Construction work can be an American nightmare for immigrants


EL PASO — Finding the American dream has always been difficult for new immigrants, but for workers in the construction industry the struggle has been especially tough.

Squalid living arrangements and torment from unscrupulous employers are just two of the struggles that they endure in order to establish a new life in this country.

(Omar Perez/

Construction workers' struggle for finding the American Dream is specially tough. (Omar Perez/

UTEP Sociology Professor Dr. Cristina Morales told an audience at the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) that immigrant workers have to overcome serious obstacles to find and keep jobs in the very competitive and harsh construction industry.

“The thought of what immigrant construction workers and their families have to live through never crosses anybody else’s mind. It is time for everyone to at least have a small glimpse of what really happens,” Morales said.

One of the 35 persons in the audience said she lived through the difficult circumstances that the construction industry imposes on many families.

“Other people don’t really care about the industry and they think that everything that is happening is fake, but when they meet people that really live through it and see it firsthand they see the big difference,” said Madelein Santibanez, 20, a mathematics student at UTEP.

Santibanez said the presentation make her relive exactly what she went through when her family moved to Austin just a couple of years ago to try and find a better life.

“It is just great to see this on paper and see someone taking the time to study what we really go through,” she said.

Santibanez was brought up in Austin with many family members, including parents, uncles and cousins, who endured the harsh conditions of the construction industry. She explained that a multiple number of families would live in a single apartment.

“It was very difficult because I had to live with all these people and men I didn’t know and for a young girl that can be very difficult in many levels,” Santibanez said.

Morales’ study was done in 2006-2008. Her focus group consisted of 71 construction workers in Las Vegas Nevada, and also 30 migrants who had returned to their homeland of El Valle de Mezquital in Hidalgo, Mexico.

She focused on the social network aspect of the industry, important for both employers and those looking for work.  But even though this is the most common way of finding a job, it can also have negative consequences, Morales said.

(Omar Perez/

(Omar Perez/

When immigrants are hired because they know someone at a job location, they are stuck in that position for a very long time due to what Morales calls bonded labor. “Immigrants feel entrapped and indebted,” she said.

Labor instability is another major problem for migrants. Knowing someone cannot always guarantee a job and nepotism is very common in the construction industry. If an applicant is related to a contractor, that person will take the place of an immigrant in an instant.

The issue of “coyotage,” is another focus of Morales’ research. The coyotes who bring immigrants into the United States are not working in the best interest of the workers. “They occasionally make them come in horrible circumstances and also make them feel indebted about bringing them here,” she said.

One thought on “Construction work can be an American nightmare for immigrants

  1. As i grew up, i never actually knew what my parents and family had to go through every single day. My dad came to the U.S. when he was 15 and he started working in construction and painting houses. It has been 20 years since then and he is still working in the same thing working 6 or 7 days a week and sometimes more than 12 hours a day. The pay is too little for that kind of job but he feels like he has nowhere else to go.
    I am also an immigrant but i got my high school diploma. Now i feel like all that studying was for nothing. I couldnt go to college because we can’t afford it. So now i am also stuck in the same job. I am 18 years old and with a baby on the way.
    Sometimes i get angry at the people who are born here and dont think or just dont care about their future. They make wrong decisions and waste their life on drugs.

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