Earlier this week, the Colorlines blog reported that Louisiana St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens set up checkpoints and called federal agents to BP’s cleanup sites because “illegal aliens” are building “criminal enterprises”—just like they did after Katrina. It’s unclear exactly what sort of “criminal enterprises” Stephens is referring to, but what is known and widely documented is the fact that immigrants helped rebuild New Orleans from the ground up after Hurricane Katrina.
Almost 50 percent of the hurricane-repair workers in the New Orleans were Latinos and 54 percent of them undocumented. While immigration hawks were quick to accuse undocumented immigrants of stealing jobs from U.S. citizens, it didn’t square with the fact that more than half of New Orleans’ residents abandoned their decimated city after Hurricane Katrina hit and rebuilt their lives elsewhere. In their absence, undocumented laborers worked side-by-side legal immigrants and U.S. citizens to get the city back on its feet. Latino workers were directly responsible for making 86.9% of households habitable after Hurricane Katrina in six parishes surrounding New Orleans in 2008. By 2008, the purchasing power of Louisiana’s Latino buying power totaled $4.0 billion—an increase of 238.1% since 1990 A study found that that if all unauthorized immigrants were removed from Louisiana, the state would lose $947 million in expenditures, $421 million in economic output, and approximately 6,660 jobs.
Hurricane Katrina isn’t the only natural disaster that immigrants have responded to. In 2008, Hurricane Ike once again highlighted the nation’s dependence on immigrant labor. As always, immigration hardliners were quick to criticize the role foreign labor was playing in rebuilding parts of Texas. However, despite the fact that the nation was quickly heading into a serious recession, honest employers pointed out that there simply weren’t enough workers to fill the jobs. “We don’t hire anyone who’s illegal…We want to keep it local. We want to use people here in Texas, but there’s so much work,” business owner Chase Duhon told the Houston Chronicle after he had trouble finding legal local workers to help with hurricane cleanup. Leigh Ganchan, a Houston immigration attorney pointed out to the paper, “Our nation is more vulnerable…meaning we need people to help us rebuild our infrastructure after major disasters like this.”
In 2008, New Orleans was named the most violent city. However, contrary to what Stephens may imply, the rise in violence was largely attributed to criminals preying on the undocumented immigrants themselves. A “spree” of armed robberies against immigrants was motivated by the fact that those without papers are less likely to receive adequate assistance by the police and even less likely to even report the crime in the first place. Stephens might be better off informing recent immigrant workers of their rights and working to gain the trust of and establish a productive relationship with the new immigrant community.
Workers who have been displaced by the BP oil fiasco should undeniably have the first shot at jobs. BP officials claim they are training more than 4,500 unemployed workers in three affected states, including Louisiana. So far, that’s not enough. In the end, as Tyler Falk of Grist points out, there’s something seriously wrong with the fact that “British Petroleum can legally come to the Gulf and devastate an entire ecosystem and the economy it supports, but when “illegal” immigrants come to clean up the mess, they are treated like criminals.” Immigration issues aside, it’s BP’s responsibility to provide restitution to the workers and families whose livelihood they have destroyed and to clean up the mess they created without inflicting any more harm or economic suffering than they already have.