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Florida Immigration Law May Delay Hurricane Idalia Recovery

The state law that went into effect on July 1 enacts a series of immigration-related restrictions, which has deterred many undocumented workers from assisting in the debris clearing and rebuilding after a storm.

a truck halfway in a water canal
A truck ended up in a canal, part of the aftermath of Hurricane Idalia in Horseshoe Beach, Florida, last month.
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS
When the furious winds and rain of Hurricane Laura devastated Louisiana three years ago, Javier drifted towards the disaster, cleaning homes and chopping down trees that the Category 4 storm toppled and tore apart.

“I heard that there was a disaster and that there was work. And where there is work, you go,” Javier told the Miami Herald.

The storm kicked off an unexpected round of work for Javier, an undocumented Honduran immigrant who arrived in the U.S. in 2016 and who did not want his last name used because of his immigration status. He has since helped clean up after other fierce Louisiana hurricanes, including Delta and Ida.

When there’s no hurricane clean-up to do, he works in construction. But through word of mouth, clients refer him to others who call for help when catastrophes strike. Last fall, someone reached out to him when Category 4 Hurricane Ian killed at least 149 people and destroyed swaths of southwest Florida.

Along with other disaster workers, he grabbed a suitcase, the truck, the tools and came to Florida. Javier spent two months knocking down damaged structures, tidying homes turned upside down, and repairing rain leaks and holes in the Florida Gulf. In the early stages of the recovery, the area was full of immigrants who were trudging through the floods, fallen trees, power cables and homes to start clearing the destruction, he said.

But this hurricane season, he doesn’t plan on coming to Florida, even after Hurricane Idalia made landfall in the Big Bend area, killing at least three people, demolishing homes and leaving hundreds of thousands without power.

The reason: a state law that came into effect July 1 and enacts a series of immigration-related restrictions. It requires hospitals that take Medicaid to ask about immigration status on intake forms, mandates employers with 25 or more workers to use the federal E-Verify platform to check if new hires can work in the US, and makes it a felony to drive an undocumented person into Florida, among other measures.

“Most of us want to travel. But we fear that for going and working, for doing something honest they want to detain us like delinquents. Nobody wants to leave or risk themselves,” he said.

Resilience Force, a labor-organizing group that advocates for disaster workers, said it surveyed most of its membership of about 2,000 workers, composed of mostly undocumented immigrants and some natural-born citizens, through virtual chats, one-on-one conversations, and in-person meetings. The organization found that more than half of its members don’t want to come to Florida — still recovering from Ian and Idalia and facing the looming threat of hurricane season — because they fear the new state immigration law Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in May.

“Rebuilding after a hurricane is not the work of a week. It can take months. It can take years. Floridians need these workers,” said Saket Soni, the group’s executive director and co-founder.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security agencies that handle border security and deportations, have a policy of not conducting enforcement actions near or in “a place where disaster or emergency response and relief is being provided” such as “evacuation routes, where shelter or emergency supplies, food, or water are being distributed, or registration for disaster-related assistance or family reunification is underway. ‘‘ DHS reiterated its stance the day before Idalia.

But workers and their advocates said they feared deportation if they came to Florida as well as extra scrutiny, harassment,and arrest because of the new state law. Soni recalled that during the Hurricane Ian emergency, disaster workers would begin their days in parking lots with prayers for each other, homeowner, and Florida’s governor.

“They knew they needed a good leader for the recovery. Instead of doing that, he proposed this bill. And that’s what made a difference. DeSantis’ anti-immigrant legislation suddenly posed an extraordinary threat to every immigrant working on the rebuilding. As soon as it passed, there was a massive exodus,” Soni said..

A Newer Workforce

The responder and recovery workforce has to scale up during crises such as hurricanes and floods because disasters “exceed the local capacity to deal with the incident,” said Tim Frazier, the faculty director of Georgetown University’s Emergency and Disaster Management Program. But one of the “main obstacles” in emergency management is having enough people to respond to a disaster, and nonprofits and volunteers, along with local community resources, have often made up for the shortages, he said.

“As a result of climate change, these disaster cycles are year round, not seasonal, and our gap in human capital is becoming more difficult to manage and difficult to overcome,” Frazier said.

A disaster response workforce has been emerging since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, said Soni, a longtime labor organizer, and immigrant workers have become part of the manpower that comes to do initial repairs, such as picking up debris and installing temporary roofing. Although they travel from disaster to disaster, many end up staying in affected communities long-term to work on reconstruction.

“We call it the resilience workforce. This is a largely immigrant workforce that builds homes and schools and cities. And they’ve built up a huge amount of expertise and commitment and sense of vocation as they’ve traveled from hurricane to flood to fire, helping families come home and helping families rebuild,” said Soni.

The disaster workers often face dangerous conditions because of the nature of their work, and are vulnerable to labor exploitation. Santos, a 60-year-old Honduran man who came to the U.S. the year after Hurricane Mitch, described many employers as “unscrupulous” and don’t offer disaster workers safety gear. He told the Herald that his brother fell off a roof while installing a temporary blue tarp.

“If he had been provided with the harness and all that, maybe the fall wouldn’t have been so hard,” said Santos, who asked that his last name not be used because of fear and his immigration status.

Sergio Chavez, an associate sociology professor at Rice University in Houston, has conducted more than 700 surveys and 100 follow-up interviews with migrant disaster workers in the U.S. and Mexico.

Chavez said there are several factors undocumented immigrants who travel for work consider when evaluating where to head to next, such as housing costs, community ties, work opportunities, and climate. The new state law is one more variable in a complicated equation that people have to take into account when considering coming to Florida and other states that have policies that make it harder for undocumented people to live and work there.

Chavez told the Herald that if workers have multiple job opportunities, Florida may no longer be the destination they opt for which could harm state residents and businesses affected by after storms, floods and other disasters.

“They are more cautious about that, no doubt about it. Maybe some will not go. But when you really don’t have any work, you are going to those states and risk the chance of getting arrested, deported, if you need the work,” he said.

Chavez also said that undocumented workers could change their mind over time and opt to come as the enforcement of the law plays out and perceptions and moods change depending on what they witness themselves or hear from colleagues, family and friends.

“Behavior is not constant, and people are always strategizing how they make money so they could feed, house, and clothes themselves and their family members, whether they are in this country or outside this country,” he said.

Hurricane Katrina was the first storm Santos ever worked after moving to the United States. He tore down a school kitchen that was brimming with rotting meat, vegetables and fruit.

“I wanted to cry when I saw the big mess in New Orleans. I had never even lived in New Orleans. But to see that great destruction really left an impression on me,” he said.

He stayed in Louisiana afterwards, and worked in reconstruction, painting and carpentry. He’s worked the aftermath of hurricanes Rita, Laura, Delta, and Ida in Louisiana, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and the historic 2016 floods in Baton Rouge.

This hurricane season, he’s still considering coming to Florida to help with clean up efforts. But right now the risk feels too great for him and many of his colleagues if authorities don’t give disaster workers confidence that they will not be targeted, he said.

“We have the will and the desire to go do the work, and we’ll go if we have a guarantee that our rights will be respected regardless of the status of each person,” he said. “But with these laws? People don’t even want to know about it.”

©2023 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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