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Baltimore bridge highlights role of migrants in U.S. workforce

The death of six Latino workers who were fixing potholes when a Baltimore bridge collapsed highlights the crucial role immigrants play in keeping America running, say advocates.

And it stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric of populists like Donald Trump, who cast them as criminal invaders ruining the country.

"Migrants come and do the jobs that Americans don't want to do," said Luis Vega, an activist and former construction worker.

The work is too hard, the hours are too long, or the conditions too difficult.

"Who here wants to clean hotel rooms? Who wants to work under the hot sun? Who wants to be in the fields?" said Vega.

A team of eight men were doing road maintenance overnight Monday into Tuesday on the Francis Scott Key Bridge when a huge container ship smashed into a support pillar, sending almost the entire span crashing into the Patapsco River.

Two were pulled alive from the water, but six died; brothers, husbands and fathers from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

"Immigrants -- we get the job done," said senior White House adviser Tom Perez, himself a Latino.

"The six people who perished, the two others who survived... this is America, the immigrants (were) repairing potholes."

The tragedy comes at a time many Latinos feel they are under assault from sections of the political class, as the United States ramps up for a bitter presidential election in November between Trump and incumbent Joe Biden.

Trump's stridently anti-immigrant campaign includes suggestions that, if elected, he will embark on a mass expulsion of people he blames for crime and drug addiction he says are wracking America.

"The former president doesn't see how much damage he does with his poison," said Vega.

"Terrorists don't sneak over the US-Mexico border; they fly in on a visa."

The people who pay traffickers to smuggle them across the hostile deserts of the US southwest are the people who end up doing the dirty and difficult jobs that Americans depend on.

"In 2020, when we had the Covid pandemic... no one wanted to work closely with another person," said Vega.

"So who did the work? The cleaning in the hospitals? Harvesting the food? It was the immigrants who risked their lives."

- High risk -

Those risks, even if they are not always fatal, as they were for the Baltimore bridge workers, are all too real.

In Arizona the legal minimum wage is $14.35 an hour, but, says Javier Galindo, a contractor in Tucson, immigrant workers will earn only $80 to $100 per day, sometimes for 10 or 12 hours work.

"You know what time you come in, but not what time you will leave," he says.

Poverty and desperation force migrants to accept these wages, and to work in conditions that can be fatal, such as high temperatures.

According to official numbers, Latino immigrants comprised 8.2 percent of the United States workforce in 2020-2021 but accounted for 14 percent of workplace deaths.

The total number of deaths has also risen, up 42 percent over the decade to 2021, with 727 Latinos dying on the job that year.

Root-and-branch reform of migration into the United States, including regularizing pathways to work, would help to reduce this toll, say activists.

But it would also alleviate what many say is a desperate shortage of labor.

"There is a lack of manpower," says Galindo, whose business was badly hit by border closures during the Covid pandemic.

The 48-year-old began his working life at just 14 years old, clambering over rooftops.

"You'll never see a white person doing that job," he said.

In the two decades since he started his company, only one white American ever knocked on his door asking for a job as a driver.

"He didn't last long," laughs Galindo. "He walked off the job."

In his region, he says, the construction sector depends almost entirely on immigrants, with the undocumented playing a key role.

It is a feeling shared widely.

"If we only hired people with the proper papers, things would go very badly for us," one Arizona contractor told AFP.

"We wouldn't be able to build what is being built in this city if it weren't for undocumented workers."


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