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May 16, 2008

Immigrant workers in New Orleans start leaving

By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO, The Associated Press, Thursday, May 15, 2008; 4:33 AM

"NEW ORLEANS -- Josue Vega was one of thousands of immigrant workers who flocked to New Orleans in 2005 in hopes of finding a rebuilding job in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

He worked seven days a week and earned more than twice his normal earnings. But with work now down to three days a week, the 20-year-old is planning to go home to Honduras.

"My goal is to be here until November, and then never come back," he said. "I've had enough."

The stops and starts of the post-Katrina rebuilding effort, often due to bureaucratic delays in funding, still provided plenty of work to rebuild homes and businesses. But reconstruction work has slowed as projects are completed or transition to phases requiring highly specialized skills.

"In the immediate aftermath, labor demand was huge and few workers were willing to accept the labor and residential conditions that prevailed in the city," said Elizabeth Fussell, a Washington State University professor who studied immigration after Katrina.

"Now there is less demand, and it is for workers with more skills and perhaps certification by the state. This translates to less demand for low-skill, undocumented workers."

There are various signs of a city in flux. New Orleans building permits for the second quarter of 2007 numbered 338, for example, but fell to 169 by the fourth quarter.

And grants from Road Home _ the state's troubled flagship recovery program _ fell in first-quarter 2008 to less than half the rate in the previous quarter, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center and the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

"We had hoped to see more construction work after the Road Home funds were distributed, but that still hasn't happened," said Phuong Pham, a Tulane University professor.

Allison Plyer, data center deputy director, said it's possible home construction has declined, but repair of infrastructure and public buildings is just beginning. "If the workers have the right skills and no other obstacles, there should be work going forward," she said.

Workers still cluster outside Home Depot and Lowe's hoping a contractor will hire them. But they say their gathering spots have become targets for undercover U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who hold up the prospect of day's pay as bait.

"They come in vans like they're contractors," said Walter Ortiz, 32.

ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez wouldn't confirm sting operations, but said "ICE conducts targeted enforcement actions based on intelligence and investigative leads in both criminal and administrative cases."

New Orleans prohibits people from asking for work on the street but enforcement was relaxed because the city recognized "the important contributions of these laborers," said Lisa Ponce de Leon, the city's director of international relations.

Deportations have increased 156 percent since 2005, when 3,962 immigrants were deported, to 9,749 deportations in 2007, according to ICE...".

at www.ap.com

Posted by VisaLawyer at May 16, 2008 07:00 AM

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