New Orleans

Is New Orleans Trying to Deport Undocumented Workers Now That the Rebuilding Is Over?

Federal contractors lured undocumented immigrants to New Orleans after Katrina. Now the city’s Latinos want police and immigration agents to stop harassing them.

Mauro Whiteman and Alexia Fernã¡Ndez Campbell
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Mauro Whiteman and Alexia Fernández Campbell
Oct. 27, 2014, 8:06 a.m.

NEW OR­LEANS—”Who wants to be the may­or?” Fernando Lopez asks a group of more than 300 Cent­ral Amer­ic­an work­ers gathered in a church gym near the Lower Ninth Ward.

No one raises a hand.

Lopez, an or­gan­izer with the Con­gress of Day Laborers, is look­ing for a vo­lun­teer to play the role of New Or­leans May­or Mitch Landrieu dur­ing a re­cent meet­ing.

A man in a lime-green polo shirt even­tu­ally comes for­ward. Or­gan­izers hand him a mi­cro­phone and a navy-blue tie. They hold up a card­board box cut out to re­semble a tele­vi­sion screen.

“What would you like to hear the may­or say to New Or­leans?” Lopez asks.

The Hon­dur­an man looks noth­ing like Landrieu, but for a mo­ment he ima­gines him­self as the may­or ad­dress­ing the city’s Latino work­ers on tele­vi­sion. He ad­justs his tie, stands be­hind the fake tele­vi­sion and tells the crowd what they most want to hear.

“We are do­ing everything pos­sible to end the dis­crim­in­a­tion,” he says in Span­ish. “You don’t need to be afraid any­more.”

Cheers and ap­plause echo through the gym. Oth­er men line up to take their turn.

“Lati­nos are the found­a­tion for the re­con­struc­tion of New Or­leans after Kat­rina,” one man says.

More cheers.

“New Or­leans has great tour­ism be­cause of the work Lati­nos are do­ing in our ho­tels and res­taur­ants,” says an­oth­er.

Or­gan­izers scribble down their state­ments, brain­storm­ing what to in­clude in a form­al de­clar­a­tion they will ask Landrieu to read pub­licly. Most of the people in the room are un­doc­u­mented work­ers from Hon­dur­as and Mex­ico, who ar­rived with more than 10,000 oth­er Latino im­mig­rants to re­build New Or­leans with­in a year of the dev­ast­a­tion that fol­lowed Hur­ricane Kat­rina.

Fed­er­al con­tract­ors lured them here from oth­er states after air­ing Span­ish tele­vi­sion ads that prom­ised high hourly wages and no threat of de­port­a­tion. The em­ploy­ers could hire un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants be­cause Pres­id­ent Bush had tem­por­ar­ily sus­pen­ded cer­tain labor laws in the hur­ricane’s af­ter­math.

But those work­ers say they no longer feel wel­come in the city they now call home. They can’t walk down the street with their fam­il­ies, they say, without won­der­ing when an­oth­er SUV with dark-tin­ted win­dows will pick them up and fin­ger­print them. At­tend­ance at the weekly day laborers group meet­ings has more than tripled in the last two years as im­mig­ra­tion raids—and po­lice co­oper­a­tion with im­mig­ra­tion agents—have es­cal­ated.

The city’s Latino im­mig­rants are fed up, and they want the city—and coun­try—to know it.

They say they’re tired of po­lice ran­domly pulling them over and call­ing im­mig­ra­tion au­thor­it­ies. They’re tired of wear­ing elec­tron­ic ankle mon­it­ors. And they’re tired of the re­peated fin­ger­print­ing out­side homes, gro­cery stores, and busi­nesses.

“It’s not fair to treat us like this. We re­built the city,” said Jimmy Bar­raza, an un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rant from Hon­dur­as who has three Amer­ic­an daugh­ters. “We did the dirti­est work, clean­ing out the worms from re­fri­ger­at­ors and throw­ing out dead an­im­als.”

Bar­raza has seen im­mig­ra­tion agents raid his apart­ment com­plex in the sub­urb of Metair­ie three times in the past year and a half. The second time, he and his wife were un­load­ing gro­cer­ies from their car when half a dozen agents sur­roun­ded them, guns drawn. They hand­cuffed Bar­raza and took his wal­let be­fore he could say a word, he said.

Agents then roughed up his stepson, an Amer­ic­an cit­izen, who had come out­side to see what was hap­pen­ing. The 16-year-old boy had re­fused to go back in­side when agents ordered him to, so they threw him against the wall and hand­cuffed him, Bar­raza said. The squad even­tu­ally re­leased the boy and Bar­raza’s wife, who has Tem­por­ary Pro­tec­ted Status, but took Bar­raza to a van to scan his fin­ger­prints. A de­port­a­tion or­der popped up in the sys­tem, so they took him away.

