US oilmen struggle to fill roles due to immigration crackdown

Oil firms in Texas and New Mexico say they feel caught between Trump's support for their industry and his tougher immigration stance

Johnny Vega (left), the president and CEO of Mico Services, looks on as an oil field worker operates a swabbing rig in Seminole, TX, U.S. September 19, 2019. Picture taken September 19, 2019.    REUTERS/Adria Malcolm
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New Mexico oil man Johnny Vega laid out his predicament as his crew hoisted pipes from a well during the biggest oil boom in U.S. history.

The son of a Mexican guest worker, Mr Vega cannot find enough legal workers to meet demand for his oil well service rigs.

There is no shortage of Hispanic and Latino immigrant workers without work permits he could hire in Lea County, New Mexico — the second-biggest oil-producing county in the United States.

But Mr Vega says he wants to play by the rules, not least because of a heightened risk of company audits by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under President Donald Trump. As a result, he has equipment that could be generating $700,000 a month standing idle in his yard.

"They're demanding more rigs, more swabbing units, but you don't have enough employees," said Mr Vega, who runs Mico Services, which has annual revenue of around $17 million. "It's a lack of a system to get legal workers, to have more of a workforce to pull from."

Employers like Mr Vega in the Permian Basin oilfields of New Mexico and Texas say they feel caught between Trump's support for their industry and his policies focused on tougher immigration enforcement.

It's a dilemma faced in other sectors of the US economy that depend on foreign workers after ICE reported surges of between 300 to 750 per cent in worksite investigations, audits and arrests in its 2018 fiscal year.

Visas for temporary jobs in sectors like agriculture and hospitality have increased during the Trump administration. Oil companies complain of difficulties gaining work permits for immigrant oil workers, who do not qualify for temporary visas.

The Permian Basin, by far the most productive oilfield in the United States, has helped make the country a net exporter of oil. Its output growth has recently slowed, but production is still at all-time highs.

The number of rigs drilling for oil in New Mexico hit a record 115 in early October and labour shortages are felt most keenly in service companies like Mr Vega's that help keep the oil flowing.

The Permian Basin needs about 15,000 more workers, and is currently meeting demand met by paying overtime and shipping workers in and out, according to data from the Permian Strategic Partnership alliance of 19 energy companies.

Thousands of immigrants, mainly from neighbouring Mexico, have thronged to the decade-long boom. They often fill the hardest and most dangerous jobs few Americans want, such as using heavy equipment to lift oil well tubing or lay pipelines.

For Bob Reid, immigrants provide a solution to labour shortages and a chance for boom-bust oil towns like Hobbs, New Mexico to build a more stable future.

"The problem is a broken system that's preventing them from coming in legally in a way that allows them to pursue a path to citizenship," said Mr Reid, head of the JF Maddox Foundation, a Hobbs charity.

In Lea County, Hispanics and Latinos now account for as much as 70 per cent of the population, compared with 40 per cent 20 years ago, based on county school enrolment and other data.

About two years ago, ICE stepped up operations in the Permian area, according to Lea County employers.

"I know people, my peers, that have been hit by immigration audits, and they were told, specifically, that the Permian Basin was targeted because of the vast amount of workers that were coming here," said Finn Smith, president of Hobbs-based Watson Hopper, a provider of oil rigs and other equipment.

ICE did not respond to requests for comment on its Permian operations.

Two companies in Hobbs, the largest city in Lea County, were recently audited: Mesa Well Services and paving contractor Ramirez & Sons, according to a person with knowledge of the situation and a Ramirez & Sons official.

Mesa Well officials were not available for comment. Ramirez & Sons senior superintendent David Gallegos said the company was paying around $40,000 in legal fees to apply for work permits or US citizenship on behalf of five of the employees laid off after the audit.

"They're worth fighting for," said Mr Gallegos, a Republican New Mexico state representative, of the long term employees who had bought homes in the area.

ICE operations, and Trump's threats of raids, have left many immigrants in Lea County fearful. Some bolt from job sites at rumours of ICE activity, said Maria Romano of New Mexico-based immigrant rights group Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

More companies are using the government's E-Verify immigration background checks to vet new hires, said Ms Romano, whose organisation helps immigrants get on a pathway to citizenship.

"It's now getting very difficult here for anyone who isn't documented," said Juan, an unemployed pipeline worker who entered the United States illegally 11 years ago and asked that his last name not be used to protect his identity.

About a third of all immigrants in New Mexico and Texas lack valid working papers, according to a Pew Research Center study based on 2016 US census data.

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb says he is frustrated by the failure of political leaders at a national level to create a pathway to citizenship for immigrants he generally finds to be hardworking and law abiding.

"The very people who have suffered from that are the people who are here growing our community, adding to the economic welfare of the community," said Mr Cobb, a Democrat, sitting in his office surrounded by paintings of oil wells and cowboys.

Yet plenty of employers in Lea County still hire undocumented workers.

"What we do is we don't ask," said Lorena, a Mexican immigrant whose family has built up a small oilfield services business. She estimated that more than 90 per cent of her employees were Mexican immigrants and that only 5 to 10 per cent had genuine working papers. Her last name was not used to protect her identity.

Mr Vega's labour woes are pushing him to reorient his oil well service business towards hiring out his equipment. "We have to rely on some of these immigrants, in this neck of the woods, to produce the workforce that we're needing," said Mr Vega, who said he supports Trump "100 per cent" but wishes he would "tone down" his rhetoric against immigrants. "Why not allow them to be documented?"

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