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Despite Health Risks and Exploitation, Undocumented Immigrants Clean Up Houston


In north Houston, a group of mostly undocumented, Latino men wait outside a Home Depot, in search of manual cleanup work.

In a Home Depot parking lot off I-45 in Houston, a group of about 20 men, mostly undocumented and Latino, spread across the sparse shade, waiting for a passing vehicle in search of manual labor: demolition, construction, painting.

It’s midday and some have waited in front of the building supply store for several hours. Three sit back-to-back on a flipped shopping cart.

The ritual of seeking and securing a day’s work has long been commonplace. More than two months after Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 102 trillion liters of rain across the state in four days — causing 1.3 meter-high flooding in some areas, and immeasurable heartbreak in east Texas — finding work has been more consistent overall, but so have the risks of exploitation and workplace dangers.

“Here in Houston, there are no laws, no rights,” said Nicolás, a 49-year-old Guerrero, Mexico-native laborer.

Most expensive — Costliest storms in U.S. history, in billions (graphic by Mark Sandeen; source: BuildFax)
Most expensive — Costliest storms in U.S. history, in billions (graphic by Mark Sandeen; source: BuildFax)

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, then-President George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security temporarily lifted a sanction on employers from hiring workers who were unable to verify their work authorization status.

In Houston, where the cleanup is expected to be more costly and last longer, President Donald Trump has taken no such measures. A few weeks after Hurricane Harvey, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) resumed “regular, targeted immigration enforcement operations” in the Houston area, “with the exception of immediate relief operations like shelters and food banks,” according to an ICE statement Sept. 20.

Yet, at least 28 percent of Texas’ construction workforce is undocumented.

WATCH: Despite Health Risks, Undocumented Immigrants Clean Up Houston

Despite Health Risks, Undocumented Immigrants Clean Up Houston
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Wage theft

In the north Houston lot, a shadow of silver stubble across his face suggests the long week Nicolás has had, though it’s barely Wednesday. When there’s work, it’s typically for 10 to 12 hours at $10 an hour. But then there’s the unpaid commute time, waiting and uncertainty of payment.

Recently, Nicolás recalls, he worked on a three-day project and got to know the family that hired him over dinner. On day three, when he was due to be paid, the client’s wife screamed, “Why are you trying to steal from me!” loud enough that he had no choice but to flee, or risk encountering immigration agents.

“There’s nothing we can do,” he muttered, a common sentiment among his peers, many of whom are struggling to rebuild their own families’ lives after Harvey.

Nicolás estimates there are roughly three stories of abuse or exploitation per week post-Harvey, just among the men at this north Houston location. Others agree. They communicate, corner-to-corner, to prevent recurrences of theft when possible.

Mauricio “Chele” Iglesias, a Houston-based community organizer at Worker’s Defense Project, walks door-to-door to inform undocumented working families of their rights amid rising cases of exploitation.
Mauricio “Chele” Iglesias, a Houston-based community organizer at Worker’s Defense Project, walks door-to-door to inform undocumented working families of their rights amid rising cases of exploitation.

Speaking to the group of laborers in Spanish, Mauricio “Chele” Iglesias, a Houston organizer of the Workers Defense Project, carries a clipboard with pamphlets and a sign-up sheet for civil and workplace rights workshops.

“[Undocumented workers] have rights.” Iglesias labors this point repeatedly.

“Post-Harvey, [exploitation] has gotten even worse because there are a lot more people working under these conditions, and their health is at risk,” Iglesias told VOA. “Some of them are willing to take the risk because they need to bring money to families and need a roof over their heads.”

‘Category 3 Black Water’

Last month, 31-year old Mexican carpenter Josue Zurita, who had been conducting demolition work in nearby Galveston, died of a flesh-eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis after an open wound on his upper left arm became infected and spread through his soft tissue. It was the second such fatal case related to Hurricane Harvey.

Galveston County Local Health Authority Dr. Philip Keiser said the most likely cause of Zurita’s infection was “Harvey debris or floodwater” entering his wound.

Mexico-native Bernadina Rodriguez, a Houston Walmart baker, says her greatest fear is to pick up the phone to bad news regarding her sons, who work in construction.
Mexico-native Bernadina Rodriguez, a Houston Walmart baker, says her greatest fear is to pick up the phone to bad news regarding her sons, who work in construction.

“That’s my worst fear,” said Mexico-native Bernadina Rodriguez, a Houston Walmart baker whose two American-born sons work in construction. “I receive a call, and someone tells me they’re not there anymore.”

Rob Hellyer, owner of Premier Remodeling & Construction, and a member of the Greater Houston Builders Association (GHBA), told VOA there sometimes is a discrepancy between precautions workers should take, and ultimately have taken, in what he described as a “nasty” Category 3 Black Water event — a concoction of sewage, chemicals and floodwater, which results in high-risk pathogens, posing high health risks.

Hellyer attributes part of the problem faced by undocumented workers to a difference in economics and health practices of their native-born countries.

“The standards and practices there are much lower and virtually nonexistent when it comes to — in a lot of respects — such types of regulation for personal safety,” Hellyer told VOA, “and maybe just not an awareness or an appreciation of the risk they are being exposed to.”

Elsa Isaula, who runs a small cleaning service in Houston, says inhaling dust from sheetrock becomes inevitable, even when necessary health precautions are taken. “We feel good because there’s a lot of work, but at the same time we feel that it’s very dangerous,” Isaula said.
Elsa Isaula, who runs a small cleaning service in Houston, says inhaling dust from sheetrock becomes inevitable, even when necessary health precautions are taken. “We feel good because there’s a lot of work, but at the same time we feel that it’s very dangerous,” Isaula said.

Honduran-native Elsa Isaula, who runs a small cleaning service, said she and her workers have taken necessary health precautions post-Harvey, including wearing gloves, masks, and “not touching anything moist.” But during more than two months of eight-to-10-hour shifts, inhaling dust from sheetrock becomes inevitable, and has manifested in a persistent cough.

“We want to work, and we feel good because there’s a lot of work, but at the same time we feel that it’s very dangerous,” Isaula said.

Everyday a work day

Six days a week, sometimes seven, Davíd — a 19-year-old painter from Tegucigalpa — bikes and buses to find work, in order to support his wife and 17-month old daughter.

After losing more than $2,000 worth of personal belongings to flooding, including all of his furniture and the baby’s crib, the young Honduran laments his own recovery.

“I worked so hard for this,” he said.

A Silverado truck finally rolls up to the Home Depot lot, the first to stop in an hour. Half the men, including David, rush to the passenger window, arms over shoulders. Davíd walks back happy. He has just gotten paid for a previous day’s work — a promise kept.

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