rebuild houston

In Order to Rebuild, Houston Needs Its Undocumented Workforce

Texas has more than 250,000 undocumented construction workers, and the Gulf Coast needs as much help as it can get.

By Roxanna Asgarian September 7, 2017

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Image: Shutterstock

In the midst of Harvey's wreckage, before the city of Houston was able to accurately assess the amount of damage the storms caused the city, two major pieces of immigration news broke.

First, SB4, an "anti-sanctuary cities" bill passed by the Texas Legislature this year, was mostly suspended just before it was scheduled to be implemented September 1, while a lawsuit makes its way through court. In the midst of dealing with the hurricane response, Governor Greg Abbott immediately announced the state would be appealing the decision. Second, Trump announced that the DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, would end in six months' time, dashing hopes of many undocumented young people who entered this country as children.

Hostile immigration stances from the state and federal government are stoking worry and fear in the estimated 600,000 undocumented Houstonians and their families and friends—just when Texas needs their help the most. A recent study by a Waco-based analysis firm estimated that more than a quarter of a million construction workers in Texas are undocumented, with a third of them residing in the Houston area.

A massive rebuilding effort has already gotten underway, as thousands of homes, businesses and offices must be cleaned, repaired, rehabbed and in some cases completely rebuilt. Roads, bridges, reservoirs and other vital parts of the city's infrastructure have become unstable and in need of urgent repair. Houston needs all hands on deck, and these immigration decisions couldn't have come at a worse time.

Stan Marek, the CEO of Marek Brothers, a Houston-based specialty contractor that employs about a thousand people in the city, said anti-immigration policies are hampering the city's ability to get back on its feet. "I’m turning work down because I can’t find people that are legal that I can hire," Marek says. "I have stuff at the Alley Theater and the Med Center ... I need 500 or 600 guys I can’t find. Ask anybody else, they'll tell you—there are plenty of men, they’re just not legal."

Marek's been an outspoken advocate for what he calls "ID and Tax"—a way to allow undocumented workers to get a government-issued ID, pay taxes and receive benefits, including worker's compensation for on-the-job injuries. "None of these workers under our current immigration laws have ever had a way to work legally," Marek says, adding that the solution is fairly simple. "You offer legal status to somebody, a background check and a work permit."

Allowing undocumented workers a path to working legally fills a vital need in the construction industry, Marek says, and also ensures the safety of the workers themselves. "These day laborers, they have no safety equipment, no workman's comp if they get hurt—they're exploited and abused," he says. "Is that Houston? My God. We’re better than that."

Marek, who wrote an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle Thursday, is urging our representatives to push for immigration reform as soon as possible. But as the full scale of the fallout from Harvey becomes clear, he's worried about an already-strained construction force meeting the challenge. "We’re looking at one of the biggest crises Houston has ever faced," he says. "Water hasn’t receded all the way yet, and already we’re facing a shortage of workers."

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