NEW ORLEANS — They clear rotten seafood from stinking restaurant freezers, wash excrement from the floors of the Superdome, rip out wads of soaked insulation. The work is hot, nasty and critical to the recovery of New Orleans.
And yet, many of the workers are not actually from New Orleans.
Many of those engaged in the huge cleanup and reconstruction effort here — nobody has an exact count — are immigrants, both legal and illegal, from Mexico and Central America.
Meanwhile, as many as 80,000 New Orleanians sit idle in shelters around the country. They are out of work, homeless and destitute.
That irks some civic and union leaders.
“I’ve got nothing against our Hispanic brothers, but we have a whole lot of skilled laborers in shelters that could be doing this work,” said Oliver Thomas, president of the City Council. “We could put a whole lot of money in the pockets of New Orleanians by doing this reconstruction work.”
Roman Feher, an organizer with the Laborers Union, said: “It’s really a shame. We’re trying to get people back on their feet. The last thing we need is contractors bringing people in from out of state.”
Mayor Ray Nagin added his voice to the chorus this week, telling local business people: “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”
At the same time, interviews with some Katrina refugees suggest New Orleanians are in no big hurry to return for these jobs. In fact, many Katrina refugees have been landing jobs in communities around the country.
“Other guys out here in Houston and other areas of the state, we have better opportunities to make money here,” New Orleans truck driver Wayne Cousin said at a refugee shelter in Houston.
The situation in New Orleans is part of a controversial pattern seen across the country: Immigrants are often willing to do the dirty jobs many Americans won’t take.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat who represents much of New Orleans, said they are trying to pressure federal authorities to ensure that government cleanup contracts use Louisiana labor. But private companies are free to hire outsiders, and state officials say they are powerless to do more than urge local hiring.
“Our position is, we want these businesses to hire Louisiana people first,” said Ed Pratt, a spokesman for the Louisiana Labor Department. “If they are hiring out-of-state Hispanics, we can’t control that.”
The contractors insist they would be happy to hire locals but cite practical difficulties.
“When so many millions have evacuated, it’s kind of hard to get people to return,” said Pete Bell, the owner of Cotton, a Houston-based disaster recovery business that has more than 500 workers cleaning out hotels and restaurants.
On Friday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson decried the lack of local labor taking part in the cleanup and said his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition planned to bus 600 residents from shelters around the country back to New Orleans to be matched with jobs and housing.
The caravan is to depart Monday from Chicago and travel to shelters in St. Louis, Memphis, Jackson, Miss., and Mobile, Ala. It should arrive in New Orleans on Tuesday. Jackson said residents will be housed in hotels and trailers and on military bases and would get help obtaining construction and service jobs.
Labor investigators say that many of the workers in New Orleans are illegal immigrants who are being exploited and subjected to harsh living and working conditions.
An investigator with the Laborers Union, Rafael Duran, said that outside the New Orleans Arena, he had encountered Mexican teenagers perhaps 15 or 16 years old who had been removing excrement-fouled carpets.
While some cleanup workers in New Orleans are staying in hotels, Duran said the teenagers on the carpet-removal job told him they were sleeping in a field under a tent, and had gotten bitten by mosquitoes.
Duran said the laborers had been brought in by Rainbow International Restoration and Cleaning of Waco, Texas. A Rainbow franchise owner leading cleanup efforts in New Orleans, Vincent Beedle, said the workers had been brought in by a subcontractor that was supposed to obey all laws.
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