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Advocates ask Congress to Take an Active Role

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Immigrants' Rights Update, Vol. 20, Issue 1, March 23, 2006

African-American and Immigrant Advocates Ask Congress to take an Active Role in Safeguarding the Rights of Gulf Coast Hurricane Survivors and Workers

By Brett Murphy

Following the hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (see "Gulf Coast Hurricane Survivors Ask International Body to Investigate Human Rights Violations"), hurricane survivors and advocates took their message to Capitol Hill.  At a congressional staff briefing organized and hosted by NILC in conjunction with the Congressional Asian and Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, advocates asked Congress to take concrete steps to protect the rights of Gulf Coast hurricane survivors and workers.  The AFL-CIO, American Friends Service Committee, Interfaith Worker Justice, and National Council of La Raza helped NILC support the event.

The briefing was moderated by NILC Skadden Fellow Karen Tumlin and featured presentations by Victoria Cintra of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, Leah Hodges of the Causeway Concentration Camp Foundation, and Monique Harden of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, who each reiterated the testimony they presented earlier in the day to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  In addition, Tomás Aguilar from the Equal Justice Center in Austin, Texas, and Jennifer Rosenbaum from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, described the working and living conditions of immigrant workers in the Gulf Coast based on their own work in New Orleans.

Using survey data, photographs, and testimonies from workers they had interviewed, Aguilar and Rosenbaum provided a compelling description of the abuses workers are currently enduring.  Workers are sleeping in tents, flooded homes and cars, as well as in bunk beds stacked three-high in moldy "worker hotels."  Many go without protective equipment, even though their jobs expose them to mold, asbestos, toxic chemicals, broken glass, and other health hazards.  Unscrupulous contractors often shortchange these workers on their wages or pay them nothing at all.

Rosenbaum also distributed "Broken Levees, Broken Promises: New Orleans Migrant Workers in Their Own Words," a powerful collection of first-person accounts of the abusive and dangerous working and living conditions migrant workers are facing in the Gulf Coast. In short, a lack of federal oversight of government contracts and lax enforcement of fundamental labor laws is allowing the Gulf Coast to be rebuilt on the backs of underpaid or unpaid workers toiling in substandard working conditions.

Many of the participating organizations made specific recommendations for future congressional action. NILC presented a list of recommendations to Congress to ensure that the reconstruction of the hurricane-ravaged region promotes the basic labor rights of all workers (available here). NILC made specific recommendations for congressional action to accomplish the following goals:

  •     Stop wage theft in the Gulf Coast.
  •     Improve health and safety conditions in the Gulf Coast.
  •     Ensure oversight of federal agencies' enforcement of labor laws.
  •     Increase transparency and accountability in the federal contracting process.
  •     Prevent employers from misusing immigration laws to circumvent their legal obligations in the
        workplace.
  •     Provide federal oversight of state and local responses to the hurricanes.
  •     Ensure disaster assistance is provided to immigrant survivors of the hurricanes.
  •     Amend immigration laws to ensure that legal status of immigrant survivors is not affected by the
        loss of loved ones, work, or documents in the hurricanes.