The Associated Press reports that many of the illegal immigrants who have been rebuilding New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina stayed behind when Gustav struck because they were afraid of being arrested if they boarded the buses and trains arranged by emergency officials. They also feared Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints along the way. Many immigrants also could not afford cars and the money they needed to flee from a storm on their own.
While no one knows how many immigrants stayed behind, immigrant-rights groups estimate the city is home to as many as 30,000 illegal immigrants, the AP reports. The growing immigrant population is a new phenomenon in New Orleans, fed by the reconstruction boom following Hurricane Katrina that attracted workers from Mexico and Central America.
"Latinos are fearful that by being taken to shelters they will be turned over to immigration officials," Lucas Diaz told the Agence France-Presse. "They don't trust. Often people along the way, like shelter workers, take to being ICE agents and turn people in."
The New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice, a nonprofit that organizes workers to work for a just reconstruction of New Orleans and surrounding areas, conducted more than 200 surveys of day laborers as Hurricane Gustav approached. The fear of detention and deportation by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was identified as the single greatest obstacle to accessing humanitarian relief.
Just as mandatory evacuations began across the Gulf Coast, DHS issued assurances for safe passage of immigrant workers, stating that no immigration enforcement actions or checkpoints would occur in the evacuation process or along evacuation routes. The New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice noted that these were the first real assurance of safety that Gulf Coast workers and their families have received since Katrina.
Yet, many advocates said there was not enough time to prepare immigrant communities once the DHS press releases were issued.
"We didn't have enough people to go into the neighborhoods where we know Latinos are living," Diaz told the AFP. "We put out word on two Spanish radio stations, which is the best we can do."
There were other difficulties as well, reports the AP. There were problems with the 311 service as several day laborers complained of being on hold for more than 30 minutes before getting connected with a Spanish-speaking operator. Additionally, many illegal immigrants became wary when they realized they would be asked to register at evacuation points for tracking purposes.
Now as immigrants wait in shelters and begin to make their way back to the coast, advocates hope to see a smooth and secure return for them. As the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice said:
...now we all have the job of holding DHS accountable. We also need to fight for clear promises that immigration agents will not enter shelters or come anywhere near them. Most immigrant workers have evacuated nearby and want to return. They must feel secure that on their way back to New Orleans and other cities they will have the same promise of safety.