What Would Houston Look Like if All the Undocumented Immigrants Left?
In the nine months that Miguel Garcia’s wife carried his unborn son, Miguel spent most of his time away from her, traveling through deserts.
He was trying to find his way back. In December 2015, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had shown up on his doorstep, deportation order in hand, and sent him back to Honduras. His wife, Andrea, was eight weeks pregnant, left to care for their three other daughters alone. (At the couple’s request, their names have been changed for this story.)
The first time he tried to return, in March 2016, Border Patrol apprehended him while he was crossing the Rio Grande. He was deported again. The second time, in early June, he caught a ride in the back of a trailer truck with more than 100 others, crossing from Guatemala all the way up through Mexico, over the border and up to Houston. Armed cartel members stopped the truck on its way, asking for $10,000 from each person before they could proceed on the journey through Mexico. Depleting his life savings, he made it home just a month before his baby son was born, in July.
But the relief didn’t last long. At three weeks old, the baby needed gastrointestinal surgery — he could not digest any food. Two days after they brought him back home from the hospital, on August 11, Andrea was with the baby in their bedroom when Miguel called out from the front yard, Amor! She thought he was leaving for work. Carrying their son — still with the scars on his stomach — Andrea opened the front door to find her husband in handcuffs and an ICE agent pointing a gun at the family dog.
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“My husband told them, you don’t know how hard for me to come back over here and see my son born,” Andrea said, speaking in her second language. “The lady told him she want to help him, but we don’t believe her.”
ICE did help Miguel, with a work permit and an order of supervision “for humanitarian reasons,” the agents wrote on the order. That didn’t last long, either: Two weeks after Donald Trump signed a pair of immigration executive orders on January 25, it was revoked. He was ordered deported on February 23.
Miguel Garcia was one of an estimated 407,000 undocumented immigrants living in Houston. He was one of the thousands of undocumented construction workers encompassing an estimated one quarter of the state’s construction workforce. And he was a taxpayer: property taxes, payroll taxes, sales and utilities taxes — contributing to the billions that undocumented immigrants pay into the local, state and federal tax base every year.
Yet, leading up to the election of Donald Trump, debate over people like Garcia who entered the country illegally has rarely wavered from the topic of enforcement and deportation: Who should stay, who should go. The question of what happens next — what happens to the economy, say, if Trump were to seek to deport even half of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, or what happens to Houston’s infrastructure if even an eighth of all undocumented immigrants were to disappear — has remained more of an afterthought. The economic impact of a mass deportation effort has instead been shrouded in political rhetoric based not on disciplined research but on popular belief: that the illegals are stealing our jobs; that the illegals don’t pay taxes.
Those who have devoted their careers to immigration law and reform, however, are asking this: How would simply ousting them from our communities affect not just their families but everyone’s?
“I don’t want to fail to appreciate the humanitarian disaster of children and spouses losing the breadwinner and father figure,” said longtime immigration attorney Charles Foster, who has advised Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton on immigration policy. “But from an economic standpoint, the costs would be devastating. The average American Joe just doesn’t think of that stuff: Illegal, must go — it’s that simplistic.”
Miguel Garcia is now living with his sister in the rural town of Guaimaca, in the heart of Honduras. He can’t come back to the United States for 20 years, the punishment for entering illegally more than once. While many may say he should have known the consequences for flouting the legal immigration system, experts like Miguel’s attorney, Raed Gonzalez, and Foster see it differently.
For a construction worker like Miguel Garcia, they say, there was virtually no legal system to begin with.
Since 2000 immigration attorney Charles Foster has advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton on immigration policy on the campaign trail.
When Charles Foster was growing up in McAllen, Texas, in the 1950s, the borders were as open as they’d ever been.
As a teenager he worked in the Valley on oil and gas pipelines and loaded Coke trucks with undocumented immigrants, who often walked back over the border at the end of the workweek. Their idea back then of illegal immigration, he said, was waiting to cross the bridge until the immigration inspector wasn’t looking. It wasn’t dangerous. It did not cost thousands of dollars. Coyotes were nothing more than local entrepreneurs who knew their way around town. “People say the border is wide open today — that’s totally foolish,” said Foster.
