Florida needs workers to rebuild after Ian. Undocumented migrants are stepping in.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Latino workers cover a damaged roof with a tarp.

FORT MYERS, Fla. – The last time Antonio followed a hurricane to Florida, authorities detained him at a day-labor stand and sent the construction worker back to his native Mexico. After nearly 20 years in this country, he accepted the order to leave. He wanted to see his aging parents.

But he returned to the state days after Hurricane Ian, sleeping in his pickup truck in a discount store parking lot. Glancing at the street, waiting for someone to roll up and offer him work, he said he was anxious because Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has declared that undocumented immigrants are unwelcome in Florida.

“We’re not here to steal; we’re here to work,” said Antonio, 48, standing beside his truck in a hard-hit city in Southwest Florida. “This is helping.”

Florida’s governor upended the national debate over the record number of arrests on the southern border by flying newly arrived migrants last month to liberal-leaning Massachusetts, ostensibly to prevent them from burdening his state with the cost of their education and health care. But after Hurricane Ian inflicted billions of dollars in damage, undocumented workers came to the Sunshine State to rebuild, joining tens of thousands of others who were already here – and who construction managers say are sorely needed.

Their arrival puts the Republican strongholds that weathered the worst of the storm in an awkward position as they attempt to recover: With low unemployment, a shortage of construction workers and an above-average elderly population, can Florida rebuild without them?

“We’d like them back,” Nancy Randall, a real estate agent who declined to give her age or political affiliation, said of the immigrants DeSantis had flown to Martha’s Vineyard, after Ian drove four feet of water into her green-shuttered home in Naples, soaking her grandmother’s rocking chair and everything else. “We need all the helpers we can get.”

DeSantis’s office did not respond to questions about the undocumented workers arriving to clean up, but he has promised that more migrant flights will come despite a Treasury Department inspector general investigation into the government money that paid for them.

Construction is one of the biggest employers of undocumented immigrants, with 1.4 million workers across the country filling more than 1 in 10 jobs, researchers say. Nationwide, undocumented immigrants account for 23 percent of construction laborers, 38 percent of drywallers and 32 percent of roofers, according to a report by the nonprofit Center for American Progress last year.

Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is paying to bus recent border crossers to predominantly Democratic states and the District of Columbia, has the highest number, some 311,000 construction workers, according to the most recent available data from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. Florida had more than 100,000 undocumented construction workers before Ian hit.

Undocumented immigrants also dominate a nomadic new workforce that is chasing violent storms fueled by climate change, accounting for the vast majority of the day laborers who cleaned up after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Ida last year, according to the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.

“What has emerged is a transient workforce like farmworkers of yesteryear,” said Saket Soni, executive director of Resilience Force, a nonprofit that has helped hundreds of undocumented workers on the ground since Ian. “They follow storm after storm, city after city.”

‘I have to take care of my family’

Around Southwest Florida, drivers in pickup trucks and big white vans arrive before dawn to collect workers from sidewalks and parking lots. They offer work demolishing storm-damaged buildings on wealthy Sanibel Island and tarping roofs in Fort Myers. Other laborers are hired to rip up soggy floors in places like Bonita Springs. Some pay $7 an hour. Others $200 a day.

Immigrant workers interviewed in hurricane-ravaged communities said their phones lit up with offers after Ian demolished restaurants, damaged resorts and flooded bungalows up and down the sugar-sand coastline of western Florida. Recruiters even showed up in New York, advocates said, to hire Venezuelans who had been bused there by Republican governors.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Moises Calix, 56, originally of Honduras, came to Florida to get construction jobs after Hurricane Ian.

Moises Calix, a 55-year-old from Honduras who lives in New Orleans, packed tools in his Chevy and made a beeline for Florida with his three sons and two pals after an acquaintance invited him to come help tarp roofs. They ate meals from gas stations and slept in the truck, emblazoned with an American flag to blend in.

“They told me there’s work here,” said Moises, who also worked after Katrina and said he’s been paid. “We’re working. You can earn money.”

