Controversial immigration legislation currently under consideration in Congress could bring about a critical shortage of workers in the home-building industry, industry figures said.

“The home-building industry could be in danger of losing a significant portion of its labor force,” if immigration reform doesn’t include a guest worker program and a program to address illegal immigrant issues, according to spokesman Michael Strauss of the 225,000-member National Association of Home Builders.

Strauss was referring to legislation that Congress is currently considering. There are three dueling bills in Congress, each offering different versions of immigration reform.

In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would put up a 700-mile fence between Mexico and the U.S. and, under certain circumstances, jail or deport undocumented workers, and penalize those who employed them.

In March, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary voted 12 to 6 in favor of a bill that would allow for a guest worker program for immigrants. That bill also involves penalties for undocumented workers, according to Carl Shusterman, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service prosecutor who practices immigration law in Los Angeles. A third bill is also under consideration.

Senate Republicans and Democrats reportedly are nearing a last-minute compromise today on legislation opening the way to legal status and eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The stakes are high, with construction accounting for roughly 16 percent of the gross domestic product. A “sizable number,” though not as much as 50 percent, of construction workers, both residential and commercial, are undocumented immigrants, according to Gary Roden, immediate past chairman of trade group Associated Builders and Contractors.

The legislation “has a huge impact on the construction industry,” Roden said, noting that the number of all construction workers in the country is estimated at between 7 million and 8 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roden’s association represents 23,000 mostly non-union construction and construction-related firms in the commercial and industrial building sectors nationally.

Strauss said the NAHB predicts 18 million new homes will be built over the next decade, generating more than 1 million jobs in the economy.

“We support reform of the U.S. immigration system, but we also estimate about 20 percent of the current residential construction workforce nationwide is composed of foreign-born workers,” Strauss said.

“They (immigrants) are productive workers and they are needed in our industry,” Strauss said.

“An efficient and effective guest worker program should be created in order to stop the incentive for illegal immigration into the U.S.,” Strauss said.

“NAHB believes Congress should allow non-U.S. citizens to apply for the right to work legally for a certain time, and possibly allow opportunities for permanent residency or citizenship,” Strauss said. “Obviously, these workers should be required to pay all taxes and other fees; in short, they should be held to the same standards as U.S. workers.”

The NAHB recognizes the need for strong border measures, “but we also recognize the need to have an available labor supply to continue to meet demand for housing,” said Strauss.

“The current system doesn’t provide for enough visas. It’s plagued with an enormous backlog and doesn’t provide enough visa categories to support the U.S. economy’s demand for workers,” Strauss said.

Strauss said the NAHB thinks government has a role in enforcing immigration policies.

“Business owners have a responsibility to ensure their workers are eligible to work in the U.S.,” Strauss said. “But 80 percent of our members are small business owners that build less than 25 homes a year. The government can’t expect small business owners to handle this burden of policing and should take the role of making sure workers are documented,” Strauss said.

Large numbers of predicted retirements and continuing demand mean the building industry is already short of workers, according to Roden.

“Our industry is almost desperate for new workers. If the current undocumented workers are pulled out of the industry, we will be in crisis mode,” said Roden.

“I think almost everyone agrees there needs to be a security aspect to immigration, and the borders need to be more closely controlled,” Roden said.

“But there has to be some type of guest worker program where the individuals can be allowed to come into the country in a controlled environment and be allowed to go to work in our industry and other industries,” Roden said.

“The last piece is the enforcement piece. So many contractors in this country are still small family-owned businesses that can only look at the documents presented to them and try to determine if a person truly is a legal worker. If false or fraudulent papers are presented, all they can do is make a good faith effort to determine if they are accurate,” Roden said.

“We need a system set up on a national basis where employers can check to see if someone is a legal worker,” Roden said.

Some of the proposed legislation includes provisions that would issue companies fines of up to $50,000 for hiring an undocumented worker, he said. “What could potentially happen is that smaller companies might become afraid to hire Hispanic workers because they would be so afraid of making a mistake that could put them out of business,” said Roden, who is also executive vice president of Dallas, Texas-based Aguirre Corp., a construction company.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said, ” We need the continued contributions of … immigrants to grow and remain competitive,” in a statement on its Web site. In the statement, the Chamber vows to work to pass immigration reform that along with improved border security will provide an earned pathway to legalization for undocumented workers, create a guest worker program and refrain from burdening employers with worker verification systems.

“We know that the construction sector is dependent on immigrant workers in some cases,” said Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research for the National Council of La Raza advocacy group. “These bills would be very important both to employers who want a legal, stable work force and to the immigrants who are working in construction already.”

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