Do you know the way to San Antonio?

With enough work for all, including illegal immigrants, the booming Texas city is the future face of the American workforce.

Published May 2, 2006 12:47PM (EDT)

It's lunch hour and workers at the Rim -- San Antonio's busiest commercial work site -- are hiding from heat that's already hit the mid-90s. That's not "in the shade." There is none of that on this wound of raw land, once a cement quarry, located on the northwest side of this booming metropolis of 1.6 million. Driven by San Antonio's hot economy, the Rim is destined to become the city's newest "lifestyle center." That means more than a million square feet of high-end shops like Neiman-Marcus and Bass Pro Shops, served by clusters of restricted residential housing, and a half-billion dollars in annual revenues.

It also means a labor market with jobs for just about every man and woman who wants one: residents, legal immigrants and migrants without papers who paid a "coyote" $300 to swim them across the Rio Grande and hide them in the back of a truck for the three-hour drive north. San Antonio is a city that has reached an accommodation with its laborers and the legal status of its workers, and it's a family secret of sorts -- not one that's well kept. Undocumented laborers are a vital component of the city's workforce.

At the Rim, workers sit in pickup trucks, engines running $3 a gallon gas to power the air conditioning for a half-hour respite. Pete Infante, 31, an apprentice electrician, moved to San Antonio eight months ago from Chicago and has experienced both sides of the endless debate about America's undocumented workers. His father was an undocumented immigrant from Guanajuato, Mexico, who brought the family to Illinois, where Pete was born, thus becoming a U.S. citizen. The family was reared in Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas, amid the thriving winter fruit orchards that required migrant labor to flourish.

"It's all about opportunity," Infante says of undocumented workers. "Like my father, they come here to make a better living for their families. They don't come to just sit around. You start off as a day laborer. That's where a lot of the undocumenteds work at first. Then maybe you've got a family that's in the trades. They're already working. And they ease you in."

Opportunity is what brought Infante to Texas. With its open shop laws that allow most employers to hire non-union workers, Infante could earn his journeyman's license quicker and without coming up through the union ranks. He makes $15 an hour even as he works toward that license.

Infante points out that in Chicago, where he worked at a hydraulics manufacturing plant, the factory was run by Polish-Americans, who looked out for new relatives arriving from Europe "to ease 'em into the job market" and help them obtain work permits. "It's the same everywhere," he says. Asked about undocumented workers at the Rim, Infante says you see them doing drywall and cleanup, making little more than minimum wage. Do they take jobs that American workers want? Infante shakes his head. "Would you do a laborer's job in this heat for minimum wage?"

Whatever one's position on the immigration debate -- whether you favor open borders or a 700-mile fence -- it would pay to examine San Antonio. It's the future. "Look at San Antonio, and you're seeing the diversification that's coming," says Steve Murdock, the Texas state demographer and a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Of the 1.6 million residents of San Antonio's metropolitan area, almost 900,000 are Hispanic, most of them Mexican-Americans. It's impossible to know exactly how many are "illegal'' or in the city without proper documents from the U.S. government. Eleven million illegal workers is a widely accepted national figure commonly used in the ongoing debate.

But what makes San Antonio different from other major Texas cities is that Latinos here are more likely to be second, third or fourth generation. "I find more Hispanics in San Antonio who don't know Spanish than I find in Houston or Dallas," Murdock says. The last census reported that two-thirds of the Latinos who migrated to Texas between 1995 and 2000 came from another country such as Mexico, while only one-third of the Hispanic immigrants in San Antonio came from outside the U.S. "In San Antonio, one is used to having multiple cultural groups in harmony," Murdock says.

Murdock believes the diversity of San Antonio is as necessary to the economic health of the city, as it will be in the future to Texas and the U.S. "Immigration in general is the difference between the U.S. and what you see in Western Europe," he says. There, the population of whites, along with people of working age, has been declining for some time, and the aging population is putting ever increasing burdens on medical care and pension care. Only immigration is replenishing the West European workforce, and the same will become increasingly true for America. Economic self-interest demands that America accommodate these new workers.

