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Baltimore Bridge Tragedy is Reminder of Vital Role That Essential Immigrant Workers Play In Construction Industry

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“Immigrant workers at all educational and skill levels play a central role in building our economy,” Dr. Carlos Martín, Project Director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, wrote for the Urban Institute in 2016. “Construction work is a tangible illustration of this role, with immigrant workers often performing dangerous low-paying jobs.” 

The recent accident that resulted in the collapse of Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge into the Patapsco River is a tragic reminder of both the importance of essential immigrant workers and the vital roles they play within the construction industry. The six workers that perished in the collapse – Miguel Luna, Dorlian Cabrera, Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes, Jose Mynor Lopez, Maynor Yassir Suazo Sandoval, and a sixth unidentified man – were all immigrants from Mexico and Central America. They were laboring in the early morning hours to repair the bridge for the benefit of all drivers.

Since the accident, many have paid tribute to these men and emphasized the sacrifices essential immigrant workers in Maryland and across the country undertake to build a stronger America for all of us. During a recent press call hosted by CASA – which lost two members in the tragedy – immigrant workers called for respect and recognition of their work. “For three years, I have worked hard in remodeling, supporting my family despite the dangerous nature of this industry,” said Evelio Webster. “From my labor and that of so many immigrants, the economy of this country flourishes.”

“Construction work has long played a critical role for the immigrant community as a fundamental employer, a skill-building opportunity, and a source of entrepreneurialism,” he noted. Indeed, roughly 2.2 million construction workers are immigrants, representing a historic high according to Census figures. In the Baltimore and Washington region, immigrants make up nearly 40% of the construction workforce, specializing in carpentry, drywall, roofing, brick masonry, and painting. 

“In some areas of the country, such as the Southwest, all work crews are immigrants,” Dr. Martín continued. “This trend is even more pronounced in some hazardous occupations, like construction laborers, roofers, and drywallers.” 

This trend isn’t new. “Construction work has been a historical launching pad for immigrant communities going back to the 19th century and the formation of the German-Speaking Framers’ Union in New York and subsequent Irish and Italian labor rolls in the 20th century,” Dr. Martín said. Chinese immigrants built the western section of the transcontinental railroad during the second half of the 19th century, called “one of the greatest engineering feats in American history” by the Department of Labor in 2014. “Many of these workers risked their lives and perished during the harsh winters and dangerous working conditions.”

This danger remains a reality even as the industry has made modern advances, with essential construction workers bearing some of the most significant brunt of workplace injuries and fatalities. “The construction industry is especially dangerous for foreign-born Hispanic and Latino workers, 274 of whom died in 2021,” The Washington Post reported. “The group accounted for 7.9 percent of the industry’s workers but 26.3 percent of deaths from falls, slips and trips in 2020.” During the pandemic, construction workers and essential workers in agriculture and meatpacking were at higher risk of becoming sick.

Conversely, xenophobic policies and attitudes targeting essential immigrant workers hurt all communities regardless of immigration status. While Nevada has seen a growth in population, the labor shortage in construction means that builders there “can’t expand their companies to meet the growing demand for housing,” the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association said. “This only drives up costs and impacts affordability.”

In Florida, fears from an anti-immigrant crackdown saw construction worksites abandoned even before any legislation had been officially signed into law. “Contractors face uncertainty over new Florida immigration law,” read one headline from Construction Dive, a top construction and building industry news site. “Many people who work in construction and hospitality are taking whole families to states such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and North and South Carolina,” South Florida Sun Sentinel reported. The state’s labor shortage “may now take years to close” due to the anti-immigrant S.B. 1718.

“Immigrants were 33% of all construction workers at last count in 2022–an all-time high since before the 2008 recession,” Dr. Martín told America’s Voice in an email. “They continue to seek out construction work at high rates, and the industry continues to rely on them in every construction sector, from home remodeling to major infrastructure.” A recent National Association of Home Builders analysis notes that the number of recent immigrants entering construction work has surged since the pandemic.

In Baltimore, leaders and community members have mourned the loss of the six men by remembering their personal stories and dreams and highlighting the labor of all immigrant workers. “As an essential worker, I share my story knowing that many people in Maryland and across the country can relate to my fallen colleagues and their families,” said CASA member Victoriano Almendares. “One day we may be here, and the next we may not—that’s the risk of being a construction worker, sacrificing for our families.”