Years after housing bust, fewer unauthorized immigrants in construction

Construction is no longer one of the top-three occupations for unauthorized workers in California. According to a new report, fewer unauthorized workers have gravitated to construction and production jobs since 2007. Wes Peck/ Flickr

When Southern California’s housing boom went bust in the late 2000s, veteran construction worker Luis Enrique stuck with his trade, difficult as it was sometimes. But he says many of his fellow immigrant workers gave up - and moved on to other jobs.
“One became a driver, one went to Bakersfield to work in the fields, many went to work in restaurants," said Enrique, 46, who has been in the U.S. since his teens but doesn't have legal status.

This job shift is part of a larger trend, it turns out. A new report from the Pew Research Center finds that ever since 2007 - just before the Great Recession and the housing and construction bust - fewer unauthorized immigrant workers are gravitating toward construction jobs.

Pew demographer Jeffrey Passel said that in 2007, construction ranked the third-largest occupation for unauthorized workers in California.

These days, he said, "it’s not even in the top three, interestingly," he said.

Passel said the top three occupations for unauthorized workers in California these days are leisure and hospitality – which includes restaurant work – manufacturing, and a category called "business and professional services," a category that includes white-collar and self-employed workers.

According to the report, this encompasses "a wide range of businesses from legal services and advertising, to employment services, landscaping and waste management, to personal services such as dry cleaning, nail salons, car washes and religious organizations."

It's this category that's replaced construction as the number-three occupation for unauthorized immigrants in California. And it's where some former construction workers have gone, say those who are hanging on.

Miguel, another longtime construction worker, said he struggled to earn an income after jobs in his industry dwindled.

"After that happened, I dedicated myself for a while to commerce, to selling things at the swap meet," he said," like plants that I grew, or old items like clothes, shoes, and used tools."

But he said he didn't earn enough. He's since gone back to construction, working odd jobs as a day laborer. He supplements those earnings with part-time work in house-cleaning, distributing fliers - whatever it takes, he says.

"There aren't the kinds of contracts that existed before," said Miguel, 59, who once specialized in remodeling older homes. "There aren't people who will hire you like they did before."

Luis Enrique is also working day labor jobs these days; both men waited for work this week at a small day labor center near downtown Los Angeles.

He says he's not ready to change occupations, not after nearly 30 years.

"I'm going to keep up the struggle," he said. "It's all that I know how to do."

Read the full report here.