Immigrants Rebuild a City Then Bear Stigma of Being ‘Undocumented‘ — Louisianan Asks: Is This Right?

This Louisiana Immigration Attorney Has Seen First-Hand the Contributions Immigrants Make to Local Communities In Need

After flooding ravaged New Orleans in the summer of 2016, Miriam Crespo’s phone started ringing more than usual, just as it had after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. “It was such a lightening moment for me,” Crespo says. “Because the first thing people from all these different industries thought to do was call and ask, ‘How do I get a group of immigrants over here working? How does that happen? What does that cost?’ It really showed the lack of knowledge by those people who aren’t in the system, just proof that it’s too confusing and in need of reform.”

Crespo, an immigration lawyer, has witnessed the key role immigrants have played in reconstruction jobs like framing, roofing, and carpeting. When the catastrophic floods of 2016 ravaged 20 parishes and racked up an estimated $30 million in damage, employers depended on immigrant workers to help get thousands of displaced residents back into their homes.

Reform is so important. It would give immigrants a platform to work, drive a car, and contribute to their communities without feeling marginalized or like they have a stigma on them.

Immigration is also a personal issue for Crespo. Growing up the daughter of immigrants — her mother is a naturalized citizen from Honduras and her father migrated from Mexico when he was 15 — meant frequently translating for family members. “I knew so many Social Security numbers it wasn’t even funny,” she says with a laugh. The experience inspired her to pursue a career in law. “I knew I wanted to be in a position of authority to help people like my parents,” she explains. “And the only way that I understood I could do that was by becoming an attorney.” After graduating from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, Crespo worked in various social services positions before landing her current job, where she oversees roughly 100 active cases at a time. In any given week, Crespo can be found running a pro bono “Know Your Rights” workshop, hosting a radio show on the immigration system, fighting for clients in court, and connecting them with healthcare or employment resources. “The first time I went to a detention center to do a ‘Know Your Rights’ workshop was the first time I realized how many people are stuck in the system,” she says. “Right now, documented immigrants are labeled ‘good,’ and if they’re undocumented they’re labeled ‘bad.’ These stereotypes are very unfair. That’s why reform is so important. It would give immigrants a platform to work, drive a car, and contribute to their communities without feeling marginalized or like they have a stigma on them. It will allow us to see them for who they really are rather than judge them on their paperwork.”

This is especially disconcerting given that these are the very immigrants who came to the region’s aid after devastating natural disasters. “All these immigrants came from Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, because there was all this work that needed to be done,” Crespo says. “But once the majority of the jobs had been completed, suddenly we had day laborers on the corners. Our city wasn’t used to that.” Her question to legislators this time around: “How is it going to be different? Are immigrants going to come in, reconstruct, and then everybody’s going to turn their back on them because they got what they needed?”

Immigrants also fill many jobs that would otherwise remain vacant, in industries like tourism and food. They pay landlords, buy goods at stores and pay taxes. And while some locals may be hesitant at first, they ultimately come to appreciate the cultural diversity, says Crespo. Prior to the influx of immigrants who relocated to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina “we’d never had food trucks,” she says “Now taco trucks are everywhere! At first there were so many articles in the paper: Are they clean? Is this OK? How do we permit them? But then people acclimated and it went from all these negative things to being this big, positive thing. They really are such an important population. So many of the immigrants I’ve dealt with have been through these really difficult things and they’ve managed to overcome it. I sit there, and internally I want to cry. But they’re so strong that they just move through it! I feel really privileged to serve them.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…