Immigrants Rush to New Orleans as Contractors Fight for Workers

As many evacuees stay away, Latin American workers move in, lured by soaring pay. They could change the face of the city.

October 10, 2005
By Peter Pae

Los Angeles Times

Most of the signs are handwritten and simply worded, such as "Workers Wanted" or "Need 50 Laborers Now!"

Word has gotten out and each morning day laborers — who come from Central America and Mexico by way of California, Texas and Arizona — gather on street corners in the Kenner and Metairie neighborhoods on the western edge of the city.

Lured by jobs paying $15 to $17 an hour, the Spanish-speaking day laborers have flooded into New Orleans to haul out debris, clear downed trees, put in drywall and perform other tasks as rebuilding takes hold in the city. Specialized roofers can make $300 a day.

Contractors know the new day-labor pickup spots. By noon, a tree-trimming firm hires the last available hand on Williams Boulevard near Interstate 10.

"We've never had Hispanic day laborer sites. That's a totally new phenomenon," said David Ware, a longtime New Orleans immigration lawyer.

With 140,000 homes destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is undergoing the nation's largest reconstruction effort and its new workforce is largely Latino. No one knows how many immigrants have descended here since Katrina ravaged the city five weeks ago, but their presence is visible throughout the city.

Abimael and Filegonia Diaz may have been among the first wave of newcomers.

Since Sept. 12, the couple has been clearing debris, washing windows and sweeping floors at a hotel in downtown New Orleans.

For six years, Abimael worked in Nashville as a day laborer and sent money to Filegonia and their three young children in Mexico.

Within days after the hurricane hit New Orleans, Filegonia joined her husband in New Orleans to work for a construction company that is providing a room at the hotel plus three meals a day.

Last week, the couple had their first day off from work and hitched a ride with a construction crew to Kenner Supermarket y Restaurante, a gathering spot for Latinos on the west side of the city. They celebrated with their first Mexican meal in the city, before wiring half of their paycheck to their family back home.

"We'll stay here because I think the job will last a long time," Abimael Diaz said, as he and Filegonia downed a large bowl of beef soup. "If we can make enough money, we would like to buy a house and bring our children to New Orleans."

For building contractors like Perry Custer, who owns a small construction firm in New Orleans, the newcomers are a welcome addition. Custer is rebuilding six apartment buildings and office complexes. It's enough work to last a year, but after the hurricane most of his workers fled.

He has been hiring and now has 23 workers installing drywall and doing odd jobs. Most of them are from Mexico, Custer said, and he needs at least 10 more.

Recently, he sent his foreman to Atlanta and Houston to round up extra help, "and he could only get two workers," Custer said. "Everybody's fighting for workers."

The demand is so great that Custer doubled the salary for a former Latino employee who quit to take his family to New York before the hurricane, but who has since returned to New Orleans. Custer initially offered him $15 an hour — now the going entry-level pay — but the ex-employee balked. After a 15-minute phone conversation, Custer agreed to pay him $17 an hour.

The need for laborers has already spawned a new local industry.

Issac Oro, a roofer in New Orleans before the hurricane, runs a temporary employment service of sorts for laborers, supplying workers to construction firms.

Known as a broker by contractors, Oro said he had 30 to 40 workers available each day for work. He provides housing and meals to the workers, who share a cut of their wages with him.

"I could use another 20 to 30 people," said Oro, who immigrated to New Orleans from Honduras in 1982. "I was making good money doing roofing, but this is better."

Contractors say one advantage in using Oro is that they don't have to deal with paperwork or check to see whether the workers are in the U.S. legally.

"There is a 'don't ask, don't tell,' mentality right now," Custer said. He added that there didn't seem to be any effort to crack down on illegal immigrants. "If they do who will rebuild New Orleans?"

"We got people coming in from all over who are obviously Hispanic," said Romualdo Gonzalez, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans. "If you go downtown and see the crew cleaning up, 80% are Mexicans."

The influx of Latino workers is raising concern among city officials. Last week, Associated Press reported, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin asked local businesspeople, "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?"

According to census figures, in 2000 there were about 15,000 Hispanics in New Orleans, or 3% of the population. Latino leaders and academic experts say the newcomers are likely to change the face of the city.

"They're making so much money they are thinking of staying," said Arnesto Schweikert, a New Orleans native who operates the city's only Spanish-language radio station, KGLA. "I've got two [Latino] workers from Dallas cleaning up my house and they are not planning to go back."

Even with the recent influx of Latino laborers, workers are in such short supply that most New Orleans fast-food restaurants are struggling to reopen.

More than two-thirds of Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits 43 restaurants in New Orleans remain closed because of labor and supply shortages. The chain is offering cashiers and cooks $9 an hour, up from $5.50 before Katrina hit.

Burger King is also hurting. It has reopened about half of its 54 restaurants in the New Orleans area but still needs 500 more staffers. So Burger King is promising a $6,000 signing bonus, to be paid in monthly installments, to anyone who works a full year.

Even after the construction work dries up, which isn't expected for a year or two, there will be a huge demand for waiters, cooks, janitors and maids — and Latinos are likely to fill many of those jobs.

"They may be the new service class in New Orleans," said Lawrence Powell, a historian at Tulane University. "It only takes a few people to put down roots and begin the chain of migration. I'm wondering if we're seeing the first signs of a population swap."

For decades, the city's low-wage service industry was dominated by African Americans, many of whom lived in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina and evacuated to other cities. According to a poll conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, less than half the Katrina evacuees living in Houston-area shelters plan to return.

"I don't know how many African Americans are left in the city, but it's not that many," Powell said. "There is not enough labor to rebuild the city, and filling the vacuum are the Hispanics."

Fueling the new wave of Latino residents in New Orleans will be the availability of low-cost housing, as many locals abandon homes that have been damaged by the hurricane. The newcomers will stay, said Ware, the immigration lawyer, "because they can buy distressed property pretty cheaply."