of the country.
“Everybody is worried,” said Guadalupe Barragan, owner of Casa Chapala, a Mexican restaurant in North Austin. “It destroys a family. It destroys a dream.”
Advocates for ending the temporary protection program point out that it was never intended to grant permanent residency. As for DACA — which has provided amnesty for undocumented people brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children — opponents say extending it will encourage more violations of immigration laws.
But Barragan and other local and statewide employers consider the potential deportation of tens of thousands of productive people who have been working in the U.S. legally and paying taxes to be shortsighted, particularly at a time when the labor market is extremely tight.
Austin’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 2.8 percent, according to the most recent figures available, compared with 3.8 percent statewide and 4.1 percent nationally. In addition, Houston has been siphoning workers from across Texas as it rebuilds after Hurricane Harvey.
“Five years ago, you could put a (help-wanted) sign up front and get four or five dozen applicants,” said Barragan, who immigrated from Mexico 30 years ago and is a board member of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Right now, you put up a sign, you have to hang the sign for six months.”
He said a further tightening of the labor force will slow growth and hurt the overall economy, a view also held by leaders of dozens of major U.S. companies.
More than 100 of them — including top executives of Microsoft, Apple and Facebook — recently urged Congress in an open letter to extend the DACA program, saying failure to do so would result in a $215 billion blow to the U.S. economy through the loss of talent and disruptions to their workforces. The Texas Association of Business, a prominent state lobbying group, sent a similar letter to the Texas congressional delegation last fall.
Elimination of DACA could reduce gross domestic product in Texas by nearly $6.3 billion annually, according to the Center for American Progress, which also has predicted a $1.8 billion annual blow to the state’s economy when the TPS program protecting Salvadorans is ended.
“We have to continue the (DACA) program — it is too vital to our state and our businesses not to,” said Chris Wallace, president of the Texas Association of Business. “We simply have to have the workforce.”
Wallace said his organization hasn’t taken a formal position on the issue involving the Salvadoran workers with temporary protected status. But he said he’s concerned about any actions that might eliminate productive people who have been working here legally.
“In the Hurricane Harvey relief area, they’re already having trouble finding workers (and) this would only enhance that, I’m afraid,” Wallace said. “There are going to be industries that are going to be suffering for a workforce, and we’re already seeing that.”
‘An economic loss’
Stan Marek said he’s bracing for the loss of about 35 employees of his Houston-based construction company Marek — which has been active in the Austin area for decades — if DACA and the TPS program are eliminated. His company’s work can be seen everywhere from the Austin Public Library to Apple Inc.’s campus off Parmer Lane.
Marek said he’ll have no choice but to terminate the employment of some of his supervisors and craftsmen if their legal protections end.
“Anytime that you lose workers that you’ve trained, then it’s an economic loss,” he said. “I’ll lose about half a dozen good supervisors.”
The timing is particularly inopportune, Marek said, because there already is a post-Hurricane Harvey labor shortage.
“People graduating high school have other opportunities, and we don’t have people from other states coming to do the work,” he said.
Texas is considered by many potential workers to be unwelcoming, Marek said, citing the Legislature’s approval of a so-called sanctuary cities ban last year, which prohibits police and sheriff’s departments from declining to participate in federal immigration enforcement.
Meanwhile, construction work is backing up, Marek said, and “there are thousands of houses that people won’t be able to fix.”
Elsa Caballero, president of the Service Employees International Union in Texas — which represents janitors, food service workers, hospital employees and county/municipal employees across the state — said the White House’s actions also will hurt the housing market because about 30 percent of TPS recipients are homeowners and now face deportation.
In addition, Caballero said she’s concerned some employers could take advantage of a worker’s impending departure by lowering wages. “There are a lot more violations and less people willing to report it,” she said.
Todd Hewitt, president of Austin-based Texas Fifth Wall Roofing Systems, said the local labor market is as tight as he’s seen in his several decades in the construction industry. He said he supports comprehensive immigration reform — and a system in which everyone follows the law — but said a piecemeal approach of eliminating certain programs could hurt his company’s ability to hire people, even though it has no DACA or TPS employees.
“That just reduces the already limited pool of potential workers,” Hewitt said. “I think legal immigration should be increased, not decreased. Our country needs more of those willing workers.”