Is New Orleans Trying to Deport Undocumented Workers Now That the Rebuilding Is Over?

Federal contractors lured undocumented immigrants to New Orleans after Katrina. Now the city's Latinos want police and immigration agents to stop harassing them.

NEW ORLEANS--"Who wants to be the mayor?" Fernando Lopez asks a group of more than 300 Central American workers gathered in a church gym near the Lower Ninth Ward.

No one raises a hand.

Lopez, an organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers, is looking for a volunteer to play the role of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu during a recent meeting.

A man in a lime-green polo shirt eventually comes forward. Organizers hand him a microphone and a navy-blue tie. They hold up a cardboard box cut out to resemble a television screen.

"What would you like to hear the mayor say to New Orleans?" Lopez asks.

The Honduran man looks nothing like Landrieu, but for a moment he imagines himself as the mayor addressing the city's Latino workers on television. He adjusts his tie, stands behind the fake television and tells the crowd what they most want to hear.

"We are doing everything possible to end the discrimination," he says in Spanish. "You don't need to be afraid anymore."

Cheers and applause echo through the gym. Other men line up to take their turn.

"Latinos are the foundation for the reconstruction of New Orleans after Katrina," one man says.

More cheers.

"New Orleans has great tourism because of the work Latinos are doing in our hotels and restaurants," says another.

Organizers scribble down their statements, brainstorming what to include in a formal declaration they will ask Landrieu to read publicly. Most of the people in the room are undocumented workers from Honduras and Mexico, who arrived with more than 10,000 other Latino immigrants to rebuild New Orleans within a year of the devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Federal contractors lured them here from other states after airing Spanish television ads that promised high hourly wages and no threat of deportation. The employers could hire undocumented immigrants because President Bush had temporarily suspended certain labor laws in the hurricane's aftermath.

But those workers say they no longer feel welcome in the city they now call home. They can't walk down the street with their families, they say, without wondering when another SUV with dark-tinted windows will pick them up and fingerprint them. Attendance at the weekly day laborers group meetings has more than tripled in the last two years as immigration raids--and police cooperation with immigration agents--have escalated.

The city's Latino immigrants are fed up, and they want the city--and country--to know it.

They say they're tired of police randomly pulling them over and calling immigration authorities. They're tired of wearing electronic ankle monitors. And they're tired of the repeated fingerprinting outside homes, grocery stores, and businesses.

"It's not fair to treat us like this. We rebuilt the city," said Jimmy Barraza, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras who has three American daughters. "We did the dirtiest work, cleaning out the worms from refrigerators and throwing out dead animals."

Barraza has seen immigration agents raid his apartment complex in the suburb of Metairie three times in the past year and a half. The second time, he and his wife were unloading groceries from their car when half a dozen agents surrounded them, guns drawn. They handcuffed Barraza and took his wallet before he could say a word, he said.

Agents then roughed up his stepson, an American citizen, who had come outside to see what was happening. The 16-year-old boy had refused to go back inside when agents ordered him to, so they threw him against the wall and handcuffed him, Barraza said. The squad eventually released the boy and Barraza's wife, who has Temporary Protected Status, but took Barraza to a van to scan his fingerprints. A deportation order popped up in the system, so they took him away.

"Honestly, I never thought it would happen to me," said Barraza, whose deportation was delayed for six months with the help of the Congress of Day Laborers. "I never thought someone would separate me from my daughters."

Barraza's deportation has since been delayed twice, and he plans to request another six6-month delay before his January deadline. The day laborers group has helped stay the removal of more than 100 people caught up the raids, most of whom have American children, staffers said.

Such deportation relief is rare in Louisiana. The state's immigration judges show little leniency compared to other states. So far in fiscal 2014, they've ordered deportations in 75 percent of the cases they hear in court, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Only Georgia has a higher percentage of removal orders.

Though the total number of deportations in Louisiana has dropped in recent years, immigration advocates say enforcement has turned more aggressive and racially motivated. They blame that on two things: The New Orleans Police Department created a broad policy last year that allows officers to work with immigration officials. And those immigration agents have adopted a national enforcement strategy that focuses on using mobile fingerprint scanners to find immigrants with criminal convictions or active deportation orders. It's called the Criminal Alien Removal Initiative. Critics call it "stop-and-frisk for Latinos."

