06/06 - New Arrivals: Immigration and the Bayou State

What are the impacts of immigration on our education, social service and criminal justice systems?

Over 300 years ago, the French were the first of many waves of immigrants to arrive on Louisiana's shores. Africans, Spanish, German, British, Irish, Italians, Slavs and other national and ethnic groups all made their mark on the state's history. In the 20th century, large numbers of Central Americans and Vietnamese settled in Louisiana. Recently, New Orleans construction trades and the Gulf Coast seafood industry have seen an influx of Mexican workers.

These new foreign laborers are arriving at a time when Congress is debating the first major reform of US immigration law in decades. At the end of May, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (also known as the Hagel-Martinez bill). The bill will allow millions of undocumented workers "a path to citizenship." Opponents of the bill say it will provide amnesty for tens of millions of illegal aliens, and cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in social service expenses.

This month's Louisiana Public Square will take a look at how immigration is affecting the state. How big a role do immigrant workers play in our state's economy? What are the impacts of immigration on our education, social service and criminal justice systems? Are we facing an alien invasion - or infusion of needed workers in an economy desperate for labor?

Backgrounder

History

Louisiana’s first immigrants were French settlers who began arriving at the start of the 18th century. Slave ships soon began arriving, carrying unwilling émigrés from Africa. Waves of Spanish, Anglos, Germans, Irish, Slavs, Italians and others came looking for land and opportunity. Most settled in and around New Orleans, a cosmopolitan port city that readily absorbed the steady influx of new cultures.

A second wave of French-speaking immigrants began arriving in the second half of the 18th century. These Acadians, or Cajuns, dispersed throughout the southern part of the Louisiana colony. Scotch-Irish/English would become the dominant stocks in the north and in the south, on the east bank of the Mississippi River [the present-day Florida Parishes],

In the 20th century, large numbers of Italians continued arriving. They were joined by immigrants from Central America – mainly Honduras, which had long-time ties with Louisiana because of fruit trade. In the 1970’s, a new group of immigrants began arriving in large numbers. Vietnamese refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland came to Louisiana by the thousands. Most settled in the southern part of the state, and many found work in the seafood industry.

Migrant workers – men and women who pass through the state on a seasonal basis – have played an important role in Louisiana’s large agricultural industry for many years. Some of these laborers are originally from Mexico and other countries south of the US border. Many live in the US either legally or illegally, while others travel back and forth across the border as part of temporary work programs overseen by the US government.

Foreign born are those who were not United States citizens at birth. In 2000, 2.6 percent of Louisiana’s population was foreign born. The estimate for 2003 is 3.0 percent. Although the percentage of foreign born in Louisiana was much lower than for the United States [11.9 percent], Louisiana’s rate of naturalization - 48.4 percent – was much higher than the US as a whole. Over half of the foreign-born population of the United States and about 40 percent of the foreign-born population of Louisiana were from Latin America. Among the foreign-born in Louisiana more than one third were of Asian origin, much higher than the national figure. 37.0 percent of the state’s foreign-born arrived in Louisiana between 1990 and 2000.

Post-Katrina

Louisiana’s newest immigrants –mainly male Hispanics - have come in large numbers to fill huge gaps in a labor market stripped of its normal workforce by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In the metropolitan New Orleans area, Katrina simultaneously dispersed the native workforce and destroyed its housing. The destruction of tens of thousands of commercial and residential structures, coupled with the absence of local workers, created a tremendous demand for labor.
Tulane University Sociology Assistant Professor Elizabeth Fussell compares the new Latino workers to 19th century Irish and Italian immigrants who constructed canals, levees and other infrastructure projects in New Orleans. These jobs were often deemed too dangerous for native workers.

According to Fussell, “In the aftermath of Katrina, immigrants were an invaluable resource to New Orleans, because they were here to work, and no one else was willing to do the work, or simply weren’t present to do it.”

Some observers believe the total number of migrant workers in the New Orleans area is in the tens of thousands. Not all of these newcomers are recent arrivals from south of the border. Some are self-described “Hurricane Chasers” who live in the US and make annual trips to the coastal south to work on hurricane clean-up and re-building. Many of these migrant workers have Green Cards or are resident aliens. A recent study by Tulane University and the University of California at Berkeley estimated that about half of the hurricane repair workers in New Orleans are Latinos. Of these, about half are thought to be undocumented.

