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Migrants who work as day laborers are reluctant to ask for government help after Ian

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Residents of Florida's Gulf Coast are struggling to get their homes and lives back together. Many of them are turning to the government. But that's not an option for the many people who work as day laborers or in service industries on the coast. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Rice and beans and water are being packed into plastic shopping bags by volunteers in East Naples.

YADIRA ORTIAGO: So we're trying to help out as much as possible to get some supplies out to them and for them to have at least a little bit.

LAWRENCE: Yadira Ortiago (ph) is here with her mom. They're sorting the food that was donated from a farm workers association. At the end of the day, they're expecting a rush of people to come after looking for any job they can find.

ORTIAGO: Yeah, construction. Everything having to do with the outside, like landscaping, like yard work, most people don't have - didn't work for, like, a couple of days.

LAWRENCE: It's a contradiction. There's about to be a boom market for day labor here, with all the farms to clean up and the fallen trees to cut down and, eventually, construction. But Ortiago says people also have to clean up their own homes. And many won't get government help with that. By way of explanation, she points us to a nearby trailer park.

(CROSSTALK)

LAWRENCE: Carla Contreras (ph) grew up here in the shade of the live oak trees. And now she's raising her own family across the lane from her parents. Ian was the worst storm of her life.

CARLA CONTRERAS: Everybody, I think, got water inside their house, drywall. We have to replace everything. Everything's been damaged - washer, dryers. So it was pretty bad.

LAWRENCE: She loves the neighborhood and says people are helping each other clean up. But, she says, many of them won't be asking for government help.

CONTRERAS: FEMA, the first thing they ask for is a Social Security number. So a lot of them can't really get the help, you know?

LAWRENCE: Many people here are undocumented, she says. The FEMA website says if one person in the household, like one of those kids, has a Social Security number, the parents can apply. But folks we asked seemed very hesitant to approach the authorities, like Margarita Avina, standing nearby, holding a 3-year-old boy half asleep on her shoulder.

MARGARITA AVINA: (Non-English language spoken).

LAWRENCE: She says the kids are legal citizens, but most of the parents don't have documents. So I asked her, what are they going to do?

(Non-English language spoken).

AVINA: (Non-English language spoken).

LAWRENCE: Work, she responds. But that's complicated. On one hand, there's a few cities to rebuild and millions of trees to clear. So there should be good day labor jobs for a while. But half the cars here got wrecked by the storm. And people are having trouble getting to work. And for jobs that serve the tourists and the snowbirds, it's hard to say when that work will resume. Sergio Virrueta is out of work with a back injury. And he says his wife's job is up in the air.

SERGIO VIRRUETA: (Non-English language spoken).

LAWRENCE: She works in a restaurant near the golf courses and resorts on Marco Island, which he says were completely flooded. He's got no idea when his family will have any kind of income again.

Quil Lawrence, East Naples, Florida.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEQUERBOARD'S "THE SORROW BIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.