NO MATTER WHAT ALL the politicians and activists want, African Americans and impoverished white Cajuns will not be first in line to rebuild the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast and New Orleans. Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, will. And when they’re done, they’re going to stay, making New Orleans look like Los Angeles. It’s the federal government that will have made the transformation possible, further exposing the hollowness of the immigration debate.
President Bush has promised that Washington will pick up the greater part of the cost for “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.” To that end, he suspended provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act that would have required government contractors to pay prevailing wages in Louisiana and devastated parts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. And the Department of Homeland Security has temporarily suspended sanctioning employers who hire workers who cannot document their citizenship. The idea is to benefit Americans who may have lost everything in the hurricane, but the main effect will be to let contractors hire illegal immigrants.
Mexican and Central American laborers are already arriving in southeastern Louisiana. One construction firm based in Metairie, La., sent a foreman to Houston to round up 150 workers willing to do cleanup work for $15 an hour, more than twice their wages in Texas. The men -- most of whom are undocumented, according to news accounts -- live outside New Orleans in mobile homes without running water and electricity. The foreman expects them to stay “until there’s no more work” but “there’s going to be a lot of construction jobs for a really long time.”
Because they are young and lack roots in the United States, many recent migrants are ideal for the explosion of construction jobs to come. Those living in the U.S. will relocate to the Gulf Coast, while others will come from south of the border. Most will not intend to stay where their new jobs are, but the longer the jobs last, the more likely they will settle permanently. One recent poll of New Orleans evacuees living in Houston emergency shelters found that fewer than half intend to return home. In part, their places will be taken by the migrant workers. Former President Clinton recently hinted as much on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when he said New Orleans will be resettled with a different population.
It is not the first time that hurricanes and other natural disasters have triggered population movements. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch slammed into Central America, sending waves of migrants northward. The 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador produced similar shifts. The effects of Hurricane Andrew may better foretell New Orleans’ future. The 1992 storm displaced 250,000 residents in southeastern Florida. The construction boom that followed attracted large numbers of Latin American immigrants, who rebuilt towns such as Homestead, whose Latino population has increased by 50% since then.
At the same time, U.S. construction firms have become increasingly reliant on Latino immigrant labor. In 1990, only 3.3% of construction workers were Mexican immigrants. Ten years later, the number was 8.5%. In 2004, 17% of Latino immigrants worked in the business, a higher percentage than in any other industry. Nor is this an exclusively Southwest phenomenon. Even before Katrina, more and more Latin American immigrant workers were locating in the South, with North Carolina and Arkansas incurring the greatest percentage gains between 1990 and 2000. This helps explain why 40% of the workers who rebuilt the Pentagon after the 9/11 attack were Latino.
Reliance on immigrant labor to complete huge projects is part of U.S. history. In the early 19th century, mostly Irish immigrant laborers, who worked for as little as 37 1/2 cents an hour, built the Erie Canal, one of the greatest engineering feats of its day. Later that century, Italian immigrants, sometimes making just $1.50 a day, were the backbone of the workforce that constructed the New York subway system. In 1890, 90% of New York City’s public works employees, and 99% of Chicago’s street workers, were Italian.
After Congress authorized construction of the transcontinental railroad in 1862, one of the most ambitious projects in U.S. history, Charles Crocker, head of construction for Central Pacific railroad, recognized that the Civil War was creating a labor shortage. So he turned to Chinese immigrants to do the job. By 1867, 12,000 of Central Pacific’s 13,500 workers were Chinese immigrants, who were paid between $26 and $35 for a six-day workweek of 12 hours a day. At the turn of the 20th century, Mexican immigrant laborers did most of the railroad construction in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada.
Mexican workers were also essential in turning the Southwest into a fertile region, which by 1929 produced 40% of the United States’ fruits and vegetables. They cleared the mesquite brush of south Texas to make room for the expansion of agriculture, then played a primary role in the success of cotton farming in the state. A generation earlier, German immigrants from Russia and Norwegians had busted the prairie sod to turn the grasslands of North Dakota into arable fields.
The major difference between then and now is that neither the American public nor the government will admit their dependence on a labor force that is heavily undocumented. When Mexican President Vicente Fox offered to provide Mexican labor to help rebuild New Orleans -- “If there is anything Mexicans are good at, it is construction,” he said -- the federal government ignored him. At the same time, some of the undocumented Mexicans who have cleaned up and begun to rebuild Biloxi, Miss., are wondering whether they deserve at least a temporary visa so they can live in the U.S. legally.
Last week, the White House said it will push its plan to allow illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to become legal guest workers. Good. Hurricane Katrina exposed the nation’s black-white divide. Post-Katrina reconstruction will soon spotlight the hypocrisy of refusing to grant legal status to those who will rebuild the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.