Is The Melting Pot Boiling Over?

June 19, 2006
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It is practically impossible to figure out how many immigrants - legal as well as illegal - are employed in the HVACR trade. According to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction employed the greatest number of foreign-born workers in 2005 - about 2.5 million immigrants, or about one out of every eight who have a job there. It also has among the highest concentrations of foreign-born workers - nearly 22 percent of the overall workforce.

What is not impossible is getting an opinion regarding immigration from those in the HVACR field. In an unscientific poll, NEWS readers responded en masse to a recent three-question online survey regarding this emotional topic - and, for the most part, those who took the time to state their case on the issue did not mince words.

"My personal take is that the illegal issue is very simple," said George L. Rodriguez, owner of ServTEC Air Conditioning Inc. (Santa Fe Springs, Calif.). "The federal government is not enforcing the immigration laws already on the books. Legal Hispanic immigrants, like myself - or even generational legal Hispanics - are dismayed and saddened at the conduct of the federal government in not protecting us. Legal vs. illegal, that is the question!"

READERS SPEAK OUT

In the final analysis, NEWS readers did not seem to believe the "A Day Without Immigrants" demonstration, held May 1 of this year, will affect immigration reform. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents disagreed with the throngs of immigrants and advocates who took to the streets of many U.S. cities to protest proposed immigration laws.

Meanwhile, 86 percent of those who answered The NEWS' unscientific survey noted that not a single employee from their respective contracting firms walked out that day, nor did they participate in the one-day demonstration.

When asked for their input on the immigration issue, some did refrain from exposing their personal thoughts, but the majority did not hesitate to provide their take on the emotional social subject.

"We should build a wall first to stop the flow," was one respondent's comment. "Then we can worry about what should be done with the people who are already here."

"Anyone coming to the United States to work and start a family, pay taxes, and do it legally, I do not have a problem with," wrote another respondent.

"It is the contractors that hire immigrants illegally for less than $3.50 an hour that drives this country down. Shame on them. Think: Buy American, not Mexican/China."

Foy Fuller of Air Dynamics (Huntsville, Ala.) was more direct. "Heavily fine businesses that use illegal immigrants," he wrote. "No amnesty. Build a fence. Deport. Enforce!"

Wayne Mulholland of TriCounty Mechanical (Azle, Texas) was even more blunt.

"Immigrants who crossed our border illegally have committed a crime," he wrote. "No matter who spins this fact, any concessions given to them is amnesty. Let's seal our borders and prosecute employers who hire illegals."

That's not to say there weren't those who had the opposite view.

"People have a right to work and prosper," said one respondent. "If they are not thugs, then they should be encouraged to work here. They should be considered an asset to any country - people who want to work, that is."

In truth, some were ... well ... more-than-blunt.

  • "Legal, yes. Illegal means not here legally. Send them home!"

  • "Send them all back. They should make something of their own country, instead of parasitizing us. How many trillions have we poured into other countries, only to have them spit on us? If Washington wants to help out the poor, all they have to do is go to areas where offshore companies have put American families out of work."

  • "Fence and arm the whole border. We are a sovereign nation. Send 12 million people home."

    (For a full report on comments made to The NEWS, see the sidebar "Readers' Views on Immigration" below.)

    Steve Saunders, CEO of Tempo Cooling and Heating (Irvin, Texas), gets upset when he hears such, what he would term, scathing attacks.

    "We had about half of our Hispanic folks out," said the Lone Star contractor, referring to May 1. "I was impacted in an unusual way in that my personal sense of justice and outrage at the unfair perceptions and an unappealing rhetoric targeting the Hispanic population, who does the dirty and heavy lifting in this economy.

    "So, we told all of our folks that they were OK if they chose to walk out. And, we issued a public statement of support for the values and effort of all the Hispanic workers in our community - both documented and undocumented. ... The debate is infuriating, not to mention frightening, if you are Hispanic and undocumented or Hispanic with friends and family who are likely undocumented."

