Call it the recovery's dirty little secret. After the levee failures, thousands of Hispanic immigrants responded immediately and began helping to rebuild New Orleans. They moved fast, as evidenced by the hundreds of new roofs that seemed to go up on a daily basis. Today, they continue to be a major factor in the city's recovery, meeting the local demand for affordable construction labor. Yet, when unscrupulous contractors cheated them out of pay, or when they became easy prey for armed robbers, no public alarm was sounded — and no one, not even the workers themselves, spoke out against the injustice.
Why? Because many of them came here illegally, though honorably, and complaining to the police would mean risking deportation.
That remained the case in New Orleans until recently, when city leaders began recognizing the extent to which undocumented workers were being victimized. Illegal or otherwise, people deserve to get paid for an honest day's work, and everyone deserves police protection. In June, the New Orleans Police Department named Officer Janssen Valencia, a 12-year veteran, as its Hispanic liaison. Even before that assignment, Valencia represented NOPD on local Spanish radio and television stations, addressing churches and English-as-a-second-language classrooms. The focus of his efforts is to make Hispanics, documented and undocumented, feel comfortable talking to law enforcement officers. "We want them to report crime, and for them not to be constant victims because of the fear of reporting," Valencia says.
Naming Valencia as the Hispanic liaison was a good move. NOPD Chief Warren Riley and Mayor Ray Nagin recently took an additional step in the right direction. At a press conference that included numerous Hispanic community leaders, Nagin and Riley made it clear the city supports immigration reform — and undocumented workers should not be afraid to approach police. "We want them to know that unless you are the violator or the perpetrator, there is no threat of deportation or arrest as it relates to the New Orleans Police Department," Riley said.
We applaud Nagin and Riley for their stance. It's time to acknowledge the debt New Orleans owes undocumented workers. To continue to turn our backs when criminals target them is wrong, and it's unconscionable to arrest and deport someone who is a crime victim. Moreover, it's no great leap for a thug to go from holding up illegal aliens to becoming an equal-opportunity mugger. When we protect undocumented workers, we protect everyone.
One of the most difficult problems undocumented workers encounter is theft at the hands of people who hire them. A recent Southern Poverty Law Center survey found that 80 percent of New Orleans' Latino migrant workers have been victims of wage theft, or not being paid for work performed. It's a simple scam: Contractors, often without licenses, hire undocumented workers, and when the workers ask for their money, the contractor threatens to report them to the authorities. Hopefully, as undocumented workers become aware of their rights, these crimes too will get reported. City Council President Arnie Fielkow is developing an ordinance to make wage theft a crime.
On a related note, the arguments for immigration reform are compelling, particularly in a city such as New Orleans. Without the thousands of immigrant workers who came to New Orleans after Katrina, many homeowners and businesses would still be struggling to return and reopen. That's why wage theft and armed robberies against undocumented workers is such a huge problem. If businesses, contractors and homeowners want rebuilding costs kept low, we must be willing to take extraordinary steps to protect those who are performing the work at affordable rates. Immigration reform is a federal issue, but its impact is felt locally. Such reforms cannot come soon enough for communities such as ours.
For now, it makes sense to assist undocumented immigrants in the New Orleans area by ensuring their safety. We hope the prospect of better relations with NOPD will encourage undocumented workers, many who have been in New Orleans since the 2005 flood, to come forward and be counted. If a federal amnesty policy ever materializes, they could then be first in line to receive official status. That would be a just reward for those who were among the first to help New Orleans in its time of need.