NRCA member Richard Birkman's statement on behalf of NRCA before Senate committee about the temporary guest worker proposal, February 2004
On Feb. 12, 2004, Richard R. Birkman, president of NRCA member Texas Roofing Co.,
Austin, testified on behalf of NRCA and the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition
before the Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship Subcommittee of the Senate
Committee on the Judiciary in support of President Bush's temporary guest worker
proposal. Birkman's statement follows.
Feb. 12, 2004
Statement by Richard R. Birkman, president of Texas Roofing Co., Austin, on behalf
of the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA) before the Immigration, Border
Security and Citizenship Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary concerning
"Evaluating a Temporary Guest Worker Proposal."
Chairman Chambliss and members of the Subcommittee, my name is Rick Birkman, and
I am president of Texas Roofing Company of Austin, Texas, a company specializing
in commercial and industrial roofing and sheet metal. I would like to thank you
for this opportunity to testify in support of President Bush's temporary guest worker
proposal. Mr. Chairman, I am testifying here today on behalf of the National Roofing
Contractors Association (NRCA), an organization in which I serve on the Government
NRCA is an association of roofing, roof deck and waterproofing contractors. Founded
in 1886, it is one of the oldest trade associations in the country and has approximately
5,000 member companies. NRCA contractors typically are small, privately held companies;
the average NRCA member employs 35 people in peak season, with sales of just over
$3 million per year.
Mr. Chairman, I am also testifying on behalf of the Essential Worker Immigration
Coalition (EWIC), of which NRCA is a member. EWIC is a coalition of businesses,
trade associations and other organizations from across the industry spectrum concerned
with the shortage of both unskilled and lesser-skilled ("essential workers") labor.
A coalition membership list is attached.
NRCA and EWIC commend you, Chairman Chambliss, for holding this important hearing.
NRCA also commends President Bush for re-energizing the immigration debate by putting
the issue back on the front burner of the national agenda. And finally, I would
like to personally commend Senator Cornyn, my Senator, for introducing the Border
Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2003 (S.1387). Sen. Cornyn's bill
would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to direct the Secretaries of Homeland
Security and State jointly to establish a seasonal and non-seasonal guest worker
program with eligible foreign countries. The bill would also provide eligibility
to apply for permanent resident status to guest workers who have participated in
the program for at least three years.
The Subcommittee's hearing on President Bush's proposal is particularly important
given the labor demographics the American economy faces today and in the approaching
decades. Like many of the family-owned member companies of NRCA, Texas Roofing Company
has found it difficult to meet its labor demands solely through relying on the domestic
workforce. In fact, I would estimate that 95 percent of my workforce today is Latino,
most of whom were not born in the United States. This composition is not uncommon
in the roofing industry, but it is in stark contrast to the workforce of my grandfather,
L. Randolph Rampy, Sr., who founded his own roofing contracting firm in Lubbock
nearly 70 years ago. I have a photograph taken in 1946 on the wall in my office,
and in that photograph you'll see my grandfather's employees and notice that, with
the exception of two employees, all of the men in the photograph are Caucasian.
During peak season, Texas Roofing Company employs approximately 60
full time roofing and sheet metal mechanics trained in all aspects of roofing for
industrial and commercial structures. Starting pay for entry-level roofers begins
at $9 per hour, and my foremen earn anywhere from $16.50 to $21 per hour depending
on their level of experience. With overtime, some of my employees are earning over
$50,000 annually. Despite this relatively attractive pay, which is even higher in
other sections of the country, roofing contractors have jobs going unfilled because
there are few domestic applicants and current law provides insufficient mechanisms
to fill the shortfall. Retirements and a high turnover rate due to the difficulty
of the work contribute to the unfilled job numbers, but the most important variable
is thismost native-born Americans simply don't view roofing as a desirable
There are a variety of factors contributing to this perception, but two stand out
in particular. The first reason is that the roofing trade is tough work, frequently
performed under even tougher environmental conditions. In the heat of the summer,
rooftops in Texas and much of the Southwest can soar upwards of 150 degrees. And
in the winter, when many roof systems require repair due to inclement weather, roofers
often work in wind chills well below zero.
The second reason is that the reigning educational philosophy in America today says
that every student should go to college. This mindset exists despite the fact the
Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the U.S. will create
17 million new jobs by 2010, 58 percent of which will not require a four-year college
degree. With educational dollars steered toward that goal, base industries such
as construction and others represented among the EWIC member groups have suffered
endemic labor shortfalls, as students have foregone opportunities in the construction
and services industries.
NRCA's member companies, in particular, face an enduring shortage of workers, as
there are not enough domestic workers to meet the labor demand facing the construction
industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that an additional
50,000 workers in the roofing industry alone will be needed during the next decade
to keep pace with the demand for professional roofing services. BLS also projects
that the number of essential worker jobs is expected to grow by more than 700,000
annually in the next four years. Foreign workers are necessary to fill these jobs,
yet these laborers and potential employers face extraordinary hurdles in obtaining
the required documentation and work-authorized status.