    (Saunders agreed to provide his insight on the subject with The NEWS. See his guest editorial in this issue "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor ... Or Have We Forgotten That?".)

    THOUGHTS FROM THE BORDER

    Not surprisingly, the states that border Mexico - Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California - have a more active (and vocal) stance in the current immigration controversy. Even though he has not officially polled members of the California chapter of Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), George Rodriguez, who is the current ACCA-California chairman, believes the sentiment is for "strong anti-illegal immigration."

    "My personal observations are that without the Hispanic labor, the construction industry in California would come to a screeching halt," said Rodriguez. "There are two separate and distinct sectors within the HVACR industry: the labor-intensive [installation], prone to illegal immigrant labor, and the technical [service], demanding higher and higher skills.

    "The latter I can attest to because that is all I see in the supply houses: training seminars or higher educational training. The service side of the industry requires technical and soft skills necessary to service the residential and commercial customers."

    In Rodriguez's case, he entered the United States through El Paso, Texas, in 1954 at the age of 9. His family applied for legal, permanent residency - a green card - and the process took 1.5 years to gain legal entry.

    "I resided in El Paso until after graduating from high school in 1963," he said. "We moved to the L.A. area, where I found a job with an air conditioning company in 1964. In 1966, I applied for citizenship. My older sister applied for citizenship in 1961. Meanwhile, my younger sister applied in 1965, and my mother applied at the age of 76."

    In truth, he does not understand why others cannot just follow the laws of the land. After, as he put, "a long and interesting career working for somebody else," Rodriguez started his own company in 1987, concentrating his efforts in the commercial sector. His son is now involved in the business.

    "The Bush administration is wrong by not enforcing the current immigration laws," he said. "A society cannot last long when its own laws are selectively applied. The Latinization of the United States will forever change this country, and I fear the change will be for the worse."

    In Texas, the state ACCA chapter did poll its members and issued a printed statement regarding "this very important issue," per Todd McAlister, executive director of ACCA-Texas.

    "There has not been a lot of visibility in Texas with regards to the issue," thought McAlister, "which seems a little strange. However, most of our members do have an opinion on the subject."

    In the printed statement, ACCA-Texas said it's "keenly aware of the effect that laborers have in Texas, both legal and illegal in nature. Many creditable HVACR companies across the state use subcontracting firms to help with installations, and these firms may employ illegal immigrants, either on a full-time or part-time basis. As well, many companies may directly employ illegal immigrants involved in the HVACR industry here in Texas.

    "The responses from the completely voluntary poll were as diverse as the Texas population. However, a majority of the respondents (90 percent) stated that the United States border needed to be more secure, that those individuals who choose to break the law should somehow be punished, and that all laws and statutes should be fully enforced."

    In the release, ACCA-Texas provided some specific comments provided by members, including:

  • "I think any company that knowingly (that is without doing due diligence) hires illegal aliens either as employees or subcontractors should be subject to a fine and loss of license. If there are no jobs, the illegal immigrants won't come."

  • "This is very interesting. While a large percentage of my construction crew is Latino and some were probably (I know) not legal at some previous time, we must stop the flow across the border and not reward illegal behavior. As much as I hate government regulations, we must find a way to make it easy to identify who is legal and punish the businessman that works illegal people. This puts an unfair burden on the businesses that are trying to do right."

  • "I have over 45 Hispanic employees working for me that are wonderful. They seem to be great craftsmen that withstand the heat in Houston attics. My feelings are that we had such loose borders and let 40 percent of our population into the United States that we need them not to feel like criminals and contribute to our economy. I feel there should be a stipulation that they cannot take over $1,000 over the border at any given time."

  • "We don't hire illegal immigrants, and think there should be tougher penalties for those who do. There should be enforcement of current laws. If someone is here with a legal work permit, they should be allowed to work. I would agree with the English requirement for citizenship."

    In the end, the state chapter stated that all companies in Texas "should be held accountable for their hiring practices and that all laws should be fully enforced with regard to immigration issues."

