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145,000 Mexican Immigrants Impacted by Hurricane Katrina

Immigrants, Foreign Workers Are Caught in a Double Trap - By IAN URBINA - Published: September 6, 2005

BILOXI, Miss., Sept. 5 - Like so many other people here, Pedro, a landscaper from Chiapas, Mexico, is desperately trying to get out of Biloxi. He wants to take his wife, Anna, who is eight months pregnant, someplace cleaner and safer, wherever that might be. But aside from being low on gas like everyone else, Pedro, who would not give his last name because he is undocumented, is nervous about traveling in a city swarming with police officers and National Guard troops.

Bran Dize, a prep cook from Spanish Town, Jamaica, near Kingston, worries that Hurricane Katrina may suddenly have made him an illegal immigrant because, he said, his guest worker visa requires him to work at a casino - the Beau Rivage - that, for all practical purposes, no longer exists.

Hurricane Katrina has left its victims feeling vulnerable and uncertain, but for many noncitizens
trapped here, the anxiety is especially acute because they worry that they will jeopardize their legal status if they try to leave.

There are worries, too, about those who may not have survived the storm. The Mexican government has opened two mobile consulates in the affected areas, one in Mobile, Ala., and the other in Baton Rouge, La., to begin looking for tens of thousands of their citizens reported missing. The authorities in Mexico estimated that 145,000 Mexicans live in the area. At a tense meeting on Friday with immigration officials from the Jamaican government, a group of about 40 Jamaican
guest workers from the Grand Casino, the Beau Rivage and the Casino Magic fired a battery of tough questions.

"Will we get paid for the remaining three months left in our contracts?" one woman asked from the back of the crowd gathered at the Fairview apartments here. "We don't have plane tickets back to Jamaica," another said. "Who will pay for these?"

Solid answers were in short supply. "I'm looking into this right now, but you have to be patient," said Barbara Dacosia, who oversees the 950 or so Jamaicans who work in casinos along the Gulf Coast in a nine-month guest worker program. "We're going to do some practical things, and we're going to do some tropical things, and that means we're going to pray."

Much like these immigrants, the city of Biloxi, defined over the past century by its transient culture of summer vacationers, sailors and gamblers, is at a standstill. Boats have been washed ashore. The number of visitors has dropped to zero from 10 million a year. The floating casinos have sunk. And movement is difficult.

"We tried to get gas, but when we got to the counter with our container, the man waved his hand and said no," Pedro, the Mexican landscaper, said in Spanish. "We couldn't say anything because we thought he might get mad and call the police."

José, also a Chiapas native who did not want to give his last name because he is undocumented, said that the only people he knew outside of Biloxi lived in Denver. But aside from having less than $20 left, he said he was also unsure whether he could make it that far without getting caught by the immigration authorities.

Like the many immigrants who came to the area as cheap labor to help rebuild Biloxi after Hurricane Ivan, José arrived in the area in September 2004 looking for contract work. "If I get a chance to get out of here, I'm going," he said. "This is all I know."

Ian Nelson, a Jamaican guest worker who for the last six months had been a housekeeper for the Grand Casino, said he would also rather not stay in the country. But as the only source of income for his parents in Jamaica, Mr. Nelson said he hoped the casino would find work for him in another state.

"I doubt they are going to help us," he said, "because no one from the company has even checked to see if their workers who are stranded here are O.K." About 344 Jamaican guest workers were in Biloxi, based at the three casinos in the city, said Ms. Dacosia, the chief liaison for the Jamaican Central Labor Organization. It is not clear whether they will be returned home without pay or placed in other jobs, she said.

Mr. Nelson said he had never felt more trapped in his life. "I have come and gone under the work program for the past four years and never had troubles with the program," he said. "But I paid for my own plane ticket and now I am here and I don't know if I will get the work and money that I was promised."

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