By Stephanie Wartelle
Little known outside of the Hispanic community, the Congress of Day Laborers (Congreso) situated on S. Miro Street is a community whose weekly gathering seems like a huge celebration. The smell of meat cooking and tortillas baking wafts from a barbeque pit outside, and children run around their mom’s feet playing soccer and tag. Walking inside, the language spoken is almost exclusively Spanish. The Congreso’s goals, however, are not celebratory: they mean business. They gather to rally, to discuss immigration issues and social injustices, and to organize and educate against unfair employers and wage theft. They form a community of people who, although make up a small fraction of the New Orleans population, are swiftly becoming a vital part of New Orleans. Latinos are becoming more entwined with the city’s culture while at the same time fighting to be rejected from it, a paradox which has only increased in the previous ten years as social injustices become more apparent.
Carlos Cardenas is a testimony of discrimination against Latinos.His wife, Daniella Cardenas, a mother and nursing assistant, initially watched her husband as he fought alongside the Congreso for his rights to his stolen wages back before his situation took a turn for the worst. “ They (The Congreso) tried to fight for him (to receive his wages back), but as soon as immigration found out, he was deported” Cardenas says of her struggles with immigration officials in New Orleans. The first time he was deported, the couple was expecting their first child : “My husband was a cook in a Chinese restaurant for years, and now he sand blasts ships. We have been together for 10 years and married for 6 years. When I was pregnant with our first son, he went to Florida to help some friends bring a bus to the port so that it could be shipped to Honduras. While they where at the port the man that opened the port for them called immigration and they where arrested. My husband was driving the car they were returning home in. There wasn’t anything wrong with their port papers, it was only that they were Spanish men.”
Cardenas has since been back to New Orleans and deported four separate times, and Daniella says the couple has been fighting with immigration for eight years. This is a central issue for the Congreso: the workers are taken advantage of because they are often undocumented workers. “We were both devastated,” said Daniella of the first deportation. “I tried to get him legal assistance, but with it being the 4th July holidays everyone was closed. While he was detained in Florida, the immigration officers told him and everyone else that they had no way to leave and that their only hope was to sign their deportation papers.” Daniella’s son was 3 months old when she took him to Honduras to meet his father for the first time.
Sarah Fouts is a graduate student at Tulane and volunteers with workers such as Cardenas’s, who she refers to as “day laborers.” She studies Latin American culture in New Orleans and its impact on labor, transnationalism, and immigration. She analyzes these factors through the lens of food, in her dissertation “Latino Foodways.”
“Post Katrina, you find these foods on the edges of the city, under overpasses and the backs of buildings. It’s not because of permitting or anything, it’s just because that’s where that population is living or working — day laborers and such,” she says of the many Latino-influenced foods she studies in the city. According to Sarah and the Congreso, Day Laborers are individuals who “stand looking for work on street corners. They have done treacherous, often life-threatening work to rebuild New Orleans.”
It is these day laborers, many like Cardenas, who were originally brought in to re-build after Katrina devastated New Orleans, that congregate on S. Miro and make up the Congreso. It is these same workers, who were tasked with re-building the city, ( or in Cardena’s case, dealing with a crucial part of New Orleans economy: port shipments) that now must fight for basic rights to live and work.
In a recent article by the National Journal titled “New Orleans’s Post Katrina Identity Crisis”, it is estimated that the Latino Population has grown by 40 percent since 2000, according to census data. A large part of this, according to NPR, was in fact due to re-building efforts. Sarah’s involvement with the Congreso was initially sparked by her interest in this specific immigration situation. Her volunteer work has led her to not only be able to gather data for her graduate studies, but also form close relationships with many of the members. “I was interested in more radical, community-based, bottom-up, and member-led organizing work. I heard about the Congreso through a professor at the University of New Orleans.” She’s been a crucial part in countless lives ever since. “My work with the Congreso has helped give me access to different food vendors and restaurants. And, it has enabled me to see the parallels between the food regulation and immigration policies, which limit integration.” Sarah explains, “Further, it has shown me how people are able to mobilize and fight back against these injustices to help create space for themselves in the city.”
The food regulations to which she refers are bans on food trucks in certain areas of the city, specifically working class areas that have recently been inundated with a Latino population. These bans, according to skeptics such as Sarah, hinder integration and infringe on basic rights of the workers. These essentially mirror the larger issues that the Congreso addresses and that Sarah’s volunteer work revolves around.
