LatinaLista -- At a time when the worst environmental crisis has hit the United States, it seems federal authorities were going to ensure that undocumented immigrants were not going to profit from it in any way, such as, risking their own health to help clean up the mess.
In the following special report, which was released today in both English and Spanish and co-produced by Feet in Two Worlds and El Diario/La Prensa, reporter Annie Correal investigates the story of ICE agents determining if Hispanic workers ready to help clean up the BP spill in New Orleans were legally permitted to be there.
While critics of illegal immigration will applaud this move by ICE agents, it raises legitimate fears that if in a time of crisis, where time is of the essence, if Latinos will still be subjected to this type of scrutiny.
From the report, all Hispanic workers quizzed on their status had nothing but positive things to say about how this ICE inquiry was handled.
By Annie Correal
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."
A fisherman now working as a response worker for a BP contractor.