Undocumented immigrants must be allowed to rebuild Houston— legally

Laura Doan

Large and frightening numbers tell the story of Harvey’s destruction: 14 trillion gallons of rainfall, more than 8 million people living in affected areas, 200,000 damaged homes and tens of billions expected for recovery costs. The numbers help one picture the true preponderance of broken things that must be mended — broken glass, floors drunk with water, roofs de-tiled by the winds.  

Such massive destruction requires a massive workforce to rebuild, and without the help of the undocumented immigrants of Houston, the workforce will be insufficient. To ensure that Houston gets the workers it needs, federal and state officials must allow undocumented immigrants to take reconstruction jobs without fear of deportation. 

Undocumented immigrants have been a large amount of the rebuilding workforce after past disasters and will be needed again. The destruction after Hurricane Katrina demanded more jobs than interested American construction workers could fill. Undocumented immigrants filled the gap. Such Latino immigrants made up about 25 percent of the construction workers rebuilding New Orleans, according to a study conducted by Berkeley Law.

And undocumented immigrants did not take these jobs from hard-working Americans. They simply did the dangerous jobs documented workers did not want to do. The Berkeley study also found documented workers did most of the skilled construction jobs, such as restoring electricity and plumbing, while undocumented workers took more risks by removing debris and rebuilding roofs. 

Undocumented immigrants were only able to take these jobs because President Bush temporarily lifted ID requirements for federal reconstruction jobs. The same action is needed in Houston, which has the third-largest undocumented population in the country and is where contractors such as Jeffrey Nielsen, executive vice president of the Houston Contractors Association, argue that they need “more people than ever” to do the hot, arduous clean-up work of rebuilding roads and cleaning up rubble. 

Sociology professor Nestor Rodriguez, who studies immigration policy and served previously on the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs in Houston, said that undocumented immigrants do not need citizenship or a even a green card to work, just employment authorization for a couple years. “The labor force is there already,” he says. “They just need to be given authorization.”

Besides authorization, government policies must also protect undocumented immigrants from human rights abuses. Post Katrina, Bush’s relaxation of ID requirements was insufficient to prevent the contractors from stealing immigrants’ wages and violating work-safety regulations. A study by Interfaith Worker Justice found that more than 40 percent of undocumented workers interviewed did not get the amount of wages they were promised and more than 50 percent were exposed to dangerous toxins while on the job. Government policy cannot be passive — we need hands-on policies to grant employment authorization while enforcing safety regulations and a minimum floor for worker pay. 

However, policies to employ and protect undocumented workers seem highly improbable. The Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and has begun plans for a border wall, while the Texas Legislature voted to punish cities which protected immigrants.

The space of time after a disaster is replete with tests of humanity. All of Houston suffered through the flooding together, including immigrants. Immigrants are the ones who will do the difficult work to rebuild a city that is not even legally their home. 

And whether we allow them to rebuild is up to us.

Doan is a Plan II and English junior from Fort Worth. She is a guest columnist.