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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 September 2005, 07:52 GMT 08:52 UK
Viewpoint: Katrina's invisible victims
By Marissa Kantor
Writer for US publication The Revealer

The post-Katrina debate taking place everywhere from Congress to the family dinner table - about what went wrong and who is to blame, has included again and again one word: racism.

The definition, though, has been very race-specific: black versus white. It's a valid debate. Unless, of course, your skin is brown.

That blacks were "looting" while whites were "finding" has been well circulated on the Internet in a fierce cyber image-war.

What the mainstream media has neglected to mention - at least in its initial discussions of the role that race played in preparation for, and clean-up after Katrina - is that the Latinos are "hiding," many in churches where they feel protected, or in Mexican and Honduran restaurants.

Many Latinos will keep a low profile during the clean-up

Over 100 Latin American immigrants now call La Iglesia Lugar de Sanidad (Healing Place Church) in Gonzales, Louisiana home. They use their reverence to ask God for help since they are unsure who to trust outside the church walls.

Latinos - especially Hondurans - are no strangers to natural disaster.

After fleeing Honduras in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 - which killed thousands, left thousands missing, and affected millions from Guatemala to Costa Rica - many Hondurans ended up in the port city of New Orleans in search of that "better life" that El Norte seemed to offer.

Invisible citizens

Approximately 150,000 Hondurans live in Louisiana, most in New Orleans. Estimates of Mexicans living in or around New Orleans range from 40,000 to 100,000. And other groups, including Salvadorans and Brazilians, also number in the tens of thousands.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates (conservatively) that 20,000 to 35,000 of these Latinos are illegal immigrants or undocumented workers.

Even the governments of Mexico and Honduras are stumped as to where their citizens are hiding.

In the face of our worst natural and national disaster ever, we find ourselves face-to-face with a basic discussion in American society: Just what is an American?
They have set up what they are calling "mobile consulates" in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (Honduran and Mexican) and in Mobile, Alabama (Mexican), but very few people are turning to their governments for aid.

Fearing deportation, Latinos - many of whom are illegal immigrants - prefer instead to seek shelter and support in Latino-owned businesses that they learn about through word of mouth.

They sneak out at night to look for food and water since many cannot understand the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (Fema's) English-language public service announcements about where to go for services.

Increasing tensions

The American discussion of who is worthy of "saving" in the face of disaster - one that we thought we had at least tabled after 11 September, is back in full force.

Fema spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez, answering pleas from Presidents Fox of Mexico and Maduro of Honduras not to prosecute illegal immigrants, offered one answer: "We want to provide food, water, shelter and medical supplies to everyone. No one should be afraid to accept our offers to provide safety."

Ms Gonzalez originally ignored follow-up enquiries as to whether or not this meant that illegal immigrants would not be reported or prosecuted, simply repeating her form-letter statement.

Fema aid station
Is Fema's message reaching everyone?
The lawmakers on Capitol Hill came up with an even more interesting response - the Department of Homeland Security issued a 45-day moratorium on fining employers who hire undocumented workers.

They cite the fact that many legal residents may have lost their papers in the hurricane, and should not be penalised for it.

At the same time, DHS amended their original statement - while they would save a drowning illegal immigrant, they would not "turn a blind eye to the law" if they later found out his immigration status.

These policies have created tension in the Gulf Coast and throughout the nation.

Some Latino civil rights workers argue that this is a clear indication that the US Government is creating policy aimed to serve a select group and to ignore or prosecute others.

Dispensable labour

While the "deserving poor" in shelters are eligible to approach Fema, social security and Red Cross representatives to receive food, water, debit cards and food stamps, Latinos stand behind and watch.

They are trained to avoid authority at all costs. Even in the face of a disaster like Katrina.

Opponents of illegal immigration view the policies as a direct affront to the thousands of displaced American citizens and legal residents who are searching for a job, any job.

If the law lets an employer hire an illegal Latino, then one less job is available for a true American, they argue.

In the United States, in the face of our worst natural and national disaster ever, we find ourselves face-to-face with a basic discussion in American society: Just what is an American?

Defining the protection-worthy and the dispensable has become another job in the relief efforts.

Blacks are complaining that they are seen as inferior to whites; Latinos are too scared to complain at all, or don't speak the right language to do so.

Meanwhile, we are sending them back in to clean up our cities, clad in dust masks and rags and with the promise of a 15-dollar-an-hour job, until we decide to report them and send them back to their own countries.

God bless America, indeed. Que Dios nos bendiga.

The Revealer is a publication of the New York University Department of Journalism and New York University's Center for Religion and Media.


This article is one of a series by prominent figures giving their views on the political and social impact of Hurricane Katrina. We are also inviting readers in the US to write 400 words setting out what they feel the disaster, and the response to it, have revealed about American society. We will publish a small selection of the best. If you would like to contribute please use the form below.

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The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.





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