This story was co-produced by Feet in Two Worlds and El Diario/La Prensa.
NEW ORLEANS —Federal immigration officials have been visiting command centers on the Gulf Coast to check the immigration status of response workers hired by BP and its contractors to clean up the immense oil spill.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Louisiana confirmed that its agents had visited two large command centers—which are staging areas for the response efforts and are sealed off to the public—to verify that the workers there were legal residents.
“We visited just to ensure that people who are legally here can compete for those jobs—those people who are having so many problems,” said Temple H. Black, a spokesman for ICE in Louisiana.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, thousands of Hispanic workers, many of them undocumented, flocked to the region to help in the reconstruction of Louisiana’s coastal towns. Many stayed, building communities on the outskirts of New Orleans or finding employment outside the city in oil refineries and in the fishing industry.
These Hispanic workers have been accused of taking away jobs from longtime Louisiana residents, and the tension has grown as fishing and tourism jobs dry up, leaving idle workers to compete for jobs on the oil spill clean-up effort.
Black explained that ICE and Border Patrol began to monitor the response efforts shortly after job sites were formed following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that began on April 20 and has yet to be contained.
ICE, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, visited two command centers, one in Venice and the other in Hopedale, twice in May. ICE agents arrived at the staging areas without prior notice, rounded up workers, and asked for documentation of their legal status, according to Black.
The command centers, located in the marshes a few hours east of New Orleans, are among the largest, with hundreds of workers employed at each site.
“We don’t normally go and check people’s papers—we’re mostly focused on transnational gangs, predators, drugs. This was a special circumstance because of the oil spill,” said Black.
“We made an initial visit and a follow-up to make sure they were following the rules,” he said.
“These weren’t raids—they were investigations,” he added.
There were no arrests at either site, according to the ICE spokesman. But he said if undocumented workers had been discovered, they “would have been detained on the spot and taken to Orleans Parish Prison.”
BP and one of the companies that holds a large contract in Hopedale, Oil Mop, did not return calls requesting comment. A high-level employee for another contractor in Hopedale, United States Environmental Services, who did not give her name, said, “I just got a phone call. I heard they were visiting.”
St. Bernard Parish, where the Hopedale site is located, assured that the local government had nothing to do with the checks and had no knowledge of them.
The ICE agents who visited the sites reminded subcontractors of immigration laws and their obligation to use programs including E-verify, an electronic system run by the Department of Homeland Security which checks workers’ immigration status.
An Oil Mop subcontractor called Tamara’s Group has hired more than 100 Hispanic workers from the region to work at the Hopedale site. The owner of Tamara’s Group, Martha Mosquera, said that when ICE came in the first week of May, “they gathered them all in the tents and they asked for their papers.”
One of the workers in this group, a 61-year-old Mexican woman named Cruz Stanaland, rememberes ICE’s visit: “They were civilians, they weren’t wearing uniforms and they were driving in cars that didn’t have the Immigration logo…dark cars with tinted glass.”
Another worker from the same group, Etanlisa Hernández, who is 30 and from the Dominican Republic, said, “There were five or six men. They were very polite.”
Although Mosquera said her company had no problems because all of her employees were legally employed, some pro-immigrant leaders criticized the government’s quickness to enforce immigration requirements during a crisis.
“It’s like, ‘round everybody up and leave the oil on the beach,’” said Darlene Kattan, Director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana. “In a catastrophic situation like this, I think we should be more well-reasoned.”
“People are desperate for jobs,” she added, “And they think that if someone looks like an undocumented immigrant they’re taking the food from their mouth.”
Clarissa Martinez de Castro, Director of Immigration and National Campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group in Washington DC, said, “the clean-up effort is a gargantuan effort and we have to ensure that the crews are working in a way that protects their health and safety, and that should be the priority.” She added, “if ICE thinks that there are bad apple employers, they should go directly to them instead of harassing clean-up crews that we all know are doing a crucial job.”
Despite the visits by ICE, some undocumented workers have been hired by BP contractors. One fisherman from El Salvador, who didn’t want to reveal his name because he was afraid of being deported, has been laying down boom alongside the marshes for a week.
“You’re always afraid Immigration is coming,” he said.
He explained that although he didn’t feel safe doing the clean-up work, he took the risk because the job pays $360 a day. “I came because I have a wife, and kids, I came to give them a better life. My uncle’s family lent me money to come here. Maybe this will help me pay them back.”
Listen this week to NPR’s Latino USA for Annie Correal’s report on the latest from the Gulf Coast.