NEW ORLEANS--Alfred Marshall didn't recognize his Central City neighborhood when he returned two years after Katrina. More specifically, he didn't recognize the brown faces and Spanish conversations he heard outside the B.W. Cooper housing projects where he grew up. He'd never seen Latino day laborers standing on street corners before.
At first, it confused him.
"We were used to blackness," says Marshall, 55, who lived most of his life in the low-rise brick housing projects next to Interstate 10. "We had never experienced Latinos here in New Orleans like that."
Soon Marshall and his neighbors noticed that immigrants were living in many of their old apartments, which they had evacuated after the storm. They even saw some Latino workers wearing their clothes.
That made them angry.
"We were like, 'What the [expletive] are they doing here? The city wouldn't allow us back for so long, but you allowed them to move in?" says Marshall, noting that the immigrants were squatting in apartments that didn't have electricity or running water.
The 1950s-era buildings, commonly known as the Calliope Projects, once had the reputation as one of the most dangerous housing projects in the nation, a place where drug gangs battled for turf and rappers like Master P got their start. But this was Marshall's home. It's where he was raised by a single mother and where he then raised his own son.
But after Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 23, 2005, and the levees broke, Marshall and more than 1,000 families were forced to abandon Calliope as floodwaters reached 6 feet deep. They first went to the Superdome, then boarded buses to cities like Houston and Denver. Marshall, his girlfriend, and their son wound up in Houston. There he found carpentry work and moved into an apartment complex where other Calliope residents lived. Most of them wanted to return home, Marshall says, and pressed the city's housing authority to reopen Calliope.
In August 2007, the city reopened a small number of apartments for returning residents. So Marshall packed up his van and drove back to New Orleans. He says he felt certain he could find work rebuilding his hometown.
But it wasn't so easy. For one, federal subcontractors had an army of undocumented immigrants willing to do the hard work of cleaning gutters and filthy streets for low pay. Second, Marshall and many of his neighbors had criminal records, which contractors initially told them was the reason they wouldn't hire them. (Marshall had served prison time for burglary.)
When a site foreman finally did offer Marshall a cleaning job, the pay was less than the local $8 prevailing wage. That's because President Bush had temporarily suspended the Davis-Bacon Act in the wake of Katrina, exempting federal contractors in New Orleans from paying prevailing wages. It also allowed them to hire undocumented immigrants without facing penalties.
Marshall and his neighbors were furious. And they directed their frustration at their new Latino neighbors.
"Our interactions were mean, like telling them they were taking jobs from us, they didn't belong here, they're illegals," Marshall says.
Although the Davis-Bacon Act was reinstated two months after Katrina hit, all contracts signed during that time remained exempt. Refusing to work for less than the prevailing wage, some of Marshall's friends turned to looting and other crimes. He got involved with drugs, then got arrested and landed in drug court. He was sentenced to two years of probation.
It was early 2011, and from his living-room window Marshall could see crews of Latino workers demolishing the last Calliope buildings. Only a few would remain standing. When those same crews began building mixed-income town houses across the street, Marshall walked over to the construction site every day to beg the foreman to give him work. Within two weeks, he was hired--still below the prevailing wage--to build frames for the town houses.
Marshall tried to get work for his neighbors as well, with little success. Then, with the help of STAND with Dignity, a nonprofit organization that represents low-wage, predominantly black workers, things changed. Marshall learned about a federal law that requires contractors who get money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to hire a certain percentage of low-income workers, giving preference to people who live in public housing. After several meetings with city housing authorities, the subcontractor he worked for was ordered to hire dozens of Calliope workers.
By mid-2011, Marshall was interacting more often with Latino immigrants on the job and through the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, the umbrella organization that oversees STAND with Dignity and the Congress of Day Laborers. One evening at the center's offices in an old house near the Tremé neighborhood, Marshall and about a dozen other African-American workers listened to eight immigrants describe (through an interpreter) their experiences with wage theft, racial profiling, and police harassment.
That shifted everything.
"I saw that the only difference between us was the language," says Marshall, who began organizing more of these meetings. "We had the same stories."
Marshall could relate to their stories of being constantly stopped, handcuffed, and fingerprinted on the street by immigration agents. It reminded him of the War on Drugs in the '80s and '90s, when, he says, police began throwing black men in jail for loitering on the streets.
"It was really a war to stereotype black people and imprison us and incarcerate us," says Marshall, who now works as an organizer for STAND with Dignity. "So when I look at deportation, that is incarceration to me, because you are separated from your family."
Last November, Marshall put on a T-shirt that read "No Papers, No Fear" and joined dozens of day laborers protesting outside the local headquarters of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in downtown New Orleans. They sat in the street, blocking traffic and demanding an end to the department's Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, which encourages agents to use mobile fingerprint scanners to find and detain immigrants with criminal histories.
Video footage of the sit-in shows Marshall and dozens of immigrants blocking Poydras Street, chanting "Not one more!"
After the protesters refused to get out of the street, New Orleans police officers handcuffed Marshall and about two dozen other people who participated. They were booked in jail, but released later that day without criminal charges. Marshall said it's important for the city to see African-Americans fighting for immigrants' rights.
"I understand what they're going through, so I had to stand with them," he says. "I showed the world that we are united here."
National Journal recently visited New Orleans to see how the city has changed in the nine years since Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of African-American families and drew thousands of Latino immigrants to rebuild the city. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about the people who are redefining the future of this iconic city.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.
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