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Louisiana Cops Probe Oil Spill Workers For Immigrant Gangsters

 Colorlines, News Report, Brentin Mock

Federal immigration agents visited Louisiana oil spill command centers and checked workers’ immigration status at the request of the St. Bernard Parish sheriff’s department, which said yesterday that it is “concerned about criminal elements” coming into the area. The sheriff’s office harked back to Katrina, arguing that criminals posing as immigrant workers came rushing into the area then, too, and vowed to continue probing oil spill workers.

For days, parish officials avoided answering questions about the worker checks while federal officials insisted that they were only there at local law enforcement's request. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokespeople told ColorLines the checks—first reported last week by Feet in Two Worlds and El Diario/La Prensa —were “trainings.”

But in a sharply worded statement yesterday, St. Bernard Parish Sheriff Jack Stephens finally admitted he requested the visits and framed them as much more than “trainings.”

“We’re not worried about people who want to earn an honest buck,” Stephens said. “But from the beginning (of the oil spill) we have been concerned about criminal elements coming into this area with the intention of establishing criminal enterprises.”

“We make a distinction between those working here and those who have crime in mind when they come here,’’ Stephens added. “That happened after Hurricane Katrina and we don’t want it to happen again. We’re concerned illegal aliens with criminal records represent a danger to our parish.’’

Stephens went on to explain that the parish has set up “checkpoints” throughout the oil spill area and that he requested federal officials’ aid “weeks ago … because the agency has the resources to find out whether such people might have gang affiliations or have criminal records in other countries.”

Advocates for immigrant workers say Stephens’ statement reflects a common perspective among local law enforcement. 
“It’s the same kind of language you see everywhere else at the local, state and federal policy level, where they try to take a harsh position and scare the public into thinking that anyone who might lack documentation and appears to be Latino is a criminal,” says Lucas Diaz, executive director of Puentes New Orleans. 

Diaz recently led the organization in a successful fight against a bill proposed in the Louisiana legislature that would have made it a crime to harbor or transport any person lacking documentation.
“If St. Bernard’s government officials would actually spend time on public policy that was in line with real people’s priorities, then they would be cleaning up the oil in the sea in the Gulf of Mexico instead of scapegoating immigrants in their own community,” says Saket Soni, executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

Fears have been circulating among immigrant workers involved in oil spill cleanup ever since ICE agents made their presence felt in May. In the Feet in Two Worlds and El Diario/La Prensa report last week, workers spoke from two command centers in St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish, both in southeast Louisiana, about encountering ICE agents. Feet in Two Worlds reporter Annie Correal wrote, “ICE agents arrived at the staging areas without prior notice, rounded up workers, and asked for documentation of their legal status,” citing Louisiana ICE spokesperson Temple Black. 
 


Asked about these reports by ColorLines, Black at first only gave this statement: 
 


“At the request of the private sector and local law enforcement, ICE conducted trainings on hiring requirements, such as verification of eligibility to work. ICE was also asked to perform a number of work authorization checks, all of which were valid. ICE neither conducted a worksite enforcement operation in conjunction with these requests nor made any arrests.” 



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