By Matt Koerber
For this post, I interviewed my uncle, Jim Koerber, who has been a contractor in Asheville North Carolina since the early 1980’s. I worked for Jim for parts of several summers when I was in high school and college. He became a good friend and mentor to me during that time. I wanted to interview Jim because the construction field in North Carolina is dominated by immigrant workers and because I knew that he is a thoughtful Christian who would want to reflect on these issues from a biblical perspective. I spoke to Jim about this project a few weeks ago and called him recently while he was driving around between jobs. (By Matt Koerber)
Jim grew up in Pittsburgh and has a good perspective on how job markets can vary from region to region. In spite of our rich history of immigration, Pittsburgh hasn’t seen the waves of Hispanic immigrants that other parts of the country have received. I know from personal experience that when I worked with him 20 years ago, most of the roofers were Mexicans. By contrast, when I interviewed roofers in Pittsburgh 7 years ago, none of the crews had significant numbers of immigrants working for them. I asked Jim how things were different in North Carolina:
JK: “Pittsburgh is a highly unionized market and people are also very protective of the construction jobs that are there. In the South, they have ‘right to work laws’ and there is not as much of a union presence. Pittsburgh is a city of immigrants (going back to the early 20th century), but it was very different historically in the South. For example, you rarely meet someone with a Polish name in this part of the country. Most families have Northern European heritage.”
But all of that began to change at the end of the 20th century. Waves of migrants from Mexico began to enter the region’s job markets. The construction market was particularly affected. I asked Jim what this looks like:
JK: “I would say that a lot of framing crews are now totally Hispanic. Only 10 or 15 years ago that would have not been as much the case. If you had a Hispanic crew framing your house, people would assume that it was not built well. But that has changed. Hispanic workers are now viewed as viable workers in that field. It is the same with the roofing crews, or even more so. Most drywall crews are mostly Mexican. They have to work their butts off – it is a grind. Americans who are willing to do it expect to make a lot of money. Mexicans are willing to grind it out for less. Some crews are owned by Mexicans; you can see the names on the truck. Often the foreman is an American, but he may hire all Mexicans to work for him.”
By contrast, some parts of the construction field are still done by American workers. Electricians, plumbers and mechanical workers are mostly American. I asked him where most immigrants were from:
JK: “The majority of immigrants are Hispanic, by far. There are increasingly a lot of Guatemalans, but I would say that 90% are Mexican, 5% other Hispanics and then 5% from other places like the Ukraine. We have seen a lot more Ukrainians here, they have a reputation for being good with woodwork.”
We talked about the ways in which competition from immigrant workers can undercut wages.
“In my experience, immigrants will often be willing to work for less money. They might charge $18/hr instead of the $20/hr that Americans would want. The Americans really want $22/hr and they were getting $25/hr 10 years ago (before the market crashed). They may undercut wages, but it is not typically as much as you think. Here is the thing, if they live here and their kids go to school here, with American kids – they end up being more American than Mexican. The kids are U.S. citizens and they speak English much better than Spanish. The kids end up with really no experience of Mexico. They want the same stuff that American kids want. They all have to pay rent and buy food at American prices. They might live less expensively, but it is not that much different.”
I asked him whether workers were typically documented or not. As we discussed it, I began to appreciate the complexity of the situation. I learned that most workers have a number that they can give to their boss that allows a form of quasi-legality. Sometimes the number is a green card number, and sometimes it is a social security number. Sometimes the number is legitimate, and sometimes it is not. Some workers that he knows have been here for decades, but they are still undocumented. We discussed the impact that this had on the job market.
JK: “I think that the ongoing undocumented status for a lot of workers has a real negative effect on the economy. It makes it hard for them to negotiate fair wages and the boss is tempted to pay them less than an American. Unless they have a legal right to be here, their employer has the ability to manipulate the situation for their own benefit. A lot of time I see people being treated like (mere) tools and not as someone who is made in the image of God.”
But it is not just Americans who feel the competitive pressure. Jim told me a story about a Mexican friend, C, who has worked alongside him in the construction field for 20 years. Sometimes crew members will go back and forth to different crews, and recently Jim’s own kids were working for C on a job. He told them how mad he was about recent migrations of Mexicans from South Carolina. He said, “Those Mexicans from South Carolina keep coming up here. They don’t charge enough and they lower everyone’s wages!”
I asked him how he thought American workers responded to this situation and then the interview started to get really interesting. Jim had just arrived at the job site and started to talk with the plumbers who were subcontracted for the job.
JK: “This is my nephew from way up in ‘Yankee land.’ He is writing some things online to try to get people to talk about immigration in helpful ways. He is asking how people down here feel about immigrants.”
Kevin and Mike, two plumbers on the job, seemed more than willing to weigh in. I could hear their distinctly Southern accents as they spoke into Jim’s cell phone. One of them said, “In general, it is basically this: if they are legal we don’t care. If not, then it does kind of ruffle feathers. I can get along with anybody I know. The bottom line is that I don’t like it if they don’t pay their taxes.” ** The other plumber chimed in as well, “I don’t think that there is a whole lot of resentment between Mexicans and Americans. We get a kick out of working with most of these guys. We have a lot of back and forth jokes going on. But I don’t like it when they don’t learn English. I mean, if I went to France I would learn to speak French. Most of these guys pick up enough English just by being here, but it is hard when they don’t speak English.”
I asked Jim how his Christian faith impacted the way that he views the situation.
JK: “The ultimate point is that even if we disagree with how things are going, we still have to love our neighbors. We even have to love our enemies. Jesus said that all of the law and the prophets hangs on these two things – love God and love your neighbors. That is pretty much what the fundamentals of Christianity is all about. That was laid out clearly by the Boss. For Christians, it can be tempting to skirt around it because it is so darn hard, and unless you are connected to the Spirit it really seems unnatural.
In my experience, I really like working with the Mexicans that I have been around. I feel like they add a really rich fabric to our culture. In my experience most of them do a pretty good job staying out of trouble. Partly that is because that if they are not here legally, they could get deported if they get in any kind of trouble. The other reason is faith. My friend C became an Evangelical when he got here, like many of the Mexicans that I know. Around here LOTS of Mexicans have become Evangelicals since arriving in the U.S.”
I had a lot more questions to ask, but the plumbers were not getting paid to talk about my blog post and the building field is highly competitive. I thanked Jim for his time, and as I hung up I reflected on the complex nature of the immigration question. As I listened to these stories, I could see threads of our previous posts showing up here as well. In the midst of migrating people, God is working for his own purposes. We can see the nations streaming to the temple of God. But at the same time, the economic impact of immigration presents real challenges for some American workers. On the other side, many Mexican-American families have members with different legal statuses. The parents don’t have a secure foothold here, but the children have no connection with Mexico and it would not be easy to return. The issues are complex, but like it or not, immigrants and native-born Americans are working side by side – building together in the mountains of North Carolina.
** A significant number of undocumented immigrants pay taxes (an estimated $11.74 billion annually). Many also contribute to Social Security (estimated $13 billion), while not receiving much access to the benefits. See reporting on that here, here, and a personal account here. – Kevin