Hard, Dirty, Work: Latinos Clean Up The Gulf of Mexico

Victor Cariás, a supervisor on an oil spill clean up crew in the Gulf of Mexico - Photo: Annie Correal

Victor Cariás, a supervisor on an oil spill clean up crew in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Annie Correal)

Listen to the radio story on disaster migrants Annie Correal produced for Latino USA.

[audio: disastermigrants.mp3] PORT FOURCHON, LOUISIANA—There’s a white sand beach that stretches for miles here. Pelicans fish above the water and occasionally, a dolphin crests over a wave. It’s hard to believe, but as the nation has watched all summer on TV, the biggest spill in history is still washing up oil here.

Victor Carías, 22, is the supervisor of a twenty person clean up crew. He’s originally from Guatemala, but has been living in South Carolina and Louisiana for the past few years. He directs the workers to isolate and remove the shiny patches of crude oil underneath the top layer of sand.

“So what they’re doing is they’re digging and the good sand they put away,” Victor explained. “They’re trying to catch the oil and put it in the bags.”

Victor followed his parents to the U.S. when he was 18, and soon after, he found work cleaning up oil. He’s now bought his mother, father, brother and sister to work on the clean up. Like many of the crews, his group started working together within days of the disaster, and they’re all Latino.

Most workers are from the Dominican Republic, but there are also people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Honduras and Guatemala. Victor’s boss is a Colombian Woman named Martha Mosquera. Her company, Tamara’s Group, has a contract to supply workers to clean up camps in Louisiana and Mississippi, and she says they’re 90 percent Hispanic. It’s likely this scenario is repeated all along the gulf coast, but BP says it isn’t tracking race and ethnicity of the clean up crews.

The Latino workers in Port Fourchon come mostly from new immigrant communities around New Orleans–Kenner, Bridge City, Gretna–and this summer they’re staying in rentals and tent cities on the coast as they do this difficult work. Many came to Louisiana to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Then some began to make a living cleaning up after oil spills, like Victor. One of his first was in 2006, when two ships collided on the Mississippi.

“From Chalmette to Belle Chasse, we been cleaning up all the area over there, just trying to keep the oil out,” he said. “And I been on Tulsa, Oklahoma – one of them oil plants have explosion and the water came and all the oil came through the city and I was over there and our job was pretty much to pressure wash the oil to the house, clean it up and get ready for demolition.”

Victor is what you could call a disaster migrant. The BP spill is the fourth oil spill he’s worked on. He said that normally, days after a spill, contractors show up at churches to recruit workers. But this time, everyone knew what had happened immediately.

“I never been, I never seen something like this happen before. All the oil spill sites I worked before, if you put them all together they’re not even one quarter of this,” he said.

Clean up workers in the Gulf of Mexico find oil in the sand - Photo: Annie Correal

Clean up workers in the Gulf of Mexico find oil in the sand. (Photo: Annie Correal)

Victor and his crew members say they realize that there are health risks involved in this line of work. After all, they have to wear boots and gloves and have to be decontaminated when they leave the site. Already, at least two workers have died from heat stroke. But they say that in this economy, it’s worth the risk. They make $12 to $15 an hour, plus overtime, and they get temporary housing and $30 a day for meals.

“All of them, if they’re here, it’s for a reason and it’s that they need this job. Everybody here to make a living,” Victor said.

In early June, the U.S. Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, visited Victor and his crew.

“My purpose here is to assist the workers with respect to safety and protection and the fact that we’re protecting all workers regardless of migration status, because that’s the federal law. If there are complaints of people not being paid adequate wages or loss of overtime or wage theft, or if they feel that they’re in a harmful situation where they may be exposed to contaminants or something that might cause them fear or a health risk, then they should call our OSHA office,” Solis said.

At the same time, there’s a strong message here that only people who have legal immigration status can apply for work. Latino men mill about pick-up spots and job centers looking for clean up work–some have come all the way from Texas–but most are turned away when they reveal they’re undocumented. So Victor feels lucky:

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that there is a lot of people that they don’t have documents and they don’t have a job for the same reason. And I know that they would be so happy if they get a chance to come and do this job, but BP got rules and the government got rules.”

At Port Fourchon, all the workers are documented and have passed E-Verify, the government’s electronic status check. Nevertheless, the sight of Latinos being bussed into remote clean-up sites here and all along the coast has aroused suspicion–in one case leading a local sheriff’s office to call in Immigration and Customs Enforcement to verify that the workers were documented.

Victor Cariás and his oil spill clean up crew in the Gulf of Mexico - Photo: Annie Correal

Victor Cariás and his oil spill clean up crew in the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo: Annie Correal)

The Louisiana Department of Homeland Security Office insisted the reason behind the visits was to make sure the jobs BP created were reserved for the local work force, but they upset some of the workers on Victor’s crew.

Junior Ayvar, an oil refinery worker when he’s not cleaning up oil spills, said this is not the moment to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Junior, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, thinks the government should take into consideration that this is a national emergency and these are workers who are protecting the country’s environment.

If there’s one thing these workers know, it’s that even in the worst catastrophe lies opportunity. For the country, the BP oil spill may be the opportunity to support the people who do it’s hardest, dirtiest work.

AboutAnnie Correal
Annie Correal is a reporter based in New York, where she has covered crime, immigration and breaking news for The New York Times and El Diario, and contributed radio pieces to WNYC, NPR and This American Life. She is working on a new, Spanish language storytelling podcast, Radio Ambulante (www.radioambulante.org) scheduled to launch in 2012. Annie was born in Bogota and raised between California and Colombia.