The US Census Bureau recently released Gulf Coast demographic data from a survey covering the first eight months of 2005 and the last four months of 2005 [pre - and post - Katrina/Rita]. But getting a fix on the exact number of new immigrants who have come to fill the void in the labor market is extremely difficult.

Dispersal of the existing population meant that in some locations there were too few people to survey to get needed data. The lack of “livable” housing is a prime factor in the worker shortage in New Orleans. But the Census typically surveys traditional households, and a great many of the Latino workers in the New Orleans area have been living in make-shift conditions, such as RV campers, tents, unused residential and commercial spaces and dormitory-style accommodations provided by faith-based or other non-governmental organizations. The Census Bureau estimates that since Katrina/Rita, nearly 100,000 Hispanics have moved in to the Gulf Coast area, i.e. the 117 FEMA-designated “disaster counties” stretching from Texas to Alabama.

Immigration Issues

Crime
The large, sudden influx of outsiders to the state has raised concerns in some people’s minds. They wonder what impact this new population will have on social services, and the health care, education, and criminal justice systems.

Jim Letten, the US Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana, which includes metro New Orleans, says he has seen an increase in the number of felony cases involving illegal immigrants. In the first half of 2006, his office has prosecuted as many cases as in all of 2005. He is also concerned about international gangs, like Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which has strong ties to Central America. So far, there is no evidence the gang has gotten a foothold in the area, but he is monitoring the situation with the aid of local law enforcement agencies.

Fears of criminality among the Latino laborers are misplaced, according to Martin Gutierrez, who works with the Hispanic Apostolate of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. “Some people worry about increased gang activity,” Gutierrez says. “But I haven’t seen that. These migrants have come here to work.”

Education
Elizabeth Fussell, the Tulane University Sociologist, says the new migrants have had no impact on the education system so far, because the population consists mostly of workers who either have no families, or have left them behind. This situation may change as time goes on. If demand for these workers continues into the long-term, spouses - and school-age children - may become part of a second wave of immigrants.

At present, many undocumented workers are “living on the edges of society”. According to Fussell, “They are not draining resources in the least.” She asserts they are reluctant to use hospital services, because of their illegal standing. This, in spite of the fact that US laws prohibit denial of emergency medical services based an individual’s immigration status.

Healthcare
Past studies have shown that a high percentage of undocumented persons report being afraid they would not receive care because of their immigration status. The recently released Tulane University-UC Berkeley survey, "Rebuilding after Katrina: A Population-Based Study of Labor and Human Rights in New Orleans", is slated for publication soon. It found that among the Hispanic construction workers who reported health problems, a little more than one-quarter (27 percent) sought medical treatment. The disparity between documented and undocumented workers is striking: 33 percent of documented workers sought treatment for a medical problem while only 10 percent of undocumented reported seeking such treatment.

Data on actual use of hospitals by illegal aliens is very scarce. Neither the Louisiana Hospital Association nor individual hospitals in the New Orleans area contacted for this background report were able to provide any information on the numbers of undocumented immigrants served. This is not unique to Louisiana. A May, 2004 report by the US General Accounting Office stated:

”Despite hospitals’ long-standing concern about the costs of treating undocumented aliens, the extent to which these patients affect hospitals’ uncompensated care costs remains unknown. The lack of reliable data on this patient population and lack of proven methods to estimate their numbers make it difficult to determine the extent to which hospitals treat undocumented aliens and the costs of their care.”
”UNDOCUMENTED ALIENS: Questions Persist about Their Impact on Hospitals’ Uncompensated Care Costs”
GAO-04-472, page 21

There are, however, data available on health care costs for immigrants as a group [documented and undocumented]. A national study conducted in 2005 by Harvard/Columbia and published in the American Journal of Public Health, concluded that immigrants receive 55 percent less health care than native-born Americans. According to the study, immigrants accounted for 10.4 percent of the U.S. population, but only 7.9 percent of total health spending, and only 8 percent of government health spending. Per capita health expenditures averaged $1,139 per immigrant vs. $2,564 for non- immigrants. 30 percent of immigrants used no healthcare at all in the course of a year.

