Hard Times in the Big Easy

Hard Times in the Big Easy

The American economy cannot function without migrant labor. The paradox is the country’s political culture cannot function without scapegoating immigrants.


"Just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work," wrote John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley. "I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat."

Almost fifty years later the economy still cannot function without migrant labor. "Because natural population increase is unlikely to provide sufficient workers, immigration will play a critical role in sustaining the labor force growth needed to maintain overall economic growth," the Immigration Policy Center concluded in November.

The paradox is that the country’s political culture cannot function without scapegoating migrant laborers either. In December the House passed the Sensenbrenner bill, one of the most draconian pieces of anti-immigrant legislation in a generation. Meanwhile the vigilante Minutemen, no longer content to "patrol" the borders looking for illegal immigrants to "arrest," have taken to chasing day laborers at pickup sites, shouting, "This is America, not Mexico!" Every weeknight CNN airs xenophobic diatribes from Lou Dobbs posing as the friend of the common people.

No wonder two-thirds of Americans think illegal immigration is "very" or "extremely" serious and three-quarters believe not enough is being done to protect the nation’s borders, according to a Time poll. Americans, it seems, love immigration. It’s just immigrants they can’t stand. The principle is central to the mythologies of personal reinvention, social meritocracy, ethnic diversity and class fluidity that lie at the core of the American dream. But the people themselves are often regarded as anathema to it.

This is not new. During the mid-1800s Irish Catholics met severe discrimination. Then there was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, and during World War II, Japanese internment. Since 9/11 Muslims have been victimized for security reasons. And for the economy, there are Hispanics. So we are left despising the very people on whom we depend, and immigrants are left with the worst of all worlds–economically marginalized and socially demonized. Vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, opportunistic politicians and racist hatemongers, they work simply to exist in a place where their very existence has become an affront.

Welcome to New Orleans. For this is precisely the contradiction currently unfolding in the rebuilding of the Crescent City. Since Hurricane Katrina the city’s Hispanic population has ballooned from 3 percent to an estimated 30 percent. Every morning at Lee Circle hundreds of day laborers gather under the watchful eye of the Confederate general and wait for work. Every night hundreds sleep in a tent city in City Park, Scout Island, where one standpipe and three toilets serve about 200 people.

Globalization brought them here. A system in which one person’s overtime is another family’s weekly wage will push from despair as much as pull from hope. "You can have a lot of love for your children, but it cannot fill their stomachs," says Mercedes Sanchez, standing outside her tarpaulin home in the tent city. "In Mexico I made 200 pesos a week. I can make that in two hours here." But while capital can roam free, the movement of laborers is restricted and therefore perilous. Sanchez paid $3,000 to trek three days and nights through the Arizona desert. Along the way she was stripped naked by bandits and robbed at gunpoint. "When you walk through the desert, you think you’re never going to arrive," she says. "It costs a lot of money and a lot of tears."

Katrina’s winds had barely stopped howling before the mood music that created this situation could be heard: George W. Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires employers with government contracts to pay "prevailing" wages, and waived the requirement for contractors to provide I-9 employment eligibility forms completed by their workers. By the time those measures had been restored, their suspension had already signaled a desire to cut corners and pay below-market rates–the ideal conditions for taking on undocumented workers.

Meanwhile, in an address to business owners and contractors, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said he knew what they were thinking: "How do I insure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" His taste for rebuilding a Chocolate City is now renowned; his refusal to stomach one that consists of a sizable portion of crème caramel is only now becoming apparent.

Nagin’s words were crude, but his actions have been consistent with a mindset in which Hispanic migrant workers are both crucial and criminalized, encouraged and exploited, accepted and abused. The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed two collective-action lawsuits against two corporations on behalf of up to 2,000 mostly immigrant workers in New Orleans who say they have not been paid or have been underpaid. One is against Belfor USA group. Its attorney, David Kurtz, said, "The allegations are groundless," but refused further comment. The other is against LVI Environmental Services and D&L Environmental Inc., a subcontractor. LVI did not return calls; D&L declined to comment.

Carla (not her real name) worked for D&L pulling down drywall in hospitals, clinics and schools. Starting November 9 she was promised $12 an hour and $18 for overtime and worked from 7 am until 5 pm seven days a week. By Thanksgiving she still had not received a cent. When she went to pick up her check, she claims, her boss told her it hadn’t been issued because of a computer error. When she started to cry and demand the money security guards threatened her with forcible removal.

There is a name for a system in which you make people work and don’t pay them. It’s called slavery. It’s the institution that built this beautiful city, and its legacy was laid bare by Katrina last year. At that time, as thousands converged on the convention center, then-FEMA director Michael Brown said, "We’re seeing people that we didn’t know exist." Once again, it seems, the presence of those having hard times in the Big Easy has conveniently escaped the authorities’ attention, even as their pain is hidden in plain sight.

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