Immigrant Workers in New Orleans Start Leaving

E. Eduardo Castillo, AP, May 15, 2008

Josue Vega was one of thousands of immigrant workers who flocked to New Orleans in 2005 in hopes of finding a rebuilding job in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

He worked seven days a week and earned more than twice his normal earnings. But with work now down to three days a week, the 20-year-old is planning to go home to Honduras.

“My goal is to be here until November, and then never come back,” he said. “I’ve had enough.”

The stops and starts of the post-Katrina rebuilding effort, often due to bureaucratic delays in funding, still provided plenty of work to rebuild homes and businesses. But reconstruction work has slowed as projects are completed or transition to phases requiring highly specialized skills.

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Workers still cluster outside Home Depot and Lowe’s hoping a contractor will hire them. But they say their gathering spots have become targets for undercover U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who hold up the prospect of day’s pay as bait.

“They come in vans like they’re contractors,” said Walter Ortiz, 32.

ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez wouldn’t confirm sting operations, but said “ICE conducts targeted enforcement actions based on intelligence and investigative leads in both criminal and administrative cases.”

New Orleans prohibits people from asking for work on the street but enforcement was relaxed because the city recognized “the important contributions of these laborers,” said Lisa Ponce de Leon, the city’s director of international relations.

Deportations have increased 156 percent since 2005, when 3,962 immigrants were deported, to 9,749 deportations in 2007, according to ICE.

Five immigrants interviewed by The Associated Press said ICE agents often patrol streets posing as contractors—and then deport day laborers who hop in their trucks.

Even so, some rooting of new arrivals has taken place. Civic organizations, small businesses and blue-collar union organizing indicate the Latino presence has firmed.

U.S. Census data indicates nearly 100,000 Hispanics moved to the Gulf Coast after Katrina, but the Census tends not to reach undocumented immigrants.

A 2006 survey of 200 New Orleans construction workers by Tulane University and the University of California found half were Latino and one-quarter were illegal immigrants.

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