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Amid Houston Labor Shortage, Opinions are Mixed on Loosening Immigration Restrictions

In Houston, the weather has clear – a welcome turn of events for residents starting the the long hard work of stripping their flooded homes and rebuilding those structure. More than 100,000 structures were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, according to estimates by Harris County officials. But it’s going to be tough to find enough workers for the massive cleanup and reconstruction efforts.

Usually, there are plenty of workers waiting to be picked for jobs on the street corners and parking lots along the I-10 freeway in west Houston. But not any more. Regulars here say the best workers are picked up early – around 7am. As explained by a 55-year-old man from Honduras (who was too nervous to give more than his first name, Ramon): “You aren’t going to find anyone left. There’s way more work than workers.” Ramon doesn’t have legal documents to work in the country.

Between 5 and 6 o’clock in the morning, fleets of trucks come to this part of the city to pick up workers, but they’re finding few takers for the jobs.
Jeffrey Nielsen, executive director of the Houston Contractors Association, tells reporters: “Finding the workers is going to be a difficult job. I mean it’s been a difficult job for a long time now. They couldn’t hire them before. I don’t know who they’re going to hire now.”

Nielsen is highlighting a severe labor shortage that builders were familiar with long before Harvey. He and other leaders in the construction industry want to see federal workplace rules loosened, similar to what President Bush did in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. That would allow undocumented workers already in the area – along with additional new immigrants – to come in and do the monumental work Houston needs.

As Nielsen tells reporters: “These guys work hard. They do a good job. I mean there’s a reason you see them all over the place.”

In the background, four Latino workers, are gutting a one-story ranch home from the Brays Bayou in the Meyerland neighborhood of West Houston. They’re tearing out damaged marble countertops, stainless steel appliances and the drywall up to 6 feet from the floor – 2 feet higher than the flooded water line.

“Americans haven’t really wanted us much in their houses before, but now they have to let us in. They need us,” says 41-year-old Fernando, who also didn’t want to give his last name. As he points out, since the flood, residents have been driving by and bringing his crew sandwiches and sodas. He’s never seen that before in the 17 years he’s lived and worked in Houston.
“We’re more accepted now,” Fernando adds. If that’s the case, it would signal a major reversal from the recent political atmosphere in Texas. In that state, lawmakers had passed one of the toughest anti-illegal immigration laws in the U.S. barring “sanctuary cities” and pushing aggressively for the repeal of DACA, which gave undocumented immigrants brought here as children a reprieve from deportations.

Other Houston residents and business leaders are less optimistic that a political change is in the air. Don Klein with the Greater Houston Builders Association doesn’t believe President Trump will change his tough immigration stance, even in light of South Texas’ enormous rebuilding needs. “We’re a nation of immigrants,” he says. “And to see that shut off and the labor set off is – I believe long-term is going to hurt the country.”

Without the workers, Houston’s recovery is going to take a whole lot longer.

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Emery Reddy