A broken system
NRCA urges Congress to fix an immigration system that serves neither America's economic
security nor national security needs. Compounding the shortage of domestic workers,
U.S. businesses find a broken system consisting of statutes that largely prevent
them from hiring the foreign essential workers necessary to satisfy the volume of
services demanded by the American economy. In recent years, our nation's immigration
policy has favored highly skilled and educated workers for our economy, as evidenced
by the H-1B program. NRCA and EWIC agree that these highly skilled workers are necessary
to drive forward innovation of ideas and products. However, once these ideas are
developed and the ideas become products, essential workers are needed to manufacture,
deliver and service those products. The question America must ask itself is this:
Who will fill the millions of essential worker positions that we continue to create?
We believe immigration must be one answer.
But current law does not provide an adequate answer. Today, roofing companies such
as mine are extremely limited in their ability to hire foreign workers. One option
is the H-2B visa program, which is capped at 66,000 per year. The program is highly
complex, and all non-agricultural industries compete for these scarce visas. Further,
the program is temporary. If an employer has long-term or permanent positions, that
employer is out of luck since no long-term temporary visa exists in our current
system. A second option would be to apply for a "green card", but "green cards"
are limited to 5,000 per year for essential workers, and currently there is a five-
to 10-year waiting list. These limited programs and the complexity of immigration
law make it difficult for roofing contractors nationwide to access a sustainable
supply of essential workers. As such, the merits of a properly
structured guest worker program are clear. First, it would constitute a mechanism
to address worker shortages in this country that can be flexible depending on the
actual need and the state of the economy. Second, it would significantly contribute
to the alleviation of illegal immigration by providing an orderly, structured, and
safe process by which those outside the country looking for work can enter the country,
obtain legal employment, and return home to their families. Third, this process
can, in turn, help address the problem of those who have entered illegally, but
cannot return to their home country for fear of ever being able to obtain entry
into the U.S. (legally or illegally) again.
The President's proposal
Mr. Chairman, as you know President Bush proposed a new temporary worker program
to match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers when no Americans can
be found to fill the jobs. He also outlined his principles for immigration reform,
which he said were necessary to fix a broken system and to promote compassion for
those who have helped make America prosperous. NRCA and EWIC are in strong agreement
with the basic principles of the Bush plan which are:
Protecting the Homeland by controlling our borders
American workers come firstemployers must make reasonable efforts to find
an American to fill a job before extending job offers to foreign workers
Serving America's economy by matching willing workers with willing employers
Promoting compassion in order to prevent exploitation and to establish a mechanism
that would allow temporary workers to travel back and forth between their home countries
and the U.S. without fear of being denied re-entry to the U.S.
Providing incentives for return to one's home country
Protecting the rights of legal immigrantsthe program would not connect participation
to a green card or citizenship, thereby allowing undocumented workers to gain an
advantage over those who have followed the rules
President Bush's plan would allow workers abroad and those already employed here
illegally to obtain renewable three-year work visas in order to take jobs unfilled
by Americans. Undocumented workers already in the U.S. could enter the program immediately
after providing proof of employment. Workers participating in the program would
be entitled to the same employment rights and protections to which native born workers
are entitled. The plan also calls for an increase in the number of green cards for
those wishing to reside in the U.S. permanently. And contrary to the assertions
of some, the plan neither rewards anyone here illegally with "amnesty", nor offers
anyone preference over those who have waited to enter the U.S. legally.
President Bush is to be congratulated for tackling such a complex and contentious
topic, for it's the right thing to do. Despite the protests of those who would have
America wall off its southern neighbors, the nation's growing reliance on foreign
labor is undeniable. Americans simply demand more services than our domestic workforce
can supply. And yet, our current system fails to provide enough visas for employers
to fill jobs they cannot satisfy domestically. It's also clear that something must
be done to address the 8-10 million undocumented individuals who are currently in
the U.S. The vast majority of immigrants want nothing more than to continue contributing
to our society and to share in the American Dream, but the present system is one
that allows those few who wish to do us harm to hide more easily among the undocumented
population. Efforts to coerce countries of origin to stem the flow of migrants,
employer sanctions, and stricter border-control mechanisms have utterly failed.
The predicament facing the U.S., and most developed countries for that matter, is
that our ability to control immigration has withered as our enthusiasm for doing
so has simultaneously grown. The U.S. maintains a rigid patchwork of laws and mounts
extensive unilateral law enforcement efforts, but the simple reality is that we
have lost control of our borders, and even if we were to devise a means to curtail
immigration significantly, our economy would suffer substantially.
The current system has also created an underclass of workers, vulnerable to exploitation
by unscrupulous employers, often afraid to seek basic services such as medical care
for fear of prosecution, and frequently at life's risk making the dangerous journey
into the U.S. The President's plan recognizes that our current immigration system
is broken and takes meaningful steps to fix these problems.
Foreign workerslegal and illegal, temporary and permanentplay a critical
role in our economy and our society. They were vital to our economic growth in the
past decade and will be irreplaceable in the next as we face demographic and societal
trends that ensure America will not have the number of workers we need to sustain
the level of economic growth that America demands.
Opponents of immigration would have us enact a moratorium on new arrivals. Some
would have us station troops along our borders and expel the millions of undocumented
already here. NRCA and EWIC suggest another pathan immigration system that
recognizes the ongoing need of the American economy for foreign workers and assists
in separating those who wish to destroy America from those who wish to help build
The Administration has stated unmistakably its interest in working with Congress
to draft legislation incorporating the principles embodied in the President's proposal.
NRCA and EWIC are encouraged that the Subcommittee has embraced the President's
challenge to Congress, and we look forward to working with the Administration and
Congress as the immigration reform debate moves forward.