Immigrant workers help rebuild Florida after Ian

(CNN) — Just weeks after Ron DeSantis made a very public display of his efforts to stop immigrants from reaching Florida, the destruction of Hurricane Ian is drawing a growing number of immigrants to the Republican governor’s state.

“They come from New York, from Louisiana, from Houston and Dallas,” says Saket Soni, executive director of the nonprofit Resilience Force, which advocates for thousands of disaster response workers. The group is largely made up of immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, according to Soni. Like the migrant workers who follow the harvest seasons and travel from farm to farm, Soni says these workers crisscross the United States to help clean up and rebuild when disaster strikes.

To describe his work, he likes to use a metaphor that he says a Mexican roofer once shared with him.

“What we have now is basically immigrants who are kind of walking white blood cells from America, who gather after hurricanes to heal one place, and then move on to heal the next place,” says Soni.

In addition, Soni says her team has already been to the Fort Myers area with hundreds of immigrant workers, half of whom are from out of state. And he says more are coming in the coming weeks.

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Saket Soni, executive director of the Resilience Force, speaks with workers in LaPlace, Louisiana, in February. The organization’s teams have been working in Florida since shortly after Hurricane Ian. Credit: Josh Brasted/Getty Images

He calls it a “moment of interdependence.” And he says it’s something he hopes DeSantis and others in Florida will recognize.

“Many of those who were traveling in the opposite direction weeks ago are now traveling to Florida to help rebuild,” he says.

And every morning when they wake up, he says, many migrants have told him that they are praying for DeSantis.

“They’re praying for him to make a good recovery, they’re praying for him to be the best governor he can be. Because they need him and he needs them. And they know it,” says Soni.

Does DeSantis know?

“There’s no way I won’t,” says Soni.

But so far, the Florida governor’s words and actions tell a different story.

Reports about migrants heading to Florida after Hurricane Ian have not softened DeSantis’ stance.

Back in 2018, DeSantis campaigned for governor with a TV ad showing him teaching his kids how to build a wall. And since then, he has positioned himself as one of the most critical of the Biden administration’s immigration policies, announcing high-profile immigration measures, including, most recently, the use of state funds for two flights that brought immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

News that immigrants are coming to help clean up some of their state’s most storm-ravaged communities hasn’t softened the governor’s stance.

At a press conference Tuesday, billed as an update on the state’s response to the hurricane, before detailing ongoing rescue efforts, DeSantis took pains to point out that three “illegal aliens” were among the four people recently detained. on accusations of looting.

“These are people who are foreigners, who are in our country illegally, and not only that, they try to loot and loot after a natural disaster. They should be prosecuted, but they must be returned to their countries of origin. They should not be here at all,” he told reporters.

Later in the press conference, CNN’s Boris Sanchez asked DeSantis if he had any responses to reports that Venezuelans in New York were being recruited to work on recovery efforts, and if the governor was also trying to send those immigrants back north.

DeSantis reaffirmed his earlier message.

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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference Tuesday in Cape Coral, Florida. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“First of all, our program that we did is a voluntary relocation program. I don’t have the authority to forcibly relocate people. If I could, I would take those three looters, drag them by the neck, and send them back to the place.” where they came from,” the governor said, drawing applause from officials around him.

He then described the funeral he attended this week for a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy who was struck and killed by a front-end loader authorities say was being driven by an undocumented Honduran immigrant.

He then brought the press conference to a close, without mentioning the migrant workers who were tarping rooftops or cleaning up debris.

There is a history of immigrants helping disaster recovery in Florida and beyond

Hurricane Ian is the first major hurricane to hit Florida since DeSantis took office in January 2019.

Many immigrants now coming to help rebuild, Soni says, have responded to numerous major disasters in Florida and across the country in the past.

“A lot of them are from Venezuela. A lot of them are from Honduras and Mexico. They represent all the different waves of immigrants that have been coming to the United States and to this industry. A lot of them I’ve known since Hurricane Katrina and they have a dozen hurricanes under their belts.” , said. “But there are also newer migrants. I just met a group of Venezuelan asylum seekers who were coming to do the work.”