    "ACCA-Texas will support all laws and regulations as they relate to immigration, including any new statutes that will become law," it concluded. "ACCA-Texas firmly believes that all industries should be held account able for their methods of hiring and practices that include illegal immigrants, and that current law should be more tightly enforced to level the playing field for all."

    ARIZONA AND FLORIDA VIEWPOINTS

    In Arizona, the ACCA state chapter was in the process of collecting opinions from its members, and was scheduled to provide a collective view on the debate. As of June 6, it had not issued its stance on the immigration issue.

    When asked what he thought of the issue, Lou Jennings, executive vice president of Metro Mechanical Inc. (Phoenix), said he believed "the longer an immigrant is here, the more valuable to America he or she becomes."

    "They've put down roots," he said. "Their children are golden. They go on to earn as much as natives, and pay taxes that compensate for the welfare costs of the first generation."

    Being a union contractor, Jennings said all of the front-end documentation is done at the union hall at the time of dispatch. "Personally, I do not know of a single contractor who employs illegals willingly," he said.

    "There's just too much liability from many aspects. I am also sure that there are situations where, inadvertently, a person was hired who was not legal. From my experience, particularly with larger HVACR commercial-industrial contractors in the Arizona market, illegal immigrants are not a major force in the labor pool."

    Unions have, as he put it, "a semi-legitimate" concern that large numbers of illegal workers "lower wages for U.S. workers." However, he said the effect is "so modest that after a zillion studies, no economist can agree upon how much wages are reduced."

    Even though Florida does not border Mexico, it is believed to still have its fair share of immigrants, documented and undocumented. It appears, though, businesses are treading carefully with this issue.

    "We, as a state organization, have not taken a position on this issue," said Ken Bodwell, who helped organize the ACCA-Florida chapter and is also CFO and partner with Innovative Service Solutions (Orlando). "With regard to hiring immigrants, I cannot answer that for all companies involved. However, I am sure that we will find immigrant employees in most companies."

    In Service Solution's case, Bodwell said it employs "at least 70 percent Spanish-speaking field technicians. They are from Mexico, South America, Puerto Rico, and the islands." It's all about needed manpower, he explained.

    "Manpower is a major issue facing the HVACR industry. However, we cannot employ unskilled labor, and we can only dedicate a portion of our new hires to trainee levels," said Bodwell.

    "In most areas of Florida, the technician must speak English. We are sending service technicians into peoples' homes and businesses. We do not sort our customers by race, creed, or color, but we must provide them with a noncontroversial skilled employee to receive continual business from them.

    "The language barrier is no different than long hair or earrings in a male's ear: Some customers will not accept. We keep as near a generic look as possible to avoid conflict. Skill levels overcome a lot of the other barriers. Therefore, the focus is on skill level."

    FEEDBACK REQUESTED... Your thoughts on the immigration issue? For potential inclusion in the Letters section, please e-mail them to Letters@ACHRNews.com. Or, mail your comments to: Letters to the Editor, c/o The ACHR NEWS, 2401 W. Big Beaver Rd., Ste. 700, Troy, MI 48084. In all cases, include name, title, employer, and city/state of employer.

    Sidebar: Readers' Views on Immigration

    The NEWS asked – and you answered. To find out what NEWS subscribers think about immigration reform, we placed a three-question survey on our Website recently. The most revealing answers came with the final question asked: In 50 words or less, what are your thoughts concerning the immigration issue? Here is how you responded:

  • "Heavily fine businesses that use illegal immigrants. No Amnesty. Build a fence. Deport. ENFORCE."

    - Foy Fuller, Air Dynamics, Huntsville, Ala.

  • "We should build a wall first to stop the flow. Then we can worry about what should be done with the people who are already here."

    - Unsigned

  • "People have a right to work and prosper. If they are not thugs, then they should be encouraged to work here. They should be considered an asset to any country - people who want to work, that is."

    - Unsigned

  • "Enforcements of existing laws and building of a fence to stop or minimize the flow of illegal immigrants should come first."

