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Permian shortages filled by busloads

OIL AND GAS, CONSTRUCTION

When boom times hit the oil and gas industry in 2006-07, the immigrant labor pool mushroomed in the Permian Basin in southeast New Mexico as operators scrambled to fill labor shortages.

Service companies such as Halliburton began hauling in busloads of workers from as far away as Las Vegas, Nev., said Gregg Fulfer, former Lea County commissioner and owner of the Fulfer Oil and Cattle Co. in Jal.

“If immigrants showed up with legal papers, they would go to work the same day,” Fulfer said. “In the peak of the boom, I’d say 60 percent of the industry labor pool in our area were Spanish-speaking immigrants, particularly Mexicans.”

That influx of foreign-born labor is now deeply ingrained in New Mexico’s oil patch, with immigrants occupying jobs up and down the chain, including top management, Fulfer said. And that remains true today, despite the industry bust.

“Even in the down time, immigrants still account for more than half the labor force,” Fulfer said. “Whether it’s up or down, our industry runs short on labor all the time. If immigrants are available and ready to work, they’re hired like everyone else.”

Some undocumented workers may well be in the fields, but operators carefully review paperwork before anyone gets hired, Fulfer said.

Still, while most companies and industry professionals would likely support comprehensive immigration reform, many would oppose a concerted enforcement crackdown.

“That would have a negative impact,” said Republican state Rep. Larry Scott, a career oilman who heads Lynx Petroleum Consultants in Hobbs. “We need coherent, consistent policy to deal with people here, but not mass deportations.”

New Mexico’s construction industry also depends a lot on immigrant labor, accounting for nearly 16 percent of the local workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We do depend on a mix of immigrant and non-immigrant labor in our industry – everyone does,” said John Garcia, executive vice president of the Homebuilders Association of Central New Mexico. “That’s a fundamental part of our economy today… . We’re a blended community and we always have been. It’s just reality.”

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