In early 2016, Chasco Constructors was bidding on a construction job at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. It was a big job for the Round Rock, Texas company, and a big opportunity—one that would require about 60 workers with clear background checks and good immigration status. “We just knew that was not going to happen,” says Jonathan Escalante, the company’s director of safety and health. “We had to turn down the job because we knew we weren’t going to find 60 people.” He spoke to colleagues at competitors, and they, too, had to turn down the job.
Today’s economy in central Texas is booming, and there’s a lot of work in the area. Just not enough people to perform that work.
Escalante’s experience with the broken immigration system stretches far beyond his seven years with Chasco. He originally came to the United States from Mexico as a 19-year-old on a tourist visa, and overstayed his permit for years. “It’s hard to provide for yourself in Mexico, even if you have a good education,” he says, adding that the town he grew up in has also become very dangerous in recent years. “Once you start working in the States and realize you can make a living and provide for your family, it’s hard to walk away from that. But you’re afraid the entire time. You feel like everyone is always looking at you. How can you ask for help when you’re in a vulnerable position like that?”
The road to legalization for Escalante, who is now a U.S. citizen, was a lucky one: He fell in love. When he married a U.S. citizen, he was surprised, he says, by how easy the particular process was. He was once again surprised years later, as the couple was divorcing, to find that their failed marriage would not impact his legal standing. “I waited a couple more years and as soon as I could apply for citizenship—the minute I was able to—I did.”
Still, he will never forget the difficulties of working and living illegally. He believes the United States needs immigration reform to help illegal workers become actively contributing members of society and provide employers a desperately-needed workforce. “There’s just no practical way to help people demonstrate that they’re hard workers, that they’ll pay their taxes—and the majority, they will,” he says. “But instead they have to be in the shadows, like I was once.” Escalante would ultimately like to see an easier road to citizenship, but first and foremost, he simply wants undocumented immigrants to have access to an official status. “Give them a legal right to be here,” he says, adding that it will help the local economy to thrive. “Today’s economy in central Texas is booming, and there’s a lot of work in the area. Just not enough people to perform that work.”