Immigrants, who needs ‘em? We do

A couple summers ago, a nasty hail storm rolled through western Iowa where I was living, causing extensive damages to more than half the homes in Red Oak.

My house was one of the many casualties and as such, we would put on a new roof, siding, window screens and trim.

As I typically do with my personal business, I hired a contractor whose work I could not only vouch for through others, but who also was a long standing customer of the newspaper I managed.

As was the typical practice for most general contractors in the area who were besieged with a sudden influx of work, he outsourced most of the work and simply “supervised” its progression.

There was a guy who came and replaced the windows. And there was a different guy who did the siding work, who hired another another guy to take off the old stuff. Our sub-contractors had sub-contractors.

And then there was a bunch of guys who replaced the roof. However, these guys weren’t like the other guys. They were Hispanic, and by that, I mean VERY Hispanic. Based on the music they listened to, their dark complexion, and the fact they spoke very, very little English, it was evident these guys were born a little farther south than Texas, Arizona, or California.

One day after work, I came home to find the general contractor wandering around the site “checking” on the roofing crew from a comfortable vantage point on the ground. I invited him to sit in a lawn chair with me and enjoy a nice cool beverage and we struck up a conversation about his business and how hectic it had been that summer.

It was late August, and he had taken one solitary day off (July 4) since the storm hit the area in mid-April. He had “crews” still all over town, 90 days later, and said there would be several jobs postponed until the next year.

This wasn’t news to me. You could see the crews dotted all over town, and the companies who employed them were still advertising quite frequently in the newspaper despite the fact they all had long waiting lists.

And these crews, no matter who was signing their checks all had one thing in common: there wasn’t a white man among them.

My general contractor was a giant of a man. While I’m fairly tall at 6’3″, this guy dwarfed me at 6’8″. Barrel-chested and as wide as a door, he had the look of someone who was built for the hard labor associated with roofing. His 45-year-old face showed the signs of working outside most of his life and he was clearly capable of the physical exertion required of hauling shingles up a 30-foot ladder.

With his career experience in mind, I asked about the racial makeup of these crews and why there weren’t any local guys taking advantage of these great employment opportunities.

He looked me square in the eye and said “Greg, white guys without jobs won’t do the work. They may take the job and show up the first day, but they aren’t back the second.”

The work conditions associated with replacing a roof are brutal. This crew was at the house as soon as the sun came up and they were there 14 hours later until they could barely see.

There were no union breaks every hour for a cigarette, drink of water, and phone call to your girlfriend. There was no calling in sick, no personal days, or paid jury duty. There was just work. Lots of hard, back-breaking work.

And white folks, at least the ones who didn’t already have good jobs before the storm hit, simply didn’t want anything to do with it. That was just reality.

I was thinking about that conversation a couple weeks ago when the Minnesota demographer was in New Ulm talking about the state’s available workforce.

Simply put, it is shrinking, especially among white people. Basically, there are more white people leaving the state’s workforce either through moving out of state or by retiring than those entering it.

However, the labor force isn’t declining because the losses of white people working are being made up for by the number of immigrants entering it.

And when I say immigrants, I don’t mean Iowa refugees like myself. I mean international immigrants. Like the guys who fixed my roof.

In our current political climate, it iss popular rhetoric for candidates to banter about “getting tough on immigration.” (While conveniently ignoring or lying about the fact more illegal immigrants have been deported during President Barack Obama’s term than any other president ever – but I digress.)

This promised “crackdown” may take several forms, including extra border patrols, additional restrictions, tougher laws or a fabled wall built and paid for by the tooth fairy.

However, these proposals all share one glaring oversight: we need immigrants.

Sure, we don’t need deadbeat immigrants. We have plenty of our own deadbeats. In fact, we have gotten really good at producing those ourselves, so if you don’t want to work, follow the law, or (gasp) participate in the democratic system, stay out. We don’t need you.

What we do need, though, is hard-working, law-abiding, participating citizens. In fact, we need lots of them. America was made great on the backs of immigrants like that, whether from Mexico, China, Ireland, or Germany.

So the next time you hear a politician promising to “get tough” on immigration, make sure he or she also has a plan that goes beyond keeping out deadbeats. Beyond keeping out the bad, we need to be equally concerned with revising a broken system that doesn’t facilitate bringing in the good.

This country, this state and this community was made great by immigrants. They can make us great tomorrow too.

Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Journal. His award-winning weekly column, What’s Going On, has been published in four newspapers in three states for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at