Kevin Devine did not grow up in an affluent family. His father had an eighth-grade education, and Devine shared a bed with his three brothers until he was 11 years old. At age 14, he started working as a night janitor. On his first day, his employer asked for his work permit — required for underage employees in Maine at the time. But Devine didn’t have one. “I told him, ‘I don’t have it today, but I’ll have it tomorrow.’ And then I proceeded to clean the building to the point where they didn’t ask about it again.”
In no other country could I have accomplished what I have.
Devine sees a similar drive in the immigrants he has worked with since he started his own janitorial company, Devine Building Services, 34 years ago. In the 1980s, when it was easier for immigrants to receive work permits, Devine estimates that Latinos comprised about 60 percent of his labor force. “They were excellent workers and members of the community,” he says. Some of those Latino workers have been employed with Devine for more than a quarter century.
Devine started his company in Maryland, after attending Loyola University on a track scholarship, then moved to Roanoke, Virginia. Today, he provides janitorial, painting and guard-protection services to 102 properties and directly employs 45 people. His company has made him a strong proponent of immigration reform. He says Roanoke’s development has depended on immigrant labor. “We do a lot of construction cleaning,” he explains. “We probably clean two million square feet. If you walk on any of these large construction sites, I’ll bet at least 50 percent of the workers are not here legally. And it’s amazing how hard they work. These buildings would not be here without them.”
Devine is aware of how far a strong work ethic can take someone. He knows legal children of undocumented immigrants who have big aspirations, and he is convinced they will realize their dreams: One Latino high school junior he mentors has aspirations of attending Virginia Tech and becoming an engineer.
He wants immigration reform that would afford this student’s parents similar opportunities. “It would be a pathway for citizenship. And citizenship in the United States has got to be the greatest gift on earth. You can work wherever you want to, go to school. In no other country could I have accomplished what I have. And my success has not been because of me, but because of everyone I’m privileged to work with. And I can’t tell you how many of them are Latinos.”