Reports of immigration agents breaking up a Bible study group and fingerprinting a Hispanic U.S. citizen in front of his son garnered national attention and prompted U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., to admonish the director of U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"Conducting random sweeps and raids coupled with targeting ultimately innocent individuals must cease," Richmond wrote in December to Acting Director John Sandweg. "I believe there is a better way to remove any criminal lawfully."

ICE officials deny the claims that agents are raiding neighborhoods and randomly rounding up brown people. The Criminal Alien Removal Initiative, which launched nationwide in 2012, allows agents to identify criminals and previous deportees on the spot and lets them immediately release immigrants who don't fall into either category, said Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman in New Orleans. Before, agents had to keep people in detention centers until they could identify them.

"[The strategy] focuses ICE's limited enforcement resources on identifying, arresting, and removing at-large criminal aliens who pose a risk to community safety," Cox said in a written statement. "ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately."

Immigration fugitive operations teams in New Orleans are looking for a specific person when they show up outside a supermarket or apartment complex, according to an ICE official. A common scenario looks like this: Someone doesn't show up for their immigration court hearing, so the judge issues a deportation order. ICE fugitive teams then have to track down and deport that person. They'll show up at an immigrant's home, workplace, or another place they might frequent. Agents will ask people there if they've seen the individual, often questioning them about their immigration status, too.

"They don't have to answer, but nine out of 10 times they will freely admit to being illegally in the country," said the ICE official, speaking with National Journal on the condition of anonymity.

Then agents run their fingerprints to see if they have criminal convictions or an active deportation order. Most people don't fall into those priority groups, so they're usually released on the spot, even if they're undocumented, the official said. The New Orleans field office does not regularly track how many people their fugitive teams fingerprint with the mobile scanners.

Many of these operations have happened outside a popular chain of Hispanic supermarkets, according store managers and their customers. Lorna Torres, business controller for Ideal Discount Market, says stings take place about once a month outside one of their three stores in the New Orleans area.

"It definitely scares our customers away," said Torres. The chain's owner has gotten lawyers involved, she said, but they have no control over immigration enforcement that's not directly on their property.

Marta Escalantes avoids shopping at one of the chain's stores in her Mid-City neighborhood ever since her husband was picked up in the parking lot. The 33-year-old hotel worker was two months' pregnant that evening when she asked her husband, Ernesto Lopez, to buy her a watermelon to ease her nausea.

She remembers the sickening feeling when a friend called to tell her that immigration agents had raided the supermarket in Mid-City and that Lopez's car was still in the parking lot.

"I felt desperate because I thought I was going to be all alone with my little girl," said Escalantes, who cleaned streets in New Orleans after Katrina and now cleans hotel rooms.

Sure enough, her husband had been among those fingerprinted and detained. Lopez says he never told the agents where he was born, but they fingerprinted him anyway.

He says he was sitting in his car in the parking lot when an agent approached and repeatedly asked him where he was from. Lopez responded each time by saying that he lived in New Orleans.

The agent then told him to get out of the car, he said, and pulled Lopez's wallet out of his pocket without permission. The agent found identification from Honduras, so he handcuffed and fingerprinted Lopez with seven other customers agents had stopped. Those without past deportations were released, but Ernesto had been deported before.

An immigration judge delayed Lopez's deportation for one year so he could be with his wife when their daughter was born. The year ended in August, and he has a hearing scheduled in December to request another delay. That is the only option he has.

Lopez said he feels betrayed by the city he helped rebuild and feels targeted because of his skin color.

"After [Katrina] happened, we were all welcomed to come rebuild the city. And now they repay us with deportation and separating our families," he said.

Lopez and other members of the day laborers group have protested outside the local ICE headquarters and have repeatedly asked the city's police department to stop working with immigration enforcement. Lopez remembers how New Orleans police had helped immigration agents during the raid, blocking parking lot exits and surrounding streets.

Mayor Landrieu and city police Superintendent Michael Harrison recently attended one of the weekly meetings organized by the Congress of Day Laborers. They listened to immigrants' complaints but said police would continue working with ICE. In an interview with National Journal, Harrison said that police might occasionally help direct traffic disrupted during ICE operations but that their collaboration with immigration enforcement is strictly on criminal investigations.

"We have no interest in civil deportations," Harrison said. "If they ask us to help them with criminal investigations, we'll help them, but only in criminal investigations."

The police department, which is under federal court supervision because of police misconduct, is in the process of reviewing the bias-free policing policy it created in June 2013, which allows officers to work with ICE agents. It's unclear if the revised policy will limit their partnership.

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 identity of this iconic city.