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Undocumented Workers Will Spearhead Reconstruction of Houston

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But reconstruction environment is “ripe for exploitation”

Austin, TX – More than a week removed from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, Houston is now surveying the damage done by the storm and has started efforts to rebuild the fourth largest city in the country.

In a piece in Vox this morning, Alexia Fernandez Campbell outlines how undocumented workers from Houston and across Texas will be essential in the reconstruction of the city.

Much like in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, undocumented laborers will be asked to do some of the toughest jobs, including sweeping streets and removing debris from homes and buildings.

But in Texas, a state that recently passed one of the most anti-immigrant laws in our country and led the fight to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, undocumented immigrants in Houston will have to work under a hostile environment that may lead to exploitation.

We excerpt key portions of Fernandez Campbell’s piece below. It can be found in its entirety here.

Unauthorized immigrants were crucial to rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And they are likely to be desperately needed as Texas rebuilds to clean streets, demolish buildings, and reconstruct homes and offices.

But it’s a hostile time to be undocumented in Texas. Even beyond the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric and actions on immigration, Texas leaders are engaged in a crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, passing a slew of laws to make it harder for them to live and work in the state. In such an environment, these laborers might not stick around for the work that will be needed.

“This could have a chilling effect on the community,” said Laurel Fletcher, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley who studied the working conditions of laborers in New Orleans after Katrina. “A lot depends on what the climate will be like for Latinx and undocumented residents in the greater Houston area.”


The House of Representatives voted overwhelminglyWednesday to pass an initial Harvey relief bill of $8 billion. But that’s just a fraction of the total damage, which by latest estimates could add up to $180 billion. That would be similar to impact of Hurricane Katrina, which unleashed $160 billion-worth of damage in Louisiana (adjusted for inflation).

That’s a lot of damage to undo — and right now, there aren’t enough construction workers in Texas to do it. The US unemployment rate, at 4.4 percent, is at its lowest level since the Great Recession started, and construction companies across the country have been struggling to find workers. In August, about 77 percent of US builders reported a shortage of framing crews and 61 percent faced a shortage of drywall installation workers, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

If the story of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is any indication, undocumented immigrants will be a crucial part of Houston’s recovery.

After Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush temporarily suspended certain labor laws, allowing contractors to hire workers without checking their legal status. The idea was to make it easy for people who lost their documents in the storm to get work — but in effect, the law also allowed companies to hire undocumented workers who didn’t have papers at all. Bush also temporarily suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay workers the average wages in the area.

Undocumented laborers — mostly from Mexico and Central America — did the dirtiest jobs in rebuilding the city, making an average of about $10 an hour. They started by sweeping streets and removing moldy debris from buildings. They cleaned out rotting food from refrigerators. They put FEMA tarps on homes. They ended up removing more than 38 million cubic yards of trash and debris from the city. When reconstruction began, they were the ones installing new roofs and sheet rock on buildings.

Undocumented immigrants made up about 25 percent of the construction workers after Katrina, according to Fletcher’s research. In 2006, she and a group of researchers from Tulane University interviewed 212 construction workers to get a better sense of their working conditions. It was a small, random sample that included both documented and undocumented immigrants.

Their study showed that American workers did more skilled work, such as the electrical and plumbing jobs. Undocumented immigrants were more likely to do more dangerous, labor-intensive work, such as laying roofs, painting homes and installing sheet rock.

Unlike Texas, Louisiana didn’t have a large number of Latino immigrants, which meant that many laborers moved to the area specifically to find work. Many ended up staying in Louisiana and starting families, even though immigration agents routinely raided their homes and businesses. It took more than 10 years for New Orleans to recover from the storm, and many neighborhoods remain vacant.