The stigma of ‘illegal aliens’ makes migrant workers targeted prey

New Orleans City Business
July 20, 2009
by Richard A. Webster

Hours after Councilman Arnie Fielkow proposed an ordinance that would protect Hispanic day laborers by criminalizing wage theft, WRNO 99.5 FM talk radio show host John Osterlind took to the airwaves to express his disappointment.

“My head is spinning and I’m an Arnie Fielkow fan,” Osterlind said on his June 30 broadcast. “Do we want laws on the books to protect illegal immigrants?”

Osterlind opened the phone lines and the first caller, Marcus, lashed out at Fielkow’s proposal.

“Most of the (day laborers), if you get real close to them, you smell liquor,” Marcus said. “They’re addicts, alcoholics and most are illegal aliens.”

The next caller, Jalinda from Thibodeaux, took Marcus to task.

“Just because they’re here illegally doesn’t mean we have the right to treat them like dogs. If you make a verbal agreement pay the guys,” she said.

Fielkow’s proposed wage theft ordinance has ignited debate beyond the airwaves and revealed long-simmering tensions regarding the status of the thousands of Hispanic workers who have arrived in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.

“You can’t say enough about what (the day laborers) have done for the city,” Osterlind said when interviewed last week. “But like many said, they’re here illegally, end of story, case closed. Either tell everyone who is here illegally to stay, which I’m not a proponent of, or enact our immigration laws. But until the federal government does something to fix this problem we’ll keep going around and around in circles.”

It is widely known that there are thousands of undocumented immigrants working in New Orleans and that New Orleans companies employ them in droves. But little is done about it. The federal government hasn’t dispatched teams of immigration agents to round them up and rarely punishes the companies employing them, said Larry Bagneris, executive director of the city’s Human Relations Commission.

And there is little incentive for the city to take action since the migrant workers have played such a vital role in New Orleans’ recovery.

But this symbiotic relationship has created a new set of legal problems such as wage theft that the city is now forced to deal with.

Fielkow has taken the lead on the issue and as a result people uneasy with the presence of illegal immigrants have turned on him.

“Fielkow is a straight up guy but I turn my back on him for pushing this crap down the people’s throats,” said John in Slidell, a caller to the Osterlind show.

Fielkow defends his proposed ordinance as the right thing to do for a group of people who have meant so much to the rebuilding effort.

“It’s very hypocritical to ask them to help with rebuilding and then turn a blind eye when they’re getting ripped off,” Fielkow said. “I would appeal to people’s basic civil rights and humanity that … we should at least afford them some level of protection.”

Under state and federal law, wage theft is a civil offense with disputes often settled in small claims court. Fielkow’s proposal would make it a criminal offense allowing police to arrest alleged offenders.


Struggle to accept

After Hurricane Katrina an estimated 90,000 Hispanics came to New Orleans, according to the Catholic Diocese’s Hispanic Apostolate.

Since their arrival, they have been hailed as an indispensable part of the recovery. They did the jobs no one else wanted to do — plunging into flooded houses festering with mold and rotting food, clearing out debris and gutting the toxic insides, working long hours in brutal conditions for the promise of cash to send home to their struggling families.

But for all of the accolades thrown their way, many people have struggled to accept the new foreign population, Bagneris said. And they have not been afraid to express their feelings.

Since the storm, Bagneris has worked undercover among day laborers, standing in the parking lots of The Home Depot and Lowe’s and listened as drivers in passing cars scream “wetback” and “go back to Mexico.” Some have even thrown bricks through the windows of the workers’ trucks.

The abuse the migrant workers weathered had gotten so bad that Bagneris suggested after Hurricane Ike that they go to Galveston, Texas, where the Hispanic culture is more prevalent and he thought they would be treated better.

“They refused. They said it’s worse in Houston and Galveston in terms of how they’re treated and abused. I was floored considering what they go through here,” Bagneris said.

During one undercover assignment at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Claiborne Avenue, several workers pointed out a man they claimed had cheated them out of thousands of dollars in promised wages. When Bagneris approached the accused individual, the man, thinking Bagneris was just another day laborer, hurled racial epithets at him.

“I told him I worked for the mayor’s office and he said, ‘Don’t you have more important problems to deal with than protecting these people, like all the murders?’ I told him, ‘This is important. You’re murdering these people’s spirits.’”


Blacks vs. Hispanics

Bagneris said the biggest shock was that the man accused of ripping off the workers was black.

Luz Molina, a Loyola University law professor who specializes in wage theft cases, said she too has been surprised to hear stories of blacks abusing the migrant workers.

“If anyone would be sympathetic to their situation you would think it would be African Americans,” she said.

