- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Pinto Robson has seen a big change in the number of migrant laborers gathering each morning by the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue since he started parking his silver breakfast truck nearby three months ago.

“In December, there were about 100 people; now, there are about 600 every morning,” he said, gesturing toward the bronze figure of the Confederate icon, which looms over a scene that seems as good an indicator as any of the changes this city faces in its recovery from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“They come from countries across Latin America,” said Mr. Robson, 62, an immigrant from Brazil, who is friendly with many of the laborers as he sells them a breakfast of chicken, rice and hard-boiled eggs.

Although hard statistics may be impossible to come by, it appears the number of Hispanic laborers arriving along the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., to gut houses, fix roofs and take on other day labor jobs continues to increase.

But area social scientists caution that it is too early to tell what the long-term ramifications will be. “It really depends on whether or not they perceive this is a place that they want to bring their families … find a steady job and a place to live,” said Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.

“We really don’t know what the demographics of New Orleans are going to be even two years from now,” she said. “There’s a severe shortage of workers, and the migrant workers have come to fill that void — those workers used to be mostly African-American and some white, working class.”

With some reports saying that about 30,000 Hispanic workers flocked to the region in the first three months after the hurricanes, observers say it didn’t take long for fears to begin surfacing about how such a migration will alter the region’s ethnic landscape.

“The concern was that a rumored or feared influx of workers … could ultimately translate into a heavy, if not majority, Hispanic New Orleans,” said Elliot B. Stonecipher, a political and demographic analyst in Shreveport, La.

The notion is not supported by the social and racial dynamics of Louisiana, where there is a pre-existing, deep-seated hatred “between African-Americans and Hispanics,” Mr. Stonecipher said.

“While it’s not something that you’re ever going to prove because you can’t poll migrant workers, the point is … that enmity really does seem real in a political context, and that will factor into why there won’t be a long-term increase of permanent Hispanic residents,” he said.

However, a recent study funded by the National Science Foundation suggests New Orleans could lose up to 80 percent of its black population if the large numbers of displaced residents are not given broad financial support to return and if the city’s most damaged neighborhoods are not rebuilt.

The study, conducted by analysts at Brown University, found that 75 percent of the 354,000 people who lived in areas of the city most severely hit by the floods were black, compared with less than 50 percent in undamaged areas.

Meanwhile, the hiring and payment process lacks structure, making for chaotic scenes.

At the traffic circle where the statue of Gen. Lee stands, workers swarm the vehicles of contractors and homeowners driving around slowly.

“I speak English, so a lot of times, I’ll project my voice over the crowd and I’ll get hired,” said Jay Mack, 33, who is black and from Philadelphia. A certified asbestos remover and a labor union member, Mr. Mack said he came seeking work because business is slow in the North during the winter.

He said that work in New Orleans was plentiful but difficult and that the hiring process can be racially charged. “A lot of people that come out here are looking for Mexicans because they think they can pay them less,” he said. “A lot of times, that’s true.”

Compounding the situation was a move by President Bush in September to suspend a 1931 law that required federal contractors to pay at least the average regional wage to workers hired under such circumstances. Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed two cases in Louisiana federal court charging that thousands of migrant laborers have been cheated out of their wages by major U.S. companies.

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