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Report of Police Crackdowns on Latinos after Katrina

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Report of Police Crackdowns on Latinos after Katrina

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Report of Police Crackdowns on Latinos after Katrina

Report of Police Crackdowns on Latinos after Katrina

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Thousands of Latino workers, both documented and undocumented, fled the U.S. Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Now there are reports of discrimination by law enforcement officials, harassing suspected illegal immigrants at a Red Cross shelter in Long Beach, Miss. Contractors are also suspected of bringing undocumented workers into disaster areas for rebuilding projects, and dumping them at shelters as a form of subsidized housing. Jason DeRose reports.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. We're back with DAY TO DAY.

The Red Cross reports that it has provided more than 3.2 million overnight stays for survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The sheltered along the Gulf Coast include many Latino workers and their families, and now civil rights groups in southern Mississippi say some Latino storm victims at Red Cross Shelters have also suffered discrimination from local law enforcement. NPR's Jason DeRose traveled to Harrison County, Mississippi, for this report.

JASON DeROSE reporting:

Evenings along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi are not filled with the sound of crickets or waves lapping at the beach, but rather the hum of diesel generators and RV engines. The side yard playground of Pass Road Baptist Church in Gulfport has become the makeshift campsite of half a dozen undocumented immigrants. Jose Luis Rivera(ph) was, until last week, camped at a Red Cross shelter in nearby Long Beach. Rivera says he returned to the shelter one evening after work to find uniformed officers frisking anyone at the shelter who looked Mexican. Then, says Rivera, the officers told him he had to get out.

Mr. JOSE LUIS RIVERA: (Through Translator) They gave me three options. The options were, one, I could go to Atlanta, Georgia; the other, I could go to Houston, Texas; and the other one, I could go straight to Mexico. They gave us 48 hours at first, and then they switched it back to 24 hours, so the deadline would have been the next day at 12 we would have had to have left.

DeROSE: Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Rivera worked construction along Mississippi's Gulf Coast and lived in the now-devastated town of Pass Christian. He admits he's in the US illegally. David Mesa(ph) was also an undocumented worker at the Long Beach shelter. The storm destroyed his home, too, and he says he doesn't understand why the place in which he sought refuge turned him out.

Mr. DAVID MESA: (Through Translator) Supposedly, a shelter is for the people who are victims of a hurricane, which we all were.

DeROSE: Mesa, Rivera and the others camped outside Pass Road Baptist Church say they're legitimate victims and should have been allowed to stay at the Long Beach shelter regardless of their immigration status. Red Cross manager Scott Steiner agrees.

Mr. SCOTT STEINER (Red Cross Shelter Manager): The deportation threats or whatever were not legitimate.

DeROSE: He's standing outside the West Harrison Civic Center in Long Beach, Mississippi, which has been the temporary home of many Gulf Coast residents left homeless by Katrina.

Mr. STEINER: We have several bilingual staff members, and we were able to try and assure the Spanish-speaking community that they were welcome with the Red Cross and no one was going to be deported.

DeROSE: And according to Red Cross policy, immigration status is irrelevant when it comes to who's eligible for shelter after a catastrophe. Harrison County Sheriff George Payne Jr. says he was called to the shelter not because of immigration issues, but because of possible drug use and domestic violence.

Sheriff GEORGE PAYNE Jr. (Harrison County): You know, we're trying to maintain order after a catastrophe, not harass people. But the bottom line is we're going to enforce the law. And people are welcome to be there and to work, but they're going to follow the rules just like everybody else. And if they don't follow the rules, then they're going to have problems.

DeROSE: The Red Cross believes their facilities are being misused by businesses and contractors.

(Soundbite of table being set)

DeROSE: Inside the Long Beach shelter, volunteers are setting out bottles of Tabasco sauce as they prepare to serve dinner. Last week, the shelter was housing nearly 200 people, many of whom were Latino, some of whom were undocumented and some of whom may not have been victims of Katrina at all. Red Cross spokesperson Amy Alderman(ph) says her organization is not concerned about the immigration status of legitimate victims, rather...

Ms. AMY ALDERMAN (Red Cross Spokesperson): We do understand that transient workers are occupying space at the shelter, and this does put a heavy burden on our system, which is run by donated money from the American people and people from all over the world.

DeROSE: And by transient workers, you mean also undocumented workers?

Ms. ALDERMAN: No, we mean people who are coming from houses which have not been damaged by the hurricane. And we are verifying that through their addresses, by driver's license and through the Department of Motorized Vehicles.

DeROSE: Alderman says shady contractors are trucking in illegal immigrants from other states, such as Texas and Florida, to do construction during the day and then dumping those workers at Red Cross shelters at night as a means of free housing.

Victoria Cintra of MIRA, the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, has spent the last month traveling in an RV through southern Mississippi investigating complaints by immigrants who say they've been discriminated against. Cintra says law enforcement and the Red Cross are guilty of racial discrimination in this case.

Ms. VICTORIA CINTRA (MIRA): And they didn't know whether these people were documented or undocumented immigrants. They really did not know that. They clumped them all in one pile because they were of a different skin color and because they were Hispanic and told them, `You have to leave in 48 hours or you're going to be deported.'

DeROSE: Cintra is most concerned about the well-being of immigrants, legal and illegal, and she says law enforcement shouldn't be going after the people in the shelters, but rather those businesses that are misusing them.

Ms. CINTRA: And they need to target the contractors, not the workers. These people are coming to work to clean up our city that is messed up by a disaster. They're coming to do work that most people wouldn't do for the pay that they're getting paid. So these Red Cross shelters need to target the contractor and not the people that are coming to do the work.

Sheriff PAYNE: We're not looking into it 'cause, quite frankly, we've got enough to do.

DeROSE: Again, Harrison County Sheriff George Payne Jr.

Sheriff PAYNE: What we're trying to do is, number one, just enforce the law and maintain order.

DeROSE: Sheriff Payne says given all the problems wrought by Hurricane Katrina, he can only respond to specific calls of illegal activity, such as those of drug use and domestic violence at the Long Beach Red Cross shelter. He says he doesn't have time to investigate the vague and difficult-to-prove allegations, whether they come from immigrants themselves or the Red Cross, of contractors using such shelters as quasicorporate housing. Jason DeRose, NPR News.

CHADWICK: And next week along the Gulf Coast, we'll be checking in with the Smith family. They had to evacuate from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. They're now trying to get their lives back together. Reporter Josh Levs joins Mr. Selwyn Smith as he makes his way back to his New Orleans home for the first time since the hurricane struck.

And for full coverage of the hurricane's aftermath, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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