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History notes in a description of an artifact in its collection that, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, “many homeowners undertook their own cleanup, but much of it was done by immigrant workers drawn to the region by the promise of hard work and good wages.

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This April 2006 file photo shows migrant workers performing “house leveling” work on a New Orleans home damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Sergio Chavez, an associate professor of sociology at Rice University who studies Mexican roofers, describes Hurricane Katrina as a “key moment” that shaped the identities and careers of many of the hundreds of men he has interviewed.

Slightly more than half of the roofers in the group he has studied are undocumented immigrants, Chavez says. And when he has spoken with roofers from across the United States, who live in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Kentucky, Chavez says a common thread quickly emerges when he asks how they ended up in those places.

“They always name a cyclone,” he says.

After Hurricane Ian, he says, many of those roofers head to Florida. Deciding exactly when to go to a disaster zone is a strategic decision, Chavez says, noting that arriving too soon can be problematic.

“There is no phone service, no gasoline, no food, no lodging,” he says. “They also have to be very careful not to work for just anyone, because they may not be compensated for the work they do.”

But there is no doubt that they will go to Florida, he says, and that they will play a key role in the recovery of the state.

“DeSantis is not scaring them away,” says Chavez.

The job can be dangerous. Why do immigrants keep doing it?

That doesn’t mean they don’t face some hostility once they get there, just as they have in other communities.

“Most of my guys experience ‘the look.’ They may stop them. But for the most part, whenever they go to many of these places, they are there to do work that is considered essential by the local population. So they do their job,” Chavez says.

On the ground in the communities, Chavez says he has seen contradictions between people’s political beliefs and their actions. Some may support anti-immigrant rhetoric, he says, but then look the other way when they need certain services provided by immigrant workers.

A bigger problem, Chavez says, is that when these workers experience abuses, such as wage theft or unsafe housing conditions, there are not enough laws to protect them, or local authorities may be hesitant to enforce them.

In addition, the work is physically demanding and risky.

“These guys help us adapt to a new world we live in and we need their work,” says Chavez. “But it turns out they really put their bodies on the line. (Roofing is) one of the most dangerous occupations in America.”

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Damage from Hurricane Ian is seen Tuesday on San Carlos Island off Fort Myers Beach. Credit: Erica Lee/CNN

Chavez notes that he has talked to many roofers about injuries on the job.

“A lot of them have fallen and they don’t have access to health insurance. Their bodies aren’t the same anymore. They have bad knees and bad backs,” he says.

So why do roofers and other disaster recovery workers keep leaving for these destinations, storm after storm?

Although wage theft is a major problem faced by some, there is a chance to earn good wages, send your earnings to families in your home country, and possibly move up to higher-paying jobs over time, Chavez says. So it’s an option that makes economic sense for many, despite the risks.

Desperation is also a factor, says Soni.

“Part of what has happened is that, because it is such a dirty and dangerous job, and with such harsh conditions, the most desperate people, those who have no other economic avenues, those who are willing to be homeless for a year or more, are the ones that come together,” he says.

Houses aren’t the only thing some workers are trying to rebuild

When it comes to physical and financial risks, Soni says Resilience Force does what it can to protect workers by helping them negotiate fair wages and payments with contractors, and making sure they have the right safety gear when they go to work. rebuild houses and schools.

But those aren’t the only construction projects they’ll be working on in Florida, Soni says.

“We’re also trying to rebuild a society that is better than it was before the hurricane,” he says. “And it’s better when there are more relationships and there are more links between different people. … Politics can change when people in a place change their minds.”

After previous hurricanes, he says, the organization has led workers in service projects to rebuild uninsured homes, and then hosted potlucks where homeowners and workers can talk with the help of interpreters.

“Those links have endured. Friends have become and people have changed their minds,” he says. “What it often seems like in Florida or Louisiana is that for someone who thought immigration was their most important issue, well, after a hurricane, immigration becomes the 35th most important issue. And more importantly is, how are we going to stay in this place to survive and thrive again? Who will it take? What family will it take to take this place back? And that family often includes the immigrants who helped rebuild the place.”

DeSantis may not take note of this. But as Florida rebuilds, Soni is banking on community leaders and homeowners who need help to do so.

CNN’s Steve Contorno contributed to this report.

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