But even with ample work, frustration is mounting. Across the parking lot, a dejected group of Hondurans said a man named “Carlos” had called them promising crew chief Fernando Jimenez $600 and his workers $400 each for two days of construction work. After they drove in from Austin, he offered them $100 each. They quit.

“You’re risking your life for $100 without security,” said Jimenez, 45, who has a green card. His friends are undocumented.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Fernando Jimenez, 46, left, is originally from Honduras, but has lived in the United States since the mid 1980s and has legal residency. He traveled from Austin, Tex., to Florida for work with his two friends, Heber, 32, and Bryan, 24, right. They spent some nights sleeping in a tent in the Home Depot parking lot as they looked for work.

The scenes of exasperation echoed along the coast, spurring complaints that the Biden administration is acting too slowly to expand protections for immigrant workers. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memo a year ago allowing undocumented workers, in any industry, to apply for work permits and protection from being deported if they file complaints about labor violations with government agencies or are caught up in worksite investigations.

Just over two dozen permits have been approved, and more are pending, according to DHS, out of a nationwide workforce of approximately 7 million.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and other Democrats urged DHS last month to issue “clear” guidance so that more will apply. “We’re not seeing utilization of the program in the way that we need to see it,” she said in an interview.

Federal law prohibits knowingly employing workers in the country illegally, but historically the federal government has been far more likely to deport immigrants than to punish the companies that hire them.

Resilience Force is one of the few visible supporters on the ground for immigrants. Team members visit day-labor stands to register workers, offer them membership cards, and negotiate with federal and local officials to improve their working conditions. And sometimes staff members confront construction bosses who allegedly put immigrants to work and then refuse to pay them.

Pedro Carias, 37, an immigrant from Honduras, told the group that his former boss pointed to a handgun and threatened to shoot him and his 5-year-old daughter after he demanded more than $6,000 in back pay after Ian. He said his boss also threatened to report him to immigration officials so he’d be deported.

“I need my money,” Carias told Soni and his co-workers one morning last week, saying he had a sick son in Honduras and needed to send money home. “I have to take care of my family.”

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Honduran immigrant, Pedro Carias, 37, right, uses a nail gun at a job site in Fort Meyers.

‘Without them Florida is nothing’

In the darkened parking lot where the day laborers stood on a recent morning in Fort Myers, the cash economy was going full throttle after Ian.

One driver who arrived said he couldn’t find workers elsewhere. “Without them Florida is nothing,” the driver said of undocumented workers, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid getting into trouble with authorities. “No work can be done.”

Some workers scrambled to the trucks steadily filling the impromptu job site, but others hung back, frustrated with how chaotic things seemed. Some had been to the aftermath of as many as 12 hurricanes, but the system always felt the same. There was no place safe to sleep. They slept in trucks in parking lots where police could shoo them away. They bathed with buckets and bottled water or at truck stops. Wages varied dramatically. And they worried about risk: Disasters expose workers to toxic chemicals, unstable buildings, injuries, and even death.

“Maybe they could ask the police not to bother us,” said Antonio, the graying construction worker from Mexico, worried about facing deportation again. Associated General Contractors of America, a commercial trade organization, says more than 90 percent of contractors report that they are struggling to hire workers nationwide.

But it remained unclear if local Republican leaders would aid the workers, or even acknowledge that they are here.

‘They check their papers’

One night days after the hurricane, residents and political leaders gathered glumly at the Collier County commissioners headquarters in Naples – where half the city’s residents are elderly, according to census figures – to hear about federal recovery aid.

Many were still stunned by the powerful storm. Normally the area is a haven of balmy 85-degree temperatures, seaside sunsets and thriving gardens of cypress and rubber trees.

Now countless homes and restaurants are ruined and reeking of mold. Heaps of soggy mattresses, overstuffed sofas and moldy bookcases stood several feet high on sidewalks last week, waiting to be taken away. Ian plucked shingles off roofs, sliced open drywall, and flung boats onto median strips.

