It may seem as though the number of immigrants on the Gulf Coast has grown since Hurricane Katrina created a need for workers, but there is no hard evidence to determine the population of immigrants, documented or undocumented, says Temple Black, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Photo: Sam Barnes
Some feel that the construction industry is exploiting Hispanic workers by paying insufficient wages.
Photo: Sam Barnes
Immigration officials say that there is no hard evidence to determine the population of immigrants, documented or undocumented, along the Gulf Coast.

“If we knew where the illegals were, we would go out and detain them,” Black says. Not only is ICE unable to document the number of immigrants in the states covered by the New Orleans office – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee – the agency has no way of determining how many of those immigrants are employed in construction, Black says.

“I hear periodically in news reports that the number of immigrants has increased along the Gulf Coast, but I have no documented evidence to support that,” Black adds.

ICE was established in March 2003 as an investigative arm of the Dept. of Homeland Security.

Industry representatives agree that the number of immigrants surged after Katrina, but in Mississippi, “We don’t have the problem that we did have because, quite frankly, the overall workforce is dwindling with the economic downturn,” says Perry Nations, executive director of Associated General Contractors of Mississippi.

“I’ve got contractors laying off 15-year employees because things are so bad with private development and the availability of financing. At one point, we had so much work going on in manufacturing and construction that we didn’t have enough people to man the jobs.”

In the current economic climate, contractors prefer to hire locals over immigrants,” Nations says. He anticipates employment to rally some when American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money stimulates water, sewer and bridge projects in Mississippi, but overall, he expects the construction sector will lag over the next two years.

“Private development is fast coming to a stop because of financing and consumer spending,” Nations says. “I’ve got a contractor building a shopping center down the street from my office. He’s got one large retailer but, once the rest of the building is complete, he is planning on boarding it up.”

Anthony Gomez, secretary/treasurer of the Local No. 6 International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers, which includes Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, says a major problem is that undocumented and immigrant workers will work for less. “There isn’t an American who can beg, borrow or steal a job,” he says. “If you go on some jobsites looking for work, tools in hand, they will tell you straight to your face that if you aren’t Spanish, you don’t even need to apply.”

Gomez contends that in the New Orleans area, project bids are equal or higher to similar bids in places like New York and Chicago, which means “the middle man is getting fat,” not the illegal workers.

Hiring workers without providing proper training and/or benefits is exploitation and destroys competition, the middle class and a future work force, says Art Lujan, executive director of Gulf Coast Construction Careers Center, a workforce training program sponsored by the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Dept. and the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

“On some of these large, federal projects around town, you can see 75 to 80 Hispanic folks working with no safety gear,” Lujan says. “Since immigrants are often willing to work for less than the prevailing wage, it’s difficult to get apprentices hired. For a lot of employers, it’s easier to bring in their own workforce and 1099 them as subs, but they really aren’t paying taxes.”

Contractors who are misclassifying employees’ 1099 applications, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are avoiding their obligations and, therefore, have a competitive advantage over other contractors, says Fabian Blache III, special assistant to the director of Louisiana Office of Workers’ Compensation.

Under a new fraud detection program, LWC plans to track down employer offenders and make them pay. Misclassification of employees, whether it involves immigrants or not, hinders overall economic development by creating an uneven playing field, Blache says.

Hispanic workers are being exploited, says Luz Molina, an attorney with the Loyola Law Clinic in New Orleans. Molina specializes in improper wage payment of foreign nationals, whether they are documented or not. The clinic partners with the Hispanic Apostolate and the Pro Bono project to offer legal services to foreign nationals.

Molina says she has learned through clients that many employers are repeat offenders. “We have a significant amount of people, primarily smaller companies, who don’t pay,” she says. “Since wage theft is not a crime in Louisiana, the only remedy at this point is to sue civilly to recover,” but most of the workers can’t afford litigation.

Bryce Murray, a labor and employment attorney with Lemle & Kelleher in New Orleans, says: “I think sentiment is always against foreign nationals doing work. People don’t like to see a whole group of foreign nationals doing a job that could have been had by U.S. citizens.”

American workers will often eschew jobs that workers from comparatively poorer countries welcome, Murray says. “I’ve got clients on the outer continental shelf who cannot find U.S. workers to do the job because they have to work offshore on a rig for two weeks,” he adds. “Foreign nationals look at it and say, I can work 18 months, go home and buy a house, put my kids in school and live like a king in my town.”

Under the Obama administration, America’s immigration policy seems to be changing to a “more friendly” policy, Murray says. “I covered two raids in the last two years where Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents sent whole workforces back to their country,” he says. “Right now, it appears ICE and the Dept. of Homeland Security are not planning any new raids in the near future.” The current administration has introduced the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors or DREAM Act. The legislation would allow children of undocumented parents 18 years old or younger to seek citizenship. Similar proposals failed during the Bush years. “That would allow them to go to college, become a U.S. citizen, pay taxes and give back to the community,” Murray says.