And contrary to a widely held belief, illegal immigrants are not a negative drain on the social services network. "Most [undocumented] immigrants do pay taxes; most do have Social Security taken from them, and they won't be collecting Social Security when they get old," Murdock says. "And they're not eligible for most welfare plans."

While San Antonio has not grown rich off its immigrants -- it continues to be regarded as a low-wage, low-skill workforce -- it has experienced low unemployment and rapid growth for almost two decades. The Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce reports that the city added 12,000 new jobs in the last quarter of 2005. The unemployment rate stood at just 4.3 percent. Applications for new single-family residences increased 49 percent from the last quarter of 2004 compared to the last quarter of 2005.

"The San Antonio market is growing exponentially," says Tami Munson, a project manager for a large commercial painting contractor, and a board member of Associated General Contractors. "There's enough work to go around for everybody."

A critical issue in the immigration debate is whether native-born, working class citizens, some without a high school education, are losing jobs to migrant laborers, willing to work for low pay. But in San Antonio, say employers and labor representatives, the issue is not that black and white. To them, the real problem is finding not unskilled but skilled workers, of any nationality.

David Loredo supplies unskilled "ready labor" to about 100 different companies in San Antonio. He is branch manager for AbleBody Labor, a national company. He pays between $5.15 an hour, the nation's minimum wage, and $10 an hour, depending on the job. "Most of our people are unskilled labor," he says during a recent workday when he placed 120 people in jobs. Because it is a national firm, Loredo's company says it is stringent in making certain all potential employees are legal. "Everybody has to fill out an I-9 form, attesting to their status in the U.S. We do background criminal histories and check child predator lists. You have to have a Texas Driver's License or a government ID card."

Even with the tough restrictions, Loredo says he is able to fill all the job orders he receives daily without advertising in the newspaper. "Most people who come in have a valid work permit. If they don't we turn 'em away. There's a small percentage who don't; maybe 10 percent."

Loredo's success in filling all his jobs with legal workers argues that there are enough jobs to go around in San Antonio. Texas economist Ray Perryman of the Perryman Group, a consulting firm that advises businesses and government, has been studying the dynamics of the Texas workforce for three decades. "I don't think they [undocumented migrants] are displacing a significant number of jobs," Perryman says. "Our labor market is very dependent on these workers for a lot of jobs -- unskilled work in construction, agricultural employments, the hospitality sector."

If anything, businesses want a looser rein on legal immigration. The problem is finding workers to fill the higher-skill jobs. That is why the Associated General Contractors industry group favors a new "guest worker" program for skilled trades.

"We're mindful of the fact there's a shortage of labor in our industry," says Doug McMurry, executive vice president of the San Antonio chapter of the AGC. "We want a guest worker program that will allow qualified workers from Mexico and Latin America to enter the country legally and spend three, four or five years helping us build our hospitals, schools and retail centers.

"This is not about cheap labor," he continues. "Most commercial contractors and subcontractors are paying way above minimum wage to start with -- $9, $10, $20 an hour. We want qualified people who can work in our industry for high wages; people in the trades, carpenters, plumbers, electricians." Too much of the debate has centered on the emotional question of border security. "Mexican brick masons are not terrorists," McMurry says.

Contractor Munson says San Antonio has important lessons to teach the rest of the country about immigration and the assimilation of migrant workers into the community. "There are whole families of employees who came from Mexico. Their father did it and their grandfather did it. They know how to work the legal process." She does not support amnesty for undocumented workers, but she also understands the important role played by them. "They provide a valuable source of labor for the workforce," she says. "Our industry is growing exponentially, and a lot of the lower tier trades a lot of people don't want to do."

