Many immigrant workers labored in the Gulf Coast's thriving hospitality industry before the wind and water of Hurricane Katrina reduced the industry to matchsticks and filthy shreds of insulation. Three kinds of workers made up the majority of production: native-born, H2B workers (hired directly through the Labor Department with labor certification) and those contracted out—housekeepers, mostly undocumented.
The last category faced serious language barriers and often didn't have their own transportation, being totally dependent upon the will of their contractor to get them where they needed to be. Bill Chandler, president of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, says many of those contractors did not get them out of the Grand Casino and Hotel and other hotels when Hurricane Katrina hit.
"That third group is difficult to find now," Chandler said. "More than likely, they lived in the same apartment complex they worked (in), but their contractors were responsible for them. We just don't know where they are, and nobody's keeping track of them."
Grand Hotel Casino representatives could not be reached for comment Sept. 26.
Victoria Cintra, coordinator for the Mississippi Gulf Coast MIRA, says a similar incident almost occurred at L'auberge du Lac Hotel & Casino in Lake Charles, La.
"I got a runaround from officials when I reported that immigrant workers from Jamaica and Romania were holed up in the hotel, abandoned by their contractor," Cintra said. "There were about 120 of them. They didn't have any transportation. I called the Lake Charles Police Department, and they said I needed to call the civic center. I called the civic center, all I got was a recording saying 'if you need a ride, don't call us. Just come here in person.'"
Cintra said her second, more desperate, call to the police got a terse reply that the department had sent out a car to investigate. Cintra, who was on a cell phone with one of the stranded, found that claim suspect.
"They said they sent a supervisor out there, but they couldn't tell me the supervisor's name. They said he was told that these people went there on their own free will, and they do not want to be evacuated," Cintra said. "That's funny, because when I talked to those same people they said they were abandoned by hotel management."
Cintra's repeated calls to the LCPD eventually paid off, but she remains livid. "Had we not been able to contact people they would have just been left there," she said.
L'auberge du Lac Hotel & Casino officials did not return calls to the Jackson Free Press Sept. 26. The casino Web site explains that the property is closed and assessing storm damage.
Other problems plague undocumented workers during the devastation of a hurricane. Most can't take advantage of aid programs such as FEMA, which withholds assistance to undocumented workers. Also, neither the Red Cross nor FEMA have many Spanish speakers working the long lines.
Chandler says Red Cross officials in Hattiesburg and Laurel are also demanding Social Security numbers before allotting disaster relief—something most undocumented workers cannot provide.
Abigail Adams, public affairs representative for the Red Cross, denies that her organization's workers are making such demands.
"We've never asked for Social Security numbers," Adams said. "We ask for driver's license, car registration or a utility bill, some form of registration to show they were in an impacted area. The case workers have very specific guidelines to work by, and we're neutral. We don't base aid on race, religion or anything like that. It's based on need and proof that they were impacted. We take this very seriously."
FEMA does allow non-citizens to apply for assistance on behalf of their U.S.-born children. Wording on the final page of the FEMA application, however, holds a treacherous, unexpected, waiver: "I understand that the information provided regarding my application for FEMA disaster assistance may be subject to sharing within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) including, but not limited to, the Bureau of Immigration and Custom Enforcement."
That signature-certified demand essentially means an instant visit from an immigration officer when a non-citizen applies for money on a child's behalf.
At least one Mississippi resident believes that legal citizenship should rightfully be a requirement for federal money.
"Mexicans (Latinos) should have no right to be citizens and certainly no right to any benefits or privileges from this country," said Learned attorney Richard Barrett, founder of the Nationalist Movement, a white rights group. "You have here a parasitic society where aliens, minorities and criminals feed on the body of the whole, so you end up with, instead of justice for all, favors for the few."
Chandler bristles at this opinion.
"Undocumented workers live here, they work here, they pay taxes here, and they're victims the same as anybody else, and they're human beings the same as anybody else," he said. "They're not something from outer space. They're human beings from here who've been displaced by NAFTA, among other things, and they're here to try to survive."