Shortchanged

Houston-based immigrants who flock to New Orleans can get all the jobs they want. Getting paid is a lot harder.

Juan Ramon Aguillar came to the United States two and a half years ago, traveling by train from his native Honduras to Nuevo Laredo, where he paid a coyote$1,600 to take him to Houston.

It was a calculated risk.

He had to provide for his grandson, daughters, wife and mother, and he figured Houston, where he had some friends, would be a good place to find construction work and send money back to his family.

Juan Ramon Aguillar is still waiting for $1,200 in pay.
Daniel Kramer
Juan Ramon Aguillar is still waiting for $1,200 in pay.
Juan Alvarez (center) tells workers about their rights.
Daniel Kramer
Juan Alvarez (center) tells workers about their rights.

He was half right. He found the work, but the money wasn't what he'd expected. The contractors who picked him up off the street rarely paid what they'd promised, if they paid at all, and his mother got sick, making what little he earned amount to even less.

"People come here to better themselves," the 42-year-old says in rapid-fire Spanish, "but it ends up being worse, because you end up losing a lot, sometimes even your family."

After Hurricane Katrina walloped the Gulf Coast, Aguillar hitched a ride to New Orleans, knowing there'd be plenty of cleanup and not enough locals willing to do it. He moved into a flooded house with four other Hondurans and found random work on street corners, eventually scoring what he thought was a sweet gig: gutting houses and hanging drywall for $500 a week. But three weeks later he was owed $1,200, he says, and the contractor pretty much told him he'd never see the rest.

As an illegal immigrant, Aguillar prefers to steer clear of anyone in uniform, so there was no taking this problem to the authorities. When three guys mugged him at knifepoint last month, stripping him of $130, he didn't report it to the New Orleans police; the last time he interacted with a NOLA cop, he was told, "This is America. We speak English here."

More than 30,000 Latino workers flocked to the Gulf Coast in the months following Katrina, according to an estimate from the Gulf Coast Latin American Association. And many of them, like Aguillar, came from Houston. They knew there was opportunity among the flooded buildings and rusted cars, the broken limbs and downed wires. What they didn't know was how much it would cost them.


For the most part, the story of Hurricane Katrina has been told in black and white. The Lower Ninth Ward was devastated, we learned, and the Garden District untouched. White survivors "found" food, while blacks "looted" it. And "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

But Katrina was about more than black and white; it was also about brown. Last month two Rice University sociologists, Katharine Donato and Shirin Hakimzadeh, released "The Changing Face of the Gulf Coast," a report charting how Latino immigrants have been settling in large numbers along the Gulf Coast for the last 15 years. Before Katrina, the New Orleans area was home to some 140,000 Hondurans -- making it the largest Honduran community in the United States -- and to thousands of immigrants from other countries in Latin America.

The evacuation of these immigrants went largely unreported; many of them were undocumented and hesitant to hop on a bus to Houston. But they did come, traveling along an underground railroad of sorts, shacking up with relatives and countrymen whenever they could.

Many found their way to El Coquito, a Honduran restaurant in southwest Houston that became an impromptu hub for those seeking food and shelter. "For the people who didn't have documents, it was so hard," says restaurant owner Cristina Flores, who's also president of a group called the United Honduran Committee. She says she tried to connect evacuees with larger organizations, but the lack of green cards and social security numbers quickly became an issue.

Houston Mayor Bill White's office started directing supplies to community activists, for dispersal among the displaced. One of the helpers was a Guatemalan immigrant named Juan Alvarez, a 52-year-old whose nascent Latin American Organization for Immigrant Rights has been around for about ten months. When the Minutemen announced they were going to start filming laborers in Houston, it was Alvarez who drove all over town, speaking with the immigrants about their rights and passing out his business cards (which, at that point, were the only proof of his organization's existence).

Since Katrina hit, Alvarez has been overwhelmed with calls from Houston-based laborers who've gone to New Orleans and not been paid for work they've done. Many of them went immediately after the waters subsided, receiving a nudge when the Bush administration waived the usual requirement for contractors to prove their workers were eligible for legal employment. The Department of Homeland Security reinstated the requirement two months later, shortly after undocumented immigrants were found working for Kellogg Brown & Root on the Belle Chasse Naval Base.

Alvarez discovered a contractor on Hillcroft was being paid $100 a head to load up vans with laborers and take them to New Orleans for construction work. Some of the passengers saw the vans as free rides back to Louisiana, but many were Houston-based immigrants looking for jobs. Alvarez decided he'd had enough when he had to take five laborers to the hospital; they had come back from New Orleans covered in rashes, with fits of vomiting and diarrhea. They also hadn't been paid for their work.

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