Immigrant Laborers Pave Road Back From Sandy

A Latino crew works on a building damaged by Sandy in Long Beach, July 30, 2013. Since the hurricane, immigrant workers have played an essential role in rebuilding the damaged parts of the city. | Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

A Latino crew works on a building damaged by Sandy in Long Beach, July 30, 2013. Since the hurricane, immigrant workers have played an essential role in rebuilding the damaged parts of the city. | Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

NEW YORK — Eudes was working the demolition crews three weeks after Hurricane Sandy tore through New York and New Jersey. First as a volunteer and, later, as a hired hand in the Breezy Point section of Queens, Eudes hoisted waterlogged couches and mattresses out of flooded basements. He ripped out soggy carpets and mold-infested walls.

As the recovery has turned to rebuilding, homeowners and contractors have come to rely on Eudes’ skills as a carpenter, tiler and painter to install new floors, put up fresh wallboard, and lay tile. An undocumented immigrant from Mexico, Eudes, 42, has noticed changes in the treatment of day laborers after Sandy — even though their idling on street corners still irks some local residents.

“They talk to us a little better, treat us with a little more respect,” Eudes, a native of Puebla, speaking in Spanish, said of employers, who seem friendlier than before the storm, greeting him warmly and urging him to be careful on the job. “The need is so great. We’re becoming indispensable — we hope.”

In a region where anti-immigrant sentiment has occasionally led to hate crimes, immigrant laborers, many of them Latino and undocumented, have become essential in the post-Sandy landscape, according to advocates, academics and even homeowners who never considered hiring them before.

“The irony is that many immigrant day laborers are working on rebuilding and repairing the housing for homeowners without even knowing where they’ll be housed [themselves],” said Jackie Vimo, advocacy director for the nonprofit New York Immigration Coalition.

Largely struggling to eke out a living since the housing market collapse, day laborers in the New York region are experiencing a trend that was crucial to the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Nearly half of New Orleans’ reconstruction workforce was Latino — 54 percent of them undocumented, according to one study, which said they performed the lowest-paid and most hazardous jobs.

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