Kathy Chu, USA Today, July 12, 2007
Since Katrina, tens of thousands of Hispanic workers, most of them undocumented, have poured into battered sections of the Gulf Coast. They’ve supplied the labor to rebuild, to keep businesses running and to boost tax revenue. To support their families back home, they often will work longer hours and for less pay than other laborers.
Yet the economic dream that drew them here has weakened. For some, pay is falling. And jobs are scarcer, because the most urgent work—gutting homes and removing debris—is mostly finished. Though years of rebuilding remain, not enough state and insurance money has arrived to pay for it.
Still, many Hispanic workers remain in the region—and others are still arriving—because even now, they can typically earn more on the Gulf Coast than in other parts of the USA. Some workers have decided to settle here, bringing their families over to open restaurants and businesses, says Phuong Pham, who teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans.
As of March 2006, the most recent point for which figures are available, Hispanics made up nearly half the reconstruction workforce in New Orleans. About two thirds of them moved to the area—mostly from elsewhere in the USA—after the hurricane, according to a study of 212 workers by researchers at Tulane University and the University of California, Berkeley.
For all the economic muscle these workers have supplied, their presence has also fueled tensions: over language barriers and over education and health care needs in a public-services system strained by Katrina. There’s been “a big increase (in the Hispanic population) at a time when the local infrastructure (has been) stretched,” says Katharine Donato, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
As longtime residents return to the region, concern is rising that migrant laborers have diminished job prospects for others. Greg Stewart, a business owner and member of the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, complains that illegal workers are “driving wages down for people who live in Mississippi.”
The Hispanic population on the Gulf Coast ballooned after Katrina struck in August 2005. In New Orleans, their numbers surged 29% by October 2006, even as the overall population shrank to less than half its pre-Katrina levels. Meantime, the number of African-American households in New Orleans fell sharply from pre-Katrina levels. Mayor Ray Nagin expressed concern shortly after Katrina about the city being “overrun” by Mexicans. He later soothed critics by saying he welcomed all workers and that Hispanics were particularly hardworking.
A strained health care system
The result is that Hispanic day laborers who lack health insurance are further straining the region’s health care system, already in poor shape after Katrina. Six hospitals in the New Orleans area remain largely closed because of damage. Those that are still running are losing an average of $750,000 a month treating the uninsured, though losses vary widely among hospitals, says Jack Finn of the Metropolitan Hospital Council. The average wait time in emergency rooms has ballooned to about three hours.
A rising number of Hispanic workers have contacted the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice in recent months to report abuses by contractors, or harassment by immigration agents or police, says Saket Soni of the center.
Hispanic workers in New Orleans who responded to last year’s Tulane-UC Berkeley study said they also had trouble recovering wages and coping with dangerous working conditions.
The Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance says it’s helped recover more than $1 million in back pay for workers, mostly Hispanic, since Katrina. Illegal workers were more likely to say they have been mistreated on the job, the UC Berkeley-Tulane study found.
Even Hispanics who came here legally, on guest worker visas, say their situation has been far from ideal. One hotel chain, Decatur Hotels, faces a lawsuit from Hispanic workers who say they faced unacceptable working conditions after being brought from Latin America by a recruiter working on behalf of Decatur Hotels.