STORMS IN THE GULF
Roundup of Immigrants in Shelter
Reveals Rising Tensions
By CHAD TERHUNE and EVAN PÉREZ
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 3, 2005; Page B1
LONG BEACH, Miss. -- Last Wednesday, police and the U.S. Marshals Service swept into a Red Cross shelter for hurricane refugees here. They blocked the parking lot and exits and demanded identification from about 60 people who looked Hispanic, including some pulled out of the shower and bathroom, according to witnesses. The shelter residents were told to leave within two days or else they would be deported.
"They asked me where I wanted to go: to Houston, Atlanta or back to Mexico," said Jose Luis Rivera, 39 years old and an undocumented construction worker from Veracruz, Mexico. Mr. Rivera said he had been sleeping in a tent outside the large shelter building since Hurricane Katrina struck just over a month ago, flooding his second-story apartment in nearby Pass Christian and destroying all his belongings, including a pickup truck. "I lost everything I own in the storm. But they said they didn't care. They told us that if we didn't leave they would return on Friday with buses to take us away," he said.
Fearful they would be forced to leave the country, Mr. Rivera and most of the other Hispanic men left the Red Cross shelter the next morning. Local contractors agreed to house workers they are hiring for cleanup work and other jobs in tents at worksites. Mr. Rivera set up his tent at a Baptist church that told him it had room for Hispanics from the shelter.
The incident was confirmed by the shelter's staff, including an assistant shelter manager and volunteer Jesse A. Acosta, who said he, too, was asked by a local police officer to show identification. After flashing his Red Cross badge, Mr. Acosta, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, was told to show another form of ID and then had to wait 20 minutes while being screened for outstanding arrest warrants. The line of men, women and children included no whites or African-Americans, he said.
"I was singled out because of my skin," Mr. Acosta said. "These people went through Katrina and went there to be taken care of and not to be hassled."
A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals assisting in Long Beach said the Wednesday night incident was led by the Harrison County Sheriff's office, and referred calls to it.
Harrison County Sheriff's Department Capt. Windy Swetman said no one at the shelter was threatened with deportation, adding that law-enforcement officials wanted to make sure everyone staying at the shelter had been displaced by the hurricane. "We were concerned with the growing numbers of the Hispanic population and whether or not we had displaced residents of southern Mississippi from the hurricane or workers brought in from other areas using the shelter as base camp," he said. Contractors, not relief groups, are responsible for providing housing to workers, he added.
Police also were concerned about reports of drinking, marijuana use and fights among Hispanic men living in tents outside the shelter building, according to Capt. Swetman. "This was more of a humanitarian mission," Capt. Swetman said. On Thursday, the day after the incident, officers told Red Cross workers they were responding to a 911 call about a Mexican-American at the shelter. Red Cross workers said they didn't alert police.
Lea Stokes, a Mississippi state spokeswoman, referred calls about the incident to the Gov. Haley Barbour's Department of Public Safety. Reached during a meeting yesterday, Warren Strain, a spokesman for the public safety department, said he couldn't immediately answer questions. He didn't return a call seeking comment.
The roundup at the Red Cross center underscores deeper social and economic tensions that are surfacing as areas battered by Katrina and Rita struggle through what will be a frustratingly long recovery. Some communities will need to house thousands of displaced storm victims for months at least, further straining government agencies and relief groups. Meanwhile, undocumented workers are likely to be a major part of the massive cleanup and rebuilding, competing for jobs against some non-Hispanics thrown out of work by the hurricanes.
Before Hurricane Katrina, small communities along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, with its plentiful casino, seafood industry and construction jobs, had increasingly become a draw for immigrant workers. In 2004, persons of Hispanic or Latino origin formed about 2.6% of the population in coastal Harrison County, where Long Beach is located, compared with 1.4% in Mississippi statewide, according to U.S. Census estimates.
Immigrant groups say the incident in Long Beach is the latest example of how immigrant laborers are falling through the cracks of disaster recovery in the aftermath of the disastrous hurricanes that have pounded the Gulf Coast. Last year, thousands of immigrants in Florida were overlooked in the relief operation, and many feared asking for aid would lead to their arrest.
"These people have already lost everything they had, and now they have been victimized all over again," said Vicky Cintra, emergency outreach coordinator for the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, a coalition of civil rights, religious and community groups in Jackson, Miss.
Under government rules, illegal workers aren't eligible for most of the government aid made available to storm victims, such as cash grants and loans for emergency expenses and home repairs. But operations run by the Red Cross, churches and other nonprofit charities don't distinguish among storm victims and will grant them financial aid and other help.
Steve Bayer, the local spokesman for the Red Cross, said the organization doesn't ask about citizenship status when offering shelter or providing money after a disaster, and didn't ask the police and marshals to come to the shelter, where about 175 people were living. "We told them this is not the proper procedure to follow," he said. "The people there have been treated with respect by the Red Cross. ... We don't profile people."
Jana Zehner, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross in Washington, said the organization's security chief met with local and federal officials to discuss how to avoid similar incidents. After the police visit, Red Cross staff helped some of the Latinos who were nervous about staying find another place to live.
In the aftermath of the hurricanes, residents and immigrants have received mixed messages on how welcome the immigrant labor force, which likely will form a major part of the reconstruction effort, will be. In early September, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would temporarily relax its policies and not prosecute contractors who don't check the legal status of workers.
While not necessarily a suspension of immigration law, the department made the move "to make sure that people who are otherwise able to work, and now need employment, wouldn't be stopped from working," said Jamie Zuieback, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security. The measure expires in mid-October.
On Thursday, a day after the roundup, a senior federal marshal showed up at the Red Cross shelter in Long Beach, according to people who were there. "He told us that he had not given the officers permission to treat us that way," Mr. Rivera said, but he decided to leave anyway.
Write to Chad Terhune at email@example.com and Evan Pérez at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wait - what now?
So when illegal aliens are found, they are just told to clear out of town, but are not actually deported??
Am I missing something, or is that pretty fucked up? Now they'll jsut be someone else's problem in the next town over.
immigration doesn't even care about delavan, WI :)
I called twice and was told there were not enough illegals working at my place of employment. Just embrace it like everyone else lmao
I hate political correctness.
Why can't they just call them "illegal alien who should be deported".
The whole article just pisses me the hell off.
They should deport them right from the shelter, no waiting! BTW, remember the bus that burned on the way to Dallas while evacuating old people during hurricane Rita? The driver was an illegal alien!