The antipathy of blacks towards day laborers is based on a combination of economics and race since many of the post-hurricane construction jobs have gone to Hispanics, said Ted Quant, director of Loyola’s Twomey Center of Peace Through Justice.

“If you’re a black worker and look at construction on a housing project you used to live in and don’t see anybody working on it that looks like you, it breeds resentment,” Quant said. “We saw the same thing happen after Vietnamese community moved here after the fall of Saigon. People were screaming they were going to take all the jobs. This is a repeat 40 years later with a different group of people. But they’re a different color and speak a different language, so it’s easier to hate them.”

Fielkow’s proposal to pass an ordinance to protect Hispanic workers is like digging the knife into the wounded pride of local workers who feel the new population of immigrants has stolen their jobs, Quant said.

“The sad thing is that these are hardworking people who, when you get to know them, are dealing with same issues we are: How do I feed family, get my kids educated, make sure my mother and father can get medical care?” Quant said.

But they are different because they are deemed “illegal aliens,” Molina said. The term is dehumanizing and justifies all manner of abuse — wage theft, robbery, racial slurs, beatings — because they are illegal aliens, Molina said.

A recent survey of 300 Hispanic day laborers indicated they had worked a total of 12,000 unpaid days and lost a total of $400,000 in wages, according to the New Orleans Congress of Day Laborers.

Molina represents a man who was cheated out of $60,000 for three months of work. He is now living in his car with little hope for the future.

Another case involves a 17-year-old boy owed more than $3,000. When he asked his boss for the money, the employer told him to “get out of my face,” Molina said. The contractor then called the police, told them the 17-year-old threatened his family and that he was in the country illegally.

The police arrested the boy and turned him over to immigration.

“One of the biggest shocks is how many homeowners have cheated these people,” Molina said. “They’ve rebuilt their houses on slave labor. But people think since they’re here undocumented, that they’re criminals and don’t deserve any respect as human beings.”

Even more surprising is that a significant number of contractors committing wage theft are Latino themselves, according to Catholic Charities.

Many of these Latino contractors come from countries where regulation is non-existent, Molina said. They are simply opportunistic people looking to make some fast cash and don’t understand that what they can get away with in their home country, they can’t get away with in the United States, Molina said.

“It’s sad because who is in better position to know how vulnerable these workers are than another Latino who he himself may have taken a similar road,” Molina said. “But all these people, no matter their race, are the same. They’re individuals predisposed to abusing others and making a quick buck.”

Unfortunately, the majority of the public wrath falls on the heads of the undocumented workers and not the corrupt contractors, she said.

“And what’s their crime? That they wanted to support their families in their home country? And that’s an evil thing?”


Illegal business

It’s not an evil thing, but it is an illegal thing, said Wes Wyman, president of the New Orleans Homebuilders Association.

Wyman said he opposes Fielkow’s wage theft ordinance because it provides protection to laborers who work for cash under the table and that gives an unfair advantage to businesses that want to avoid paying taxes, worker’s compensation and insurance.

Wyman also took issue with the prevailing public opinion that the day laborers have played an instrumental role in the rebuilding of New Orleans.

“The vast majority of these guys are no more than common laborers,” Wyman said. “They have no skill and do substandard work that will eventually have to be fixed if the homeowner ever wants to sell his house. It’s your contractors and subcontractors, the people who have been working in this city for years, who have rebuilt New Orleans. Where people get this picture that these guys rebuilt the city I have no idea.”

Callers to the Osterlind show who opposed Fielkow’s ordinance echoed Wyman’s sentiment, that their opposition is based on the rule of law and not race.

“It’s a strange thing to listen to people who broke the law to get here now want protection of the law,” said Michael in Baton Rouge. “Nothing would be better to the situation than to do nothing (about wage theft). Word would get around that you get stiffed here then they wouldn’t come here.”

Federal and state laws protect undocumented immigrants employed by U.S. companies despite their illegal status, Molina said. Contractors have no more a right to steal from them than they do American workers, and the undocumented immigrants have just as much a right as legal citizens to pursue justice in the courts, she said.

Fielkow and his opponents agree on one important point: If companies followed the law and refused to hire illegal immigrants, the problem wouldn’t exist.

But until they are properly punished, Quant said the most unscrupulous will continue to hire and rob undocumented workers because they live by a simple credo: Greed is a virtue and compassion is a vice.

“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too if I’m slick enough to get it,” Quant said, describing the disreputable contractor’s mindset. “And if we can drive people’s wages down so I can make more profit, all the better for me.

“But there’s a social consequence to that in crime, poverty and disease,” Quant said.

“It just doesn’t make sense for us to be defending people stealing the wages of others who work hard. It violates every value we have as a people.”

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