Researchers and other experts expect millions of new construction jobs in coming months due to the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
That’s in addition to the 407,000 unfilled jobs in the construction industry now.
But where will those workers come from?
Immigrants have played a critical role in the U.S. construction industry for generations, from the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad in the West to the skyscrapers that define New York City in the East. But unlike in these past generations, workers tasked to improve America’s infrastructure this time around likely won’t hail from outside the country, unless there’s a dramatic change to current immigration policy, industry officials said.
“Construction is one of many industries that historically relied much more than they’ve been able to in the last three years on foreign-born workers,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America, during a recent webinar on finding more workers to help build America’s infrastructure. “There have been a number of immigration programs that have been allowed to lapse.”
The Biden administration recently temporarily extended the window for expired work permits by another 18 months, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The move had been in the works for months as officials looked for ways to combat the risk of workforce shortages, Politico reported.
USCIS is also seeking ways to address a backlog of roughly 1.5 million work permit applications. House and Senate Democrats have proposed bills to reduce the employment-based backlogs, but there does not seem to be enough Republican support to bring them across the finish line, said John Dorer, president of Immigration Office Solutions and CEO of eb3.work, a New York-based platform that connects employers with foreign nationals seeking to work legally in the U.S.
“Things are stalled for the moment, this is typical in a pre-election environment,” said Dorer. “This may change after the midterm elections.”
In some areas, the push for foreign-born workers is seen as a political hot button. For example, in Florida, migrant workers are leading clean-up efforts to repair the damage from Hurricane Ian, according to Time magazine, despite Governor Ron DeSantis‘ efforts to deport illegal migrants from the South to Northern states.
Industry sources told Construction Dive that immigration reform could help alleviate endemic labor shortages in the industry, but that lawmakers thus far have lacked the political gumption to put such measures in place.
“While the ideas on how to fix our nation’s immigration system are not lacking, there is a lack of will to do the work required to find a compromise,” said Kristen Swearingen, Associated Builders and Contractors vice president of legislative and political affairs. “Immigration reform will likely go largely unaddressed while the arguments over partisan proposals get louder and employers continue to struggle under the current system.”
For most contractors on the front lines, the need for immigration reform to help rebuild America is obvious.
“When you talk about immigration, it’s my opinion that any type of reform would be better for the country, as well as the construction industry, compared to what we’ve had the last 25 years,” said Stephen Sines, vice president of operations at the Danbury, Connecticut-based construction management firm Morganti Group, during the AGC webinar. “There has to be a starting point somewhere.”
On the other side of the country, of all the challenges facing construction, one California construction pro pointed to immigration reform as the single most impactful issue for contractors.
“Our growth is going to be hampered without new labor sources,” said Chris Bailey, senior vice president of integrated solutions at San Francisco Bay Area-based general contractor XL Construction. “They’ve got to come from somewhere.”
And Frank Ciminelli, president and CEO of construction management firm Arc Building Partners, recently told Construction Dive the labor shortage remains the biggest challenge in the construction industry today.
Meanwhile, immigration reform is “far and away” the top national policy concern of business advocates at the state level, according to a report from law firm Littler.
The Biden administration is currently considering whether changes to immigration policy should be one of its major pushes following the November midterm election, especially as migrant workers are generally a turnkey solution for labor shortage issues.
But specifics on what those changes might entail remain vague. Biden did propose the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 on his first day in office, but there have been no updates on that bill after nearly two years. That bill provided pathways to citzenship for undocumented workers, reinforcements to border control, increased assistance to Central American countries and improvements to immigration court processes, according to a White House release.
Brain Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives at the Associated General Contractors of America, said immigration reform could help shorten the gap between labor demand and labor supply.
“The short answer would be ‘yes,’” said Turmail. “Allowing more people with construction skills to lawfully enter the country to meet workforce shortages would be a good short-term solution while we rebuild the domestic pipeline for preparing American workers.”
However, other Biden administration policies could render any immigration reform plan unworkable for the construction industry, Turmail said.
“The Inflation Reduction Act includes, for the first time ever, minimum apprenticeship quotas for projects receiving the higher level of tax credits available from the act,” said Turmail. “This will severely limit the pool of workers from which firms can draw on to hire for these projects, and all but eliminate lawful immigration as a short-term option.”
Apprenticeship quotas could limit the number of immigrants working on these projects because those coming into the country legally would presumably already have the construction skills necessary to qualify for a temporary worker visa. In other words, they would have the experience and knowledge needed for those jobs, but not the apprenticeship pedigree that’s stipulated in the act.
Straightforward immigration reform could solve that problem, Turmail said.
“It could be something as relatively simple as putting in place a temporary work visa program specifically for construction,” said Turmail. “Or it could be broader, and include a path to legal status for undocumented workers, tighter border security and a construction-specific temporary visa program.”
Nevertheless, Congress is not expected to tackle this issue anytime soon.
Legislation such as the Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act, a bill that establishes a new nonimmigrant visa for temporary nonagricultural workers to fill jobs that have remained open for a certain amount of time and are located in areas where the unemployment rate sits below 7.9%, is not currently being debated, according to ABC.
“We have been pushing for any and all immigration reform possible,” said Turmail. “Unfortunately, it remains an issue most politicians like to talk about, but too few are willing to act on.”
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program earlier this month. That decision blocks new applications but allows current DACA enrollees to renew their status. ABC recently called to move forward on DACA and other immigration reform legislation.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen’s ruling on DACA comes after nine states filed a lawsuit last year claiming they are harmed financially due to healthcare, education and other costs when immigrants are allowed to remain in the country illegally.
Some construction companies advocate for the Office of Foreign Labor Certification to start charging fees for Foreign Labor Certification applications. This would allow the OFLC to improve current slow processing times by having the ability to increase staffing, said Dorer. The department currently relies on funding from Congress.
Any immigration reform will likely have to wait until after the midterm elections, said Turmail.
“There is some talk of attaching some amount of immigration reform to the end-of-year funding bill,” he said. “Besides that, a lot of talk.”