Harvey Aftermath Highlights Undocumented Immigration Issues

As the deluge of Hurricane Harvey and its accompanying phenomenon begins to dissipate, multi-billion-dollar cleanup in and around Houston could require the help of undocumented immigrants. With flooding across 234 miles of Harris County and 51 square miles of Galveston County, the undocumented-heavy construction industry in the state could soon seek to extend work authorizations to those ablest to assist the city in its rebuild.

Last year, the Pew Research Center estimated 28 percent of the construction workforce in Texas is made up of undocumented immigrants. Estimates from other organizations put the number at as high as 50 percent, according to a Reuters report. And the Migration Policy Institute estimates that the construction industry employs more working adults with undocumented status than any other single industry.

Hurricane Harvey comes at a precarious time as promises around immigration enforcement and border security have some undocumented immigrants “growing increasingly nervous in Texas because of an immigration crackdown by the Trump Administration that has cast a wide net.” In addition, some Texas cities with heavy immigrant populations favor progressive immigration policies through the adoption of sanctuary city status, something opposed by Gov. Greg Abbot.

For Jay De Leon, the owner of a small Houston-based construction business and undocumented immigrant who’s lived in the country for the last 20 years, a good bit of irony blew in with Harvey. De Leon, who employs 10 other undocumented immigrants, work on demolition and refurbishing projects– exactly those skills the city needs in order to rebuild.

“The situation that Houston is going through now with the hurricane is going to be the trial by fire for the Republicans and the governor that approved these radical laws,” says De Leon of those who frame buildings, hang drywall and who plumb and wire homes and buildings. “They will need our migrant labor to rebuild the city. I believe that without us it will be impossible.”

Another construction pro agrees with De Leon’s assessment. Stan Marek, head of Mareck Construction in Texas, says that while he feels a worker shortage, his company avoids hiring undocumented immigrants. Marek believes the federal government must grant emergency work authorization permits for undocumented workers. While the move would serve to ease the fears of those worried about possible deportation, Marek says not granting emergency work authorization opens the door for unscrupulous employers who underpay the work crew and who don’t pay payroll taxes.”

“It’s a crisis,” Marek told Reuters. “We are looking at several thousand homes that have flood damage. There is no way the existing (legal) workforce can make a dent in it.”

When Hurricane Katrina wrought devastation on New Orleans more than a decade ago, around 25 percent of workers involved in the city’s cleanup held undocumented status, according to reported research from Tulane University and UC Berkeley. Those workers without documentation, the research showed, were “especially at risk of exploitation.”

Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm, carried winds of 130 mph and hit the shores of Rockport, Texas. After making landfall, the storm churned for five days and dropped around 50 inches of rain in Harris County.