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Published:October 13th, 2005 15:56 EST
Changing the Face of New Orleans

Changing the Face of New Orleans

By Maria Grella

Along with structurally rebuilding New Orleans, the culture may also be altered, as new faces move in. Hurricane Katrina left 140,000 homes damaged or destroyed.  Now that the clean-up is under way, it’s not American workers doing the grunt work. Both legal and illegal Latino immigrants are cleaning up the waste and rot, and are helping to rebuild the Big Easy, marking the beginning of a major shift in population.


Contractors are in need of workers, as many of their employees have fled during the disaster and have not returned. From hand written signs and TV advertisements, to lining up at day laborer spots, Latinos-- mostly from Mexico and Central America-- are being lured in by the opportunity.  Not only can they work for higher pay than usual ($15-17 an hour), but work is expected to be steady for the next year or two.  Many may choose to stay in New Orleans once the bulk of the rebuilding is done, increasing the population of Hispanics in Louisiana.  


Legal or not, contractors are embracing the newcomers, willing to turn a blind eye because workers are scarce.  While construction efforts are intended to last for a couple of years, there are other jobs waiting to be filled in New Orleans. Other businesses affected include the fast food industry.  According to the LA Times, Burger King has managed to re-open half of its restaurants, but is suffering from low supply and labor shortages. The chain has offered a $6,000 sign-up bonus for new employees willing to stay the year.  Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits has also put forth a plan to entice workers, offering $9 an hour for a cashier position, up from $5.50.  With many evacuees staying away from the damaged area, both legal and illegal immigrants will be more than likely to fill in positions for wait staff, janitors and maids.  Housing is also a plus; with so much damaged property available, homes are at low cost.


The city is in aching need to be reconstructed, but American workers aren’t available or are unwilling to do the dirty work needed.  Yet, the increase in Latino laborers has raised concerns with city officials.  New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin asked local business people, “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not over run by Mexican workers?”.  According to, 80 thousand residents of New Orleans are in shelters without homes, work, and financial means.  City council president Oliver Thomas stated, “We could put a whole lot of money in the pockets of New Orleanians by doing this reconstruction work.”  Reverend Jessie Jackson announced plans to organize buses to transport these residents back to the city for this purpose.  Roman Feher, an organizer with the Laborers Union continues the sentiment, “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.” 


State officials, like Senator David Vitter (Louisiana Republican) and Representative William Jefferson (Democrat representing most of New Orleans), are trying to persuade the federal government to force contractors to use Louisiana labor.  This would be the ideal solution to generate money flow back into New Orleans, but private companies are free to hire whomever they choose.  Washington has agreed to handle the greater cost for the reconstruction efforts, and the Department of Homeland Security has temporarily stopped the sanctioning of employers who hire workers unable to document their citizenship.  This was done to benefit American hurricane survivors, but the side effect is that it will let contractors hire illegal immigrants.

Historically, immigrants have been the backbone of completing projects in U.S. history.  The Houston Chronicle reports that in the early 19th century, the Irish built the Eerie Canal for a mere 30 cents a day, while Italians fared better at $1.50 per day building the New York subway system.  In the late 1800’s, the Central Pacific railroad was built by Chinese immigrants, while Germans worked the fields in North Dakota. Immigrants coming to this country were willing to work for low wages at undesirable jobs. The population movements can be seen in recent years as well.  While Hurricane Mitch in 1998 forced many Central Americans north, Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, upset 250,000 residents in Florida, attracting large numbers of Latin American workers.  As rebuilding and migrating took place, the Latin population increased in towns like Homestead. 

Historians, like Lawrence Powell of Tulane University, have noticed the shift in inhabitants.  “I’m wondering if we’re seeing the first signs of a population swap.”  For decades, the service industry has been dominated by African Americans, who lived in the most devastated areas.  A poll conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation reports that less than half of the residents plan to return.  Hispanics are filling that void. 


Does the end justify the means?  The city needs to be rebuilt and could use all the help it can get.  Illegal laborers are stepping up to the challenge and are willing to do the work.  The question remains, are illegal immigrants truly taking away jobs from Americans if Americans aren’t willing to accept these positions?  As for the shift in population as Latin Americans move in, only time will tell how it will affect New Orleans culture.



Click here: - Immigrants do New Orleans' dirty work - Oct 7, 2005
Click here: - The next L.A.?: New Orleans: If they rebuild it, immigrants will come
Click here: Immigrants Rush to New Orleans as Contractors Fight for Workers - Los Angeles Times