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Theories have circulated that job losses in the construction and real estate industries could really hurt the economy in some places like San Diego, where housing was so hot for so long. But statistics for job losses haven’t yet matched the downward trends in the number of homes in construction. National labor stats show a 3-percent drop in residential construction employment, but there were 15 percent fewer homes under construction, and 27 percent fewer homes started, than in the same month last year, according to national Labor Department numbers.

The New York Times has a story today examining a possible explanation for the mismatch, at least for California’s Central Valley. The story looks at illegal immigrants who worked in construction while subdivisions were springing up all over the place earlier this decade:

Illegal immigrants played a big if quiet part on the supply side of America’s housing boom. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization in Washington, immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries account for about one in five construction workers. Those who arrived since 2000 — who are likely to be unlawfully in the United States because they had virtually no way of immigrating legally — account for an estimated 7 percent of the construction work force.

The construction jobs paid more than the farming jobs usually available for undocumented workers, and most workers were employed by small labor contractors. That’s why major homebuilders’ payroll stats don’t reveal huge drop-offs in employment, the story argues. The contractor’s the one who tells the workers there’s no more work.

The Times talks to a few of these workers, identifying them by first name and last initial only, and tells bits of their stories:

Like no other job, construction allowed many immigrants a shot at the American dream. … For Cresencio B. a construction job meant his wife, Marta M., could afford to stay home and care for their 2-year-old son, Angel.

But when home builders stopped building, they stopped calling. Hoe in hand, Marta M. is back at work these days, hacking alongside her husband at the weeds in a tomato field from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Angel is left in the care of his 18-year-old sister.

KELLY BENNETT

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