Ending Temporary Protection For Foreign Workers Could Hurt U.S. Rebuilding Efforts

Dec 6, 2017
Originally published on December 6, 2017 11:47 am

The Trump administration has been eliminating some protections that allow more than 300,000 people to live and work in the U.S. under what is known as temporary protected status. Many could face deportation when their status expires.

An estimated 50,000 of them work in the construction industry, concentrated in areas like Texas, Florida and California that are recovering from hurricanes and wildfires and where labor shortages in construction are especially acute.

For decades, administrations routinely renewed temporary protected status, enabling those already residing in the U.S. to remain, because their home countries were ravaged by war or disaster.

Pedro Serritos has legally worked in the U.S. since he settled in Houston as a young man to escape the poverty and aftermath of civil war in El Salvador. Nearly 20 years later, he has worked his way up to construction supervisor. He has a mortgage, a wife and three children.

"We're paying the house; we're kind of established here right now," he says. "But if we lose that status, I'm gonna lose my job."

Serritos' wife, a restaurant worker, is also in limbo as one of 57,000 Hondurans who may also lose their status. If that happens, Serritos says they will likely have to move — but preferably not back to El Salvador, where crime runs rampant.

He says his wife worries; he tries to avoid thinking about it.

"I don't want to get depressed," he says.

Last month, the Trump administration lifted protections for about 53,000 workers from Haiti and Nicaragua. It will decide the fate of nearly 200,000 Salvadorans early next year.

The administration is making these moves in defiance of the business community. The Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Home Builders and other groups have lobbied to keep TPS workers. The groups say the workers are playing a big role in recovery efforts following hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the California wildfires.

"I have worked on TPS issues for a long time and I have never known industry to come out in support of TPS workers really in these kind of numbers ever before," says Royce Murray, policy director for the American Immigration Council, which is advocating on behalf of the workers.

The issue has united groups normally in opposition — the left and right, industry and labor.

Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, says there is no economic justification for ending TPS.

"These workers are not competing with very many Americans in the labor force," he says. "The economy is growing very rapidly in the United States. American firms and consumers want to employ these folks."

Nowrasteh says forcing workers to sell their homes or work underground would have other business impacts: The workers would make less in wages, have little access to loans, and therefore spend less on goods and services.

He agrees with the liberal-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, which estimates ending TPS would mean losing $164 billion in economic growth over a decade.

Nowrasteh also notes that TPS workers pay taxes but aren't eligible for welfare and food stamps, "so they're leaving and taking their production with them, taking their output with them; taking their work with them is a total net loss and there's no kind of savings on the taxpayer side."

Serritos, the construction supervisor, works for Marek, a large commercial and residential construction firm that operates throughout the Southeast and employs 2,000 full-time workers and an additional 4,000 contractors.

Mike Holland, Marek's chief operating officer, says immigration and TPS both create huge workforce headaches for him. He knows of 30 TPS workers who could be affected.

"I was shocked," he says. "What happens if [Serrito] loses his status, and the truth is we both get hammered. I mean, the pipeline is pinched, and there's really just not access to more labor."

Marek verifies its employees' legal status through an automated system. Holland says ending the status will benefit companies that aren't as ethical.

"What happens is we lose a valued resource, struggle to meet the expectations of our clients, and then feed a resource to a competitor who will beat us with our own people, and doing it illegitimately," he says. "It's really not cool."

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More than 300,000 people live and work under what is known as Temporary Protected Status. This is status granted to those whose home countries face war or disaster. The Trump administration has been eliminating some of these protections, meaning many could face deportation when their status expires. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, this could have an impact on an already short-staffed construction industry.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: When Pedro Serritos was a young man, he left the poverty and aftermath of civil war in El Salvador to settle in Houston. Nearly 20 years later, he's a construction supervisor with a mortgage, a wife and three children. Because of his Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, he's worked legally for more than 16 years.

PEDRO SERRITOS: We’re paying the house, we’re kind of established here right now, but if we lose status, that's - you know, I’m going to lose my job.

NOGUCHI: Serritos' wife, a restaurant worker, is also in limbo as one of 57,000 Hondurans who may also lose their status. He says his wife worries. He tries to avoid thinking about it.

SERRITOS: You know, I don't want to get depressed.

NOGUCHI: For decades, bipartisan White House administrations routinely renewed TPS status. But last month, the Trump administration lifted protections for about 53,000 workers from Haiti and Nicaragua. It will decide the fate of many more workers early next year. This is a big deal for the construction industry, which stands to lose 50,000 workers in an already tight labor market. The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Home Builders, among others, have lobbied to keep the workers, many of whom work in Texas, Florida and California, which are rebuilding after hurricanes and wildfires. Royce Murray is policy director for the American Immigration Council.

ROYCE MURRAY: You know, I have worked on TPS issues for a long time, and I have never known industry to come out in support of TPS workers really in these kind of numbers ever before.

NOGUCHI: Alex Nowrasteh is immigration policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute.

ALEX NOWRASTEH: There's no good economic justification for ending TPS. These workers are not competing with very many Americans in the labor force. The economy is growing very rapidly in the United States. American firms and consumers want to employ these folks.

NOGUCHI: Nowrasteh says forcing workers to sell their homes or work underground would have knock-on business impacts. He also notes TPS workers pay taxes but aren't eligible for welfare and food stamps.

NOWRASTEH: So they're leaving, and taking their production with them, taking their output with them, taking their work with them is a total net loss. And there is no kind of savings on the taxpayer side.

NOGUCHI: He agrees with liberal-leaning think tank Center for American Progress, which estimates ending TPS would mean losing $164 billion in economic growth over a decade. Mike Holland is chief operating officer for Marek, a big construction firm in Houston. Pedro Serritos is one of 30 Marek workers with protected status.

MIKE HOLLAND: You know, as I looked at the list, I was shocked. Well, what happens if Pedro loses his status? And the truth is we both get hammered. I mean, the pipeline is pinched, and there's really just not access to more labor.

NOGUCHI: Marek plays by the rules and verifies its employees' legal status. He says ending the status will benefit companies who don't.

HOLLAND: What happens is we lose a valued resource, struggle to meet the expectations of our clients and then feed a resource to a competitor who will beat us with our own people and doing it illegitimately. It's really not cool.

NOGUCHI: The administration faces a deadline on extending TPS protections for 200,000 Salvadorans January 8.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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