In 16 years, Guillermo Torres has seen his southeastern Michigan paving company grow to $1 million in annual revenue and add 12 full-time employees. With thousands of satisfied customers and the phone ringing off the hook, Torres says he could easily triple his revenue if only he could find enough people — those authorized to work in this country — to do the paving. “If I could get the right workers, more people, I could easily employ one or two more architects, and put 20 more people to work,” he says. “But there are really no people — I try to get new ones, and you can’t find anybody to work.”
I got lucky. I had proof I’d been working on the farm, so I got a work permit, then a year later I got my green card.
Torres came to America as an undocumented immigrant 32 years ago, at the age of 17, crossing into California with his older brother and working in the seafood industry. “My goal was just to work, and to help my parents, because they were very poor,” he said. “We needed help, and there was no money.” After his brother’s death in a work-related accident, Torres looked at a map and picked Michigan almost at random, seeking only to move somewhere far from the border, and far from the memory of the tragedy.
Speaking virtually no English, Torres worked first as a kitchen porter in a Chinese restaurant; after a couple of years, a woman in a Mexican grocery helped him find farm work, picking cucumbers and other vegetables. It was while he was working double shifts — the fields by day, the restaurant at night — that former President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, a law that created a path to citizenship for some undocumented farmworkers. “I got lucky,” Torres says. “I had proof I’d been working on the farm, so I got a work permit, then a year later I got my green card.”
Legal status opened new doors for Torres: He took a better-paying job at a Mexican restaurant, doing everything from cooking to managing the dining room. He continued working his way up and was planning to open a restaurant of his own when he heard that a paving company called Metro Star was for sale. “I took it over without any experience, and I built it up,” he says. “I really like what I’m doing, and I think I’m doing really good work.”
Torres got his chance to grab a piece of the American dream thanks to the legal status offered by the Reagan Administration. Now he’d like to see today’s undocumented workers be given the same opportunity. They’ll be able to improve themselves, he says, and he’ll be able to expand his business thanks to the increase in labor. “I think we really do need that, because we need more workers,” he says. It’s an issue that’s affecting the construction industry across the board. “We all have the same problems, no matter how big the company. I see signs all over the place that people are hiring, but there’s really no workers, nobody applies. You can’t find anybody, and the phone rings all day long.”