In Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, mammoth hurricanes have left behind a colossal amount of work. The cleanup and reconstruction efforts are going to take years. That means a severe demand for salvage and demolition crews, roofers, carpenters, drywall installers, painters, plumbers and workers in all manner of other trades and skills.
And if recent history tells us anything, much of this demand will be met by immigrants — migrant laborers, many of them highly skilled, and many of them lacking legal status.
As a workers’ rights organizer in New Orleans, I remember what happened on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Immigrant workers surged in to tackle the huge job of rebuilding, only to be exploited by unscrupulous employers in an unregulated, chaotic and dangerous labor bazaar. The workers had little access to decent housing and little ability to protest against unsafe conditions or wage theft.
This wasn’t a problem only for immigrants. As long as labor was exploitable and cheap, American-born workers and local businesses suffered too, as conditions and wages slid toward rock bottom.
If we had a federal government sensitive to these issues, the solution would be a moratorium on immigration enforcement in disaster zones. This would ensure that the rebuilders could keep working, and that those depending on them could return home as soon as possible. Given the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on immigrants, there’s little hope for this sensible fix.
In the absence of such a moratorium, governors and mayors should insist that federal labor laws be enforced in these areas while reconstruction is underway. Labor laws guarantee workers payment, safe working conditions and the ability to report mistreatment, among other things.
When workers are vulnerable and afraid, aware that their immigration status can be used against them, they are easy targets for abuse. They know that one complaint could mean a quick call to immigration. Their fear of being deported and losing everything shackles them to bad employers.
One exemplary story is that of Josue Diaz, an undocumented day laborer who was recruited along with 11 other workers after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The employer promised them good jobs, fair wages, safe conditions and housing.
The employer took them to Beaumont, Texas, where they were forced to live in tents in an isolated labor camp at an abandoned oil refinery. They were made to work in toxic conditions without safety equipment. Then, after they risked their health doing the most dangerous work, the company sent in U.S.-born workers with safety equipment and protections to finish the rest of the job. The Latino workers were treated as disposable.
Diaz and the other workers organized, protesting the discrimination and illegal treatment. In retaliation, the employer evicted them without compensation. When they demanded their pay, the employer called local police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which arrested the workers immediately. After spending 78 days in jail, Diaz convinced the district attorney that the workers had been the victim of employer retaliation. The DA withdrew the charges, but ICE still detained the workers and sought to deport them.
These abuses, and the exploitation that took place after Katrina, occurred during the George W. Bush administration, which supported comprehensive immigration reform. The climate of fear is far worse today, with agents and officers from ICE and the Border Patrol running roughshod over immigrant communities, goaded by President Donald Trump’s toxic rhetoric.
Nevertheless, immigrants will still risk their lives to come here. Their need is that dire — and our demand is that urgent.
The credit rating company Moody’s estimates that the damage from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma could total $150 billion to $200 billion — considerably more than the $108 billion or so in damage left by Katrina. Irma destroyed an estimated 25 percent of homes in the Florida Keys. In Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, more than 136,000 homes and other structures were flooded by Harvey.
In the aftermath of these disasters, there has been talk of rebuilding homes and cities with greater attention to long-term sustainability and resilience. Some have even called for a “green New Deal” that marries these goals with stronger social safety nets for storm victims.
This worthy vision can and should take into account the people who are doing the rebuilding, making sure they are safe, secure and paid a fair wage. And that means starting with meaningful protections for the immigrant workers who help storm victims return home.
Saket Soni is executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice and the National Guestworker Alliance. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.