- The Washington Times - Friday, May 12, 2006

WAVELAND, Miss. — Lucio’s Mundo Latino Grocery opened recently between the oyster po’ boy place and the barbecue shack on U.S. 90.

In a state where the Census Bureau said only 1.7 percent of the populace was Hispanic in 2004, the new store with shelves full of Spanish-labeled foodstuffs is another sign of how the worst storm in Mississippi history has changed the coastal culture, perhaps forever.

“I saw all these Hispanic workers coming here to do construction after Katrina” struck in August, said owner Mario Cano, who lost his Mexican restaurant and house in nearby Pass Christian.

“I kept waiting for the [Small Business Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency], all these agencies to help me rebuild. But nothing was coming through,” he said. “I’ve got bills to pay, a family to support.”

He saw a new market niche and jumped in.

“I stocked Latin products — the kinds of foods they couldn’t find in Wal-Mart,” Mr. Cano explained. “I’m building a kitchen in the backroom to prepare hot food to go.”

Indeed, Super Horchata, a powdered drink from El Salvador, and cold Goya fruit drinks have joined jugs of sweet iced tea and cans of Barq’s root beer in work-site coolers along the battered Mississippi Gulf Coast.

In a dwindled local populace still living in government-issued trailers, there is general agreement that the Hispanic workers — many of whom are here illegally — are desperately needed.

“People can’t find employees now. That’s one of the reasons you see migrant workers,” said John Thomas Longo, mayor of this beach town, where 95 percent of the residential and commercial structures were demolished or damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “And they bring some needed skills, like tree-topping.”

“Hispanic workers are doing most of the work in recovery and cleanup,” said Bill Chandler, president of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. “I think a majority of the residents of the coast really appreciate the work that they are doing.”

Until the recent influx, Mississippi was among the least Hispanic states in the country. The Census Bureau estimated it had 49,000 Hispanic residents in 2004, or 1.7 percent of the population, ranking it 46th among the 50 states.

That estimate was low, Mr. Chandler said. Even before Katrina, he said, the state’s poultry industry, gambling casinos and hotels were employing significant numbers of Hispanic workers.

Now, counting the Katrina-recovery workers, Mr. Chandler estimated that there are about 120,000 Hispanics in the state.

The rising numbers have not gone unnoticed.

Earlier this year, state Auditor Phil Bryant issued a report saying illegal aliens cost Mississippi taxpayers about $25 million a year for services such as health care and education.

The report recommended that “any state agency or local governmental entity not specifically prohibited by law should attempt to count illegal immigrants for the sole purpose of gaining an accurate picture of how many are in Mississippi and the costs associated with their use of governmental services and programs.”

Immigrant advocates said the report failed to account for the contribution to the economy and tax revenues that the Hispanic workers have provided in the Katrina recovery.

Private-recovery contractors “have been about the only economy we’ve had,” said Mr. Longo, whose town’s population is still less than half of what it was before Katrina.

In Waveland and adjoining Bay St. Louis, he said, the recovery workers outnumber the residents who have returned.

Sales-tax revenues of about $150,000 a month — largely generated from purchases by recovery workers — are keeping the local government afloat, he said. Unemployment is virtually nil, so competition for jobs is not an issue now.

Most of the Hispanic laborers work for subcontractors, Mr. Chandler said, and many have been victimized.

“Some contractors decided they would work the immigrants and not pay them,” he said.

Acting on complaints by the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, the U.S. Labor Department has collected nearly $142,000 from one subcontractor, Mr. Chandler said.

The immigrant rights group itself, using “shaming campaigns” and threats to call for federal action, has recovered nearly $600,000 in back pay for exploited Hispanic workers, he said.

Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary of labor for employment standards, said the Fair Labor Standards Act applies to all workers and the department does not check immigration status.

“If you work, you must get paid,” Ms. Lipnic told the Wall Street Journal. “Whether they are documented or not documented is not within our jurisdiction.”

Meanwhile, signs in Spanish are being attached to the wire-mesh fences surrounding reconstruction sites at casinos in Biloxi. That means still more Hispanic workers will be coming to help with hurricane recovery, folks across coastal Mississippi predict.

At his grocery store, Mr. Cano has put in a Western Union wire so his customers can send money home to their families in Latin America. He is negotiating with a bus line to make his store a Mississippi stop for workers going back and forth to Mexico.

“It’s going pretty good,” he said.

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