Everything began to change, though, after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the basis of today’s immigration policies — and perhaps the original instigator of the influx in illegal immigration on the southern border.
The law’s greatest legacy has been its reversal of the discriminatory national-origins quota system of 1924. The earlier law had accounted for the mass immigration of central Europeans while effectively barring Asians and Africans and limiting entry from Eastern Europe, where Jews and Italian and Polish Catholics were concentrated.
Shedding its racism, the new immigration quota system in 1965 instead made 20,000 green cards available to every country in the world each year, prioritizing family members and high-skilled, well-educated workers.
Yet this was also the first time a quota had ever been imposed on Latin America, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. And at the same time, while demand for low-skilled labor and migrant workers remained high, the workers’ program that allowed hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to come legally and temporarily every year — the Bracero Program — was dismantled.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, while temporary bracero workers from Mexico fell from about 450,000 per year in 1958 to zero after 1968, yearly illegal border crossers from Mexico increased from fewer than 25,000 in 1958 to an estimated 450,000 by 1978.
“Our policies, in a way, encouraged illegal immigration,” Foster said, “because at a time the American economy was growing, we cut off just about every avenue for [lower-skilled workers] to come in legally.”
To account for the increase in illegal border crossings, Congress again attempted to tackle immigration reform in 1986, ramping up enforcement efforts and devoting more resources to securing the Mexican border. (And also granting amnesty to approximately 2.7 million people.) But Foster — who had represented Texas’s immigration task force before Congress and President Ronald Reagan during the reform talks in ’86 — said the enforcement crackdown in ensuing years had an unintended consequence.
From 1986 to the present, the total population of undocumented immigrants has more than doubled, from five million then to roughly 11 million now. “Ironically, the more and more we increased enforcement, the more and more likely people were to stay here and smuggle in their family, rather than maintain circular immigration: working and going back, working and going back,” he said.
Thanks to the high-stakes nature of crossing the border, cartels and organized crime ruled the region, extorting thousands from those seeking a life in America in exchange for help from a coyote. For Foster, sneaking past the sleepy immigration inspector at the bridge became a joke of the past.
Today there is virtually no avenue for permanent legal residency in the United States unless you have a family member here or you are highly specialized and college-educated: a doctor, a software engineer, an architect. These high-skilled workers can also come temporarily through the H1-B visa.
For all other low-skilled workers, there are only 66,000 agricultural temporary work visas and 66,000 non-agricultural temporary work visas available for the whole world each year. For the non-agriculture work visa, the jobs can only be seasonal or one-time gigs. To even get one of these visas, a poor guy in a crime-stricken third-world village seeking a better life can’t simply file an application. An employer has to sponsor his application, meaning, often, the employer must go to his village to recruit workers to come pick tomatoes, for example, or plant Christmas trees, or work at the Mar-a-Lago resort during peak season.
There is no visa for a long-term construction worker like Miguel Garcia.
“It’s why this mindless debate is so frustrating,” Foster said. “When President Donald Trump says, ‘We’re going to deport everyone and then they should get in line,’ that’s nonsense. There is no rational recognition of how, really, there is no line.”
Zenobia Lai, legal director of the St. Frances Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance at Houston’s Catholic Charities, said that the line did in fact exist at one time — at least to a certain extent. Before 1996, if a person crossed the border illegally and met a U.S. citizen who became the love of her life, she could get in line to apply for a green card once they were married. But Congress always viewed these marriages as suspect, Lai said, and believed immigrants were only tying the knot in order to become legal. So in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a new law intended to protect against those sneaky immigrants, a law that essentially destroyed any remaining incentive undocumented immigrants had to seek legal status, Lai said.
Under the 1996 reform, as a punishment for entering illegally, people who wanted to fix their immigration status would have to go back to their home country for ten years before they would be eligible to apply to return.
