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Immigrant Workers Quietly Aid Hurricane Recovery Effort

Posted: Nov 04, 2012

By now the images are nearly iconic. Pieces of the Atlantic City boardwalk floating down flooded streets, miles from the beach; water pouring into New York’s subways as if they were spillways in a dam; trees upending, buildings listing, traces of a lifetime washed away at high tide.

Not so widely pictured: the thousands of people whose jobs required them to work through what has been called the storm of the century. And we mean not only the first responders, utility crews and emergency personnel, but those whose jobs required them to be in and working no matter the conditions.

A recent article in The Atlantic pointed out how the way the storm was experienced in New York City had much to do with income levels — those with means moved to hotels to get through the blackout that crippled most of lower Manhattan, those with lesser means staffed the hotels regardless of what was going on with their own families and in their own home neighborhoods. Most of them, the article noted, were immigrants.

A quick survey on the train and subway platforms in the Philadelphia area revealed much the same. People with jobs we sometimes disrespectfully refer to as menial found ways to get into work on Monday and Tuesday, even as public transit was incapacitated. Most of them — like the bakery delivery person making his way through Northeast Philadelphia as the winds whipped rain around him — were immigrants. Chances are immigrants will be a large part of the workforce engaged to do the clean-up from the storm, as well.

Without minimizing anyone’s experience during this natural disaster, we’d like to focus our attention on these immigrant workers. As the election has worn on and come nearly to a vote, much has been said in conciliatory terms about our nation’s need for immigrants — but only those advanced degrees in science and technology or those with the means to start million-dollar enterprises. Low-skill immigrants aren’t on the candidates’ lips, and yet those are precisely the ones who will dig us out of Sandy’s ravages; the ones who have opened tiny businesses that serve communities in good weather and bad; the ones whose labor was required even while the rest of us took days off as the storm raged.

In its expansion and growth years, America was built by the “menial” work of many such low-skill immigrants, a number of them so widely “without papers” it was the genesis of a derogatory term used to refer to them, much as “illegals” is used now. It is hard to believe that today, from the heights America has achieved, we utterly fail to honor those who labor in the same way as our ancestors did — and with the same heart, grit and determination to get through hardships.

As the tristate area embarks on the long recovery from the storm — and make no mistake, it will be long — look around you and notice how many of those doing our heavy lifting are immigrants without advanced degrees, without the money to earn them the cover photo on Fortune magazine, and without the opportunity to win national and international accolades. The accents may have changed from Italian, German and Polish to Spanish, Cambodian and West African, but like most of our ancestors, you can’t measure the value of these immigrants by their degrees or net worth.

When you go into the voting booth on Tuesday, take with you not the images of a devastation that could not be averted but one that can. Would our lives be the same without the humble, hard-working immigrants that saw us through the storm, will see us through the recovery efforts and beyond?

Not a chance.

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