Immigrants reshape post-disaster New Orleans
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Wed Dec 24 14:12:07 UTC 2008
Immigrants reshape post-disaster New Orleans
By JOHN MORENO GONZALES – 18 hours ago
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — On Friday nights, day laborers form two lines at a
bustling liquor store in the French Quarter: one is to dutifully wire
money to their homelands, the other is to buy $2.17 beers that
medicate their lives in New Orleans. "Life is hard here, harder than
any place I've been in the U.S.," said Jose Campos, 37, who came here
from El Salvador, by way of Florida. He pedaled his bicycle to Unique
Grocery, a cavernous establishment off Bourbon Street that offers the
wire service through bulletproof glass and tall-boy beers from icy
bins. "It's a dangerous place, a bad place," he said. "But when you
can find work, it's all worth it."
In the three years since Hurricane Katrina, immigrant laborers drawn
to the construction and service industry jobs created by the storm
have transformed this rebuilding city. In an accelerated version of
the already rapid Latino migration to the South, they are forging
their own support networks, establishing businesses, packing churches
and starting families — a process that usually takes a decade or more.
"There's no place in the world like New Orleans in terms of how rapid
the population change has been," said Margie McHugh, co-director of
immigration integration policy at the Migration Policy Institute, a
nonpartisan think-tank in Washington D.C.
But in a city whose infrastructure already lacked public services to
support its pre-Katrina population, let alone a Spanish-speaking
pilgrimage, they have also become preferred victims of the city's
infamous crime rate. And, far from wives and children, many have
wrestled with the Big Easy temptations of alcohol and drugs. "It's
always difficult to be a trailblazer, particularly at a time when New
Orleans is still struggling to rebuild from an awful blow," said
McHugh. Since Katrina, the Hispanic population of New Orleans has
risen from 15,000, or 3.3 percent of the pre-storm population, to
50,000, 15.2 percent of the current population, according to the New
Orleans Economic Development office.
A 2006 study by Tulane University and the University of California,
Berkeley, found that nearly half the rebuilding work force was Latino.
Fifty-four percent were working illegally in the United States, and
nearly 90 percent of illegal workers lived in the U.S. before coming
to town. Beyond the statistics, there are the offices of Dr. Kevin
Work, who has forged a business by delivering a generation of Latino
children to the city: "Thirty to forty deliveries a month," he says.
Work was seeing so many Spanish-speaking patients at the hospital
where he worked that he decided to open two prenatal offices with his
own money. The doctor, who has hired bilingual staff and learned a few
halting Spanish phrases himself, estimates he has delivered more than
1,000 children from immigrant mothers since Katrina struck in August
He offers payment plans, and those who cannot pay are covered by
government programs. The year before Katrina, Emergency Medicaid
expenses were $1.7 million in metro New Orleans. It was the common
childbirth benefit used by recent immigrants, but provided no prenatal
care. This year the program expanded to include prenatal care and five
times as many patients, ballooning costs to $7.8 million.
"By incorporating illegal immigrants into our normal institutions this
way, we legitimize their status," said Mark Krikorian, executive
director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C.
think-tank that advocates for stricter immigration policy.
Dawn Love, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Children's Health Insurance
Program, said prenatal programs ultimately save taxpayers because
healthier infants need fewer services later in life.
Claudia Cruz, 30, came to post-Katrina New Orleans from Honduras,
joining her U.S.-born husband, Miguel Vasquez, 41. Cruz leaned back on
an examination bed recently, while Work waved a sonogram wand over the
slope of her stomach.
"He's eighty-five percent sure it's a girl," she revealed to Vasquez
in the waiting room. "If it's another girl, the name's going to be
Andrea," he answered, holding his first New Orleans-born daughter,
But for every hopeful family, there are others who feel imprisoned by the city.
One is a gaunt, 32-year-old man from Oaxaca, Mexico who spends his
days on a dingy mattress, recovering from a bullet wound.
The man, who asked that his name be withheld because he is in the
country illegally, was walking from a nearby discount store at the end
of a work week. It was an opening for armed robbers who target
immigrants because they are known to be paid in cash and are reluctant
to report crimes.
After the man fled with his pay, the robbers chased him down his
block, into his apartment, and fired three rounds. Two found the
living room wall, one, a narrow torso now covered by bandages and
"They were just boys, maybe eighteen," said the victim, who was
treated at a local emergency room, where he had no choice but to
report the crime.
The New Orleans Police Department is investigating the case, one of a
spree of armed robberies against immigrants.
A November study found New Orleans to be the most violent city in
America, and the department will be adding a need for more
Spanish-speaking officers to a list of needs.
"If we find ways to educate workers, say 'Hey, look, don't carry so
much money,'" the crimes against immigrants can be reduced, said
Janssen Valencia, a Spanish-speaking officer assigned in September to
start an NOPD immigrant outreach.
Valencia has been making the rounds on Spanish radio shows, urging
immigrants to report crimes without deportation consequences. He
acknowledges that even if immigrants step forward, the department has
fewer than a dozen patrol officers who can take an accurate report in
"That's just not good enough," said Valencia.
One answer to the language barrier has been an investment in a school
that immerses immigrant children in English instruction.
At Esperanza Charter School, no questions are asked about the
immigration status of families. The school teaches from kindergarten
to 8th grade. The director is lobbying for the district to start a
high school and extend the specialized academic path all the way to
"This school would not have even been possible before Katrina,"
Director Melinda Martinez said.
With 60 percent of its students Latino, 30 percent African American
and 10 percent white, the school has a waiting list about 15-students
deep in each grade. Some never enroll because of the transient lives
of their parents.
"Sometimes, a child is never seen or heard from again," said Martinez,
who believes the parents were either deported, or packed up for a
For those who remain in New Orleans, straddling a troubled city and a
troubled homeland has led to disillusionment, sometimes dependency.
The director of the Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse for greater New
Orleans said the nonprofit had about a half dozen Spanish-speaking
clients before Katrina. In the last year, the number increased to 50.
In response, the organization has established yet another Hispanic
outreach in New Orleans, this one to educate youth on the dangers of
"We have young people who have not seen their parents in five years,"
said Italia Castillo Duran, who directs the effort. "We have parents
who have one child here, and another back in their homeland."
At one time, Arturo, 33, dreamed of providing an American future to
his daughter, Beberly Esther, 7. But three years after he arrived
illegally from Guatemala, construction work has dried up and he has
little money to send home.
Arturo, who requested his last name be withheld for fear of
deportation, said he has managed to resist the temptations that have
"A lot of people start getting addicted. Maybe they have a wife,
wondering, waiting," he said. "You can lose your family at home. While
you lose yourself in New Orleans."
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