If the person could prove that his absence would have a detrimental effect on his family, then he might be able to lift the ten-year bar through what’s called a provisional waiver — but the standards are high, Lai said. And besides, to apply for the waiver, he still had to go back to his home country and await immigration officials’ decisions from abroad. If they ultimately decided the answer was no, he would be trapped in his home country, separated from his family, for the next decade.
“A lot of our clients who are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, they fled extreme violence. They have to be very hesitant to think about, should I risk my life to go back there to apply for my immigrant visa?” Lai said. “All of this is a gamble. It’s a maze and you may not get out.”
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With her husband back in Honduras, Andrea went back to the cleaners, bagging laundry behind the counter for 12 hours a day, six days a week, minimum wage.
Save for the several months Miguel came back to relieve her, Andrea spent the majority of the daylight hours over the past eight years in this storefront, looking out through barred windows into a strip mall parking lot. It’s where she learned English, she said, and where she made friends — with the regular customers, that is. Andrea works alone, occasionally jumping rope in the back room to occupy the long hours.
One day in April, though, all four children came with her because the nanny was sick. The baby, healthy now, slept in a hammock hung between two clothing racks, finally quiet. The older girls worked on homework. Passing the time, Andrea scrolled through photographs on her cellphone of her and her husband, of the home they built together and of the homes they came from.
Andrea’s kids never believe her when she talks about growing up in a small village in Hidalgo, Mexico: how she never ate a hamburger at a restaurant until she was 17; how she never had a bike, a doll. Andrea clicked on the photo of her home in Mexico that her cousin sent her last year, while visiting the tiny, tin-roof structure where she spent her childhood in the mountains, often bringing home fish from the nearby river to cook for dinner.
“I tell [my kids], over here you can do anything,” Andrea said. “There, we had nothing.”
Growing up, having few toys was the least of Andrea’s worries. When she was four, her father, a member of Mexico’s most established political party, Partido Revolucionario Institucional, was murdered by a member of an opposing party. When she was nine, her older brother was murdered for the same reason. It was then that Andrea’s family — her mother and one other brother — began thinking about fleeing Mexico for the United States. When they finally came up with the money, they left when Andrea was a teenager, while Andrea moved in with her uncle in the city of Pachuca to finish her education. At 19, in 2002, she made the journey across the desert on foot, ultimately reuniting with her family in Houston.
Her first job was at a food stand, selling corn and sno-cones for 12 hours a day, six days a week, $100 a week. She met Miguel when she got a new job at the Dollar Store: Every time he came in, he would ask Andrea for a price check on everything he wanted to buy — just so he had an excuse to talk to her. They got married in 2003, moved into a trailer home together and started a family.
In 2011 the couple visited an immigration attorney to see if there were any options for them to become legal residents. In reality, there were none: Once a person sets foot in the country without papers, he is immediately subject to the ten-year bar. But Andrea said the attorney advised that Miguel apply for asylum — something his most recent immigration attorney, Raed Gonzalez, says may be a sign of fraud.
Gonzalez said it should have been plainly obvious to the attorney that Miguel did not qualify for asylum. Although he came from an impoverished village, that’s never enough, Gonzalez said — Miguel needed to have a credible fear for his life. After paying this attorney to help with the asylum paperwork, sure enough, his application was denied in March 2013. Miguel signed a voluntary order of deportation, promising to return to Honduras.
Instead, with their third daughter on the way, they stayed.
The home Andrea grew up in, in Hidalgo, Mexico, right near a river where Andrea often went fishing for dinner.
Courtesy of the family
The couple moved out of the trailer and bought their first home — a dream they’d had since coming to America. They renovated the entire house themselves, often working until midnight or 1 a.m. on Sundays, their only day off work. With help from Andrea, Miguel built the bed frames, the kitchen table, the kitchen cabinets and a sophisticated treehouse in the backyard for the kids, using the unwanted wood left at his construction sites. Every day when he came home from work, the girls would race to see who could hug him first.
