Friday, October 7, 2005

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.”

Said Roman Feher, an organizer with the Laborers Union: “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 C. Ray Nagin added his voice to the chorus this week, asking local business people: “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”

At the same time, interviews with some Katrina evacuees suggest New Orleanians are in no big hurry to return for those jobs. In fact, many Katrina victims 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 evacuee shelter in Houston.

The situation in New Orleans is part of a pattern seen across the country: Immigrants are often willing to do the dirty jobs many Americans won’t take.

Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, and Rep. William J. 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 disaster-recovery business that has more than 500 workers cleaning out hotels and restaurants.

On Wednesday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson decried the lack of local labor taking part in the cleanup and announced plans to remedy the situation by organizing a caravan of buses from Chicago next week to pick up displaced New Orleanians in St. Louis; Memphis, Tenn.; and Jackson, Miss., and bring them back to the city. He suggested the workers could live on military bases and in hotels in and around New Orleans.

Labor investigators say 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 who was supposed to obey all laws.

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