Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new report details the challenges that Houston’s immigrant population faced after Harvey—and offers a glimpse of what might await residents of the Carolinas after Florence.
Allison. Rita. Katrina. Ike. After each storm, Eduardo and his fellow workers showed up. They hauled off soggy furniture, demolished flood-damaged homes, and helped put disaster-struck cities in Texas and Louisiana back together, piece by piece.
Eduardo, 63, came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2001 to find work—he wanted to be able to afford an education for his two children back in Mexico City. (Because of his immigration status, CityLab has changed his name.) He settled in Houston and found plenty of jobs doing manual labor in this booming metro. Last year, when Hurricane Harvey brought his town to its knees, he saw a chance to help again.
Day laborers like Eduardo are often called “second responders”—workers who’re recruited by homeowners, private businesses, and contractors to remove debris, clean, and rebuild after disasters. These workers—many of whom, like Eduardo, are undocumented—offer their services despite the fears about the Trump administration's crackdown on legal and undocumented immigrants.
While they’re wary of immigration authorities in this era of heightened enforcement, that has never stopped them. “The people I’ve had to work with in recovery projects—I don’t think they were showing fear,” Eduardo said in Spanish. “We talked about how things are scary, but what we show is that we want to help people recover from the storm. We were not scared of the storm, or the police, or ICE.”
Immigrants like Eduardo have played a central role in fueling Houston’s recent growth—and they’ve also been a big part of its recovery after Harvey, according to a new report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a non-partisan D.C.-based think tank. Immigrant communities are concentrated in Harris County and rapidly growing in the suburbs surrounding it. They also make up a majority share of workers in the construction industry in Houston. Around a quarter of these workers are undocumented (although other estimates peg the undocumented share close to half).
And yet, this segment of the population has also borne the brunt of the storm’s wrath: The Houston-area immigrant community suffered more economic damage and received less aid, compared to their non-immigrant neighbors. Some of that disparity was driven by fears and uncertainty created by the Trump administration’s crackdown on legal and illegal immigration. For North Carolina towns devastated by Hurricane Florence—where immigrants have increasingly settled in the last few decades—the report serves as a warning of the threat that may lie ahead.
The MPI report focuses on the Houston metro area, which experienced population growth second only to Dallas between 2016 and 2017. That same year, the city passed a demographic milestone, with the Latino population surpassing the non-Hispanic white population for the first time. Professionals, low-wage workers, international students—immigrants of all stripes and legal statuses have moved to the area in recent years, attracted by job opportunities and relatively low cost of living. As of 2017, 1.6 million immigrants call the area home; around a third are undocumented.
These communities are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, and it’s clear that the storm amplified existing inequalities in Houston. The MPI report cites a 2017 survey of 24 Texas counties, including Houston’s Harris County. It found that 64 percent of the region’s immigrants reported job or income loss following the storm, compared to just 39 percent of non-immigrant residents. More than half surveyed had already been below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold and did not have much of a social safety net.
Among the respondents who reported damage to their homes, only 40 percent of immigrants applied for assistance and only 41 percent had flood insurance, compared to 64 percent and 55 percent of native born residents respectively. Almost half of immigrants whose homes were damaged in the storm said they hadn’t asked for assistance because they were worried about alerting authorities to undocumented family members.
As recovery began, Eduardo saw many companies swoop into town, seeking labor. Workers came from other places to fulfill this demand (as they had in New Orleans after Katrina), but many were local. Conditions for construction workers in Southern cities have been the focus of reformers’ attention for years: This 2017 report by the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Workers Defense Project, and the Partnership for Working Families found that injuries and human rights violations were common in six major urban markets in the region, including Houston.
Harvey only made things worse. MPI cites a survey of around 360 day laborers in the months after the storm, which found “rampant” wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and lack of protective gear. In September 2018, Harris County its first criminal wage theft case against a man who allegedly declined to pay a contractor for a paint job on his house post-Harvey.
These conditions often worsen after big disasters, when businesses are under pressure to rebuild fast and cut costs. To better navigate exploitative conditions, Eduardo worked with a local community organization, Fe y Justicia Worker Center, which did trainings with day laborers and other workers. Broader, more comprehensive safeguards for reconstruction work, however, are lacking.
“I think the lesson here is that the rules of the recovery need to be set up early to be allowed for a just reconstruction,” Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworkers Alliance, told The Guardian in 2017, speaking about reports of worker exploitation after Harvey. “To achieve a successful rebuilding and reconstruction and to particularly to achieve a just reconstruction, we really have to be in for the long haul.”
Among undocumented immigrants in Houston, the Trump administration’s immigration policies only intensified vulnerabilities. In the first three months of the Trump administration, Harris County was second after Maricopa County in Arizona in the number of people it transferred from its jail to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And in August, the state passed a law requiring localities to continue cooperating with ICE. That means for a laborer standing out on a curbside in search of a new gig, being booked for something like loitering could mean deportation.
Under the Trump administration, new policies could heighten uncertainty for all immigrants. Those who currently have legal status may lose it. Those with legitimate claims to asylum may not get it. And even those who’re eligible for naturalization may be denied if they or their family members are found relying on cash welfare—something working families may need to do after being hit by a hurricane.
For Eduardo, though, the primary concern is his ability to make a living.
“The thought that I have on my mind is: How can we help people do their work?” he said. “I’m not even talking about residency. But to have their work not be criminalized—to make it legal so that they can go out and focus on doing the best that they can?”
The experience of Houston-area immigrants speaks to the challenges awaiting North Carolina, where many of the same issues are likely to emerge as post-Florence rebuilding begins. The affected cities there aren’t as big or diverse as Houston, but many of them have seen steady increases in immigrants over the years—particularly workers in the agricultural and construction industries.
Local leaders, however, may have not caught up to that demographic change. Laura Garduño-Garcia, an organizing fellow at Siembra North Carolina, a Greensboro-based chapter of American Friends Service Community, noted that some immigrants could not understand instructions to evacuate and find shelter because they were disseminated in English. In counties near the eastern coast that have seen severe flooding, she’s heard of several sightings of Department of Homeland Security vehicles. These agencies had declared they would be suspending immigration enforcement during the hurricane and helping with relief efforts. But even so, their presence can have a chilling effect.
“We were getting reports of federal agents in the most devastated areas in [Customs and Border Protection] vehicles to ‘help’ or ‘support’ with emergency response,” Garduño-Garcia said. “It’s a disgrace that this government doesn’t understand that it’s some people’s worst nightmare, seeing immigration officers patrolling after they’ve just come out of a storm.”
In the long term, she worries that the patterns seen in Houston will be repeated in North Carolina: Immigrant communities will be unable to access federal aid, and workers will be exploited in the rebuilding effort and targeted for deportation. Still, she wants people to know that this community has weathered storms before, real and metaphorical; it will survive this one too.