‘He Can Build a Wall, but We’ll Just Build a Tunnel’

Immigrant laborers, who make up most of North Carolina’s urban construction workforce, aren’t afraid of Trump.

A U.S. worker inspects a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall at Sunland Park, New Mexico, across from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez. (Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters)

RALEIGH—Trump has often boasted that in his first day of office as president, he will start building a “big, beautiful, powerful wall” on the border with Mexico and start sending millions of undocumented immigrants back south. That will be a problem for the construction industry, which relies heavily on undocumented laborers.

On the day after the election, I visited a construction site in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, where a cluster of big tech and science companies have opened offices, making it one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country. About 70 percent of the state’s urban construction workforce is made up of immigrant laborers—the remaining 30 percent are mostly their American supervisors. Though it's hard to know how many of them have legal work status, researchers at the University of North Carolina interviewed 125 Latino construction workers in the Raleigh-Durham area, and found that the majority were likely undocumented.* This is something general contractors get away with by subcontracting with other companies to hire laborers, therefore making someone else liable for the workers who don’t have valid papers.

I spoke to about a dozen workers who are building the roof on a new 1-million-square-foot retail, restaurant, and office building in the area. Most of them were from Mexico and Central America, and most came to the United States illegally. To my surprise, none seemed afraid of Trump moving into the White House or what his victory says about how Americans view them. “Psshh,” says one Mexican worker, whose identity is being withheld because of his immigration status. “We always knew Americans didn’t want us here,” he said in Spanish, loading equipment into a van after an 11-hour shift building ceiling frames. “They use us, but that’s okay because we use them too for the money.”

His colleagues, wearing hard hats and safety vests, nodded their heads. They seemed to agree with the idea that it doesn’t make much of a difference if the next president is a Democrat or Republican. “[All presidents] break their promises, they all want to deport us,” said another worker, who declined to give his name. He was likely referring to the record number of deportations during President Obama’s administration. Their reactions are a sharp contrast to those of other undocumented groups, such as the generation of younger immigrants who grew up in the United States and view themselves as Americans. Those who received temporary deportation relief through Obama’s DACA program are particularly frightened about the likely scenario that Trump will revoke the protection and deport them. The construction workers I spoked to seemed more resigned, more cynical—yet also defiant—about their own situation. What about the wall, I asked them, do you really think Trump will build a wall?

“He can build a wall, but we’ll just build a tunnel,” said Magdaleno Santos, a Salvadorian man who arrived in the the United States illegally more than two decades ago, but adjusted his immigration status in the late 1990s. “If we leave, the entire country will fall apart. Have you looked around? Who do you think is building everything here? It’s the Latinos. American workers just want to walk around with a clipboard, sipping from their water bottles. They don’t want to do what we do.”

Earlier in the day, I had walked over to the makeshift offices where the contractors and subcontractors had set up shop. I chatted with Neal Fisher, the subcontractor overseeing electrical work on the retail complex. Is it true that he can’t find Americans to do this work? “That’s part of it. But if Bobby comes looking for a job, he’s going to want $24 an hour, and these guys will do the same work for $12.” The company he works for subcontracted with another company to hire the laborers, so he didn’t know the legal status of the Latino workers. When he started working in the construction industry 38 year ago, he only worked with one or two foreign laborers, he says, now all of them are immigrants. He seemed torn by the dichotomy he faced: his company’s need to stay competitive, and his clear disdain for the immigrant workforce. “Honestly, if you can’t speak English, you shouldn’t be allowed in this country,” said Fisher, who voted for Trump. (A spokesman for the development company in charge of the construction project declined to comment for this story).

Immigrant laborers in North Carolina hold no illusions about how their employers view them with contempt, while also understanding how necessary they are to a company’s bottom line. At a workers’ center near the construction site, I spoke with undocumented immigrants from Mexico as they waited for pickup trucks to come by and drive them to jobs in landscaping, home remodeling, or house painting. They too were not alarmed by Trump’s victory and his threats to deport them. “If he deports me, I will just leave with my children,” said one man, who declined to give his name because of his immigration status. “But [Trump] can’t get rid of all of us; there are too many of us. This country will starve without us,” he says, pointing out that immigrants harvest most crops grown in the United States.

Another man, who has crossed the border illegally several times, laughs at the idea that a border wall will solve anything. “Trump can build the tallest wall that he can, and we will find a way to fly over it, just like birds.”

*This article originally suggested the research at University of North Carolina had a larger scope than the actual sample size. We regret the error.