AUSTIN — Claudia Golinelli held out hope that the man who employed her and her husband, Alex, would finally pay the $11,000 owed to them.
The couple had seen the Lone Star State’s booming construction industry as a way to provide a modest way to support their two young children. Claudia, who is undocumented, came to the United States in 2004 and Alex followed a year later after a “mafia” group in El Salvador threatened to kill his mother, the Daily Beast reported. They’d soon find work as electricians.
But things got bad in January 2014, when their employer refused to pay them a dime until their work was finished on a new supermarket. After the family missed three months of mortgage payments and was on the verge of losing their home in the Dallas suburbs, the employer finally said they would be paid on Feb. 28, 2014, if the Golinellis came to the job site to pick up the money.
When they pulled up to the supermarket in Roanoke, Tex., the couple saw the building’s superintendent had called the police and accused the couple of stealing materials and tools.
“I felt very frustrated because he literally set a trap for us, and he wanted us go to jail instead of actually paying us,” Alex said in a March interview with The Washington Post. “He didn’t think about how my family was going to be unprotected.”
More than five years later, not much has changed: The Golinellis say they are still owed about $10,000, money they don’t expect to ever see. Although police ultimately chose not to charge them (or their employer), the Golinellis’ case highlights the exploitative underbelly of the construction industry in Texas, where workers’ rights advocates say the state’s undocumented workforce remains largely unprotected from wage theft and unsafe, potentially fatal working conditions.
The couple’s story is highlighted in “Building the American Dream,” a documentary that premiered last month at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. In the film, undocumented workers in Texas talk about how their lives have been affected by an under-regulated industry, all while facing an uncertain future amid the Trump administration’s ongoing immigration crackdown.
Wearing stickers bearing the film’s title while walking around a Hilton hotel in downtown Austin last month, Claudia and Alex told The Post, through an interpreter, that what’s unfolding in Texas echoes the crippling fear felt by undocumented workers nationwide.
“The government will always want us to feel suppressed, and the government will always want us to feel that fear because that’s a good way to exploit us,” Claudia said. “I hope this story makes people feel empowered and it makes those people that are going through the same situation feel like they have the power to speak up.”
In Texas alone, there are nearly half a million undocumented construction workers, according to a 2013 study from the Workers Defense Project, an organization that advocates for immigrant workers, and the University of Texas at Austin. For years, the construction lobby and business associations have pushed back against increased regulation and lobbied Texas lawmakers to pass legislation limiting worker protections, said Juliet Barbara, the project’s communications director.
Cristina Tzintzun, co-founder of the Workers Defense Project, said in the film that the group found that 1 in 5 workers in Texas were denied payment — and that half of those cases involved undocumented contractors. There was also a darker side to what was unfolding with undocumented workers.
On July 19, 2015, Roendy Granillo started feeling sick while installing a hardwood floor at a home in Melissa, Tex. When his family came to the United States from Mexico, Granillo, 25, was healthy and had dreams of starting a business with his father. Co-workers say Granillo told his bosses that he wasn’t feeling well and asked for a water break around 10 a.m., but the contractor insisted he had to keep working. Later, on that 97-degree day, Granillo died of heat stroke. By the time he made it to the hospital, Granillo’s body temperature had hit 110 degrees.
“I feel an emptiness in my heart that isn’t going away,” his mother, Graciela, said in the film. “As time goes on, you wish you could see him.”
Granillo’s death, which highlighted the fact that there’s no state or federal law mandating that construction workers get regular rest, served as a catalyst for the city of Dallas passing an ordinance into law in December 2015 that requires 10-minute breaks for every four hours of work. Since then, Austin is the only other city in Texas to implement a rest-break law for the construction industry.
“I think it would have helped my brother if he got to say, ‘Hey, I’m tired, I need a rest break,'” Granillo’s sister, Jasmine, said in the documentary.
When she was a student at the University of Texas, filmmaker Chelsea Hernandez read about a scaffolding collapse in 2009 that killed three workers during the construction of a luxury student condominium on campus. The moment at 21 Rio, where rent for a one-bedroom apartment is nearly $2,000, never left Hernandez.
“It struck me that with all these new high-rises that were drastically changing the look of Austin, someone was not getting paid, someone was getting injured, someone was dying while building what we know of as Austin,” Hernandez said. “I wanted to showcase the real cost of destruction and the price of progress.”
In their own fight for fairness, the Golinellis turned to the Workers Defense Project for help about two months after the encounter with police at the supermarket construction site. Eventually, the Texas Workforce Commission, a government agency for the state’s employment matters, opened an investigation of their wage-theft claim.
In 2016, the commission found that the subcontractor was in violation of state labor laws. One day in October that year, the Golinellis received a check for $421. It was a small amount, but a step in the right direction. The tone of the night, however, would soon change.
Driving home, Claudia said she was pulled over for speeding by police, who turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings. She said she was later released under supervision, adding that she had to check in with ICE every three months. Claudia told The Post that she now has two years before her next check-in. (Alex is not in deportation proceedings.)
She said the risk of being deported since that night, which happened during the Obama administration, has intensified under President Trump. She compared ICE’s treatment of undocumented immigrants to “hunting animals.”
“It does feel like ‘Planet of the Apes,’ where there is this kind of species that has to eliminate this other species in order to survive,” she told The Post.
Alex said he hopes the film will show undocumented people that they belong in American society.
“I really hope that people become aware that, based on President Trump, who has said that immigrants are criminals who steal, people see the reality of the situation,” Alex said. “The reality is that for us, a large part of our life is just working for our families. We are honest people. I hope our story takes away those lies and that people can see the reality for immigrants.”
Inside a quiet room at the Hilton, the Golinellis laugh to cover up their anger about the $10,000 they never expect to receive. They say the employer, who isn’t named in the film or by the couple, sent them an IRS form in which he falsely stated that he had paid them their full wages. Barbara said that they sent proof of the incorrect form to the IRS, but that the agency “did not pursue them to ensure that the taxes were paid.”
Although Claudia and Alex were able to recover $1,500 from a lien they filed, the employer has refused to pay, despite the Texas Workforce Commission ruling in the couple’s favor, Barbara said.
The family continues to do electrical work to support their children, Francesca and Alessandro. Claudia said she knows that whatever uneasiness they face from work or the government will be worth it to see her children succeed.
“We come to this country with a dream and we realize that this dream is not our dream. It’s a dream for our children: for them to have a better life,” she said. “The reason why we continue to tolerate these injustices is because I feel that my children are going to have a great future.”
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