Gulf Coast lures migrants

Alien workers aiding recovery find harsh conditions


GULFPORT, Miss. -- There's gold along the storm-wracked Gulf Coast, where jobs are plentiful, pay is good and billions of dollars of reconstruction aid are available.

At least that's what some labor contractors are telling migrant and foreign workers who are trickling into devastated fields and construction sites from as far away as Florida and Mexico.

But like the fabled streets paved with gold of immigration lore, the promising job market along the Gulf Coast can be illusory. Although opportunities abound, many workers are finding a harsh and inhospitable environment, according to their advocates from Florida.

"There's not any housing, even for the people who are from there," said Tirso Moreno, director of the Farmworker Association of Florida, who toured coastal Mississippi to assess working conditions. "Some labor contractors will bring our people up for two or three weeks of work and then leave them there. Sometimes they are paid too little and sometimes not at all. There's nothing they can do to fight it."

Seventeen migrant workers from Fort Pierce, Fla., learned Friday that two weeks of hard work did not always translate into promised pay.

The men had left construction jobs on promises of up to $150 a day.

"There's a lot of work here. We could go days without working in Florida, but there's a lot of work here," said the group's leader, Michael Olvera, 36, as he waited for the van to take him and the others to the place they were staying.

Olvera and the others said they were promised large apartments and plenty of food, but they were living on a disc golf course, in small tents or out in the open without electricity or running water.

After two weeks of fixing roofs, carrying Sheetrock and doing other tasks that come with helping restore a storm-torn region, Rafael Jarra, the man who brought them from Fort Pierce in a blue van, paid them $300 each - one-fifth of what they were expecting.

Jarra denied promising the men $150 a day and said there was not as much work as anticipated.

"They are angry that they have to live here," he said, pointing to the makeshift camp.

Despite these problems, immigrant workers could become an important part of the reconstruction, just as they have helped communities in other states that needed labor to construct buildings or recover from natural disasters.

President Bush and many in Congress are seeking major changes in immigration law that would combine tighter border control with a giant new guest-worker program and a path to legal status for millions of undocumented workers.

Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, announced Friday that he and Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, would present within two weeks legislation to address the economy's need for labor and the nation's need for more secure borders.

"Immigration is something that we've got to get fixed," Martinez told a crowd of Georgia's Hispanic government and business leaders Friday. "First and foremost, we've got to do border enforcement. ... Then we've got to have a worker program. There are people that are here that this economy absolutely needs - there's nothing wrong with that."

Immigration has become a hot topic in this year's gubernatorial race in Virginia and other off-year campaigns, and the interest could prompt congressional action.

"It may happen only because immigration is shaping up as such a political hot potato in a variety of states. I think the Bush administration is trying to take the heat off by passing some kind of legislation," said Alan Kraut, professor of history at American University in Washington and a leading expert on immigration.

Business groups and some labor unions are odd bedfellows in this debate, lobbying in tandem to legitimize the undocumented work force and create a legal way to bring in foreign workers.

Many in Congress, however, demand border enforcement first. They fear that any form of amnesty or guest-worker program will only encourage more illegal arrivals to compete for jobs, crowd the schools and tap social services.

Even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, the flow of immigrants had begun to increase last year as the economy grew and the unemployment rate fell.

The number of foreign arrivals had reached a modern peak of 1.55 million in 2000, partly because of a tight labor market in the late 1990s, according to a report released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center. The number fell to 1.17 million in 2002 as the economy sputtered and officials secured the borders after the 2001 attacks.

By 2004, the number began climbing again to 1.22 million.

The hurricane recovery could propel this trend by intensifying demands for cheap labor.

"It's a magnet for people on the move and looking for work at the highest possible wages," Kraut said. "It sure beats standing around in a parking lot and hoping someone will hire you to tend their garden."

For many years, Mexican immigrants have been streaming into Southern states along a land route from the Southwest border. Smugglers and labor recruiters carry them by truck, bus and van to farms and work sites.

"This is the dream work force for employers," said Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. "Go to any construction site, and you'll find a high percentage of undocumented workers."

William E. Gibson in Washington and Ihosvani Rodriguez in Gulfport write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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