What happened to the nearly 200,000 Hispanics living in and around New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit last month? I asked the question of one reporter who had called me to comment on the role race played in the evacuation fiasco, but she didn't know. In fact, at the height of the crisis, few in the media seemed the slightest bit curious about this population, despite hundreds of stories about poverty, race, and the failure of government to rescue the most vulnerable.
I wondered in part because I saw so few Hispanic faces among those stranded at the Superdome and Convention Center. Yet I knew that many Hispanics lived in New Orleans, occupying the same service jobs they do elsewhere, often on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Most are immigrants -- often illegal -- from Honduras and Mexico. Then, just when I thought they were nowhere to be found, I spotted a few Hispanic men in the television footage this week of crews cleaning up the debris that has overwhelmed so much of the Gulf Coast. Wherever they went to escape the storm, they're back -- because there is work to be done, and they are eager to do dirty jobs that many others shun. I wonder if these images will sink in with the anti-immigrant crowd that imagines that Mexicans come to the United States looking for a handout.
My suspicion is that few of New Orleans' Hispanic immigrants -- especially the illegal ones -- stuck around for the hurricane to hit. Immigrants in general tend to have strong initiative and good coping skills. Someone who can figure out how to get into the U.S. (especially illegally) can certainly figure out how to get out of New Orleans.
The city's Hispanics didn't need the cavalry to come to the rescue, even though many of them are very poor. They did what immigrants always do: They relied on informal networks of family, friends and fellow countrymen, and pooled their resources to get out while they could. Fear of being deported was no doubt a big motivator for some not to stick around, but the loss of work probably played an even bigger role in their decision. Like so many others devastated by the storm, however, many of these Hispanics have lost everything. But for those who are illegally in the U.S., no federal help will be forthcoming. Illegal aliens are ineligible for the $2,000-per-family emergency cash, food stamps, job placement, and other federal assistance offered to Katrina's victims -- rightly so.
Some Hispanic advocacy organizations are crying foul. "What that suggests is that the federal government is prepared to serve some victims but not others," Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, told The Washington Post. "That sends a terrifying message to the larger community," she said. But does it really? The Red Cross, Catholic Charities, and other private groups aren't checking green cards before dispensing aid, so there are sources of help for illegal aliens displaced by Katrina.
Even Mexico -- for once -- has stepped up to give aid. A 40-vehicle Mexican military convoy brought mobile kitchens, medical supplies, food and doctors, engineers and others to the hurricane victims. Not since Mexico ceded one-third of its territory to the United States in 1848 in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo have Mexican troops officially entered U.S. territory. It's likely that at least some of this aid will go to Mexican nationals living in the U.S. -- which is the least Mexico can do given its more or less official policy of encouraging illegal migration north.
It's hard to imagine now with the scars of Hurricane Katrina still fresh, but my bet is that the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast will be a boon to Hispanics in the region. There will be plenty of jobs to go around, and, as always, immigrants will be among the first lining up to do them. It's too bad Congress hasn't done its job as well, passing genuine immigration reform that would let more immigrants come legally to do those very jobs.