Meet the undocumented workers who rebuilt New York and New Jersey after Sandy

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman with The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston. You hear these stories a lot -- immigrants make their way to America to try and create a better life for themselves, and to do that they take any job available, often the job no one else wants to do. That’s exactly what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which slammed into the US two years ago today. The superstorm raked up the northeast, leaving dozens dead, thousands homeless and millions without power. Then came the cleanup. Most of the dirtiest, dangerous jobs were given to day laborers, most of them immigrants, and many of them undocumented. David Noriega with BuzzFeed News caught up with a few of them to get their stories. David, let’s just get the facts on how we know most of the cleanup was done by not just immigrants, but undocumented immigrants. Where do those numbers come from?


David Noriega: Well, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network is one of the more prominent national immigrant advocate groups and they do a lot of work with day laborers, and they estimate somewhere between 4,000-5,000 day laborers that did Sandy work, and that about 75% of them were undocumented comes from the general picture that they have of the day laborer population in New York. It always gets tricky measuring these things, especially in such chaotic circumstances, as the aftermath of Sandy.


Werman: Tell us a bit about some of the stories and people that really affected you. Miguel Ángel Piñeda, he’s an electrician, right?


Noriega: Yeah, he is. I think one thing that was pretty remarkable about his story is that he was doing work that he shouldn’t have been doing legally, that the contractor really should not have been doing legally because it’s restricted to the electrical utility. But he described this scenario in which people were desperate for power and they really just did not want to deal with the kinds of bureaucratic hassle that is normally required to quickly restore powers to home. But the cables were still live, so he was repairing these meters and doing this electrical work, dealing with live electricity the entire time, and that’s really not the way that it’s supposed to happen.


Werman: What did somebody like Miguel get paid for this risky work?


Noriega: One of the things that I thought was interesting was that these workers were making pretty much exactly the same kind of money that they would normally make, and that’s usually $10/hour. It’s minimum wage, but that got stretched. A lot of people worked a lot of overtime hours, for which they weren’t properly compensated. They were getting paid at the same rates as they would get paid if they were just cleaning up someone’s garden or laying down paving stones. It didn’t take into account the really significant health hazards associated with the kind of work that they were doing.


Werman: Tell us about one person you spoke with, Reyna, who lost her work cleaning houses in Staten Island. She faced some hazardous stuff as well.


Noriega: Definitely. Her story really was very typical. I spoke to a lot of guys and women who would describe going into the moldy, rotted basements and spending hours and hours, day after day, carrying out heavy waterlogged furniture. Then, very frequently, a week or two after, they would start seeing that they had rashes on their skin or respiratory problems. This isn’t necessarily being looked at or tracked in part because this population is so invisible, so underground.


Werman: The motivation for doing this work, I’m kind of feeling like it’s all about needing to work. But was there another motivation for these undocumented immigrants’ help with the cleanup?


Noriega: Definitely. They reacted to this storm not as immigrants but as residents of the New York metro area. They felt the same pain that everyone else did, and the same fear. More than a few of the workers that I interviewed independently spoke about how watching this storm rip through their communities made them realize how connected they are to this place where they live. In many instances, they would say “I’m not American, I’ve never been made to feel especially American. And yet I live here, this is my community.” This helped them realize the degree of their connection. There was this one young guy that I spoke to in New Jersey who expressed resentment or pain towards the way that he’s been treated in the United States since he arrived here as a teenager, in these sense that he really feels like he’s been marginalized and just has been doing incredibly low paid work and has been hounded by the police. He just described life in the United States as not generally being good. But he, nevertheless, saw people losing their homes and their businesses and realized that they belong to the same community that he did, even if it didn’t always feel that way everyday. He realized that if the same thing happened to him, he could probably rely on other people from the community helping him in the way that he helped. He was one of the ones that did a lot of volunteer work before he got paid. He just said this really beautiful thing about how even if these communities don’t often think about him as an undocumented immigrant worker, or at least don’t think about him in a positive light, he realized that when another person is suffering, you think about their plight, their suffering and you do what you need to do to help. In a strange way, it made him feel more warmly toward the country that he says otherwise has not necessarily treated him very well.


Werman: David Noriega with BuzzFeed News. Thanks so much for telling us about this side to the Sandy disaster I frankly did not know about. Really appreciate it.


Noriega: Absolutely. Pleasure.