The man who stood with his head bowed outside a cheap motel room here said his name is Almicar of Guatemala. He crept across the Mexican border into the United States a few years ago and since that time has found work as a painter in New Orleans.
But several weeks ago, Hurricane Katrina turned his world upside down along with everyone else's. Almicar, who gave only his first name for fear of being deported, said his situation is worse because he is an illegal immigrant. Since the storm hit, he has watched his neighbors at the motel call the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get money he will never see and food stamps that are forbidden to his family of five, and to seek jobs at the Social Security office, where he dares not show his face.
Almicar didn't speak a word of English, but his body language said it all. Eyes down, arms folded, back slumped, he had the visage of a defeated man.
"I'm afraid," he said in Spanish. His family's "situation is getting harder and harder. You don't know what to think, starting from zero again."
Much has been said about the suffering of the poor in New Orleans, but Latino civil rights advocates and relief workers say those troubled Americans are better off than immigrants who live in Gulf states illegally, working in restaurants, casinos, farms and construction.
Some have managed to get into shelters run by the Red Cross and Catholic Charities, which provide food and medical care, no questions asked. But when U.S. citizens in those shelters flock to cardboard tables where FEMA, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service agents sit, Latinos stay behind, watching from their cots, relief workers said.
The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that immigrants have no immunity from deportation when providing information required to receive federal aid.
"The administration's priority is to provide needed assistance: water, food, medical care, shelter," said Joanna Gonzalez, a DHS spokeswoman. "However, as we move forward with the response, we can't turn a blind eye to the law."
That point was driven home when two illegal immigrants, from Honduras and El Salvador, were taken into custody in West Virginia by state police after a military cargo plane carrying 305 evacuees arrived there Sept. 5. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the two, who are friends, were taken into custody after state police received a complaint that one had been accused of a sexual assault.
"What that suggests is that the federal government is prepared to serve some victims but not others," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza. "That sends a terrifying message to the larger community."
In his national address Thursday, President Bush read off a list of services that the estimated 40,000 Mexicans and 150,000 Hondurans who lived in the New Orleans area cannot get: checks from Social Security, mail delivery by the Postal Service, money to rent apartments and temporary trailer homes.
Opponents of illegal immigration, such as Numbers USA, have fought giving financial aid to illegal immigrants. On the other side, a group of U.S. senators including Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) urged DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to issue a statement reassuring immigrants that they could come forward without fear of deportation.
"We are very concerned because they're afraid to ask for help," Brent A. Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said of illegal immigrants. "It's difficult to get word to them. They're in the dark much more so than other folks. They have a default position: to avoid authorities at all costs."
About 65 Latinos were staying at the $30-a-night motel where Almicar stood. Some were documented; many were not. A Guatemalan woman said she is consumed by worry and fear. She would not give her name, she said, because people would come to deport her.
What if my children get sick? she wondered. "I guess I will have to go to the hospital and take my chances," she said.
Her friend Merling Buchanan, a Tulane University master's student from Honduras who speaks English, is the eyes and ears to the world for several of the Peruvians, Guatemalans and Ecuadoreans living at the motel.
"Normally when I get up, there's always someone I need to take somewhere," said Buchanan, a naturalized citizen. On Monday, a friend from Guatemala wanted to speak with a caseworkerat Catholic Community Services.
"The lines are long, so I stay all day," she said. "There is a list, and people write their name. I was Number 102."
Days before, FEMA deposited $2,000 directly into her bank account, she said. At the cheap motel, that pittance seems like an embarrassment of riches.
Mario Fletes, 31, a Honduran painter, said he is very frustrated, watching his wife and three sons worry.
"I went to get unemployment, and they said they couldn't process my Social Security number," which, he insisted, is legitimate. "I went to apply for food stamps. They told me to come back in two days. I went Thursday. I went Friday. Finally, they told me not to come back."
Wilkes said FEMA does not have enough Spanish-speaking officials to handle even those who work legally on farms, in hotels and in casinos.
But David Passey, a FEMA spokesman, disputed that. "We have Spanish-speaking operators on our registration phone lines," he said. "We understand the need to communicate with people in several different languages. If we have areas where we're lacking, advocacy groups can tell us. We're open to input."
Rony Reyes said his friends are almost out of money for the motel. Catholic Community Services of Baton Rouge paid the motel manager about $200 to keep some under a roof for a week.
"Thank God for the church," he said. "We would be sleeping in the parking lot now, no doubt."
But others are helping.
In Mississippi, a group called Project Prep braved floodwaters in Biloxi to get aid to Latino migrant farmworkers and others who feared deportation, said John D. Arnold, the project's director and co-founder.
Jacob Prado, who is coordinating relief efforts for the Mexican Embassy, distributed cash and airline tickets in and around Biloxi to Mexican citizens wishing to return home, an embassy spokesman said.
In San Antonio, a convoy of 45 Mexican army vehicles rolled into the city with troops and mobile kitchens capable of feeding 14,000 people. Elsewhere in Texas, Catholic Charities of Galveston/Houston doled out $300,000 to immigrant families as of Friday -- about $25,000 a day, said Julissa Guerrero, the communications director.
"As quickly as the donations are coming in, they are going right back out," she said. "We are worried that people who are undocumented are falling through the cracks."
In Louisiana, Diane Chisholm, the director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services of Baton Rouge, said documented and undocumented Latinos have poured through the group's doors every day for a week.
"I can say it's been hundreds of people," Chisholm said Monday.
Almicar and other immigrants living at the motel in East Baton Rouge Parish were residents of Metairie, La., near the New Orleans airport.
On the Saturday before Katrina struck, Buchanan was doing the wash when the New Orleans mayor said on television, in English, "We're facing the storm most of us have feared."
She woke her sleeping husband, who snapped at her. "How are we going to go? We don't have money." He eventually agreed to go and borrowed money from a friend.
"Hispanic friends . . . followed us because they didn't know where to go," Buchanan said. "They followed us because we speak English."
They formed a caravan of five rickety cars, one of which broke down en route to Baton Rouge.
The men work where they can find it, usually in towns more than an hour away. It costs about $20 in gas per trip, eating into their pay of about $90 each.
Right now, Reyes said, work is worth the sacrifice. The motel rooms are too precious to give up.
"If you leave, there are three people waiting to take them," he said. "It's all we have right now."