Latino immigrants had the lowest health expenditures -- $962 per person -- half those of US-born Latinos ($1,870) and less than one third those of US-born whites ($3,117). The vast majority of new immigrant workers in south Louisiana are thought to be Latino.

Jobs
Over half of the respondents to a 2006 Pew Research Poll reported that they felt immigrants were a burden because they are taking housing and jobs away from Americans. However, an even larger group – 65 percent– says most of the jobs that are being taken are ones Americans don’t want.

In Louisiana, estimates of the number of illegal migrant workers in the agricultural sector range from 50 to 90 percent. The reason: farmers can’t get locals to work the fields.

Rhonda Poche grows strawberries and other produce in Livingston Parish. She uses the federal government’s H2A program to hire guest workers from Mexico legally. Her ads for Louisiana workers go unanswered. “We would love to have local people come pick our strawberries,” Poche says. “But if we don’t hire workers from Mexico, our strawberries would just rot in the field.”

Immigration Reform

National
Americans are almost evenly divided on which approaches to take in solving the nation’s immigration problems. 40 percent think legal immigration should be decreased; 37 percent believe it should be kept at current levels.

The US Senate and the House of Representative each recently approved differing versions of a far-reaching immigration reform bill. Opponents of the Comprehensive Immigration Act, also known as the Hagel-Martinez bill, say the law would grant amnesty for 10 million immigrants already in the US.

Supporters say the bill provides a “path to citizenship”, not amnesty, and allows for much-needed guest workers from Mexico and other countries.

The bill as it now stands provides for increased penalties to employers of illegal migrant workers, and includes measures aimed at bolstering border security.

State
In Louisiana, Senator Donald Cravins (D), Arnaudville, introduced a bill that spells out procedures and penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens. The bill, which the Senate passed, allows fines of up to $10,000 for knowingly hiring undocumented workers.

Opponents of the measure said the law was unfair because it targeted the employer rather than the illegal worker. Even those in favor of the bill had some reservations about legislation that might slow down the re-building of hurricane-damaged areas. “If it weren’t for the workers we have in New Orleans, we wouldn’t have had the progress we’ve had,” Juan LaFonta, (D) New Orleans told the House Labor and Industrial Relations Committee before passage.

The bill reflects the feelings of roughly half of Americans (49%) recently polled by the 2006 Pew Research Poll who say increasing the penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants would be the most effective means for reducing illegal cross-border immigration.

Summary
Because Louisiana has such a small immigrant population compared to the rest of the country, the current national debate on immigration reform may not have raised much attention here, except for one thing: the storms of 2005. Now, the state is considering changes in its laws; media attention on the immigration issue has increased, and the public is beginning to think about changes in the cultural, economic and social landscape that these newest newcomers may bring. Thus continues a tradition stretching back three hundred years, to the arrival of Louisiana’s first immigrants.

Click here to view the online survey results

Click here to view the LSU Before and After Survey Results

Our Panelists:

We want to know your opinion! Leave your comments in the box below.


I am currently teaching French I and II to seniors at Delhi High School in the northern part of the state.  I assigned a research paper for them over the spring holidays:
La Grande Derangement. 

They asked if there is any movie they might watch about the exile.  The students found their research and our discussion very interesting.

Would you please let me know if there is any video that I might rent, borrow, or possibly buy (if my superiors okay it!)

Thank you,  Joyce Hunter

Posted by Joyce Hunter  on  04/05  at  11:51 AM

Ms. Hunter,
Thanks for your interest in LPB and helping to educate the children of our state.

I asked our producers about programs re the exile of the Acadians and they recommend the following two LPB productions:

-  Against the Tide http://beta.lpb.org/index.php/site/programs/against_the_tide_the_story_of_the_acadian_people/

-  Louisiana: A History (Episode 1) http://www.louisianahistory.org/
    Also has a Teachers’ Guide http://www.louisianahistory.org/education/index.html

You may be able to find the programs on DVD at your local library. You can also find the programs at “Shop LPB”
-  https://secure.lpb.org/shoplpb/Details.cfm?ProdID=95 - Against the Tide
-  https://secure.lpb.org/shoplpb/Results.cfm?keywords=Louisiana+History - Louisiana: A History

Hope this helps. And thanks for your interest in “Louisiana Public Square.”

Posted by kgautreaux  on  04/14  at  09:16 AM
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