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RIGHTS-US: Hiring with One Hand, Deporting with the Other?

Katherine Stapp

NEW YORK, Sep 30 2005 (IPS) - Even as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security refuses to guarantee that immigrants displaced by Hurricane Katrina will not face deportation if they seek government help, the agency has suspended sanctions against employers in the Gulf region who hire undocumented workers.

As the massive redevelopment effort swings into motion in the southern U.S. states along the Gulf of Mexico, construction companies are reportedly hiring an army of workers – many of them day labourers who lack residency papers – to do clean-up and building jobs.

But undocumented victims of the storm have not encountered such a warm welcome. Authorities have already detained three migrants who went to a shelter in El Paso, Texas, as well as two others who were among a group being evacuated by bus from the Gulf Coast to the state of Virginia.

“We are deeply concerned that while the White House is urging people to come forward, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has refused to refrain from detaining them,” Janet Murguia, president of the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic/Latino advocacy group, said in a statement.

“This could exacerbate the already overwhelming public health and safety crises generated by Katrina,” she said.

In an appeal made in English and Spanish earlier this month, DHS had encouraged all victims of Hurricane Katrina, including undocumented immigrants, to seek assistance.

Mexican President Vicente Fox also announced on television that U.S. authorities had promised that “those who were not documented at the time will not be subject to any pressure or persecution whatsoever”.

However, more than a week after La Raza and other groups made a public appeal for the government to give undocumented evacuees the same treatment as U.S. citizens, DHS has refused to publicly guarantee that information on immigration status would be withheld from law enforcement agencies, advocates told IPS.

Three of the detainees – none of whom have criminal records – had sought shelter at the convention centre in El Paso. The men, two from Guatemala and one from the Philippines, were released after being told to appear in court, where a judge will decide if they will be deported.

Advocacy groups, as well as 18 members of Congress, want the U.S. government to grant “temporary protected status” to undocumented immigrants affected by the storm. While their total number is unknown, some 300,000 Hispanics are thought to have been living in the Gulf region.

“The DHS has consistently refused to protect people’s information, so I think the danger continues to be real,” Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at La Raza, told IPS.

“It puts us in a real dilemma with respect to outreach,” she said. “In some cases, private relief agencies are confused about what to do (in terms of reporting or asking about immigration status), and many lack bilingual capacity.”

In a Sep. 21 letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, La Raza and other groups noted that the agency’s actions are a “radical departure” from the previous policy of suspending enforcement activities during relief efforts, including those following last year’s string of hurricanes in Florida and the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, DC.

“These detentions absolutely have had a chilling effect,” Munoz added. “Groups working in the affected communities are saying that people have been reluctant to come forward. One man at a shelter said he heard that if you come forward, they put you on a plane.”

Undocumented immigrants have also reportedly been prevented from salvaging what may be left of their homes and belongings, as only people able to produce proof that they are legal residents may inspect properties in areas hit by the storm.

“We have been trying to locate those individuals who were displaced,” Juan Esquivel, director of the Adelante programme at the Houston, Texas-based Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans, told IPS.

“We have found some; others are trying to hide. Instead of seeking government support, people are struggling to find shelter with relatives in other areas out of fear that they might be sent back (home),” he said.

“They have not taken advantage of many of the services being offered, such as the 2,000-dollar debit cards that were handed out. Hardly any Hispanics were requesting those cards,” he said.

The Honduran Consulate estimates that as many as 40,000 immigrants from that Central American nation may have been forced from their homes due to Katrina. Mexican authorities say a similar number of their citizens were living in Louisiana, the majority in New Orleans – the city hardest hit by the hurricane.

Meanwhile, news reports indicate that undocumented Mexican and Central American labourers are already arriving in southeastern Louisiana as part of the rebuilding effort.

Congress quickly authorised 62 billion dollars as part of the relief efforts, and Louisiana officials claim they will need a total of 250 billion dollars in federal financial assistance to recover.

This translates into a huge windfall for the construction industry, which is one of the main employers of Latin American migrants. Of the estimated 12 million undocumented Latinos in the United States, at least 17 percent hold jobs in construction, many in the U.S. South.

Almost immediately after the storm hit, President George W. Bush suspended federal laws requiring government contractors to pay prevailing wages in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. DHS also granted immunity from sanctions to contractors who hire labourers without official working papers.

It is not the first time that the Latino community has played a key role in helping the country recover from disaster. Nearly 40 percent of the workers who rebuilt the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks were Latino, and hundreds of others – mostly undocumented – were contracted to clean up Lower Manhattan after the twin towers collapsed.

Very few were given protective equipment to shield them from the asbestos, heavy metals and poisonous combustion by-products that coated the rubble.

In New Orleans, where the floodwaters contained oil, chemicals and other pollutants, clean-up and building crews will likely face a similar toxic stew.

“Our concern more than ever is that now the rebuilding has started, contractors will be hiring thousands of Hispanics, documented and undocumented, and they will be forced to work in unhealthy conditions,” Esquivel told IPS. “We need to monitor this situation very closely to ensure their human rights are protected.”

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