State Rep. Bob Rommel, a Naples Republican whose bistro was badly damaged in the storm, said he thought the state did not need to rely on undocumented immigrants. He worried that such workers might be exploited or lack proper skills.

“There’s plenty of documented workers in America that come here, and they can make tons of money,” Rommel said. “And there’s plenty of workers that are willing to come here and do the job.”

State Sen. Kathleen Passidomo (R), the incoming Senate president, said that the area was suffering a shortage of construction workers before the storm and that she expects out-of-state workers to flock to the area as they did after Hurricane Michael in 2018.

Told many were undocumented, she said, “That I have not heard.”

“I don’t hear from my constituents that that’s been an issue,” she said. “They check their papers.”

Antonio, a stocky man who never married and devotes his life to chasing storms, joined the workers in Florida after Hurricane Michael battered the Panhandle, several hundred miles from Naples. He worked for months, including a week spent demolishing three apartments for which he says he was never paid, until local police arrested him for trespassing in a parking lot, court records show.

He recounted returning home to Guanajuato, where the money he’d earned in the United States had rebuilt his parents’ house, to see his family. But he said he paid a smuggler more than $7,500 to return last year. He lives mostly in Texas but said he prefers to travel all over to places where people need help.

He watched residents sob in the streets after floods surged through Kentucky in July, and shook hands with residents in Florida still shocked by Ian’s destruction.

“I know they are broken, even on the inside,” he said.

Don’t ask, don’t tell

Critics say hiring undocumented workers puts everyone at risk. Laborers working off the books in risky conditions are on their own if they get injured or fall ill. They sometimes handle heavy, dangerous equipment – which can be a liability to themselves or others if they have not been properly trained.

Officials keen on keeping out undocumented immigrants point to incidents like one on Sept. 22, days before Ian, in Pinellas County, near Tampa.

Juan Molina, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras working on a road construction project, was arrested on charges of fatally striking Sheriff’s Office Deputy Mike Hartwick with a front loader and allegedly fleeing the scene, court records show. The contractor, Archer Western-de Moya Joint Venture II, said it vetted Molina and another worker arrested in the case through E-Verify, a federal database that checks a person’s eligibility to work, and are investigating how they cleared that system. Molina has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri expressed frustration that they had been hired, saying at a news conference that they “shouldn’t be here and they shouldn’t be working and they shouldn’t be out there doing this.”

But others say the 11 million undocumented immigrants are deeply embedded in the U.S. economy, paying taxes and taking jobs that Americans won’t do. President Donald Trump (R) – who won easily in the counties hit hardest by the hurricane – railed against undocumented immigrants, although the Trump Organization hired them to work on projects such as its golf courses, from New York to Florida.

Walter A. Pavon Jr., an immigrant from Ecuador and construction company owner in Orlando who voted for Trump, said it will be “impossible” for Florida to rebuild without undocumented laborers. He said he is joining the American Business Immigration Coalition, which is fighting for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“That’s just the reality,” Pavon said. “Our labor force is already stretched super thin. It’s hard to find good people.”

Some homeowners in Southwest Florida understood the governor’s decision to fly migrants to Massachusetts to compel liberal jurisdictions that defend undocumented immigrants to experience what it is like on the border.

But they do not necessarily check on whether everyone working on their homes is here legally.

Douglas Lowe, 67, who normally resides in Utah, broke a sweat shoveling piles of garbage away from a yellow bungalow in Naples that he plans to renovate and raise 10 feet higher, too late for Ian’s floodwaters.

He said he has chosen licensed contractors, wants workers to be in the United States legally, and understands DeSantis’ frustration with the influx at the southern border.

Lowe also recognizes that contractors were struggling to keep workers before the hurricane hit – but said it was the contractors’ responsibility to check all their papers, not his.

“I can’t run their business,” he said.

Washington Post photo by Sarah L. Voisin
Douglas Lowe, 67, of Utah, shovels debris from his vacation home in Naples, Fla.