“Hon­estly, I nev­er thought it would hap­pen to me,” said Bar­raza, whose de­port­a­tion was delayed for six months with the help of the Con­gress of Day Laborers. “I nev­er thought someone would sep­ar­ate me from my daugh­ters.”

Bar­raza’s de­port­a­tion has since been delayed twice, and he plans to re­quest an­oth­er six6-month delay be­fore his Janu­ary dead­line. The day laborers group has helped stay the re­mov­al of more than 100 people caught up the raids, most of whom have Amer­ic­an chil­dren, staffers said.

Such de­port­a­tion re­lief is rare in Louisi­ana. The state’s im­mig­ra­tion judges show little le­ni­ency com­pared to oth­er states. So far in fisc­al 2014, they’ve ordered de­port­a­tions in 75 per­cent of the cases they hear in court, ac­cord­ing to data from the Trans­ac­tion­al Re­cords Ac­cess Clear­ing­house at Syra­cuse Uni­versity. Only Geor­gia has a high­er per­cent­age of re­mov­al or­ders.

Though the total num­ber of de­port­a­tions in Louisi­ana has dropped in re­cent years, im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates say en­force­ment has turned more ag­gress­ive and ra­cially mo­tiv­ated. They blame that on two things: The New Or­leans Po­lice De­part­ment cre­ated a broad policy last year that al­lows of­ficers to work with im­mig­ra­tion of­fi­cials. And those im­mig­ra­tion agents have ad­op­ted a na­tion­al en­force­ment strategy that fo­cuses on us­ing mo­bile fin­ger­print scan­ners to find im­mig­rants with crim­in­al con­vic­tions or act­ive de­port­a­tion or­ders. It’s called the Crim­in­al Ali­en Re­mov­al Ini­ti­at­ive. Crit­ics call it “stop-and-frisk for Lati­nos.”

Re­ports of im­mig­ra­tion agents break­ing up a Bible study group and fin­ger­print­ing a His­pan­ic U.S. cit­izen in front of his son garnered na­tion­al at­ten­tion and promp­ted U.S. Rep. Cedric Rich­mond, D-La., to ad­mon­ish the dir­ect­or of U.S Im­mig­ra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment.

“Con­duct­ing ran­dom sweeps and raids coupled with tar­get­ing ul­ti­mately in­no­cent in­di­vidu­als must cease,” Rich­mond wrote in Decem­ber to Act­ing Dir­ect­or John Sandweg. “I be­lieve there is a bet­ter way to re­move any crim­in­al law­fully.”

ICE of­fi­cials deny the claims that agents are raid­ing neigh­bor­hoods and ran­domly round­ing up brown people. The Crim­in­al Ali­en Re­mov­al Ini­ti­at­ive, which launched na­tion­wide in 2012, al­lows agents to identi­fy crim­in­als and pre­vi­ous de­portees on the spot and lets them im­me­di­ately re­lease im­mig­rants who don’t fall in­to either cat­egory, said Bry­an Cox, an ICE spokes­man in New Or­leans. Be­fore, agents had to keep people in de­ten­tion cen­ters un­til they could identi­fy them.

“[The strategy] fo­cuses ICE’s lim­ited en­force­ment re­sources on identi­fy­ing, ar­rest­ing, and re­mov­ing at-large crim­in­al ali­ens who pose a risk to com­munity safety,” Cox said in a writ­ten state­ment. “ICE does not con­duct sweeps or raids to tar­get un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants in­dis­crim­in­ately.”

Im­mig­ra­tion fu­git­ive op­er­a­tions teams in New Or­leans are look­ing for a spe­cif­ic per­son when they show up out­side a su­per­mar­ket or apart­ment com­plex, ac­cord­ing to an ICE of­fi­cial. A com­mon scen­ario looks like this: Someone doesn’t show up for their im­mig­ra­tion court hear­ing, so the judge is­sues a de­port­a­tion or­der. ICE fu­git­ive teams then have to track down and de­port that per­son. They’ll show up at an im­mig­rant’s home, work­place, or an­oth­er place they might fre­quent. Agents will ask people there if they’ve seen the in­di­vidu­al, of­ten ques­tion­ing them about their im­mig­ra­tion status, too.

“They don’t have to an­swer, but nine out of 10 times they will freely ad­mit to be­ing il­leg­ally in the coun­try,” said the ICE of­fi­cial, speak­ing with Na­tion­al Journ­al on the con­di­tion of an­onym­ity.

