NEW ORLEANS—Every morning in New Orleans, a group of Latino men line up by the side of a traffic circle named for Robert E. Lee, under a large banner reading: “Remember Those Suffering from Katrina and Rita.” These men, whose faces change every day, have come to New Orleans over the past seven months following rumors of high-paying demolition and construction work. Few speak English, and many do not have visas to work in the United States. Adrift in a city with few resources for Latinos, they rely heavily on their employers, sometimes sleeping in the same hurricane-damaged buildings they work on all day. Caught between financial necessity and immigration law, they are unlikely to challenge the often unsafe work conditions they encounter as they do the dirty work of rebuilding New Orleans.
“Right now there are more ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents on the ground than Department of Labor agents,” says Jennifer Whitney, cofounder and co-coordinator of the Latino Health Outreach Program, a weekly clinic offering free vaccinations and safety equipment to migrant laborers. “No one knows for sure how many migrant workers have passed through here, but tens of thousands is a reasonable estimate – doing really dangerous work without training or proper equipment.”
On a typical Wednesday at Lee traffic circle, Whitney and a group of other activists from the Common Ground Health Clinic arrive at six in the morning to transform a gas station parking lot into the only Spanish-language clinic in greater New Orleans. Their vaccination program runs out of a few small coolers and focuses on tetanus and Hepatitis A, two pathogens common to flood-damaged buildings. On one side of the lot, an enthusiastic volunteer gives a flight attendant-style demonstration in Spanish on how to use a dual-cartridge respirator. In a more secluded space behind a station wagon, Whitney and other volunteers consult with patients who will need to arrange for a translator’s help to visit a specialist. A shy, dark-skinned man with a large neck wound wanders up from the street and is escorted back to this area.
A Honduran man named Reyes waits while his friends receive their vaccinations. He tells me that he has lived in Houston and Baton Rouge before coming to New Orleans, and that New Orleans is more daunting for a Latino worker than those other cities. “The city here has not seen many Hispanics,” he says. “The police are much tougher here.”
Before Katrina, Latinos made up only 3 percent of the population of New Orleans, far below the norm for an American city of its size. While Latino immigration nationwide had peaked in recent decades, New Orleans’s economy had lagged behind that of the rest of the country, and a large black underclass had served to fill the least desirable jobs. The exodus of poor blacks in the aftermath of Katrina cleared the way for migrant workers like Reyes to seek dangerous work cleaning out buildings that had festered for weeks in dirty water. President Bush’s decision to waive requirements for employment eligibility documents opened up a great migration of day laborers from across Central and North America. Some now estimate that New Orleans is up to 30 percent Latino, though reliable data is unavailable.
On March 17 at Lee traffic circle, forty workers were arrested while waiting to be picked up for construction jobs. This was the largest of many immigration raids in New Orleans since last fall. Police have implied that migrant workers have ties to Central American gangs, and now sometimes strip detainees to their underwear to search for tattoos. The Advancement Project, a legal activist group working in New Orleans, tries to arrange support for detained migrant workers. However, according to Whitney, lawyers sometimes do not receive access to detainees for four days or more.
Spanish-speaking migrants are often perceived as an economic threat by both black and white populations in New Orleans, and as a result they have difficulty finding political sympathy or logistical support. Whitney points to interracial worker associations in Los Angeles and other American cities as examples of what could be done right in the future. With her peers from the Common Ground Health Clinic, she hopes to help found a New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, which would include a permanent health clinic for Latino laborers as well as some training and advocacy. “We expect that the numbers [of Latinos in New Orleans] will continue to go up,” says Whitney. “We’re not looking to be a disaster relief organization. We’re going to stay.”
For now, workers like Reyes are happy just to have the chance to pick up a muchneeded vaccination and some functional safety equipment on the way to work. “The Latinos here don’t know the city well,” he says. “Without this, we’d have to go to a private clinic where the service would be very expensive. Many wouldn’t do it.”
For more info, see www.cghc.org, Common Ground Health Clinic.