Katrina's Aftermath Raises Immigration Issues
Thursday, September 22, 2005; 10:30 PM
WASHINGTON -- When President Bush pledged last week that the U.S. Gulf Coast would become "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,'' he suggested that an unprecedented investment of billions of federal dollars would transform the region not only physically, but socially.
Bush said that "as many jobs as possible should go to the men and women who live in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.'' Indeed, rebuilding the region -- its levees, roads, energy grids, homes -- is to become the work of those affected by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
So far, however, the government has acted in ways that would seem to encourage a different segment of the U.S. population to do this work. On Sept. 8, Bush issued an executive order lifting the Davis-Bacon Act mandating that construction workers on federal contracts be paid at least the average wage in the region. The decision was followed days later by a Homeland Security Department announcement that it will not apply sanctions toward employers who hire people unable to provide proper documentation.
This could turn Katrina's aftermath into an immigration issue. In recent years, the U.S. construction industry has become a magnet for Latino immigrants, much more than for any other racial or ethnic group in this country. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, foreign-born Latino workers accounted for 40 percent of the total growth of employment in the construction trades last year. Before Katrina, Hispanics represented only 2 percent of the labor force in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi but held 5 percent of construction jobs, according to the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute (EPI).
What's more, according to Pew, of the total Hispanic immigrants working in construction last year, nearly two-thirds were "unauthorized.'' Labor specialists argue that these "unauthorized'' -- undocumented or illegal -- immigrants are the very ones willing to work for less than prevailing wages and worse than average conditions, particularly if they are not asked for documentation.
The suspension of Davis-Bacon rules and proper documentation requirements have been justified by the government as ways to lower federal costs, accelerate reconstruction and facilitate the hiring of Katrina victims who lost everything including their documents.
Yet, Latino and immigrant advocacy groups say the word is out and immigrants are on the move. There is a lot of work to be had on the Gulf Coast. Spanish-language media and blogs report that U.S. cleaning companies are quickly hiring Latinos, no questions asked.
Some members of Congress promise to make the recovery effort an opportunity to implement ideas such as education vouchers and tax incentives for business investment. Bush himself has called for the creation of a "Gulf Opportunity Zone'' within which the government would provide incentives for entrepreneurs to create jobs and opportunity to "break the cycle of poverty.''
Interestingly, no one has mentioned the disaster as an opportunity to address illegal immigration. Ever since 2001, Bush has been talking on and off about the need for a temporary worker program to provide legal means to ``match willing workers with willing employers.'' For various reasons, his proposal to do that has not moved forward. And some in Congress have argued that Katrina will further postpone it.
The more cynical in this country are convinced that the lack of action on immigration so far is easily explained: rich and powerful employers benefit from the status quo. The government's actions after Katrina seem to further this view.
Katrina exposed how federal, state and local authorities can be overwhelmed by natural disasters. Immigration is not all that different. For years, policymakers at all levels have been struggling with the social consequences of hundreds of thousands of undocumented men and women living in fear of the authorities and turning to government only as a last resort. Border states in particular have felt so overwhelmed that recently the governors of Arizona and New Mexico declared states of emergency along their borders with Mexico.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, Katrina wiped out more than 400,000 jobs. Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at EPI, calculated that the reconstruction price tag of $200 billion plus would create between 400,000 and 500,000 jobs.
Some may think that Katrina victims will fill the vacancies. But it may not be that simple. Immigrants, many of them illegal, are also likely to play a large role in the efforts to rebuild. These illegal workers, in turn, are likely to place extra burdens on state and local authorities and perhaps exacerbate poverty in this already depressed region.
Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is email@example.com.