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Immigration Debate Heats Up In New Orleans As Reform Stalls In Congress

Kate Richardson
Catholic nuns held a rally at Loyola University in support of undocumented immigrants and immigration reform.

November was a busy month for local immigrant advocates. With immigration reform stalled in the House of Representatives and unlikely to pass before the end of the year, frustrations have boiled over across the country.

Recent news reports have brought attention to a little known mandate that requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement — or ICE — to hold a minimum of 34,000 immigrants in detention across the country on any given day. Many opponents of the law say that it encourages ICE to detain and deport undocumented immigrants who do not pose a serious threat to national security.

At the Lowes hardware in Metairie recently a group of men were standing in the parking lot. Most, if not all of them, are undocumented immigrants from Central America and Mexico. Héctor is an older guy who’s eager to speak for the group about their experiences with the police and ICE agents.

“We didn’t come here to rob,” he says. “We’re day laborers. We need to work just like they have to do their jobs.”

But there are a lot of occupational hazards when you’re undocumented.

A Sheriff’s department officer drives up.

“Sorry but you need to get off the property,” the deputy says.

Ever since Katrina, undocumented immigrants have become a major demographic in New Orleans. They’re often referred to as “reconstruction workers,” and a lot of them have settled here and have young children who are U.S. citizens. But many feel that they’ve been targets of a recent surge in detentions and deportations.

Juan Carlos Salazar is from El Salvador. He was detained while driving home from work and held for 25 days, and is currently awaiting his deportation hearing. He says the agents told him he was being detained because he’d been held by immigration 10 years ago.

“Yes,” he told them, “but I never thought that what happened in 2003 was an immigration detention because they only held me for 2 hours, then let me go.”

Immigrant advocates say that stories like this have become increasingly common under the Secure Communities program, which began in 2008. Here’s how it works, according to ICE: Agents target a specific individual who is known to have a criminal record. They have the authority to arrest that person. From there the immigrant can be detained and sent before a judge, who may or may not issue a deportation order.

It sounds straightforward, but here is where the controversy comes in: if a person has a previous deportation order or detention, then simply being in the country without documents is a crime. So people like Juan Carlos are considered a criminal and are eligible for deportation.

In response to several recent detentions, a group called the Congress of Day Laborers staged a civil disobedience outside the ICE office on Poydras street last month. 22 people were arrested for refusing to clear the streets. Lupe Molina was one of them.

“If I had to do it again I would,” Molina says. “This is is something that everyone has to do for everyone else. There were white and black people there supporting us... they were arrested, too. That motivated me and made me proud.”

The black supporters she refers to are Alfred Marshall and Austin Washington, members of STAND with Dignity, an advocacy group for low income residents and workers in New Orleans. Both Marshall and Washington were arrested along with the immigrants. Marshall says that he became inspired to act on behalf of undocumented workers when he heard their stories at workshops hosted by the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

“When we go out to a job site, a work site, we may see the Latino brothers over there working," he says. "In the beginning we thought they was taking our jobs, but we’ve come to understand that they need to make a living here as well. After Katrina they rebuilt New Orleans, and that gives them the right to stay.”

STAND with Dignity isn’t the only non-Latino group in the city voicing its support. On a recent drizzly Saturday morning Catholic nuns from 12 different religious communities gathered for a rally on the front lawn of Loyola University.

“For almost three centuries we have practiced charity. Today, we come to promote justice,” said Sister Clarita Bourque in her opening remarks.

Sister Maura O’Donovan was one of the event’s organizers.

“We have an issue with the fact that the American economy depends, really, on these workers," O'Donovan says. "But then, when it suits us, we want to deport them. This is clearly exploitation. We can’t stand silently by. We have to speak up."

Amid the recent outcry, ICE maintains that it does not conduct raids or detain people indiscriminately.

Back at the Lowes parking lot, one worker says that he’s been picked up several times by ICE, but they always let him go because he has no previous record. Another describes watching ICE agents grab a worker by the shirt and detain him at gunpoint.

Most say they understand that police officers and ICE agents are just doing their job. What many wonder, though, is if and when immigration reform will change what it means to do that job.