Back at The Rim, Martin Plascencia, 42, a first-year apprentice electrician, prepares to return to work. Construction trailers and heavy equipment dot the landscape. Names of some of the area's biggest contractors identify the players -- Bexar Electric, Brown Construction. Spokespersons for these companies say they do not hire undocumented workers. With the fines, it's simply too risky. But their smaller subcontractors do.

Plascencia has been riding the crest of the immigration wave in the United States for all his adult life. He began as a 16-year-old from Jalisco, Mexico, with no skills and no papers when he and his cousin sneaked into California near Tijuana in 1981. Except for one trip back to Jalisco, Plascencia has lived and worked in the United States ever since.

Upon first coming to the U.S., Plascencia lived with his extended family in Van Nuys, California. They lived in one house, six adults and four children. Other family members had preceded Martin to California and found jobs as workers at a jet boat manufacturing company. Those relatives in turn got Martin his first job as a laborer, and as he gained in skill, he was given better jobs. Minimum wage at the time was $3.35 an hour, and everyone who worked was paying taxes. "It was one house -- uncles, cousins, all family," Plascencia says. "Everybody worked, except the kids, who went to school. My aunts worked in sweatshops, and the guys at the boat factory and other places."

His story illustrates a central fact of immigrant life in the United States. Familial connections are a vital factor in migration from Mexico. A 2004 study by the National Council of La Raza found that more than 60 percent of undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. with someone of mixed status -- a citizen or a legal resident alien or a temporary worker.

"They want to come out of the shadows and assimilate in American culture," says Marisol Perez, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund's San Antonio office. "They want that piece of paper, that document; they want us to know that they're here." Plascencia got his "piece of paper" in 1986, with the nationwide amnesty granted by Congress. Ten years later, he became a U.S. citizen. The family moved from California to San Antonio eight months ago. Today, Plascencia is married and has three boys -- 18, 13 and 10 -- all Americans.

Of course, the economic boom could go bust in San Antonio and immigrant workers could quickly find themselves unemployed and unwanted. (Although the city is on a roll, as a Toyota manufacturing plant is set to begin production later this year.) But San Antonio has lived through economic ups and downs before. In 1986, when amnesty was granted to almost two million undocumented workers nationwide, the city and the rest of Texas was suffering from a serious downturn in the oil industry. But those immigrants, made legal by legislative mandate, managed to be absorbed into the larger population, and in diverse San Antonio became critical to the city's economic vitality.

Economist Perryman says America would benefit from a similar amnesty program today -- at least one that makes room for the unskilled laborer. The alternative of spending millions to build fences and patrol every mile of the border, he says, would only create "critical gaps in the economy. We'd have difficulty in building things, in growing things, in supporting critical segments of the hospitality industry."

No American industry has been more dependent on immigrant workers and unskilled laborers than farming. Dan Catalani, 52, has witnessed the political battles over migrant labor for decades from his spot in an air conditioned cubicle on the dock at the San Antonio Terminal Market. On a recent morning, workers are busy filling refrigerated tractor trailer rigs with fruits and vegetables bound for other states.

B. Catalani Produce has held a dock in this open air produce market since 1914, and Dan is one of seven brothers -- the third generation of Italian-Americans -- four of whom continue to operate the business. Many of the family farms that once dotted South Texas have been absorbed into large corporate operations, and B. Catalani is one of the few family produce companies that still thrives in San Antonio.

Catalani explains that he employs workers from across the racial and economic spectrum in San Antonio. They work all types of jobs, from sweeping the parking lot for $6.50 an hour to driving the small bobcats that move pallets of produce into the trucks for $7 an hour, to the commercial drivers who run the tractor-trailers and can earn $40,000 a year plus benefits. He hires a lot of Mexican workers, but stresses they're all in the country legally. In fact, he says, his company is dependent on them. "I open at 3 a.m. Do you think I could get any white boys to sweep the parking lot for minimum wage?"

By Cary Cardwell

Cary Cardwell is a Texas journalist who has covered San Antonio and South Texas for almost 30 years.

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