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Undocumented immigrants flock to jobs on Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS—A few weeks ago, Luis Diaz was wearing himself out for $5 an hour in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Now Diaz, like many undocumented Hispanic immigrants, has landed a piece of the largest demolition and reconstruction project in modern U.S. history at double his usual salary, plus meals and lodging.

While critics complain that his job should go to local workers or those displaced by the hurricane, Diaz is making plans to stay as long as the work lasts or until "La Migra"—U.S. immigration—starts cracking down.

"Maybe they will come and make us leave," said Diaz, who came to United States from Veracruz, Mexico, about nine months ago. "But if they do, well, there's nothing you can do about it."

Welcome to the Gulf Coast post-Katrina, the nation's latest immigration magnet.

Lured here by the promise of fat paychecks and an emergency federal decree temporarily suspending immigration-enforcement sanctions, they sleep in tents, crowded hotel rooms and sometimes even in parking lots. They're hauling trash and cutting trees, fastening tarps to damaged roofs and tearing out wet Sheetrock from thousands of soaked buildings.

It started out as a trickle. But over time, Hurricane Katrina has unleashed a flood of immigrants—some legal, some not—into New Orleans and other coastal communities from Florida, Texas, California, North Carolina and other immigrant-rich states.

Many are natives of Mexico or Central America, but some come from as far away as Brazil. Hundreds of Latino immigrants could be found last week crammed into the Best Western in downtown New Orleans, where LVI Services, an environmental remediation company based in New York, was packing them in three and four to a room.

Hundreds more LVI workers were staying at a Shoney's Inn in nearby Metairie, said company representatives in New Orleans, who didn't want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs for talking to reporters. Calls placed to LVI weren't returned.

Already, critics are complaining that they're losing work to cheaper, imported labor, even as immigrant advocates say the foreign workers themselves are being exploited.

At a recent seminar about the rebuilding efforts, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin asked the crowd: "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?"

In one public case last week, 75 union electricians held a news conference to show off their termination letters from a job site at the Louisiana National Guard's Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse, south of downtown New Orleans. They said a contractor had sent 120 immigrant workers from Houston to replace them. A spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard, Neal Martin, said he hadn't heard of any such incident.

Gary Warren, the political director for the Louisiana Regional Carpenters Council, said his group had begun receiving regular complaints from union members who'd been laid off by contractors and replaced with immigrant workers.

"Nobody wants me to say this because it's not politically correct, but they are calling them `Texans.' What they are really using is a lot of illegal labor," Warren said. "It's an issue of people who lost everything being laid off in favor of people from out of state."

Life isn't always rosy for the immigrants, either. Twice in recent weeks, local police, backed by federal officers, have rounded up Hispanic-looking men at Red Cross shelters in Mississippi and questioned if they were hurricane victims or just helping themselves to free shelter and food.

Bill Chandler, the president of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, said many Latino workers, besides being threatened with deportation, had become hurricane victims of another sort: left helpless after the allure of good wages and shelter vanished in a haze of broken promises from unscrupulous contractors.

He said his group recently found 20 to 30 workers, employed by a cleaning crew, sleeping on the floor in trailers with no food or electricity.

"The biggest thing now seems to be the mushrooming groups of workers here who are cleaning up ... and are being treated horribly," he said.

Employers have little to fear in hiring illegal workers. Even before Katrina hit, work-site immigration enforcement was lagging.

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office in August found that the number of fines issued to employers for knowingly hiring illegal workers has plummeted, from 417 in 1999 to just three last year. Arrests of unauthorized workers dropped 84 percent from 1999 to 2003, the report found.

Katrina made the threat of employer sanctions even more remote.

On Sept. 6, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would "refrain from initiating employer-sanction enforcement action for the next 45 days for civil violations ... with regards to individuals who are currently unable to provide identity and eligibility documents." The department will review the policy and make further recommendations at the end of that period.

The competition for immigrant workers can be fierce, even if they end up being abandoned later.

Marco Topete of Texas-based Tops Contractor Services had plans two weeks ago to give Sheetrock repair work in New Orleans to seven migrants, sent from Houston with $130 for gas and food.

They had planned to meet at a gas station in the Metairie area, but Topete lost contact with them for about 15 minutes. When he caught up with them, it was too late: Contractors who were installing blue tarps on roofs for the Army Corps of Engineers had hired them on the spot, he said.

Topete said he confronted the contractor for "stealing" his workers; he was stunned by the man's response. The contractor produced $130 from a wad of bills in his pocket and gave it to Topete. He then offered to give Topete $100 for every additional migrant worker he could produce.

"`Welcome to the new slave trade,'" Topete recalled the contractor saying. "I thought it was really mean."

In the end, the workers called Topete and said they were going to Mississippi because conditions where they were staying were unsafe, unclean and hot.

Regardless of the often primitive conditions they endure and the harsh work they sometimes perform, immigrants will continue to be drawn to New Orleans, said immigration expert Gregory Rodriguez, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan New America Foundation, a public policy center in Washington.

Throughout U.S. history, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, China, Mexico and elsewhere have been used to complete huge infrastructure projects, from the transcontinental railroad to the New York subway system.

"In a weird way, this tragedy will make it a magnet for opportunity seekers," Rodriguez said. "It's the irony of tragedies."

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(Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Davis for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-IMMIGRANTS

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