Recently New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin drew criticism for expressing the fear that his city might be, as he put it, "overrun by Mexican workers." Hispanic groups protested the mayor's statements, but his concerns are being echoed by many people in New Orleans and many more who were driven from the city by Hurricane Katrina two months ago. Illegal immigration is becoming a hot topic in the storm-ravaged city.
They say they are from the state of Tamaulipas, in northern Mexico, and that they came to New Orleans to repair roofs. Some of them say they have also worked in Houston, others say they were drawn over the border by the lure of high-paying jobs in New Orleans.
The work immigrants do in New Orleans is dirty, difficult, and sometimes dangerous, but the pay is good. Roofers can make $300 a day in New Orleans and many construction jobs pay $15 to $17 an hour.
Workers are in demand in New Orleans because about 140,000 residences were destroyed or severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Many people displaced by the disaster have no home to which they can return.
But some evacuees say contractors who accept funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies should give preference to former residents when it comes to hiring workers. Contractors can pay immigrant workers less and not worry about housing, leaving them to live for weeks at a time in tents or trailers.
Among those watching the situation is Chris Simcox, co-founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which advocates stricter enforcement of immigration laws. In a VOA phone interview, he says the Minutemen may soon go to New Orleans.
"We have been in contact with some officials of the New Orleans city government about starting a Minuteman watch group there," said Mr. Simcox. "Let us expose how the federal government is aiding and abetting illegal activity in this country."
The agency that investigates contractor hiring practices is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which along with FEMA, is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
ICE spokesman Dean Boyd, speaking by phone from his office in Washington, says agents are pursuing cases in New Orleans.
"I have no say about which companies have been contracted or hired and how those companies hired their employees," he said. "What I can tell you, as a law enforcement agency, we are and have been conducting operations in the Gulf coast area specifically to investigate the hiring practices of some of these companies that have been provided contracts."
Mr. Boyd says ICE agents arrested several illegal aliens who were working at a Navy facility in New Orleans recently. This came after Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu heard complaints from citizens who had been fired from jobs at the facility and replaced by lower-paid illegal workers.
Senator Landrieu has complained that policies that favor the hiring of illegal workers exacerbate the unemployment situation in Louisiana, which she says is almost as bad as it was during the Great Depression. Academics examining the situation say New Orleans may be undergoing a population swap, losing blacks who had lived there for generations, and gaining Hispanics, who counted for only three percent of the population before Katrina.
Minuteman leader Chris Simcox accuses the federal government of encouraging the influx of illegal immigrants and neglecting the needs of displaced citizens, both black and white.
"These are American citizens who are being displaced, who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps because the federal government is promoting illegal activity, promoting the hiring of people who are in this country illegally," added Mr. Simcox.
ICE spokesman Dean Boyd denies the federal government is turning a blind eye to the violation of immigration laws. But he says his agency cannot bring charges against a company without a thorough investigation.
"We have to establish by law, by laws enacted by Congress, that the company knowingly hired illegal aliens," he noted. "It is a difficult standard to prove, but nevertheless we are investigating and there are a number of investigations underway."
Contractors in New Orleans argue that they are taking on difficult, messy work using the workers who are available. They say that identifying illegal workers is not always easy. Many contractors say the priority should be getting New Orleans back on its feet as soon as possible and that the immigration debate should be left for another day.