Katrina Cleanup Puts Focus on Latino Workers Drawn by huge demand for workers after Hurricane Katrina, Latinos have come from Texas, Florida and Mexico. Some local residents say they've lost jobs to lower-wage, Spanish-speaking laborers.

Katrina Cleanup Puts Focus on Latino Workers

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

At least 10 undocumented immigrants have been barred from rebuilding a naval base near New Orleans. Immigration officials are investigating how they got those jobs. Last week, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu said immigration agents had detained as many as 100 undocumented workers for a Halliburton subcontractor doing Hurricane Katrina recovery work. Local workers are upset by the number of people coming from out of the country and out of the state. From New Orleans, NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

In downtown New Orleans, electrician Mike Morenz stands with tears in his eyes.

Mr. MIKE MORENZ (Electrician): I get kind of emotional about it.

DEL BARCO: He says his crew of workers, all from Louisiana, were hired at $22 an hour plus benefits to set up a tent city for soldiers policing New Orleans.

Mr. MORENZ: We started off with 75 people and most of whom didn't have houses left.

DEL BARCO: Morenz says those workers were soon replaced for about half the wages by unskilled, Spanish-speaking laborers.

Mr. MORENZ: All our work force you see is all Mexicans. They just come in by the drove. They're overrunning our city.

DEL BARCO: All around New Orleans and the region, Latino workers are tearing down moldy Sheetrock, cleaning out festering carpets, patching up roofs.

(Soundbite of construction work; beeping noise)

DEL BARCO: I'm standing at the Jefferson Parish landfill. It's a dump. Actually, it looks more like a cemetery of refrigerators that were discarded from the houses that were damaged during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And this is where you'll find a lot of the Latino workers who are doing some of the dirtiest, nastiest work in town, unloading these refrigerators, then cleaning out weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks worth of rotten food. There are birds buzzing overhead, and even the protective mask that's over my nose and mouth doesn't hide the putrid stench.

Mr. JOSE CANDARA(ph) (Worker): (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: `It smells terrible,' agrees worker Jose Candara, who was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. He's been earning $200 a day, sometimes working 12 hours a day, hauling refrigerators to the dump.

(Soundbite of work)

DEL BARCO: Luis Esquino(ph) wears a hard hat shaped like a cowboy hat but no face mask to unload refrigerators. He's also here from Texas, where he was hired by a subcontractor.

Mr. LUIS ESQUINO (Worker): There's nobody else who wants to do the job. There's all kinds of work over here.

DEL BARCO: Many of the Latino workers like Esquino are US citizens, others legal immigrants and some admit they're undocumented. Mexican national Jacinto Cardenas(ph) is making $17.50 an hour to clean out the basement of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the French Quarter.

(Soundbite of work)

DEL BARCO: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. JACINTO CARDENAS (Worker): No. No.

DEL BARCO: Cardenas says he and the others in his crew never had to show the employer any official immigration documents. Whatever their immigration status, they say they were lured by the promise of abundant work. Twenty-three-year-old Eddie Gonzales, who is a US citizen, drove his truck from San Antonio to haul trash and demolish private homes.

Mr. EDDIE GONZALES (Worker): I'm probably making about a thousand dollars a day.

DEL BARCO: A thousand a day?

Mr. GONZALES: For myself, from 500 to a thousand a day, for what I do here.

DEL BARCO: And back in San Antonio, how much do you make?

Mr. GONZALES: Oh, I would probably make about 500 a week, yeah. A big difference, a real big difference. That's why I'm going to try to be here as long as I can, you know. Give 'em help, too. Get paid and give them help at the same time.

DEL BARCO: Gonzales says he's heard the locals' criticism about bringing in workers from out of state and out of the country.

Mr. GONZALES: If they're not doing it, somebody's got to do it for them, you know. They live here; they should be doing it themselves.

DEL BARCO: Some New Orleans residents who want to work here say there's nowhere to live, but many of the Latino workers have been pitching tents in empty parking lots. At one closed-down gas station in New Orleans, Antonio Villafuerte(ph) and Carlos Montez are reduced to fitful nights sleeping in the cabs of the big rigs they drove from Texas.

Unidentified Man #1: We came over here, we didn't have a place to live. We stayed in the trucks, but we want to work. That's not an excuse, finding a place to stay or whatever. That's just a cheap excuse.

DEL BARCO: In some cases, have they not even paid you at all?

Unidentified Man #2: We work all day. At the end of the day, we try to find the boss, but he say, `Well, tomorrow. I'll sign it tomorrow.'

(Soundbite of traffic noise)

DEL BARCO: Some contractors have been putting up their workers in camper trailers or hurricane-damaged hotels, sometimes cramming them together in moldy rooms. At one hotel in Gulfport, Mississippi, Jose Swatto(ph) pulls up his shirt sleeve to show a rash on his arms, the result, he believes, of airborne asbestos in the homes and buildings where he's been working.

Mr. JOSE SWATTO (Worker): (Spanish spoken)

DEL BARCO: Swatto says he's scared about the long-term effects of working here with possibly toxic materials.

Ms. VICKY CINTRA (Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance): It's open season on day laborers.

DEL BARCO: Vicky Cintra heads the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, perhaps the only such advocacy group in the entire Gulf region. She says it's employers who are paying lower wages and providing poor working conditions.

Ms. CINTRA: People say that it's the laborer's fault, and it's not the laborer's fault, you know. We're directing our anger and our frustration against the wrong crowd of people. They're just here to work, and they're being dumped here, they're being abused, they're being neglected.

DEL BARCO: For years now Honduran and Mexican immigrants have been living in New Orleans making up a small percentage of the city's population, but it's unlikely that the new workers here will change the ethnic complexion of the area forever. Most say they'll only stay as long as there's work. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, New Orleans.

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