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Undocumented immigrant workers are helping clean up Florida after Hurricane Ian

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Southwest Florida has begun the arduous process of cleaning up and rebuilding after catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Ian. The coastal cities and barrier island villages are about to find out what storm-struck communities in other Gulf states have learned in recent years - that America has a labor shortage. And immigrant workers, many of whom are in this country illegally, fill a critical role in the storm recovery. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: There's a statue in a riverfront park in New Orleans that depicts, in marble and bronze, a construction worker with a hammer clambering up a pitched roof - its title, "Tribute To Latin American Workers." It's dedicated to the laborers who helped rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. Andy Kopplin, former executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, says back-to-back hurricanes - Katrina and Rita - damaged a quarter million houses.

ANDY KOPPLIN: And we didn't have enough roofers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians or laborers to fix them all at once. And so we couldn't have rebuilt without help from outside the state of Louisiana, and we got it from the thousands of Latin American workers who came to New Orleans and South Louisiana and help us rebuild.

BURNETT: Today, Southwest Florida is where New Orleans was in September of 2005 and where Houston was in September of 2017 after Hurricane Harvey. In Florida, thousands of homes and businesses will need rebuilding. But first, who's going to drag out the sodden, reeking, moldy furnishings?

ADELINO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Adelino is a 49-year-old Mayan from Guatemala who declined to give his last name because he's been living in Naples, Fla., for two years as an undocumented immigrant. He says, right now, homeowners are paying $150 a day, cash money, to anyone willing to clean out their swamp dwellings. A sizable unauthorized population in Naples had their jobs in hotels, restaurants and landscaping crews washed away by the storm, and they've taken on this dirty work.

ADELINO: (Through interpreter) We clean the houses, pull out the things that are ruined and carry them to the curb.

BURNETT: Adelino lives in a time-worn mobile home park called Harmony Shores, along with many other blue-collar workers. It took six feet of storm surge during Ian. All their things are ruined, and they don't have the luxury of paying other people to clean out their trailers. Valeria Orfila, an Argentine who works as a cook in a school, sits with a friend in the mobile home park, surveying her street lined with unlivable trailers.

VALERIA ORFILA: (Through interpreter) We have friends who, today, on this Sunday, are working in downtown Naples, cleaning restaurants and hotels. Though we don't have anywhere to live, we continue to work trying to raise up this city that is so beautiful.

BURNETT: Overseeing the recovery is Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. He is running for reelection, he's considered a likely candidate for the White House and he's openly hostile about undocumented people in his state. Last month, he flew two planeloads of just-arrived asylum seekers to Martha's Vineyard to stick it to liberal enclaves. And last week, he made these comments about four looters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Three of the four are illegal aliens. They're illegally in our country. And not only that - they try to loot and ransack in the aftermath of a natural disaster. I mean, they should be prosecuted, but they need to be sent back to their home country. They should not be here at all.

(APPLAUSE)

BURNETT: Like New Orleans, Houston depended on a migrant workforce after Hurricane Harvey. The relentless rains flooded a third of that city and damaged more than 200,000 homes.

EMILY TIMM: We saw that immigrant workers - many of them are undocumented construction workers - were the folks who were really called in as the second responders to rebuild the city - to gut homes and to actually put Houston back together.

BURNETT: Emily Timm is co-director of the Workers Defense Project, a Texas immigrant advocacy group that works in Houston. She says a governor should not score political points bashing undocumented migrants at the same time they're helping to clean up his storm-ravaged state.

TIMM: The immigrant workers and the construction workers who are rebuilding Florida - they deserve that recognition and that credit and to stop being used as political pawns.

BURNETT: A recent statewide poll showed a majority of Floridians approved of the governor's controversial decision to send migrants to other states. It's uncertain what attitudes are about the role of migrant workers in the storm damage zone.

GARY DICKERSON: I know that they can be a big help because most of the migrants do want to work.

BURNETT: Gary Dickerson is a 73-year-old retired carpenter who got a foot and a half of water in his Naples apartment.

DICKERSON: I just have an issue with people that are not legal. And so many Spanish people here can't even speak English, but they're all God's children.

BURNETT: The migrant workers interviewed for this story, who lost so much, did add this - the community has turned out to help them with clothing, food and other items. Said Valeria, the Argentine woman, Naples is very unified, and we're grateful. John Burnett, NPR News, Naples, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.