In 1997, 18-year-old David Ozuna left his poverty-stricken neighborhood in Acapulco, Mexico, and headed to the United States in search of work.
As Business Report details in the cover story in the new issue, Ozuna found work—and more—in Louisiana. After a short stint working at a restaurant, Ozuna got a job as a painter in Baton Rouge. Within three years, he realized the work demand was so great he could afford to take a chance at starting his own business. In 2000, he launched Ozuna’s Painting, a painting and stucco company, in Denham Springs. No one seemed to mind at the time that Ozuna was undocumented and barely able to speak English.
“Nobody cares who you are or where you’re from as long as you do what you say you’re going to do,” says Ozuna, who has since become a U.S. citizen and is fluent in English. “If you work hard, people will hire you.”
Today, however, the atmosphere surrounding immigrants—especially those who come to the U.S. undocumented, as Ozuna did—is growing increasingly hostile and is more polarized than any time in recent memory. The issue has reached a boiling point under President Donald Trump, whose controversial statements, beleaguered travel ban, calls for a border wall and mass deportations have fueled the flames of one of the most hotly debated national issues of the day.
And yet, not many people in the Louisiana business community want to talk about it—at least not on the record. A number of business owners in the construction, agriculture and hospitality industries declined to comment for this story, though they rely heavily on immigrants—documented or not—to fill workforce shortages.
Business owners who are willing to talk say immigrant labor is an essential asset to builders, farmers, landscapers, restaurateurs and others who cannot find domestic workers to fill jobs. Some worry Trump’s hardline stance on immigration could drastically reduce the already-strained labor pool and leave gaping holes in their workforces.
“The stance the president is taking is a concern,” says Dwayne Gafford, owner of Gafford Builders and president of the Capital Region Builders Association. “At a National Home Builders Association meeting in January, one big topic was the labor shortage. This had nothing to do with immigration. Generally speaking, we have a labor shortage. Since then, the president’s agenda on labor and immigration has become more of a concern to builders.”
Among the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, roughly 70,000 live in Louisiana, which is up 27% since 2009, according to Pew Research Center. This population comprises 2.2% of the state workforce, which is also aided by another 16,000 immigrants who legally work in Louisiana through visas.
Baton Rouge’s construction industry—particularly residential builders—may stand to lose the most under an immigration overhaul. Local builders say immigrants represent a majority of workers on construction sites, and a large percentage typically are undocumented. Unlike agriculture, most builders don’t use visa programs because their work isn’t seasonal.
What typically happens, according to Gafford and several other builders, is smaller companies hire subcontractors to complete a lot of their work. And while the subcontractors they hire are legal citizens, their workers may not be.
Labor shortages have been pronounced in the Baton Rouge area following the 2016 flood. Carol Smith, co-owner of Harvey Smith Construction and a former CRBA president, says Capital Region homebuilders are inundated with work, exacerbating the workforce issues. If the government cracks down on immigration, these problems will only worsen.
“I am concerned,” she says. “We do have a lot of immigrant workers. There would definitely be a shortage. Who would step up? I’m not sure.”
Read the full story, which includes sidebar about issues arising from the capped H2-B visa program and infographic showing immigration by the numbers in Louisiana. Send your comments to email@example.com.