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Migrant workers are likely vital to Florida's rebuild. But Hurricane Ian hit them too

 Coalition of Immokalee Workers organizers bring food and other relief aid to migrant workers hit by Hurricane Ian in Naples, Florida, on Wednesday.
Gerard Albert III
Coalition of Immokalee Workers organizers bring food and other relief aid to migrant workers hit by Hurricane Ian in Naples, Florida, on Wednesday.

Latin American migrant workers help fill Florida's construction worker shortage. But many feel overlooked by hurricane relief — and demonized.

Much of the rebuilding in Florida after Hurricane Ian will be done by migrant workers, but many of them right now feel overlooked by relief efforts — and demonized by Florida’s governor.

Hurricane Ian sent almost five feet of storm surge into the trailer home neighborhoods of south Naples near Rookery Bay. Furniture, dry wall, appliances and toys ruined by the sewage-tainted flood waters now line their narrow streets.

Just about all the residents there are Latin American migrant workers. Many work in construction, which in Florida is experiencing an acute labor shortage, so they’ll be vital to the post-hurricane rebuilding efforts.

Margarita Aviña’s family is among them. It's a pattern she says she's seen often after hurricanes and other disasters since she came to Florida from Mexico 17 years ago.

Because Florida's construction industry is experiencing such a large labor deficit, Aviña said, "these days it seems all the builders’ workers are Latinos, immigrants. They do all the hard work — rebuild the houses and everything in this county when something like this happens.”

Yet Aviña said many of her neighbors take it for granted that they're on the bottom rung of the hurricane relief ladder. This week they received food, water, diapers and other necessary aid from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Misión Peniel in Immokalee, a town of mostly made up of migrant workers east of Naples.

Many said they were also wrestling with how Governor Ron DeSantis made a point of emphasizing on Tuesday that three of the people arrested in southwest Florida for looting after the hurricane are undocumented immigrants.

"They’re illegally in our country, but not only that, they try to loot and ransack in the aftermath of a natural disaster,” said DeSantis, who stoked nationwide controversy recently by flying asylum-seeking Venezuelan migrants to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

“They need to be sent back to their home country. They should not be here at all.”

Gerardo Reyes, a Coalition of Immokalee Workers organizer, said DeSantis' rhetoric also fits a pattern. “In moments like this, migrant workers are often just political scapegoats," Reyes said.

"But we all depend on the work that the people that we’re attacking as a society — or making to fend for themselves after a disaster like this — are doing.”

The town of Immokalee itself experienced relatively minor damage from Ian.

Copyright 2022 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.