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Construction leaders discuss immigration.

The long-simmering debate over immigration reform took on an even great prominence last week with a prime-time speech by President George W. Bush during which he called for an overhaul of the immigration system that would tighten the boarders and provide a system for those who arrived here illegally to get on the path to citizenship.

Here in New York City--a true city of immigrants--ramifications of any change in immigration policy will be felt, and in few places more, some say, than in the construction industry.

"The construction industry is traditionally one where immigrant families can come in, work and end up as middle-class Americans," said Lou Coletti, president and CEO of the Building Trades Employers' Association. "We're for immigration and for getting these guys on the books."

Coletti says that he largely supported the president's proposal, but thinks he may not have gone far enough.

"I work with unions, so the problem of illegals here is relatively small ... Where, I think, the bigger problem is in the private sector where guys hire illegals and pay them $8 an hour for a job worth a lot more," Coletti said. "I was disappointed that I did not here how [the government] is going to crack down on those employers who are not in compliance [with immigration laws]."

According to Coletti, many non-union construction sites in town employ illegal aliens, sometimes in less-than-ideal working conditions. In the past two months, there have been seven construction deaths in New York City, all at non-union sites and, Coletti said, "several of them involved communication problems where people couldn't speak the same language."

Ed Ott, the director of public relations for the New York City Central Labor Council, said that contractors employing illegal immigrants can have negative effects on more than just a single job site.

"What happens is you get immigrants exploited by the nonunion part of the industry," Ott said. "There are current laws against [employing illegals] but they're ignored and it's undermining revenue and standards for the rest of us. It makes the illegal work cheaper. There are real quality issues and real health and safety issues at stake."

Ott said contractors often pay illegal workers in cash, so they are not paying taxes or workers' compensation, creating a drain on the public funds. He agrees with Coletti that President Bush should have said more about punishing those who employ illegals, but says words won't make a difference.

"If you've got 140,000 illegal immigrants in the country, maybe you've got a problem," Ott said. "When you have 14 million like we do, that's beyond a problem. That's public policy ... People can talk all they want about reform. The proof is in the pudding."
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Author:Moran, Tim
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:May 24, 2006
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