“Everything we did, we did thinking we would have it for many years,” Andrea said. “We built everything together.” Andrea said she doesn’t know how ICE found out where they had moved, or how, when Miguel returned the final time for his son’s birth, agents found out so quickly that he was back.
Gonzalez filed a stay of removal to block his deportation three days after Miguel was detained, which happened during his regular three-month supervision check-in with ICE. Miguel had just gotten a driver’s license. Miguel was no saint, and had a misdemeanor criminal record spanning from 2003 to 2008, including charges for racing on a highway, interfering with the duties of a public servant and assault. But given that he was the sole breadwinner at the time, Gonzalez thought he had a solid chance to stay with his family.
And for a brief two hours on February 23, the Garcia family thought he would too: ICE’s Houston field office mistakenly sent a letter to Gonzalez saying the stay of removal had been approved. Yet two hours later, Gonzalez received another letter: The stay was denied. For the third time in a year, Miguel would be deported. (Houston-based ICE spokesman Gregory Palmore said Miguel’s criminal record was not tied to the denial, but did not elaborate.)
Andrea’s oldest daughter, age 13, tried to make the case for her dad’s release herself, writing a two-page letter to ICE agents on lined notebook paper. She had hoped the agents could relay some messages to her dad.
“I recently took the algebra test and got a 95% and trust me it was really hard. I was ready to show him and my mom, but I couldn’t because then the sad news came in,” she wrote. “...If he’s there with you, tell him that I love him with all of my heart.”
She never mailed it, realizing she was too late.
During the presidential debate in Houston last February, Donald Trump, saying illegal immigrants would have to “get in line with other people,” added some details to his original plan to deport all 11 million of them.
He said he would rely not only on an enforcement crackdown, but also on the belief that some undocumented immigrants would “self-deport.” “People are going to leave as soon as they see others going out,” he said, despite calling this very phenomenon “maniacal” and “crazy” when Mitt Romney suggested it during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Now, of course, Trump’s stance has narrowed to notoriously target “bad hombres” — which Foster jokes has become a new, largely undefinable legal term. Is it murderers and rapists? Is it someone with multiple past misdemeanors, like Miguel? Or how about a 23-year-old man who had attained temporary legal status under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, who had one prior conviction for shoplifting and three for driving without a license? The man, Juan Manuel Montes of California, sued the Trump administration last week, demanding an explanation for his deportation.
To attorneys, the case has clearly illustrated that Trump’s executive order is a no-holds-barred deportation guide—that bad hombre is whatever ICE deems it to mean.
“Under this executive order, ICE will not exempt classes or categories of removal aliens from potential enforcement,” ICE wrote in its summary of the order. “All of those present in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and…removal from the United States.”
People with criminal records are high up on the list, but the order also subjects people with entirely clean criminal histories to expedited deportations if immigration officials have ever issued a deportation order for them before. This includes people like Gerardo Martinez, who was deported one week after being pulled over in Dickinson, Texas, for a broken taillight and arrested for driving on an expired license. Because he had once been apprehended at the border while returning from Mexico to visit family 13 years ago, he did not even get to see a judge this time.
Expedited deportations also apply to people like Jose Escobar, whose deportation order was entered in default because he missed a court date in 2006 — the year his temporary protected status expired. He had overlooked the deadline to reapply, and his attorney did not inform him he was still eligible. Although ICE ultimately gave him an order of supervision and a work permit in 2011 so he could provide for his U.S.-citizen family in Houston, the work permit was also revoked once Trump took office. Escobar never saw a judge either.
Still, Foster says there has been a slight overreaction to the new executive orders given the sole fact that ICE’s financial resources and number of agents have not changed—at least not yet. To deport a single person costs taxpayers between $10,800 and $12,500 (which includes detention costs), according to estimates from ICE over the past several years. That means deporting just all undocumented immigrants in Texas alone — an estimated 1.5 million — could cost between $16 billion and $18.7 billion.
But say the massive financial resources existed, that Congress allotted them: What would happen to the Texas economy if a large chunk of its undocumented workers disappeared? What would a city, a state, without undocumented immigrants look like?
