NEW ORLEANS—Most of the signs are handwritten and simply worded, such as “Workers Wanted” or “Need 50 Laborers Now!”
Word has gotten out and each morning day laborers—who come from Central America and Mexico by way of California, Texas and Arizona—gather on street corners in the Kenner and Metairie neighborhoods on the western edge of the city.
Lured by jobs paying $15 to $17 an hour, the Spanish-speaking day laborers have flooded into New Orleans to haul out debris, clear downed trees, put in drywall and perform other tasks as rebuilding takes hold in the city. Specialized roofers can make $300 a day.
Contractors know the new day-labor pickup spots. By noon, a tree-trimming firm hires the last available hand on Williams Boulevard near Interstate 10.
“We’ve never had Hispanic day laborer sites. That’s a totally new phenomenon,” said David Ware, a longtime New Orleans immigration lawyer.
With 140,000 homes destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is undergoing the nation’s largest reconstruction effort and its new workforce is largely Latino. No one knows how many immigrants have descended here since Katrina ravaged the city five weeks ago, but their presence is visible throughout the city.
The influx of Latino workers is raising concern among city officials. Last week, Associated Press reported, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin asked local businesspeople, “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”
According to census figures, in 2000 there were about 15,000 Hispanics in New Orleans, or 3% of the population. Latino leaders and academic experts say the newcomers are likely to change the face of the city.
“They’re making so much money they are thinking of staying,” said Arnesto Schweikert, a New Orleans native who operates the city’s only Spanish-language radio station, KGLA. “I’ve got two [Latino] workers from Dallas cleaning up my house and they are not planning to go back.”