Undocumented workers will be linchpin in efforts
By JENALIA MORENO and SUSAN CARROLL Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Sept. 25, 2008, 7:12AM
Video: Ike's aftermath See Houston's recovery from the devastating hurricane.
IMMIGRATION CHRONICLES BLOG
Thoughts on the slower rate of immigration All across southeast Texas, roofs need repair, debris must be discarded and towns hope to rebuild.
Hurricane Ike's destruction is sparking one of the largest rebuilding efforts the state has seen in decades, but at the same time is highlighting a thorny facet of the region's labor force: A lot of the recovery work will be done by illegal immigrants.
Homeowners have already turned to day laborers — many of whom are undocumented — to help clear brush, tent roofs and repair other storm damage. Contractors have hired them to rebuild or restore businesses and the city's infrastructure.
And the major work of rebuilding small towns along the Gulf Coast or big homes in Galveston will likely be aided by undocumented workers.
But this tug and pull of the labor force highlights an uneasy dilemma: The region needs the muscle of undocumented immigrants, but simultaneously is a cog in a broader crackdown of illegal immigrants at worksites.
"There's just no mechanism in place right now to provide those important laborers work authorization," said Leigh Ganchan, a Houston immigration attorney with Haynes and Boone. "It's a shame that employers can't tap into a whole segment of society that's willing and capable to provide those services. Our nation is more vulnerable than it would like to admit, I think. Vulnerable, meaning we need people to help us rebuild our infrastructure after major disasters like this."
Carlos González, Mexico's consul general in Houston, expects the area's existing immigrant population will do the rebuilding work, a key difference with what happened post-Katrina. New Orleans experienced an influx of Hispanic immigrants because it did not have as large of an immigrant population as Houston.
"You will find the immigrant community — as they always have — will play a very big role," said Laura Murillo, president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
However, Americans devastated by the storm should have the option of doing the rebuilding, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for a Washington, D.C.-group that seeks to stop illegal immigration.
"Those people should have first crack at the reconstruction jobs," said Mehlman with the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "I'm sure there are an awful lot of people who can use the jobs and use the paychecks to get themselves back on their feet."
The looming demand for immigrant labor for rebuilding efforts illustrates how dependent Texas industry and commerce are on undocumented workers.
According to a 2006 study by the Greater Houston Partnership, construction is the largest employer of undocumented workers in the city, employing nearly 36,000 people.
"The storm hasn't done anything but point out again how badly these workers are needed and how much they contribute," said Angela Blanchard, president and chief executive officer of Neighborhood Centers Inc.
Chase Duhon, with an Austin-based company that contracted to remove brush and debris across Houston, said he's having trouble finding legal local workers to help with hurricane cleanup. He posted an ad online to find more workers.
"We don't hire anyone who's illegal," said Duhon, a Houston native. "We want to keep it local. We want to use people here in Texas, but there's so much work, there are people coming from Michigan and Massachusetts."
Paralyzed by politics, immigration reform has yet to be approved by Congress despite years of hot debate. Supporters of reforms — such as a guest worker program — say storms like Ike prove how hard it is for employers to fill certain jobs.
"We need the labor. These people want to work," said Norman Adams, co-founder of Texans for Sensible Immigration Reform and president of Adams Insurance Service. "I don't think anybody has enough workers here."
Adams said the contractor repairing his water-damaged office building in the Heights area after the storm hired immigrant workers.
Honduran immigrant Esteban Valle, 49, said construction work has picked up since Ike hit.
"I think there's more work," said Valle, a legal permanent resident who previously lived in Dallas. "But it's easier for me because I have papers."
At one of the city's most popular day labor sites, the competition was stiff, with those skilled in trades like roof repair and hanging plaster wallboard often getting picked first.
"It's difficult because we don't have papers, and there are so many people," said 22-year-old Emanuel Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant from southern Mexico, gesturing to three dozen men gathered at the corner of Shepherd Drive and 11th.
Staff writer Jim Pinkerton contributed to this report.