    - Unsigned

  • "I am not a racist, but I have seen, for a fact, where they are taking jobs from us. I know a family that the husband has tried to find work and saw Mexicans working on the job he applied for. If they cross the border, they should be sent back. If they are not legal, send them back so we can find jobs."

    - Joyce Wallace

  • "This should not be an issue to begin with. My grandparents came to this country by way of New York (Italy). I have no problem if they do this, too!"

    - Frank Bonavita

  • "Legal, yes! Illegal means ‘not here legally.' Send them home."

    - Rich Mentzel

  • "Without the immigrants, who will perform the tasks that are low-paying?"

    - Unsigned

  • "Legal immigration is OK, but it should be limited to people that can contribute to the welfare of the USA. Illegals should be jailed, then thrown out of this country!"

    - Unsigned

  • "The politicians have no backbone to do what the overall general public wants. And we all know what that is. That is, represent Americans, not illegal aliens and big corporations."

    - Colin

  • "Enforce our present laws. Change should happen later - and to be voted on by the general public."

    - Brian

  • "Illegal aliens, marching in our cities and streets making demands, is a good indication that they represent an invading force and should be dealt with in an aggressive and expedient manner. It is time that we close our borders and eject illegal immigrants and deny all future immigration."

    - James Walker

  • "No amnesty. Let them obey the current laws and apply. That's the only way to be fair."

    - Unsigned

  • "It is a distraction to keep people from focusing in on the real issues our country faces."

    - Unsigned

  • "Too late to do anything about it now. Damage is already done."

    - Unsigned

  • "Secure the border first."

    - Unsigned

  • "Recent demonstrations and boycotts have only raised the awareness of U.S. citizens to the magnitude of the illegal immigration problem, the associated cost burden on taxpayers, and our nation's vulnerability from open borders. For that, I say, ‘Thank you.' We don't need immigration reform. We need enforcement of existing immigration laws and tighter security at our borders."

    - Bob Pruden

  • "We should control our borders and stop all people from coming to the United States. We don't need any more people in this country."

    - Unsigned

  • "If it's OK to let illegals come into the country, don't complain when they take your business away."

    - Bill Porupsky

  • "Close the border. No amnesty. Defeat the Senate immigration bill. Fine and jail employers who are illegally hiring illegal immigrants."

    - Unsigned

  • "1) Close the borders. 2) Give illegals 90 days to come forward for processing. 3) Unprocessed get the boot to the border and employers are fined and IRS alerted. 4) Services ceased for unprocessed after initial 90 days."

    - Warren Whidden

  • "Provide a controlled means to allow guest workers into this country with annual adjustments as required. Generate tax revenue from this. Heavily fine employers who violate this. Eliminate automatic U.S. citizenship for anyone born here to parents not here legally."

    - Unsigned

    Sidebar: Help in Learning English

    Contractors with employees who do not speak English as their primary language can provide assistance through English as a Second Language (ESL) programs offered by community colleges and local literacy affiliates of ProLiteracy Worldwide.

    While contractors can suggest that employees take night classes offsite, a more common approach is onsite workplace classes, according to Sandra Powell, an Illinois state-approved ESL teacher with 23 years' experience.

    A typical approach, she said, is to offer two-hour classes twice a week, usually at the start or end of a shift. One hour is part of the employees' workday, for which they are paid regular wages, while the employees volunteer their time for the other hour.

    Employers pay a fee to the community college or literacy group, which sets up the program and provides the teachers. Powell said the commitment often consists of multiple eight-week cycles, as it may take up to 100 hours of contact time to see improvements in English comprehension.

    She said employers can require such classes for job retention, but it is more common to provide them as an incentive for promotions. She said the organizations providing the training do not get involved in determining such incentives, nor do the groups take any position regarding citizenship or the legal status of the employees.

    Unlike bilingual education, ESL classes are taught strictly in English, meaning employees with a variety of first languages can take the same class.

    Classes can be geared for general English comprehension or can be work-specific, such as the correct English terminology for tools and equipment.

    For more information, go to www.proliteracy.org.

    Publication date: 06/19/2006

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