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Hispanic immigrants meet need for New Orleans laborers

NEW ORLEANS -- Most of the signs are handwritten and simply worded, such as "Workers Wanted" or "Need 50 Laborers Now!" Word has gotten out and each morning day laborers -- who come from Central America and Mexico by way of California, Texas and Arizona -- gather on street corners in the Kenner and Metairie neighborhoods on the western edge of the city.

Lured by jobs paying $15 to $17 an hour, the Spanish-speaking day laborers have flooded into New Orleans to haul out debris, clear downed trees, install drywall and perform other tasks as rebuilding takes hold in the city. Specialized roofers can make $300 a day.

Contractors know the new day-labor pickup spots. By noon, a tree-trimming firm hires the last available hand on Williams Boulevard near Interstate 10.

With 140,000 homes destroyed or damaged by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is undergoing the nation's largest reconstruction effort and its new work force is largely Hispanic. No one knows how many immigrants have descended here since Katrina ravaged the city five weeks ago, but their presence is visible throughout the city.

Abimael and Filegonia Diaz might have been among the first wave of newcomers.

Since Sept. 12, the couple have been clearing debris, washing windows and sweeping floors at a hotel in downtown New Orleans.

For six years, Abimael worked in Nashville, Tenn., as a day laborer and sent money to Filegonia and their three young children in Mexico.

Within days after the hurricane hit New Orleans, Filegonia joined her husband in New Orleans to work for a construction company that is providing a room at the hotel plus three meals a day.

Last week, the couple had their first day off from work and hitched a ride with a construction crew to Kenner Supermarket y Restaurante, a gathering spot for Latinos on the west side of the city. They celebrated with their first Mexican meal in the city, before wiring half of their paycheck to their family back home.

"We'll stay here because I think the job will last a long time," Abimael Diaz said, as he and Filegonia downed a large bowl of beef soup. "If we can make enough money, we would like to buy a house and bring our children to New Orleans."

For building contractors such as Perry Custer, who owns a small construction company in New Orleans, the newcomers are a welcome addition. Custer is rebuilding six apartment buildings and office complexes. It's enough work to last a year, but after the hurricane most of his workers fled.

He has been hiring and now has 23 workers installing drywall and doing odd jobs. Most of them are from Mexico, Custer said, and he needs at least 10 more.

The demand is so great that Custer doubled the salary for a former Hispanic employee who quit to take his family to New York before the hurricane, but who has returned to New Orleans. Custer initially offered him $15 an hour -- now the going entry-level pay -- but the ex-employee balked. After a 15-minute phone conversation, Custer agreed to pay him $17 an hour.

"We got people coming in from all over who are obviously Hispanic," said Romualdo Gonzalez, an immigration lawyer in New Orleans. "If you go downtown and see the crew cleaning up, 80 percent are Mexicans."

The influx of Hispanic workers is raising concern among city officials. Last week, Associated Press reported, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin asked local businesspeople, "How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?"

According to census figures, in 2000 there were about 15,000 Hispanics in New Orleans, or 3 percent of the population. Hispanic leaders and academic experts say the newcomers probably will change the face of the city.

Read more at: The Detroit News

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