Monday, April 16, 2007

New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice

Nineteen months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and one year after my last visit to New Orleans, the city has changed. Where there were originally blocks of owner-occupied housing pre-Katrina, then miles of destruction post-Katrina, empty grassy fields now stand. Where there were originally large but oppressed communities of color pre-Katrina, then broken or largely absent communities of color post-Katrina, fierce and determined leaders of color now stand. But still, the city is missing half of its population, thousands of family homes are gone, and 150,000 people are still displaced. The question is: when will it change for the better?

I would like to think that in some way some of the work that we did through the Student Hurricane Network will contribute to continuing improvements. As a volunteer with the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, I had the opportunity to participate in the Center's efforts to combat one of the many residual effects of the Hurricanes. I worked to compile and translate testimonies from H2B (guestworker) Visa-holders recruited and transported from Mexico by a private contractor. The workers were promised a number of things, which enticed them to leave their families, quit their jobs, sell some of their possessions, and take a leap of faith in hopes of a better future in the U.S. When they arrived, the contractor confiscated the workers' passports, threatened them in various ways, imposed costs and other debts upon them, reduced their wages, took them to a different city than promised, and ultimately denied work to most of them. As a result, most of the workers are now in situations much worse than they had before leaving their homes. We worked to translate testimonies and facilitate an investigation and meeting with special investigators from the Department of Labor, who are considering pursuing fraud and trafficking charges against the contractor.

It was another invaluable experience. It is always amazing to learn so much while knowing that you are contributing whatever skills you have to the advancement of justice where it might not otherwise exist. I will be back!

I am one of several students for whom the Student Hurricane Network Spring Break was a return trip. After spending a week in New Orleans in January of this year working with SHN, I felt compelled to go back as a result not only of the acute need for legal services in the area, but by the overall richness of my experience the first time, from the fierce passion of local residents and the legal community to restore justice and facilitate the return of the city’s residents to the bonds forged with fellow students interested in working to rebuild one of this country’s historical and cultural gems.

My experience this time on the Gulf Coast was decidedly different, but no less enriching than the first time. I spent my first few days in New Orleans, with the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice before being sent, along with organizers from the Center, to Lake Charles and Westlake, LA, about 25 miles from the Texas border in the far western part of the state. Along with one of my fellow students, I went to interpret for organizers and workers during an interview with investigators from the US Department of Labor. A group of H2B guestworkers who the Center represents were induced to come to the U.S. with promises of good jobs for good pay doing skilled labor in New Orleans. The workers left steady jobs in Mexico for the opportunity to come to the U.S. legally and work for much better money, only to discover that they had been deceived. Many were never given work, while others were offered jobs paying much less than they had been promised. None were taken to New Orleans, as promised, but instead to Westlake. The DOL is investigating the employer for possible fraud and the workers are hoping that the investigation results in their employer never being permitted to bring guestworkers in the future because of his abuses of the program. The workers have suffered greatly, from being denied the ability to send much needed money home to being threatened with deportation and other abuses. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to work with them in some small way, interpreting discussions between workers and transcribing the actual interview between the workers and the DOL investigators. I am also grateful for the opportunity to have met the six or seven workers with whom we spent substantial amounts of time during our two days in Lake Charles and Westlake. The way they have handled the situation they have been placed in and the interview itself was an inspiration.

Unfortunately, however, the situation of the workers in Westlake is not unique. Scores of other immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, have suffered abuses at the hands of employers and contractors. This does not even begin to consider the substantial challenges facing the former and current residents of the Gulf Coast. That is why the continued involvement of law students in a volunteer capacity, with the support of their law schools, as support for organizations doing positive work within the communities of the Gulf Coast, is an absolute necessity.

Over Spring Break I had the opportunity to work with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. The Workers’ Center had recently negotiated an agreement between a local Lowe’s and the day laborers that used the parking lot to look for work. The deal was struck in order to minimize interference with the store’s business, to optimize the day laborers’ potential for gaining employment and to help keep the peace between police and the day laborers. My mornings in New Orleans consisted of helping the day laborers and contractors keep within the terms of the deal negotiated with Lowe’s. Several of the day laborers shared their stories with me regarding their daily struggles, their histories and their perseverance to seek a decent and honest wage in New Orleans. Regardless of what they had been through and how many times they had been stepped on by contractors denying them pay or police harassing them while they are trying to seek work, they were all friendly, generous and welcoming. It was very telling of New Orleans. The people have been through so much and have numerous reasons to give up, but they continue on.

This past spring break I worked for the New Orleans Workers'
Center for Racial Justice. I helped organize day laborers, research
visa requirements and catalogue data for an unfair labor practice
Through my experience in New Orleans, I learned that Katrina
magnified the social, political and economic inequities that are
present across the United States. Although the conditions of many of
the areas in New Orleans were alarming, I remain optimistic that with
help from volunteer organizations like the UW Student Hurricane
Network, the people of New Orleans will rebound.

Over Spring Break I worked with the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. The first couple of days I worked translating transcripts from Spanish to English. These were testimonies taken from Mexican nationals whom had been lured to New Orleans with promises of good jobs and adequate housing. Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, at their own expense, they found this not to be the case. These testimonies were to be used at hearings to recover damages on their reliance of gross misrepresentations. The next couple of days I worked on many other things, whether it was translating legal informational brochures from English to Spanish, to constructing business cards, to putting together a newsletter to highlight the occurrences of past meetings geared at mobilizing the surrounding community. Overall it was a very rewarding and fulfilling experience.

There is so much to be done on the Gulf Coast… it is both exciting and exhausting. This Spring Break, I went to New Orleans for the second time. I had never been there before the flood, but in the two weeks I’ve spent there this year, I’ve grown very fond of the city. Everything feels very raw there, and I believe it is. Like Winter Break, over Spring Break I worked with the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. Work through the Workers’ Center has been a phenomenal balance of “in the office” work—conducting research for building cases and writing up wage claims and being out “in the field.” Going out to the Loews and Home Depot parking lots where day laborers wait for work has been one of the strongest experiences of my life. Talking to laborers, whether about problems they’ve encountered with the police and contractors, or just shooting the breeze has been immensely rewarding. Interacting with the police in this context was definitely shocking to me in January and I watched the same reaction occur in my peers this time. It was eye-opening to see how the police also react to us, once it was clear we were working with the day laborers. While conditions with the police have improved quite a bit since January, the relationship is still hostile and very unfair. Through my work in New Orleans, I have met some inspirational people—from immigrant workers committed to getting a fair shake, to activists who have been working tirelessly since their days in SNCC, to residents who keep telling their stories and demanding their rights, to lawyers and organizers who fight the fight every day on the ground—and they have truly made the experience. There is a true sense I share with these people and other students in SHN that we are part of a movement-- it is not a new one and we didn’t start it, but there is a face of it being played out on a large stage in the Gulf. This is why I have gone back and why I will keep going back.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People should read this.