Legal and Illegal, Latinos Labor to Rebuild Texas

September 23, 2008

Latino immigrant day laborers are helping to rebuild the devastated cities of southeast Texas.

Many of them are here illegally. Others are legal residents in need of income after their regular jobs were disrupted by Hurricane Ike

Ike brought a wide swath of destruction, and with it the prospect of more work, higher wages and a respite from the ever-present threat of deportation. In recent months, many day laborers say, jobs in the Houston area had started to dry up, and police and immigration officials had been cracking down.

“There’s more work now,” Teodoro Alvarado, 20, said Friday in Spanish as he stood on a corner in the gritty Houston suburb of Pasadena where day laborers regularly wait for work. “And I hope more work comes.”

There’s reason to believe it will: After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of Latino immigrants streamed to New Orleans for jobs in construction, carpentry and cleanup.

Since Ike struck Sept. 13, Gerardo Hernandez has been getting jobs lifting trees off driveways and houses, but he usually works as a roofer. A drive through the quaint bayside community of Kemah, where the hurricane lifted the roofs off dozens of boardwalk restaurants and private homes, made him confident there’d be need for his services.

“In the weeks that come, as people get insurance money, I think there will be more work,” Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant who has been in the United States four years, said in Spanish.

Along with the promise of fresh jobs, there are fears of abuse and exploitation of workers, and rumors that immigration officials will be poised at job sites to arrest the undocumented. After Katrina, many Latino workers in New Orleans reported cases of unsafe working conditions and employers who cheated them out of money earned.

“These people are going to be getting work, but they will also be the most exploited,” said Annica Gorham, director of the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, which helps day laborers who have been cheated of wages, injured on the job or working in unsafe conditions. “Day laborers are some of the most vulnerable workers here and across the county.”

In Houston, as in dozens of other U.S. cities, several police departments in the area have started to turn over undocumented immigrants for deportation. There have also been highly publicized workplace raids by federal agents, including one in June where 160 workers at a cluttered rag factory were arrested.

But this city’s immigrants, who help make up the country’s second-largest population of day laborers after that of Los Angeles, also provide a ready-made work force for the massive cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

“There are plenty of people asking for help,” said Marco Ramirez, 50, a contractor who normally has a five-man crew. Since Ike, Ramirez has had to hire extra workers and will likely need more. All, including Ramirez, are Latino immigrants.

In the storm’s aftermath, Mayor Bill White said homeowners need to find help where they can.

“I like to see people doing it, rather than letting debris pile up and people not getting roofs fixed,” said White, who has a reputation for welcoming immigrants.

Early on most mornings last week, many of the more than two dozen spots in Houston where day laborers gather had been swept clean by contractors and homeowners looking for workers. Most are paid about $8 to $10 an hour to install wallboard, clear driveways and yards, or repair roofs. So far, workers said, wages had not increased much from pre-Ike rates.

At a home improvement store in southeast Houston, where as many as 100 day laborers gathered well before dawn Friday to wait for work, homeowner Dale Emion eased his pickup close to the circle of men. It was immediately surrounded by over a dozen day laborers.

“I need two and will pay $7 an hour to clean up around my house,” Emion said.

“You gonna give lunch?” asked one man in broken English.

Emion shook his head. No one got in the truck, but the men didn’t walk away, either.

“OK. I’ll pay $8,” said Emion.

Two men got in the cab of the truck.

“I just need them to clean up my house,” Emion said. “Where else am I going to find workers?”

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