Post-Katrina, New Orleans coming back more Hispanic

Manuel Garsa sits on a curb of a downtown Shell station waiting for work. He's one of some two dozen day laborers, mostly Hispanic, who amble among customers filling up their cars.

A Toyota Sequoia with Florida plates pulls up, and he runs over to investigate.

"The people come just for them," complains Joseph James, an African-American day laborer and a native New Orleanian. "They don't take blacks. They don't take whites. You are standing right there. You are right in front of them, and they need 10 people. And they won't pick you."

New Orleans has seen the most rapid racial shift of any city in America. In the 10 months since hurricane Katrina, it has lost more than a quarter of a million blacks - more than half its total population - and gained some 14,000 new Hispanics, according to a report released last week.

Such an increase has, so far, produced more welcome than resentment in a city desperate for reconstruction workers.

But tensions are bubbling up in this multicultural metropolis, with some groups claiming that Hispanics - many of whom are illegal immigrants - are being taken advantage of by employers.

The joint study by Tulane University in New Orleans and the University of California, Berkeley, found that a large number of the newly arrived are subject to unsafe working conditions, wage disputes, and inadequate access to healthcare.

It also found that many say they will stay here as long as there is work. That could be awhile - leaving some to wonder if this new population can successfully be incorporated into a city that has traditionally had few Hispanics and even fewer services to accommodate them.

"New Orleans is learning the same lessons that cities across the Southeast have been learning for a decade," says J.J. Rosenbaum, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "The difference is the demographic shift happened almost overnight in New Orleans."

Ms. Rosenbaum filed two lawsuits on behalf of large groups of immigrant laborers who say they were cheated out of wages while working in New Orleans for major US companies.

The study found that almost half of the reconstruction workforce in New Orleans is Hispanic - and half of those are illegal immigrants. But contrary to early reports that Katrina caused a flood of new border-crossers, researchers found that 87 percent of the undocumented were living in the US before moving to New Orleans.

Back at the Shell station, Mr. Garsa, a Honduran, has spent six years in the US and was one of the few living in New Orleans prior to Katrina. "If there's work, I will stay," he says. But he worries that jobs are running out. He last worked - on a construction job - two days ago.

Demand for work, at least among the small-scale contractors who regularly hire, seems to have moderated - and that has meant fewer newcomers. "It's kind of thinned out," says Mr. James of the Hispanic influx.

Leaders need to figure out how to handle this population because many are going to stay, says Phuong Pham, assistant professor of international development at Tulane and an author of the study. "From a policy point of view, if you want to keep them here, you need to find some sort of mechanism that will protect them. If you don't want them here, then you need to start enforcing immigration laws," she says.

In the aftermath of the storm, the US government allowed special waivers of immigration laws, which made it easier for employers to hire illegal immigrants.

But Louisiana seems to want tighter controls. Recently, the state Senate passed a bill that would prevent companies from hiring undocumented workers. It's currently being considered in the state House.

Early on, the mayor said the city was in danger of being overrun by Mexicans. But during his reelection campaign, he said he welcomed all workers, and called Hispanics especially hard working.

"I don't think there is the political will to assimilate this population," says Luz Molina, a professor at Loyola University law school in New Orleans. She has been in New Orleans for almost 30 years, and doesn't see enough being done.

"You have a judicial system that has no clue how to accommodate Spanish speakers, a healthcare system that is geared toward excluding them, and a [political] system that in general is slowly tightening the noose around them," she says. "It's so short-sighted."

Yet a few communities have dealt well with the growing number of Hispanics. A lot depends on local leadership, says Katharine Donato, associate professor of sociology at Rice University. She did a study in the 1990s of several towns in southern Louisiana that began to see growing numbers of Hispanic immigrants.

One town did not reach out to them. Another, 40 minutes away, had a few city leaders that spoke Spanish, and began to build relationships with them. That town had a much more harmonious experience, says Dr. Donato, and immigrant family members began to settle there.

Ironically, New Orleans has prided itself on its gumbo-mix of cultures, but much of that mixing has been between whites and blacks, says Donato. "This [influx of Hispanics] is going to create some new challenges for the city," she says. But "there is a certain tolerance and understanding of diversity in New Orleans that perhaps other cities new to foreign immigrants wouldn't have," she adds.

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