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10 years after Katrina: Day laborers seek acceptance, hope for better future

Fernando Lopez, 24, is one of the lead organizers of the Congress of Day Laborers, an organization formed in 2006 after the influx of day laborers along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Fernando Lopez, 24, is one of the lead organizers of the Congress of Day Laborers, an organization formed in 2006 after the influx of day laborers along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of workers would congregate at 5 a.m. near Lee Circle in New Orleans, ready to be picked up by contractors and locals beginning to rebuild their devastated town.

A majority of those workers were undocumented immigrants — more than an estimated 5,000 Hispanic families who traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi in search of construction, roofing and cleaning work desperately in need after the category 3 hurricane slammed the gulf coast in August of 2005.

“As soon as the storm happened, a lot of people started hearing how much destruction happened,” said Fernando Lopez, one of the organizers of Congress of Day Laborers, an organization formed in 2006 as a result of the influx of undocumented immigrants along the Gulf Coast. “They came from directly from their native countries,” he told Fox News Latino.

This anniversary is a little opportunity to remind people about the positive contribution undocumented immigrants have made to our society. The community has been there for every disaster, immigrant labor is helping to build this country.

- Fernando Lopez, Congress of Day Laborers

The first months after the storm, residents and contractors would pick up gas at one of the few functioning stations at Lee’s circle, a major intersection, and then load their trucks with immigrant laborers paid to clean up flooded homes, do roofing and remodel buildings from scratch.

In those days, Lopez said, workers would work non-stop for good pay, sometimes making 500 dollars in just a few hours.

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The swarm of day laborers and their families over the last 10 years has transformed New Orleans and Louisiana. According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Latino population in the city increased more than 50 percent in the last decade. In the state of Louisiana, the Hispanic population increased by 96 percent from 2000 to 2013 -- twice as fast as the national average.

Still, despite the changing demographics, Lopez says he feels the immigrant Hispanic community, credited for being pivotal in the rebuilding efforts in the days, months, and years after the storm, is being mistreated.

“Even though these workers helped in the reconstruction, anti-immigrant sentiment has always been here,” said Lopez, an undocumented immigrant himself.

The changes and the mistreatment of day laborers took a turn for the worse about five years ago, Lopez said, when the demand for their labor began to drop. Contractors began fighting for big contracts and they began paying day laborers cheaply. They started to “undermine workers,” Lopez said.

“They would care less. Workers were being exposed to chemicals, people got injured, people would get sick,” Lopez said. “There was a lot of exploitation of workers, whenever workers would go to employers to reclaim their wages they would be threatened with violence or deportation instead of getting a paycheck.”

Lopez said the Congress of Day Laborers was formed to help these workers have a voice. They’ve been making inroads, he added, as the Hispanic community becomes more established in Louisiana, and more restaurants and Spanish language billboards have sprung up.

Still, 10 years later, Lopez said he can’t help but be disappointed, especially given the current anti-illegal immigration climate and what he calls “hateful language” being used by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“This anniversary is a little opportunity to remind people about the positive contribution undocumented immigrants have made to our society,” Lopez said. “The community has been there for every disaster, immigrant labor is helping to build this country.”

Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.