An American flag is seen flying in front of damage from Hurricane Ian in San Carlos Island, Fort Myers Beach, Florida on Tuesday, October 4.
Immigrant workers head to Florida to help with hurricane relief
03:31 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Just weeks after Ron DeSantis made a very public display of his efforts to keep migrants from coming to Florida, Hurricane Ian’s destruction is drawing a growing number of immigrants to the Republican governor’s state.

“They’re arriving 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 made up largely of immigrants, many of whom are undocumented, Soni says. Much like migrant workers who follow harvest seasons and travel from farm to farm, Soni says these workers crisscross the US to help clean up and rebuild when disaster strikes.

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

“What you have now is basically immigrants who are sort of traveling white blood cells of America, who congregate after hurricanes to heal a place, and then move on to heal the next place,” Soni says.

Already, Soni says his team has been in the Fort Myers area with hundreds of immigrant workers – about half of whom came from out of state. And he says more will arrive in the coming weeks.

Saket Soni, executive director of Resilience Force, speaks with workers in LaPlace, Louisiana, in February. Teams from the organization have been working in Florida since shortly after Hurricane Ian hit.

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

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

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

“They’re praying for him to lead 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 that,” Soni says.

Does DeSantis?

“There’s no way that he doesn’t,” Soni says.

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

Reports of migrants heading to Florida after Hurricane Ian haven’t softened DeSantis’ stance

Back in 2018, DeSantis campaigned for governor with a TV ad showing him teaching his kids to build a wall. And since then, he’s positioned himself as one of the most vocal critics of the Biden administration’s immigration policies and announced high-profile immigration steps of his own, including – most recently – using state funds for two flights taking migrants from Texas to Florida to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

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

Several minutes into a news conference Tuesday billed as an update on the state’s hurricane response – before he detailed ongoing rescue efforts – DeSantis made a point of trumpeting that three “illegal aliens” were among four people recently arrested on looting allegations.

“These are people that are foreigners, 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 countries. They should not be here at all,” he told reporters.

Later in the news conference, CNN’s Boris Sanchez asked DeSantis whether he had any response to reports that Venezuelans in New York were being recruited to work on recovery efforts, and whether the governor would also be trying to send those migrants back north.

DeSantis doubled down on his earlier message.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference Tuesday in Cape Coral, Florida.

“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’d take those three looters, I’d drag them out by their collars, and I’d send them back to where they came from,” the governor said, drawing applause from officials surrounding him.

He went on to describe a funeral he attended this week of a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy who was killed in a hit and run by a front-end loader that authorities allege was driven by an undocumented Honduran immigrant.

Then he ended the news conference, making no mention of immigrant workers who were putting tarps on roofs or clearing debris.

There’s a history of migrants helping with disaster recovery in Florida and beyond

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

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

“Many are from Venezuela. Many are from Honduras and Mexico. They represent all of the different waves of migrants that have been arriving into the US and into this industry. Many of them who I’ve known since Hurricane Katrina and who have a dozen hurricanes under their belt,” he said. “But there are also newer migrants. I just met a group of Venezuelan asylum-seekers who were arriving to do the work.”

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History notes in its description of an artifact in its collection that after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, “Many homeowners undertook their own clean-up, but much was performed by immigrant laborers attracted to the region by the promise of hard work and good wages.”

This file photo from April 2006 shows immigrant workers performing "house leveling" work on a New Orleans home damaged by Huricane Katrina.

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

A little more than half of the roofers in the group he’s studied are undocumented immigrants, Chávez says. And when he’s spoken with roofers across the United States – based in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and Kentucky – Chávez says a common detail quickly emerges when he asks how they ended up in those locations.

“They always name a storm,” he says.

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

“There’s no telephone service, gasoline, food, housing,” he says. “They also have to be really careful not to just work for anybody, because otherwise they may not get compensated for the work that they do.”

But there’s no doubt they’re going to Florida, he says, and that they’ll play a key role in the state’s recovery.

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

The work can be dangerous. Here’s why immigrants keep doing it

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

“My guys for the most part do experience ‘the look.’ They do get pulled over, maybe. But for the most part, any time they go to a lot of these different locations, they are there to do work which the local population sees as essential. So they get their work done,” Chávez says.

On the ground in communities, Chávez says he’s 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 that immigrant workers provide.

A bigger problem, Chávez says, is that when these workers face abuses – like wage theft or unsafe housing conditions – there aren’t enough laws to protect them, or local authorities may be hesitant to enforce them.

On top of that, the work is physically demanding and risky.

“These guys are helping us to adapt to a new world that we live in and we need their labor,” Chávez says. “But it turns out they actually risk their bodies. (Roofing is) one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States.”

Damage from Hurricane Ian is seen on Tuesday in San Carlos Island, Fort Myers Beach.

Chávez says he’s spoken with many roofers about on-the-job injuries.

“A lot of these guys have fallen and they don’t have access to health insurance. Their bodies are no longer the same. They have bad knees, bad backs,” he says.

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

Even though wage theft is a major problem some face, there’s the potential to earn good wages, send their earnings to families in their home country and possibly advance to higher-paying jobs over time, Chávez says. So it’s a choice that makes economic sense to many, despite the risks.

Desperation is also a factor, Soni says.

“Part of what’s happened is because this is such dirty, dangerous work, and the conditions are so harsh, the most desperate people – those with no other economic avenues, those who are willing to be transient for a year or more – are the ones who join,” he says.

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

When it comes to the physical and economic risks, Soni says Resilience Force does what it can to protect workers by helping them negotiate fair wages and payment with contractors, and making sure they have the right safety equipment as they set out to rebuild homes and schools.

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

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

After previous hurricanes, he says, the organization has led workers on service projects rebuilding uninsured homes, then hosted meals where homeowners and workers can talk with the help of interpreters.

“Those bonds have lasted. People have become friends and people have changed their minds,” he says. “What that often looks like in Florida or Louisiana is for someone who thought immigration was their most important issue, well, after a hurricane, immigration becomes the 35th most important issue. And what’s more important 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 bring this place back? And that family usually includes the immigrants who helped rebuild the place.”

DeSantis may not take note of this. But as Florida rebuilds, Soni is betting that community leaders and homeowners who need help will.

CNN’s Steve Contorno contributed to this report.