Then agents run their fin­ger­prints to see if they have crim­in­al con­vic­tions or an act­ive de­port­a­tion or­der. Most people don’t fall in­to those pri­or­ity groups, so they’re usu­ally re­leased on the spot, even if they’re un­doc­u­mented, the of­fi­cial said. The New Or­leans field of­fice does not reg­u­larly track how many people their fu­git­ive teams fin­ger­print with the mo­bile scan­ners.

Many of these op­er­a­tions have happened out­side a pop­u­lar chain of His­pan­ic su­per­mar­kets, ac­cord­ing store man­agers and their cus­tom­ers. Lor­na Torres, busi­ness con­trol­ler for Ideal Dis­count Mar­ket, says stings take place about once a month out­side one of their three stores in the New Or­leans area.

“It def­in­itely scares our cus­tom­ers away,” said Torres. The chain’s own­er has got­ten law­yers in­volved, she said, but they have no con­trol over im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment that’s not dir­ectly on their prop­erty.

Marta Es­cal­antes avoids shop­ping at one of the chain’s stores in her Mid-City neigh­bor­hood ever since her hus­band was picked up in the park­ing lot. The 33-year-old hotel work­er was two months’ preg­nant that even­ing when she asked her hus­band, Ern­esto Lopez, to buy her a wa­ter­mel­on to ease her naus­ea.

She re­mem­bers the sick­en­ing feel­ing when a friend called to tell her that im­mig­ra­tion agents had raided the su­per­mar­ket in Mid-City and that Lopez’s car was still in the park­ing lot.

“I felt des­per­ate be­cause I thought I was go­ing to be all alone with my little girl,” said Es­cal­antes, who cleaned streets in New Or­leans after Kat­rina and now cleans hotel rooms.

Sure enough, her hus­band had been among those fin­ger­prin­ted and de­tained. Lopez says he nev­er told the agents where he was born, but they fin­ger­prin­ted him any­way.

He says he was sit­ting in his car in the park­ing lot when an agent ap­proached and re­peatedly asked him where he was from. Lopez re­spon­ded each time by say­ing that he lived in New Or­leans.

The agent then told him to get out of the car, he said, and pulled Lopez’s wal­let out of his pock­et without per­mis­sion. The agent found iden­ti­fic­a­tion from Hon­dur­as, so he hand­cuffed and fin­ger­prin­ted Lopez with sev­en oth­er cus­tom­ers agents had stopped. Those without past de­port­a­tions were re­leased, but Ern­esto had been de­por­ted be­fore.

An im­mig­ra­tion judge delayed Lopez’s de­port­a­tion for one year so he could be with his wife when their daugh­ter was born. The year ended in Au­gust, and he has a hear­ing sched­uled in Decem­ber to re­quest an­oth­er delay. That is the only op­tion he has.

Lopez said he feels be­trayed by the city he helped re­build and feels tar­geted be­cause of his skin col­or.

“After [Kat­rina] happened, we were all wel­comed to come re­build the city. And now they re­pay us with de­port­a­tion and sep­ar­at­ing our fam­il­ies,” he said.

Lopez and oth­er mem­bers of the day laborers group have pro­tested out­side the loc­al ICE headquar­ters and have re­peatedly asked the city’s po­lice de­part­ment to stop work­ing with im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment. Lopez re­mem­bers how New Or­leans po­lice had helped im­mig­ra­tion agents dur­ing the raid, block­ing park­ing lot exits and sur­round­ing streets.

May­or Landrieu and city po­lice Su­per­in­tend­ent Mi­chael Har­ris­on re­cently at­ten­ded one of the weekly meet­ings or­gan­ized by the Con­gress of Day Laborers. They listened to im­mig­rants’ com­plaints but said po­lice would con­tin­ue work­ing with ICE. In an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al, Har­ris­on said that po­lice might oc­ca­sion­ally help dir­ect traffic dis­rup­ted dur­ing ICE op­er­a­tions but that their col­lab­or­a­tion with im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment is strictly on crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tions.

“We have no in­terest in civil de­port­a­tions,” Har­ris­on said. “If they ask us to help them with crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tions, we’ll help them, but only in crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tions.”

The po­lice de­part­ment, which is un­der fed­er­al court su­per­vi­sion be­cause of po­lice mis­con­duct, is in the pro­cess of re­view­ing the bi­as-free poli­cing policy it cre­ated in June 2013, which al­lows of­ficers to work with ICE agents. It’s un­clear if the re­vised policy will lim­it their part­ner­ship.

Na­tion­al Journ­al re­cently vis­ited New Or­leans to see how the city has changed in the nine years since Hur­ricane Kat­rina dis­placed thou­sands of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies and drew thou­sands of Latino im­mig­rants to re­build the city. In the com­ing weeks, Next Amer­ica will pub­lish a series of stor­ies about the people who are re­de­fin­ing the iden­tity of this icon­ic city.

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