“It would make the Great Recession of 2008 look like a minor blip,” Foster says.
It’s been common knowledge for decades that undocumented immigrants are rampant in the workforce: building Houston’s bougie luxury townhouses, its sprawling skyscrapers, its underground sewage systems. Cleaning its hotels and its pools, its homes and its office buildings. In Texas undocumented immigrants make up roughly one quarter of the construction workforce, a fifth of the agriculture workforce, and 15 percent of the leisure and hospitality industry, according to a study by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
To many Americans, this is a problem. To economists, how politicians plan to fix it — by cracking down hard — is a much bigger one.
The foundation of the research rests on this basic principle: If you remove thousands of people from a workforce and a consumer marketplace, then there’s less money to go around for everyone — both to be spent on goods and services and to be paid in taxes. Right-wing politicians often focus on how much undocumented immigrants cost communities every year. This is true, but it doesn’t take into account how much the immigrants benefit economies too.
Dr. Ray Perryman, CEO of the Waco-based economic analysis firm The Perryman Group — who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in economic sciences in 2005 for his development of a model used in the following study — set out to measure the economic impact undocumented immigrants have on Texas in his 2016 report, “Texas Needs the Workers.”
Perryman’s economic model estimated that undocumented immigrants cost federal, state and local Texas governments approximately $12.8 billion a year in areas such as uncompensated medical care, education and health care for their children, and various government services like those provided by first responders.
But the study also estimated that undocumented immigrants in Texas pay approximately $6.7 billion in state and local taxes and state fees each year and $6.8 billion in federal taxes. (For comparison’s sake, an additional study by University of California professor Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, using a separate but similarly complex economic model, also reported that undocumented immigrants pay about $6.9 billion in personal state taxes and sales tax in Texas.) Perryman’s model then considers the economic ripple effect of undocumented people’s spending money in the marketplace, at grocery stores and car shops, at local businesses and restaurants.
Take away even one-third of undocumented workers and Perryman’s model forecasts a blow to Texas’s gross product of approximately $54 billion. Multiply it by three and Texas’s gross product could shrink by an estimated 9.8 percent, or $162 billion. (Again for comparison, Hinojosa-Ojeda’s model, which did not consider the ripple effect but only the direct effect, forecasts a $77.7 billion, or 6 percent, blow to the gross state product if all of Texas’s undocumented workers were booted.)
Zenobia Lai of Catholic Charities said that regular consumers would feel the immediate effects primarily in the grocery store, thanks to an agriculture labor shortage likely to arise if mass deportations were to happen.
“If no one is picking the tomatoes, no one’s picking the strawberries, imagine how much those things will cost,” she said. “We won’t have enough supply, and those fruits and vegetables will be rotting in the field because we won’t have enough workers to pick them up fast enough.”
That’s not so hypothetical. When Georgia passed a law to crack down on illegal immigration in 2011, intended to “eliminate incentives for illegal aliens to cross into our state,” not surprisingly, many undocumented immigrants left the state. The law gave police authority to demand immigration papers and also created harsher penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers. The following year, an extensive University of Georgia survey of the owners of nearly half the state’s farm acreage found that a severe labor shortage led to $75 million in crop losses, projected to total $140 million for all of Georgia. The shortage was believed to be tied to the new law.
“It’s not merely a question of if we pay better, native workers will take on those jobs,” Lai said. “Some jobs are just not desirable. It doesn’t matter how much you pay.”
Jeff Nielsen, vice president of the Houston Contractors Association, and Will Holder, former president of the Greater Houston Builders Association, both said that a year hasn’t gone by without a labor shortage, as for-hire signs perpetually hang outside construction businesses. Undocumented immigrants are certainly taking the jobs, they said — but “stealing” is perhaps not the word. “It’s just not a field people want to go into,” Nielsen said. “Typically, the rule of thumb is if you get five people to walk up and apply for a job, if two of ’em stay past the end of the day, you’re doing really well. If you get one to stay for a week, you’re doing excellent.”
