Published January 13, 2015
All along the Texas coast, Latino immigrants are hauling away fallen trees, slashing through storm-tangled brush, patching punctured roofs.
On working-class corners, on ladders in front of Victorian houses, in the yards of ornate mansions, crews of men in dusty jeans, sturdy workboots and baseball caps are nearly as omnipresent in the post-Hurricane Ike landscape as blue tarps on rooftops.
These workers, who get picked up off the street by homeowners looking for quick, cheap labor, 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 the hurricane.
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 this country 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.
"The immigrant people, the Latinos, are the ones who really do the job," said Ramirez, who spoke outside a sprawling home where his men were using chain saws and chains to cut through fallen trees and splintered branches. "We are going to put the city back together."
Even in Houston, a city long known as friendly toward undocumented immigrants, many people see the use of such workers as nothing more than a shortcut around the country's labor laws.
In the storm's aftermath, however, 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 Depot in southeast Houston, where as many as 100 day laborers gathered well before dawn Friday to wait for work, dozens of men from Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador stood on the periphery of a parking lot.
Every few minutes, the drivers of cars, pickup trucks and SUVs would pull up and signal to the waiting men. It took mere seconds for the workers to converge on a vehicle, negotiate a price and jump inside.
The men left behind were both encouraged by the signs of burgeoning work and worried about the possibility of dishonest employers and immigration roundups.
"We're just looking for steady work to support our families," 45-year-old Antonio Velasquez, whose wife and nine children remain in El Salvador, said in Spanish.
When things are going well, Velasquez sends his family $500 a month. Lately, he barely has enough to cover his own expenses.
Velasquez protects himself from wage theft by only working for employers who pay at the end of the day.
"Un dia trabajado es un dia pagado," he said, quoting a refrain often used by day laborers: A day's pay for a day's work.
Stories of widespread employer abuse and wage theft following Katrina have left immigrants wary of accepting long-term jobs in other locations.
On Friday morning, the driver of a bus looking for a crew to work for a week in the Galveston area, saying the pay would come at week's end. He got few takers.
"They need us, but they also take advantage of us," said Alex Yovani, 26, a Honduran immigrant who also worked in Louisiana after Katrina. "Without us, how would they build Houston again? Without the work of our hands, there would be no way to move forward."
As Yovani spoke, 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?"