In New Orleans, No Easy Work for Willing Latinos

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- The come-on was irresistible: Hop in the truck. Go to New Orleans. Make a pile of cash.

Arturo jumped at it. Since that day when he left Houston, more than two months ago, he has slept on the floors of moldy houses, idled endlessly at day-laborer pickup stops and second-guessed himself nearly every minute.

For Arturo and countless Latinos, many of them also in the country illegally, flooded-out New Orleans has not turned out to be a modern-day El Dorado, where the streets are paved with gold. Instead, they have often been abandoned without transportation or shelter by the contractors who brought them to the city. They have struggled to find employment and been paid less than they were promised -- or not at all -- when they can find work.

"This is no way to live," Arturo said wearily in Spanish. "I don't know how much longer I can take it."

Arturo, a dour Mexican from Michoacan who did not want to disclose his last name for fear of deportation, stands at the nexus of the post-Hurricane Katrina labor crisis in New Orleans. A city desperate for workers is filling with desperate workers who either cannot find jobs or whose conditions are so miserable, and whose salaries are so low, that they become discouraged and leave.

President Bush has been promoting a guest-worker program that would give foreign workers temporary legal status for jobs that citizens leave unfilled. Latino activists here say workers such as Arturo demonstrate the need for changes in the law, particularly in disaster zones hungry for laborers.

"You have a labor force willing to come in and live and work in conditions others are not willing to," said Martin Gutierrez, director of the Hispanic Apostolate of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. "If you had a system by which these workers could become legal workers in the U.S., then the wages would increase."

Gutierrez has seen a huge spike in complaints about mistreatment of Latino workers, about such things as employers refusing to pay them and a lack of access to medical care for injuries. KGLA, a Spanish-language radio station in suburban New Orleans, logs several hundred complaint calls a day. "They come with great illusions, and they find injustice," said disc jockey Azucena Diaz, whose show "Chile, Tomate y Cebolla" -- chili, tomato and onion -- was named to mimic the green, red and white colors of the Mexican flag.

The city's reaction to the influx of Latinos has been frosty, even as demographers predict that the Hispanic population will soar from its current levels of 3 percent in New Orleans and 7 percent in suburban Jefferson Parish.

In a speech to a business group, Mayor C. Ray Nagin asked how he could "stop New Orleans from being overrun by Mexican workers." At a New Orleans town hall meeting in Atlanta, displaced black civil rights activist Carl Galmon complained: "They're bringing in foreign workers from South America, Central America and Mexico, paying them $5 an hour sometimes for 80 hours a week. They are undercutting the American labor force in New Orleans."

But, judging from the miles and miles of houses waiting to be gutted or repaired, there has been no great rush to snap up the work that Galmon fears losing to undocumented laborers. The city is awash in "Now Hiring" signs, and complaints about labor shortages are endemic. For those who find work, conditions can be abominable, with laborers such as Rico Barrios and his wife, Guadalupe Garcia, slashing through the cough-inducing mold on walls in flooded Lakeview with only thin masks to shield their lungs, even though she is pregnant. "It's hard," said Barrios, who is from Mexico City, his face glistening with sweat.

Before light one recent morning, Arturo, a stocky 38-year-old with droopy eyelids, leaned against a fence behind a Shell station in Metairie, the largest New Orleans suburb. The contractor who brought Arturo to New Orleans vanished after eight days. The $150-a-day salary -- cut to $100 without explanation -- vanished with him.

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