By Melissa Crow, Gulf Coast Policy Attorney,
and Rosana Cruz, Gulf Coast Field Coordinator
In recent weeks, the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has stepped up its enforcement efforts against immigrant workers in the New Orleans area, according to reports from advocates there. ICE's aggressive tactics stand in stark contrast to the Bush administration's ongoing failure to enforce employment laws in the Gulf Coast and will only exacerbate existing ethnic tensions in New Orleans.
On the morning of Mar. 17, 2006, ICE agents arrested dozens of Latino day laborers at Lee Circle, a site in New Orleans where workers regularly congregate. Twenty government cars, including both ICE vehicles and New Orleans Police Dept. squad cars, surrounded Lee Circle and demanded to see the Latino workers' ID cards. Eyewitnesses reported that in some cases ICE agents used excessive force to prevent workers from fleeing. An ICE agent in New Orleans reported that more than half of the detainees were released later the same day, which calls into question the basis for their arrests. Moreover, the involvement of local police officers in an immigration raid can only undermine public safety by deterring undocumented workers from reporting crimes or serving as witnesses for fear of deportation.
ICE launched subsequent raids against immigrant workers on Apr. 2, 25, and 26. The April 2 raid occurred at a motel in Central City, where many immigrant workers live. Claiming that they were looking for tattoos as signs of gang affiliation, ICE agents strip-searched workers in the parking lot of the motel. Local law enforcement officials were also present. The Apr. 25 and 26 raids targeted day laborers. On the 25th, ICE agents, together with Jefferson Parish sheriff's deputies, raided the Shell gas station at the corner of Veteran's Blvd. and Causeway in Metairie. According to eyewitnesses, approximately ten people were detained, including two Honduran women. The following day, ICE squad cars arrived at the Midtown Motel in Mid City New Orleans, where the management had attempted to evict immigrant workers without cause the previous weekend. Although all of the workers had paid for their rooms through the end of the month, many fled out of fear. Local advocates successfully intervened to prevent the eviction of those who remained.
NILC, together with other national and local immigrant rights groups and labor organizations, continues to undertake advocacy efforts intended to ensure better coordination between ICE and the U.S. Dept. of Labor (DOL). The goal is to prevent unscrupulous employers from flouting prevailing wage and hour laws by reporting to ICE workers who complain about nonpayment of wages. Both ICE and DOL have expressed their commitment to developing a process whereby ICE will determine, before deporting any worker detained in the Gulf Coast, whether the worker has unpaid wage claims. ICE and DOL are reportedly engaged in ongoing consultations on this subject.
At a meeting with officials from DOL on Mar. 15, NILC reemphasized the need for additional permanent bilingual wage and hour investigators and more effective outreach strategies to expedite the processing of wage and hour claims in Louisiana and Mississippi. At the moment, DOL has only one bilingual investigator in Mississippi and four in Louisiana. To date, DOL has supplemented its Gulf Coast staff by bringing in bilingual investigators from offices in other states on an ad hoc basis, which deprives those states of necessary resources. With respect to outreach, DOL has recently begun conducting one lunch and one dinner session per week at Good News Camp in City Park. The primary purpose of these sessions is to interview workers regarding potential wage and hour claims. At DOL's request, NILC agreed to help publicize these sessions.
NILC will continue to work with local advocates to promote better coordination between DOL and ICE and to monitor the effectiveness of DOL's efforts to ensure that Gulf Coast employers are paying their workers in accordance with prevailing law.