To label Sarah as simply a volunteer would be a gross understatement of the true lengths she has gone to in order to assist the Latino population of New Orleans. “My work with the Congreso has been anything from driving people to meetings, going to court with members to help navigate the court systems, ICE check-ins, serving papers to bad employers, research on country conditions for deportation cases, taking care of kids, and serving as an expert witness on civil and juvenile cases.”
Besides all this, Sarah has been a shoulder to lean on at doctor’s appointments, a support system during and after immigration cases have opened and attended court the day they closed, and a guest in several families homes in Honduras. “ I have seen when judges have issued people to be deported, and I have picked people up after their release from Immigration detention Center. I work very closely with the workers.”
As a result of lack of documentation and racial profiling described by Sarah, workers are constantly fighting wage theft. Often employers will threaten to call immigration on workers if they attempt to retrieve these wages or press charges. The Workplace Justice Project, created by lawyer Bill Quigley, is an outlet located in the Loyola Law Center to remedy the situation of wage theft referenced by the Congreso. It’s mission is to “educate on workers rights issues, litigate cases for unpaid wages, and to advocate for just working conditions”
“Louisiana law explicitly protects workers regardless of documentation: if you complete a job, the employer is required to pay you, regardless of status,” says Erika Zucker, a policy advocate for the Workplace Justice Project. She emphasizes, “This doesn’t stop employers from using citizenship status against the employees.”
The wage theft has not, according to Zucker, diminished in the ten years after Katrina’s re-build efforts. “Wage theft is not an issue that is new or unique to the Post-Katrina climate” says Zucker “Rather, it is an ongoing issue that was simply exposed by the lack of regulation Post-Katrina. Often, victims are undocumented day laborers who work in construction for small contractors, who then either refuse to pay them on grounds that the work was ‘insufficient’ or they simply disappear.”
While the Workplace Justice Project is not directly affiliated with the Congreso, Zucker says that many laborers in the Congreso have also come to Workplace Justice on Thursday nights for assistance in recovering their wages. The process by which this takes place is no easy task, requiring volunteers, law students to conduct interviews, and translators. Workers line up outside the doors of the Loyola Law Center, often far too many to address in one night. A weary staff constantly needs to refer workers to other programs due to lack of resources is quite high.
The first activity organized by WJP is an educational presentation. Workers listen to speeches that discuss, in Spanish, ethical employment and methods of protection from wage theft: taking photos of license plates, noting first and last names of employers and all additional employees, taking dates or locations, etc. “Workplace Justice has several main goals, the first being to educate the workers” says Zucker. Prevention is key because often the WJP does not have adequate resources or time to take the cases all the way to litigation. “If we see that in fact wage theft has taken place, (after an interview, often utilizing an interpreter) the first step is to write a letter to the employer. Often, the employer does not respond and we move forward.”
Erika Zucker’s tone perfectly matches the exasperation of the workers and the frustrating process. Moving forward requires finding a willing pro-bono lawyer, and paying fees to file in court. “Often these fees are more than the worker is owed; they could be paying three hundred dollars to retrieve a two hundred and fifty dollar paycheck.” The worst part? Even if they do win their case, it is nearly impossible to find the employers and force them to pay. Erika says the statistic for winning cases actually receiving the money they are owed is around ten percent.
Workplace Justice and the Congreso are representative of the rise in demand for resources to accommodate a growing population, most of whom essentially helped to lift New Orleans out of the devastation of Katrina. Now, that same population is struggling to receive fair treatment. “This is an important service because it is free, and the people have nowhere else to go” says a testimonial of a recent, anonymous client to of Workplace Justice. “It is only humane to continue it’s funding.”
Besides funding, it seems that an increase in social welfare programs will be necessary in order to deal with the expanding population. In the end notes of a recent, not yet published report on the WJP entitled “Open for Business? Open for Exploitation” states that
“Open for business should not mean abandon hope. A climate friendly to business does not have to be unfriendly to workers who make those businesses run. Experience shows that workers remained constrained by a system that often does not value their work and provides little support if they seek to enforce their rights.”
On whether she has seen any improvement since the storm, Zucker says “The light at the end of the tunnel is that they are beginning to understand better that there are law available to protect them and that change is possible.”
Stephanie Wartelle is a senior at Tulane University studying Economics and Pre-Law.