September 1, 2010; Source: Washington Independent |In the discussions of demographic change in the New Orleans area since Katrina, one item that gets relatively little attention is the doubling of the proportion of Latinos in the region, from 3 or 4 percent before Katrina to 6.6 percent in 2009, though advocates put the Latino population at around 10 percent.

Part of the reason for the increase is the boom in construction projects needing day laborers, a job market that attracts immigrants. According to this article from the Washington Independent, a large number of undocumented immigrants went to New Orleans, induced by relaxed Department of Homeland Security employment-related immigration laws after the Hurricane. Thus, according to a Washington State University professor, the “Conditions were set to attract a labor force of Latino immigrants . . . [including] a large population of undocumented immigrants who were coming to do the work that was necessary in the city.”

Not surprisingly, a portion of the undocumented day laborers are being victimized by employers through wage theft. One survey of Mexicans in New Orleans found 24 percent having experienced wage theft due to employers not following through with promised pay. The Congress of Day Laborers thinks that 80 percent of its members and constituents have experienced wage theft in the last 12 months. Not surprisingly, there are few resources for undocumented workers to help force employers to fork over the funds. It’s a catch-22. Undocumented immigrants were lured to New Orleans because of the region’s desperate need for laborers to help in reconstruction, but they can’t get their interests or rights protected by the federal agencies or programs that got them to the Gulf Coast in the first place.

Pay for immigrant day laborers isn’t great even when it isn’t stolen. According to the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, with the suspension of Davis-Bacon wage standards in the wake of Katrina, construction wages fell “through the floor”. The Congress of Day Laborers, Puentes New Orleans (“Bridging New Orleans”), and Catholic Charities have been mobilizing to address the victimization of Latino day laborers, including some indications of tensions between the Latino immigrants and the city’s and the region’s existing African-American population.

As nonprofits know all too well, disaster relief is rarely as simple as providing meals and tents or fixing people’s homes. In New Orleans, disaster relief and redevelopment tie into issues of immigration, construction wages, and racial justice.—Rick Cohen