NEW ORLEANS — Many of the illegal immigrants who have been rebuilding New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina stayed behind when Gustav struck because they were afraid of being arrested if they boarded the buses and trains arranged by emergency officials.
"We know that people died during Katrina, but we had no choice but to stay here," said Carlos Mendoza, a 21-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras who rode out the storm with seven other people. They took shelter in an apartment that is close to a street corner where day laborers congregate.
"Many stayed because of fear," Mendoza said. "I would say at least 50 percent of us."
Authorities offered to evacuate residents on buses and trains — and promised not to ferret out illegal immigrants. But fear of being arrested or deported kept Mendoza and every other undocumented person he knows from accepting the free ride.
Immigrant-rights groups estimate the city is home to as many as 30,000 illegal immigrants. No one knows how many stayed behind.
Reconstruction boom attracted immigrants
New Orleans' Hispanic population is tiny compared to other major American cities. But it was practically nonexistent until Katrina destroyed large swaths of the city. The reconstruction boom attracted thousands of illegal immigrants, mostly men from Mexico and Central America who worked as day laborers.
The jobs aren't quite as plentiful as they were immediately after Katrina. And even when work was easy to find, the pay wasn't always enough for immigrants to afford cars and the money needed to flee from a storm on their own.
On top of that, the government's crackdown on illegal immigrants has made day laborers nervous to travel.
"Moving around has become very difficult for undocumented workers," said Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network.
The city did take some steps to make it easier: evacuation news releases were distributed in Spanish, and the city's 311 number had Spanish-speaking operators.
"Every action that we took in English, we tried to do in Spanish as well," city spokesman James Ross said.
But the message did not get through to wary Hispanic communities that have experienced increased immigration raids in recent years, said Jacinta Gonzalez, a day labor organizer with the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice.
Adding to the difficulties, Gonzalez said, were problems with the 311 service. Several day laborers complained of being on hold for more than 30 minutes before getting connected with a Spanish-speaking operator.
Evacuation included registration
And when illegal immigrants realized they would be asked to register to be evacuated, the situation became even more untenable, she said. Part of the evacuation plan included giving evacuees wristbands with identifying information that could be entered into a computer database to track where people were.
"The government didn't give people assurances that they would be returned to New Orleans" and not deported, Gonzalez said. "Just sending out press releases the day before the evacuation isn't going to work."
In the Central City neighborhood, home to many Hispanics, some who stayed could be seen peeking out their windows as police patrols passed by to enforce a curfew. Several declined interviews or would not open the door.
"I told them all to leave," said Raymond Francois, resident who returned to his home Tuesday and was knocking on doors of Hispanic neighbors who stayed. "But they told me they couldn't. They were worried about not having papers."
Avoiding checkpoints during departure
Santiago Gradiz, a 61-year-old illegal immigrant from Honduras, got a ride to Houston with a handful of other people in the same situation. They left Saturday, he said, to try to avoid any checkpoints.
He and 10 others are staying in a one-room apartment, and they don't plan to return to New Orleans until cleanup efforts are complete and extra police and soldiers are no longer on the streets. Besides the danger of the storm, Gradiz said, he was afraid that staying could also get him deported because he would be more noticeable to police.
"Luckily I had some money from working the day before moving furniture," and could help pay the costs of the trip, he said.
Jose Gordillo, 50, never even considered trying to leave. The Mexico native and his two adult sons, all three illegal immigrants, instead stayed in their rented house.
"It's been a few weeks since we got work, so we didn't have the money to leave," Gordillo said. "I felt a little panicked during the storm, but with God's help we made it."
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