NEW ORLEANS – Wilfredo Montes came from Texas to this city a year and eight months ago for good work and good pay: gutting homes and clearing debris from neighborhoods left waterlogged by Hurricane Katrina. He worked six or seven days a week, for up to $15 an hour.
These days, Montes often finds work only two or three days a week, and the pay rate has shrunk by nearly half. Yet he’s staying for now. Wages still far exceed the federal minimum of $5.15. The $8 for an hour’s work is nearly as much as he’d earn in a day in Chinandega, Nicaragua, where he used to sell steaming plates of rice and beans.
“I like it here for the money,” Montes, 54, says, speaking in Spanish. “But the lifestyle, I don’t like it.”
Since Katrina, tens of thousands of Hispanic workers, most of them illegal immigrants, have poured into battered sections of the Gulf Coast.
Yet the economic dream that drew them here has weakened. For some, pay is falling. Jobs are scarcer. Though years of rebuilding remain, not enough state and insurance money has arrived to pay for it.
Many Hispanic workers remain because they can typically earn more on the Gulf Coast than in other parts of the U.S.
As of March 2006, the most recent point for which figures are available, Hispanic workers made up nearly half the reconstruction work force in New Orleans. About two thirds of them had moved to the area after the hurricane, according to a study of 212 workers by researchers at Tulane University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Their presence has also fueled tensions over language barriers and over education and health care needs in a public-services system strained by Katrina.
As longtime residents return to the region, concern is rising that these laborers have diminished job prospects for others. Greg Stewart, a business owner in Gulfport, Miss., and a member of the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, complains that illegal workers are “driving wages down for people who live in Mississippi.”
The Hispanic population along the Gulf Coast ballooned after Katrina struck in 2005. In New Orleans alone, their numbers surged 29 percent by October 2006, even as the population shrank to less than half its pre-hurricane levels, according to state data.