'If they deport all of us, who will rebuild?'
Day laborers seen as key to Texas recovery
HOUSTON — Everywhere Samuel Enríquez looks, he can see the work that needs to be done. But because he is in the United States illegally, he knows he can’t earn an official paycheck in this city’s recovery.
The carpenter from El Salvador sits on a curb outside a home improvement store, hoping a passer-by will offer $10 an hour to help rip out sewage-soaked carpets or rotting drywall.
Having lived in the United States for a year, he believes Texas is as good a place as any to seek refuge because that’s where the work is now, even if some government officials want him and others like him to leave the country.
“If they deport all of us, who will rebuild?” said Enríquez, waiting along with about two dozen other laborers seeking work. “We do more for less.”
It will take an army of workers to reconstruct a vast swath of southeast Texas, including the sprawling metropolis of Houston, that was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Whether the region can do it without fully embracing workers such as Enríquez will soon be put to the test — with reverberations that could be felt nationwide.
Under President Donald Trump, authorities in Texas have been bearing down on illegal immigrants. Until a judge blocked the measure last week, they threatened to enact a new state law that would outlaw sanctuary cities.
It is a harsher landscape for those in the country illegally than it was 12 years ago, when the Gulf Coast faced the similar-size task of cleaning up from Hurricane Katrina. Eight days after that storm made landfall, President George W. Bush bowed to pressure from construction companies and relaxed worker ID rules. By some estimates, that allowed more than a quarter of all government-paid recovery jobs to go to illegal immigrants.
But 10 days after Harvey struck Texas with record-setting rains and caused unprecedented flooding, the Trump administration has made no similar proclamation. Worse, immigrant rights groups say, federal authorities have sent conflicting signals about whether they might start simply detaining and deporting those flushed out into the open by the storm.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who was critical of Bush’s decision, said in a statement Sunday that he sees even greater challenges in recovering from Harvey.
“But that does not mean federal immigration laws should be ignored. Nor should regulations that require federal contractors to verify legal work authorization of their employers,” he said. “These policies were put in place to protect American workers and taxpayers.”
More than 200,000 homes sustained damage in the storm, including more than 13,500 that were destroyed, according to early local estimates that don’t provide solid numbers for some of the hardest-hit areas. Leaders in the construction industry have begun sounding alarms that there will not be enough American-born workers to rebuild as quickly as needed.
“If they would relax the rules, honestly, that would be great, we could use it,” said Jeffrey Nielsen, executive vice president of the Houston Contractors Association, whose members include the city’s largest firms that build roads, bridges and other public works.
Nielsen said that even before Harvey hit, almost every member of the association was grappling with a shortage of workers. With a crushing list of jobs now growing by the day, thousands need to be hired — and fast.
Nielsen said he and other construction industry officials were told at a weekend briefing that roughly 30 percent of all roads in and around Houston will remain impassable without some construction work.
“The truth is, there are not a lot of people jumping up and down to do civil construction work in Texas. It’s hot, and these jobs are pouring concrete or, worse, hot asphalt,” Nielsen said. “That’s the reality of it, and we need more people than ever.”
There are plenty in and around Houston who might consider taking on the work, which can pay $20 an hour or more, if ID requirements were relaxed, construction industry officials say.
The Houston metropolitan area has the third-largest illegal immigrant population in the country, about 575,000 people, according to a Pew Research Center report this year. Those workers already make up roughly a quarter of all construction laborers citywide, according to the study.
Some estimate it could be closer to half.
But as the federal government this week is expected to begin signing massive contracts for debris removal, roofing work and other emergency efforts, none of Houston’s unauthorized immigrant population could pass worker verification guidelines required of federal contractors.
At a news briefing last week, White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert tried to allay fears that Houston’s immigrants would be rounded up when they sought help at shelters. The administration, he said, was encouraging people to seek lifesaving help if they need it and wouldn’t “let somebody starve or die of thirst or exposure.”
But Bossert also was clear that the extent of the government’s leniency for illegal immigrants ends there.
“There’s no real wavering here, and it’s pretty clear about our position on immigration,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of benefits going out to illegal immigrants in terms of the American taxpayer.”
On the ground in Houston, the reality is different. Workers are needed urgently, and in Harvey’s wake, a shadow economy of off-the-books hiring will only expand, putting workers at risk of exploitation and robbing the state and federal government of tax dollars.
In eastern Houston, Guillermo Herrera’s banquet hall received about two feet of water after the west canal of Greens Bayou swamped the nearby community of mobile homes and cottages.
The hall was full of mud, the beer fridge had overturned, and the drywall stank, Herrera said. But despite the storm and flooding, one of his clients refused to cancel a Saturday night wedding ceremony planned for 600 guests. To make good on the contract and keep his business afloat, Herrera turned to his employees and their relatives to get the job done.
“I didn’t care where they came from,” said Herrera. “We needed the help.”