Do you think that immigrants working today on the countless efforts to rebuild my hometown of New Orleans are “stealing” jobs from Americans? Are a scourge? Are welfare bums? Think again — as this op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal will cause you to do.
It is by Mario Villarreal and Dan Rothschild. (Dan is a friend of mine who works with my wife at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.) Here are some key passages:
Shortly after Katrina hit, while the majority of the city’s residents were still in exile and despite inhospitable conditions, a stream of Latino workers and entrepreneurs poured into New Orleans. They were followed by friends and family. There are now perhaps 100,000 Latinos in the New Orleans area, although nobody knows for sure.
Pundits began to speculate on what the influx would mean. Just weeks after Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin asked, “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”
Critics generally fall into two camps. The first believes that the immigrant Latinos in New Orleans are ignorant, helpless and in need of protection. The second maintains that they are stealing jobs, sponging off of welfare and crippling the city’s fragile infrastructure. Neither claim is true. Out of our surveys and interviews with Latino workers in the post-Katrina New Orleans area, we see a microcosm of immigration and immigrants generally: self-sufficient, hard-working, entrepreneurial, law-abiding people simply trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.
There is little evidence that these immigrants are the scroungers or welfare cheats their detractors claim. They came here for one reason: jobs. As one said to us, “I do not need help. I need a job, that’s all I need.” And they plan to stay, as many people told us, “as long as there is work to do.”
Nor is there evidence that they are taking jobs from native New Orleanians. As of April, the last month for which data are available, unemployment in Orleans Parish was 4.0%, compared with 4.5% nationwide. By comparison, in July 2005, the Orleans Parish unemployment rate was 7%, two percentage points above the national figure.
Moreover, the Latino immigrants in New Orleans are not merely doing construction. They’re also opening stores and restaurants, breathing economic vitality into a city still badly in need of a boost.
St. Claude Avenue, one of the two main drags through the Lower Ninth Ward, remains close to deserted, with only perhaps a half-dozen businesses open. But with its spray painted sign and impressive selection of Latino groceries, soft drinks, phone cards and compact discs, Tienda Latina (essentially, “Latin Store”) is bringing commerce back into the most devastated neighborhood in New Orleans. Its customers, as might be expected, are mostly Latino, although a handful of Anglos come through as well. It was the first store between the Industrial Canal and St. Bernard Parish to reopen.
Whether doing temporary construction work or settling into the community and opening businesses, Latinos are playing a critical role in rebuilding New Orleans. The days are long, the work is hard, and the living conditions are frequently trying. But the work is getting done. People are moving back. Businesses are reopening.
The most striking thing is that in New Orleans, the opportunities for immigrants to add to the local economy are obvious: There are roofs to repair, drywall to be hung, trees to be planted. But less apparent opportunities exist in every city, from opening new stores and restaurants to building new homes and offices.
Immigrants, a versatile and entrepreneurial group, remain an integral part of the American enterprise. It’s unfortunate that it takes a disaster to remind us of that.