New Orleans Sees Rise in Latino Population

August 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Every day, Hispanic men gather on this busy street corner, calling out to passing cars and trucks, hoping somebody will hire them for a day’s labor. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of Latinos have come to New Orleans for work, and work they have found.

Every construction site we visited had a majority of Hispanic workers; most earn somewhere between $6 and $12 an hour. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but by some estimates the Hispanic population in the area may have doubled or tripled, while the overall population has fallen by more than a third.

Ed Blakely, the man in charge of the city’s recovery effort, says the Latino population is vital to the success of rebuilding New Orleans.

ED BLAKELY, New Orleans Office of Recovery Management: We have been bending over backwards to make sure our Hispanic population is treated well, even if they’re undocumented people. So I think it’s very important for us to incorporate those populations.

When the work is over, a lot of them will go back home or go to other places. But right now, they’re a very important workforce. They’re good citizens. We don’t have a lot of crime problems from them. And they’re paying taxes like everyone else every time they buy something, so we want to treat them right.

TOM BEARDEN: But many Hispanics say they haven’t been treated right. They point to action taken against so-called taco trucks, mobile canteens serving Mexican-style food, often at construction sites. Last month, nearby Jefferson Parish voted to effectively ban the trucks from its streets, saying it was trying to clean up the “makeshift” conditions that sprang up after Katrina.

Jose Rios came to New Orleans two months after the hurricane. He now owns a small restaurant in addition to a taco truck. He thinks the Jefferson Parish ordinance is an attempt to get rid of Hispanic people, not the trucks.

JOSE RIOS, New Orleans Resident: Before Katrina, they don’t have many, many Hispanic communities. After Katrina, you now have more Hispanic people that come to the city. And some people, they don’t like that. So I guess this is the reason they’re trying to kick them out by the wheels, because they don’t like to see many Hispanic people here in the city.

Newcomers to New Orleans

Reaching out to Latino neighbors

TOM BEARDEN: Diaz has just formed a nonprofit organization called Puentes New Orleans, or Bridges New Orleans. He hopes to reach out to new Latino residents and help them assimilate in their new city.

LUCAS DIAZ: The more we can promote just educating them, this idea of, you know, get to know where you live, get to know your neighbors, get to know what's out there, and don't be afraid of speaking the English language, because most of them are afraid that they'll be laughed at. Some of them may know some English, but they'd be afraid to practice it. So we can promote, just come out and engage, we can start sort of eliminate some of those fears. And that's a long-term process, but it has to begin.

TOM BEARDEN: What Diaz calls "police harassment" usually happens near day labor pick-up sites. This officer, who was monitoring the workers from a nearby parking lot, would not talk on-camera but said the department was just responding to complaints, enforcing loitering laws, and breaking up fights among some who may have been drinking.

CAPT. BOB BARDY, New Orleans Police Department: How's it going?

TOM BEARDEN: Sixth District Police Captain Bob Bardy said he doesn't know of any police harassment, but he does admit the police are having to make some adjustments to the new population.

CAPT. BOB BARDY: This is not a short-term situation. This is going to be with us for a long time. This is going to be with us forever. You know, so it's very important that we educate our officers in how to speak Spanish and communication barriers is a major problem right now. And we're making sure that we are having translators available. We are modifying our measures and our steps to actually accommodate the people that are here.

Compensating Latino workers

TOM BEARDEN: Many Hispanics also complain that their hard work doesn't always pay off.

A group of first-year law students from Tulane has been documenting their complaints, asking the men how they've been treated and mistreated by contractors.

Advocates say often contractors take advantage of the workers' fears about immigration enforcement. Samuel Escobar came to New Orleans 18 months ago from Honduras.

SAMUEL ESCOBAR, New Orleans Resident (through translator): What happens is you'll go to work for someone, and then, in the afternoon, when you finish the work, they say they're going to call the police. I've had this happen to me at least five times.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you know how much you're owed roughly?

SAMUEL ESCOBAR (through translator): They owe me about $6,000.

TOM BEARDEN: Saket Soni is the director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.

SAKET SONI, New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice: Workers are still owed thousands of dollars in back wages. Contractors are stealing the work and stealing the labor of workers, not paying them at the end. Contractors often do not give workers any kind of safety equipment. They don't give them protective gear. Which means, in the aftermath of Katrina, workers are working in awfully toxic conditions.

TOM BEARDEN: In spite of all these hardships, most of the workers we spoke to said overall the work was so lucrative they didn't want to leave, and they hoped that, in time, life in the Big Easy would get a little easier for them.