This Doc is an Unsettling Look at the Texas Construction Industry’s Exploitation of Undocumented Workers

Courtesy of SXSW.

Texas has become a state of boom towns. Rapidly expanding cities like Austin, Dallas and Houston are far outpacing other parts of the country, and for developers, that means increased demand for commercial buildings, fancy condos and big houses. However, as Austin-based Mexican-American documentary filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez points out in her new movie, Building the American Dream, it’s not all good news for those who call Texas home. “The Texas Miracle” has come at a terrible price for construction workers, as the number of deaths from accidents or exhaustion has skyrocketed alongside the skyscrapers. It’s estimated that around half of the state’s one million construction workers are undocumented, leaving hundreds of thousands vulnerable to wage theft and exploitation.

“There’s a lot of locals who are shocked,” said Hernandez of the reactions to her film at its South by Southwest premiere. “We’re connecting with people outside of Texas as well. They’re starting to think about the construction workers in their own community, and then about immigrants in any different way than what we normally see in mainstream media. Our second screening was packed, and there were some people from El Salvador there, and a Salvadorian journalist asked me to bring this film to Central America to show it. I think people really want to see this kind of movie there.”

Texas has very little regulations and [that’s] why this exploitative culture has been going on in the industry for decades.

Hernandez first heard of the abuses in the construction industry as a student at the University of Texas’ Austin campus. In 2009, a scaffold collapse claimed the lives of three Latino workers. “They were building a student luxury condominium on campus,” she said. “I found the Workers Defense Project, and I had some friends who were volunteering there. They rallied and did a protest downtown on Congress Street. They built these life-size coffins – 145 of them – to commemorate the lives that were lost that year to construction deaths.”

At the time, Hernandez felt like she wasn’t ready to make the documentary about such a large topic. It would be several more years before she would start developing the project that would become Building the American Dream. With the help of a grant writer, they started writing proposals to the Austin Film Society, which then caught the attention of the Ford Foundation, pushing them into production.

Hernandez filmed most of Building the American Dream in 2015. It was the year Randy, a young construction worker, died tragically on a work site, and his grieving family became advocates for instituting mandatory rest breaks – 10 minutes for every four hours of hard labor – to prevent another death like his. When their proposal went to vote before the Dallas city council, a handful of elected officials argued on behalf of construction businesses against a safety regulation that could save lives. “I was shocked that they were speaking that way with the family,” said Hernandez. “I honestly did not think that was going to happen, so when it did, I realized this is what they’re up against. It was shocking to me just because it was so public – it’s in a public forum. I knew that needed to be in the film because that was representative of why Texas has very little regulations and why this exploitative culture has been going on in the industry for decades.”

We can get people from both sides of the aisle to speak about immigration reform and labor.

Hernandez continued filming through 2016 as one of her subjects, Christian, has his life turned upside down as DACA is thrown into limbo. Christian helped give Hernandez access to film at his job sites, which turned out to be a big help for the project. Not every developer was happy to see her camera, and Hernandez had a harder time getting subjects for the other side of her story – except for Stan Merrick. “Stan’s really very interesting,” Hernandez said. “He’s a very complex person, but he’s been very vocal about immigration reform because he knows that his industry depends on immigrants.” Another subject, Claudia, found the majority of her check stolen after a shady developer scammed her and her husband while they worked overtime to quickly complete a grocery store. Just as the pair are fighting for their stolen wages, ICE catches up to Claudia and forces her to check-in regularly or risk deportation. “We have the check-ins with her in the film so people can see the fear she faces every single time she has to go in,” she said.

In addition to Hernandez’s collection of eye-opening stories, she made Building the American Dream accessible to audiences in both English and Spanish. The subtitles are bilingual, switching to the other language seamlessly so that no viewers are lost in translation. “Many of the subjects speak Spanish and only Spanish, and we wanted them to understand the film as well,” she said. “When we showed the film, we didn’t have the Spanish captions and our producer was translating real time. I noticed that they weren’t connecting as well to the English parts. They need to see this film and anyone else who speaks Spanish needs to see this film. For us, it was about reaching that community that we were speaking about and featured in the film, but also bringing in an underrepresented community in spaces like South by Southwest and these festival spaces which sometimes feel very elite.”

“I would love to see some sort of a pathway to citizenship through the construction industry,” said Hernandez. “I think you’d be surprised to find that there are conservative construction companies who would actually find that to be a solution. Ultimately, it comes down to economics. They understand that: fill these jobs and make money. That’s why we wanted to Stan there in the film to show that this is a bipartisan issue. We can get people from both sides of the aisle to speak about immigration reform and labor.”