Arelis R. Hernandez and Aaron C. Davis report for the Washington Post:
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“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.
Federal contractors are required to ensure their employees have the proper immigration status to work. (John Taggart/For The Washington Post)
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.
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The couple and a crew of local church volunteers are doing some initial work, but soon they will need more specialized help for wiring, reassembling walls and putting in new floors. Would they hire day laborers to help?
“Oh yeah. They need the help too. The government helps us, we help them, and all of us help the economy,” Dave Bushnell said, pointing to a crew of three men pulling up a tree stump at an adjacent home. “You see how hard they work. They’ve probably lost everything too, but they can’t sit and wait for a handout. They’ve got to work.”
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“We are undoubtedly going to need immigrant workers to rebuild Houston,” said Kevin Appleby, director of policy for the nonprofit Center for Migration Studies of New York. “It is clear that immigrants, including those without status, helped to rebuild New Orleans.”
Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Houston, sees the damage left by Harvey as big enough to hopefully reset the national debate over illegal immigration.
He and other contractors want a permanent solution that will absorb the existing workforce and train them for the kinds of jobs that Houston and other parts of Texas will need. The storm, Marek said, provides an opportunity to solve an immigration problem in the state while advancing social justice.
“With some supervision and some training, we could kick-start this whole thing to basically integrate these people into society,” Marek said. “Let’s take them out of the shadows and give them the protection of our laws.”
Roberto Benavidez, 45, a Nicaraguan, has been thinking the same thing as he paces in front of a Home Depot in West Houston looking for odd jobs.
“For the country to rebuild Houston, it will need amnesty for immigrants,” Benavidez said. “I get it. It seems like we are busting in the door of your house and asking to stay, but in reality, we are knocking on the door and offering a service.”
For a larger fix, advocates say Bush’s decision after New Orleans can’t be looked at as a model. In September of 2005, the Department of Homeland Security waived worker identification requirements for “victims” of Katrina for 45 days. Critics said it was impossible to determine who was a victim, and it let illegal immigrants from across the country descend on New Orleans and be hired as subcontractors.
Appleby said he sees three likely scenarios under Trump: “Either he does not waive and continues to be strict, or he does not waive but also does not enforce, or he does relax regulations,” he said.
The thing about ideological White Nationalist policies is that they never take reality, practicality, humanity, decency, or the best needs of the country into account. And, you can bet that lots of GOP restrictionists down in the Lone Star State will exploit immigrant labor for all it’s worth to rebuild their privileged lifestyle before voting to kick the Latinos out. Want to bet on how many of Lamar Smith’s gerrymandered GOP constituents rely on some form of undocumented workers to maintain their lifestyles?