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All the Relief Money in the World Won’t Rebuild Houston. Undocumented Laborers Will.

Alexia Fernandez Campbell - Vox
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September 7, 2017
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Immigrant laborers from Mexico and Honduras level a house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As the waters recede, Houston families and insurance agents are surveying the damage to the city: water-logged homes, ruined appliances, sagging roofs, and streets littered with debris.

Now the city faces this question: Who is going to rebuild the nation’s fourth-largest city as construction companies nationwide struggle to find workers?

Unauthorized immigrants were crucial to rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And they are likely to be desperately needed as Texas rebuilds to clean streets, demolish buildings, and reconstruct homes and offices.

But it’s a hostile time to be undocumented in Texas. Even beyond the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric and actions on immigration, Texas leaders are engaged in a crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, passing a slew of laws to make it harder for them to live and work in the state. In such an environment, these laborers might not stick around for the work that will be needed.

"This could have a chilling effect on the community," said Laurel Fletcher, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley who studied the working conditions of laborers in New Orleans after Katrina. "A lot depends on what the climate will be like for Latinx and undocumented residents in the greater Houston area."

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to pass an initial Harvey relief bill of $8 billion. But that’s just a fraction of the total damage, which by latest estimates could add up to $180 billion. That would be similar to impact of Hurricane Katrina, which unleashed $160 billion-worth of damage in Louisiana (adjusted for inflation).

That’s a lot of damage to undo — and right now, there aren't enough construction workers in Texas to do it. The US unemployment rate, at 4.4 percent, is at its lowest level since the Great Recession started, and construction companies across the country have been struggling to find workers. In August, about 77 percent of US builders reported a shortage of framing crews and 61 percent faced a shortage of drywall installation workers, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

If the story of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is any indication, undocumented immigrants will be a crucial part of Houston's recovery.

Read the rest at Vox


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