Nielsen estimated that about one-third of Houston workers in civil construction — working on projects such as piping and roadwork — are undocumented. If all or many of them were to disappear from the roofs and roadside ditches in the ensuing years, Nielsen and Holder said that a labor shortage would cause the price of construction projects to go up, potentially affecting consumer housing prices too. The projects would move along more slowly, work crews would have to be consolidated, and the buzzing noises of drills and pounding of hammers would continue to interrupt otherwise quiet Saturday mornings for months longer.
Would the native workers fill the gap?
Holder said it isn’t feasible to think they would — at least not entirely. Building homes, though blue-collar work, is not “low-skilled” work, Holder said. Not just any unemployed high school dropout or unemployed car mechanic could thrive in the industry.
“When I say skilled labor, I’m talking about the ability to take a pile of wood and turn it into a mathematically precise [home] frame, which very few people can do,” Holder said. “If there was to become a craftsman shortage here, the go-to solution would be to use pre-fabricated framing components, like paneled walls. If we can’t get skilled framers, then we’re gonna build these walls in a factory.”
Houston’s signature luxury townhouses, he said, would not be so signature anymore.
Andrea has already put in her two weeks’ notice at the cleaners. Once her 13-year-old finishes middle school, she plans to pack her and her American children’s lives into her SUV and drive across the border, back to Mexico.
To Trump’s Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, building a wall to stop illegal immigration is like putting up an “endless series of goal-line defenses” to stop a runner on the one-yard-line in football: Every now and then, the runner will find a way to score — jumping over, diving under, going around.
Kelly made it clear during his confirmation hearing that he did not believe the wall by itself was the answer (even though on Sunday he reversed his position, saying it was “essential”). It is projected to cost $21.6 billion. And if it is built, it is projected, no doubt, to endure as Trump’s legacy on the topic of “comprehensive immigration reform,” the three dirty words that have rung hollow for years.
Progress on the wall has already begun, despite the prohibitive costs. According to an April memo obtained by The Washington Post, DHS officials have already begun identifying locations where construction on the wall could begin and have begun work on constructing a prototype. While Trump has called for hiring 10,000 more ICE agents and 5,000 more Customs and Border Protection agents, the DHS memo notes that hiring just 500 will cost $100 million. The agencies have also been identifying more than two dozen detention facilities where they could add more detention beds — at least 33,000 total.
All of this, despite the fact that illegal border crossings have decreased by two thirds since 2000, with border apprehensions plummeting sharply since Trump took office — down 64 percent since this time last year.
For reform to really work, many experts, including Foster and Lai, say Congress needs to revamp the flawed temporary workers’ system — a battle Congress has been waging for years. But Lai added that one largely beneficial reform would be if Congress simply removed the ten- to 20-year bar, the gaping pothole on a long, long path to citizenship. It would restore incentive for many to seek legal status who are eligible, she said, paving the way for family members of U.S. citizens who may have entered the country illegally to apply for legal status without having to wait decades. That process, she said, can take ten to 20 years just on its own.
“We can’t just say, well, you came here without documentation or you overstayed your status — that’s it, we discount every single contribution that you’ve made to our society,” Lai said. “We have to find a path for these mixed-status families.”
Andrea and Miguel do not think they will ever return to the United States, even after their ten- to 20-year bars expire. The decision hasn’t been easy. Andrea asked her kids, do they want to stay here, or go to Mexico or Honduras to be with their dad? She explained her country’s subpar education system, all the opportunities that may be lost. Her 13-year-old daughter, who wants to be a cardiologist because of her own heart condition, had just been accepted into one of Houston’s premier preparatory schools, DeBakey High School for Health Professions. Andrea told her that Mexico had no such thing.
Ultimately, the girls did not hesitate, choosing to stay with Miguel.
“It’s hard because here my daughters have a better future than in my country,” Andrea said. “But I want to keep my family together. I know how hard it is to grow up with no dad.”
Andrea has already put in her two weeks' notice at the cleaners. Once her 13-year-old finishes middle school, she plans to pack her and her American children's lives into her SUV and drive across the border, back to Mexico.