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Hard Rock Hotel collapse reminds New Orleans of undocumented workers' plight

Lauren Zanolli in New Orleans
Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

The sight of the collapsed Hard Rock Hotel is impossible to escape on the busy Canal Street corridor downtown. Slabs of broken gray concrete form a frozen landslide 18 stories above the ground, and the arm of a massive crane stands almost upright after a botched removal effort left it embedded in the sidewalk below.

Nearly three months after the deadly collapse, the bodies of two victims – José Ponce Arreola, from Mexico, and Quinnyon Wimberly, from New Orleans – still remain inside the wreckage.

After Delmer Joel Ramírez Palma was deported just days after Thanksgiving, the Hard Rock ruins serve as a stunning visual reminder of the precarious situation of undocumented workers who hold a unique place in the history of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Having helped rebuild New Orleans and much of the surrounding region after the hurricane, they now face being hounded out of the place many of them call home.

Ramírez Palma, an undocumented construction worker at the Hard Rock, had tried to warn supervisors of construction safety concerns but was ordered to ignore the issues, according to his lawyers and family. Two days after being seriously injured in the collapse, he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) and subsequently deported to Honduras, against the protests of immigration advocates and the head of a state labor agency. He had lived in New Orleans for 18 years.

For many New Orleanians, the treatment of Ramírez Palma was both a stinging rebuff to the contributions of undocumented immigrants in New Orleans over the years, and yet another example in a long history of Latinx worker abuse in the city.

“It’s just unconscionable. It’s unreal how evil sometimes their policies are,” Salvador Longoria, executive director of Puentes New Orleans, said of Ice’s decision to deport the Honduran father of three.

Longoria co-founded Puentes, a local Latinx advocacy not-for-profit, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to help support and assimilate the thousands of workers who came to New Orleans to rebuild the city after it was flooded by a massive levee failure.

In the New Orleans area, undocumented families have had to change the way they live in Ice’s shadow, Longoria said.

He knows of families that limit their outings to work and the grocery store, and of children who have memorized a plan of action, including who to call to post bail, in case their parents do not return home after work.

“They’re dealing with real dystopian scenarios,” said Longoria. “After the raids and after the detention of so many other people, that’s what they’re living with every day and it really is a constant fear and tension about what could happen,” he said.

Within the last six months his organization received an uptick in requests for “Know Your Rights” training from undocumented communities in neighborhoods across New Orleans to help protect themselves in case of an encounter with Ice.

Latinx workers, many undocumented, were a pivotal force in the city’s post-Katrina recovery.

Latinx workers, many undocumented, were a pivotal force in the city’s post-Katrina recovery. A 2006 academic study found about half of the reconstruction workforce was Latinx, and about half of that group was undocumented. The majority of Latinx workers relocated to New Orleans from other areas of the United States.

“So many of the people that were gutting the moldy buildings, and tearing walls down and doing the dirty work that has to be done in mold-infested houses were Latino workers,” said Longoria. “[They] without a doubt, reconstructed and rebuilt New Orleans.”

In an effort to speed up construction after the storm, the federal government suspended enforcement of employee eligibility checks by employers and certain workplace protection measures.

The result was widespread worker exploitation.

“There was wage theft, there was underpayment of wages, there was abuse of the employees,” said Longoria.

Reports from 2015 found day laborers were still waiting to get paid for post-Katrina work a decade after the storm.

Many leading advocacy groups in the city – like the Congress of Day Laborers, an immigrant-led activism group affiliated with the New Orleans Center for Racial Justice – were created as a response to the rampant abuse of Latinx workers in the wake of the storm.

Post-Katrina, the Latinx community developed a strong and growing presence in New Orleans. Since 2010, the Hispanic population has grown by 24%, outpacing 7% total growth in the metro area, according to the latest statistics from the New Orleans Data Center. Most of the area’s 114,000 Latinxs reside in the suburban areas of Jefferson Parish, outside New Orleans, and Hondurans represent about a third of the Latinx population in the area.

While Ice maintained a steady rate of deportations under President Obama, the current administration’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on immigration and asylum seekers has cast a new level of fear among Latinxs in New Orleans, like so many other cities and towns across the US.

Louisiana has also recently emerged as a new hub of migrant detention. Over the past year, Ice has expanded its network of detention centers across the state with eight new facilities, all former state prisons and local jails.

People hold candles during a candlelight vigil outside city hall for deceased and injured workers from the Hard Rock Hotel construction collapse. Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

As of today, 7,513 people, or 17% of the 44,538 national detainees, are being held in Ice custody in Louisiana, according to an agency official.

While Louisiana’s converted jails are also housing detainees from out of state, the sharp rise in detention capacity and remote locations of the new facilities has alarmed local undocumented workers and immigration advocates.

Bruce Hamilton, staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana, said he drives up to five hours to reach clients detained in Ice facilities across the state.

Remote detention centers add yet another layer of difficulty to an already complicated immigration system and has a tangible impact on the outcomes of asylum cases, lawyers and advocates say.

“[Asylum-seekers] are very much cut off from the resources that could help you with asylum,” said Hamilton. “You don’t have access to your papers, if they’re in the care and custody of your family. You don’t have access necessarily to an attorney. And you may have very limited access to the internet or to a law library.”

Asylum-seekers are very much cut off from the resources that could help you with asylum.

Bruce Hamilton

A spate of controversial cases in Louisiana this year – including the detention and deportation of Yoel Alono Leal, a Cuban man with cancer, and the suicide of another Cuban, Roylan Hernández-Díaz, while in a private Ice detention facility – have prompted popular outcry against Ice policies.

The ACLU is pushing Ice to stop the use of solitary confinement in detention centers and grant bonds and parole for asylum seekers on humanitarian grounds. Granting of parole requests has dropped precipitously among certain Ice field offices, from more than 90% in 2011-2013 to 4% in February-September 2017, according to an ACLU lawsuit.

Ice officials did not respond to a question on parole denials but said in an email statement: “Bond decisions are based on an alien’s flight risk, and the potential threat to public safety. Each case is reviewed individually, taking into account factors like immigration history, criminal history and community ties.”

While New Orleans keeps a sanctuary city policy that prevents local police from aiding Ice, in suburban municipalities – where the Latinx population is concentrated – offer no such protections for the undocumented.

Still, New Orleans, which exists in the mainstream imagination along a black/white racial binary, isn’t immune to anti-Latino sentiment, says Longoria.

His family emigrated to New Orleans from Cuba when he was four years old, and he noted that even while most New Orleanians are accepting of the Latinx community, he still perceives a gradual shift in racial anxieties.

“I grew up here and I never felt a tension about my Latino identity and my assimilation in the city. But, as the years have gone on, when certain people see the number of Latinos increasing … they feel that for some reason or another their way of life is threatened.”

Longoria still takes the long view: “I hope that most New Orleanians realize that, you know, Latinos have actually been here since the city was founded,” he said. “And it’s just a new phase of that history that has always existed in New Orleans.”