Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 2005 / 17 Elul,
Hispanics in Gulf get to show rest of country what they are made of
What happened to the nearly 200,000 Hispanics living in and
around New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit last month? I asked the
question of one reporter who had called me to comment on the role race
played in the evacuation fiasco, but she didn't know. In fact, at the height
of the crisis, few in the media seemed the slightest bit curious about this
population, despite hundreds of stories about poverty, race, and the failure
of government to rescue the most vulnerable.
I wondered in part because I saw so few Hispanic faces among
those stranded at the Superdome and Convention Center. Yet I knew that many
Hispanics lived in New Orleans, occupying the same service jobs they do
elsewhere, often on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Most are
immigrants often illegal from Honduras and Mexico. Then, just when I
thought they were nowhere to be found, I spotted a few Hispanic men in the
television footage this week of crews cleaning up the debris that has
overwhelmed so much of the Gulf Coast. Wherever they went to escape the
storm, they're back because there is work to be done, and they are eager
to do dirty jobs that many others shun. I wonder if these images will sink
in with the anti-immigrant crowd that imagines that Mexicans come to the
United States looking for a handout.
My suspicion is that few of New Orleans' Hispanic immigrants
especially the illegal ones stuck around for the hurricane to hit.
Immigrants in general tend to have strong initiative and good coping skills.
Someone who can figure out how to get into the U.S. (especially illegally)
can certainly figure out how to get out of New Orleans.
The city's Hispanics didn't need the cavalry to come to the
rescue, even though many of them are very poor. They did what immigrants
always do: They relied on informal networks of family, friends and fellow
countrymen, and pooled their resources to get out while they could. Fear of
being deported was no doubt a big motivator for some not to stick around,
but the loss of work probably played an even bigger role in their decision.
Like so many others devastated by the storm, however, many of these
Hispanics have lost everything. But for those who are illegally in the U.S.,
no federal help will be forthcoming. Illegal aliens are ineligible for the
$2,000-per-family emergency cash, food stamps, job placement, and other
federal assistance offered to Katrina's victims rightly so.
Some Hispanic advocacy organizations are crying foul. "What that
suggests is that the federal government is prepared to serve some victims
but not others," Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National
Council of La Raza, told The Washington Post. "That sends a terrifying
message to the larger community," she said. But does it really? The Red
Cross, Catholic Charities, and other private groups aren't checking green
cards before dispensing aid, so there are sources of help for illegal aliens
displaced by Katrina.
Even Mexico for once has stepped up to give aid. A
40-vehicle Mexican military convoy brought mobile kitchens, medical
supplies, food and doctors, engineers and others to the hurricane victims.
Not since Mexico ceded one-third of its territory to the United States in
1848 in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo have Mexican troops officially
entered U.S. territory. It's likely that at least some of this aid will go
to Mexican nationals living in the U.S. which is the least Mexico can do
given its more or less official policy of encouraging illegal migration
It's hard to imagine now with the scars of Hurricane Katrina
still fresh, but my bet is that the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast will be a
boon to Hispanics in the region. There will be plenty of jobs to go around,
and, as always, immigrants will be among the first lining up to do them.
It's too bad Congress hasn't done its job as well, passing genuine
immigration reform that would let more immigrants come legally to do those
JWR contributor Linda Chavez is President of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Her latest book is "Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)