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When Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of life as it had been in the Gulf
Coast region, it washed away casinos, condos, private homes, restaurants, and
businesses, and slammed gambling barges into piers and cars into the sand. It
was an equal opportunity destruction machine, and the damage done isn't close to
being undone even now, one year after the storm hit.
But the rebuilding is well under way. Mississippi put a priority on reopening
its gambling casinos and hotels—an important source of revenue in a state that
is struggling to restore its economic base. So the construction cranes are busy
on the Gulf Coast, setting iron girders in concrete, clearing the wreckage of
the destroyed casinos, and starting to build hotels once again so that the high
rollers can come back. The luxury homes are being rebuilt as well, right on the
coast, some of those homes bigger and more opulent than they were before the
When the Katrina hit, it took away plenty, but among the losses was the local
labor force of construction workers. They scattered to other communities, and
now the private homeowners and the corporations need labor to get their
structures rebuilt in time to capitalize on the fine fall weather the Gulf Coast
is known for and to lure back the tourists they hope will return. And so workers have come from other countries, eager for the
opportunity to earn much needed funds, many of them imported by the corporations
themselves.These people are hoping for what America has always promised—a chance
to work hard, earn some money, and build a better life.
Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out well in many cases. Vicky Cintra, who was raised in Cuba, speaks perfect Spanish
and has the tenacity of a bulldog, runs MIRA, an organization that seeks to
support the immigrant community of workers who are key in rebuilding the Gulf
Coast. In far too many cases, these workers have been mistreated, robbed of
funds they are entitled to, forced to sleep in drain pipes, storage units, or
under railroad tracks, and denied basic health and human service benefits that
Americans have come to expect.
When we sat in Cintra's office in May, she interviewed three workers from the
Dominican Republic who had been cheated out of their money by a private
homeowner for whom they'd been working for months. Another worker on the same
job had fallen from a ladder, injured his back, and been denied a claim to
worker's compensation by the homeowner. In short order Cintra - interviewed the
workers about their experiences and informed them of their rights and of the
services offered by MIRA. She told them to memorize the phone number for MIRA,
and to make sure that they told their friends to call if they felt they were not
being fairly treated or were being deprived of wages. And she called a lawyer
who accepts MIRA cases—not pro bono, but at a fair price—to interview the
injured worker and to begin court proceedings to force the homeowner to cover
the worker's medical expenses.
Cintra told us story after story of how she and MIRA workers and volunteers
have had to picket major hotel corporations to fight for the wages the workers
deserve. She described how the corporations set up two lines for people seeking
employment—one with application forms in English that state their wages and
rights, and one with forms in Spanish that had deleted the information on legal
rights and fair compensation. Her accounts were echoed in our interviews with
people living in Louisiana who told of being offered jobs at wages lower than
they had made before Katrina hit, and then being informed that if they did not
accept the positions, immigrant workers were ready to take the jobs at lower
wages. One person said she was told by a contractor who bragged of hiring
immigrant workers, "They work all day and don't even ask for lunch!"
The plight of immigrant workers in the Gulf Coast leaves them, and the
residents who have remained after Katrina and now seek work, in an unfortunate
conundrum. The immigrant workers have come to offer labor sorely needed by the
Gulf Coast. They seek fair and humane wages and benefits. Yet time after time,
they are denied that dignified existence. Vicky Cintra is not optimistic: "These
people continue to sleep in the woods because they can't get housing, and they
continue to be denied medical services even on an emergency basis," she said.
Cintra made it clear that as long as that's the case, she, her husband Elvis,
and dozens of other MIRA activists will be outside on the hot streets of Biloxi
and other Gulf Coast communities, picketing, shaming employers into paying
workers what they deserve, and agitating for what is right in a country that was
built on the backs of people who believed America was a land of fairness and
This is the ongoing work of the Gulf Coast Relief Fund, funded by
donations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We are proud to count MIRA
as a partner in the effort to restore the Gulf Coast and to allow people from
the region to return to their homes and lead dignified, decent lives.
The UUA's Deborah Weiner visited the Gulf Coast in May. This profile is
one of three focusing on partners funded through the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.
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