Building without Builders? Immigrants, re/building, and The Wall

Quick, how do you build a huge wall without anyone to build it? Consider: as the US edges closer to building a border wall, a newly released report from the home building industry reports that about one in four workers in construction are immigrants. This isn’t all people from Mexico, of course. It includes both people who emigrated via official channels and those here without documentation. Anyway you parse it, though, one-quarter is a lot. Imagine a construction site with one in four of the workers gone. And a project on the immense scale of the Republicans’ border wall will need a tremendous number of workers, should it ever be funded.

It’s not just gigantic border walls, of course, but all kinds of construction in the US that’s built by immigrant hands. Spanish on the job site has been common for at least 20 years, and that’s from my experience working as a landscape architect in the Midwest — not California, not Florida, but the middle of the country a thousand miles from Mexico. Why? The National Association of Home Builders points at the slow return of native-born workers to construction trades when building picked up again after the Great Recession (2007–2009 or so). They also point at the aging of the US population, especially when we only look at native-born residents. A construction site is a tough place for an aging back, and that may what we’re see in these figures, too.

It’s not just construction. Agriculture, facilities maintenance, personal care and service, health care support and more — all are at least 20% immigrant workers. You can’t dig far into immigration without finding this: jobs, the people who come here for them and the people who hire them. It’s this broad reach into the US economy and our everyday lives that makes immigration reform so tricky.

Strip mall in Indianapolis (author photo)

What these figures don’t include is also construction, in a sense — rebuilding the threadbare parts of American towns and cities. In 2001, I was inspired by Mike Davis’s description of “All of Latin America is now a dynamo turning the lights back on in the dead spaces of North American cities.” I looked around the Midwestern city where I lived, and asked whether what he saw in California was also happening there.

Short answer: yes. I went on to write my own book about this immigrant revitalization, happening in the very same small Rustbelt communities that we’ve heard so much about since the 2016 election. Long answer: my recent book, Immigrant Pastoral: Midwestern Landscapes and Mexican-American Neighborhoods, which says:

Today: Saturday morning, Main Street: around the corner sits something new. Brilliant blue leaps off the freshly painted storefront, its impact dwarfing its modest size. Against the background of dilapidation, color draws the eye. The storefront windows are a riotous display of brightly colored ads and signs for the store’s products, with one window dominated by a flag in stripes of red, white, and green. The door stands open, and customers come and go from cars parked along the street. Their greetings, like the signs in the windows and the store name newly painted across the façade, are in Spanish …It’s a part of Mexico in the Midwest, a place made by outsiders, a landscape reflecting a new culture in an old place, but it is also more than any of these. It’s the one storefront with fresh paint and windows with current displays and signs; it’s the one business with the lights on. It’s a reason to go downtown, a small counterweight against the tide of abandonment sweeping this city. It looks like the future, no more, no less.
The tienda is an obvious change in the landscape, the piece that can’t be missed, but it isn’t alone. Seeing the tienda sensitizes the vision to signs all around the city that something new is happening here.

- From Chapter 1, Hope and Home.

That “something new” isn’t new at all. Immigrants have always built this country, since before the Revolution to today. That includes projects we don’t see, like moribund shopping areas in small Rustbelt cities, and projects that make headlines. Like border walls.


Want more? Find the complete first chapter of Immigrant Pastoral here.

Also posted on the blog City Wild.