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Migrant workers on Gulf Coast face exploitation

Many find employers don't meet promises

GULFPORT, Miss. -- There's gold along the storm-racked Gulf Coast, where jobs are plentiful, pay is good, and billions of dollars of reconstruction aid are practically dripping from the trees. At least that's what some labor contractors are telling migrant and foreign workers, who are trickling into devastated fields and construction sites from as far away as Florida and Mexico.

But like the fabled streets paved with gold of immigration lore, the promising job market along the Gulf Coast can be illusory. While opportunities abound, many workers are finding a harsh and inhospitable environment, according to their advocates in Florida.

''There's not any housing, even for the people who are from there," said Tirso Moreno, director of the Farmworker Association of Florida, who toured coastal Mississippi to assess working conditions. ''Some labor contractors will bring our people up for two or three weeks of work and then leave them there. Sometimes they are paid too little and sometimes not at all. There's nothing they can do to fight it."

Seventeen migrant workers from Fort Pierce, Fla., learned Friday that two weeks of hard work does not always translate into promised pay.

The men had left construction jobs on promises of as much as $150 a day.

''There's a lot of work here. We could go days without working in Florida but there's a lot of work here," said the group's leader, Michael Olvera, 36, as he waited for the van to take him and the others to where they were staying.

While Olvera and the others were promised large apartments and plenty of food, they are living on a Frisbee golf course, in small tents or out in the open without electricity or running water.

After two weeks of fixing roofs, carrying plasterboard, and doing everything else that comes with helping restore a storm-torn region, Rafael Jarra, the man who brought them from Fort Pierce in a blue van, paid them $300 each -- one fifth of what they were expecting.

Jarra denied promising the men $150 a day and said there was not as much work as anticipated.

''They are angry that they have to live here," he said, pointing to the makeshift camp.

Despite these problems, immigrant workers could become an important part of the reconstruction, just as they have helped communities in Florida and other states that needed labor to build facilities or recover from natural disasters.

President Bush and many in Congress are seeking major changes in immigration law that would combine tighter border control with a giant new foreign guest-worker program and a path to legal status for millions of undocumented workers.

Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, the first Cuban-American elected to the US Senate, announced Friday that he and Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, will present within two weeks new legislation that would address both the economy's need for labor and the nation's need for more secure borders.

''Immigration is something that we got to get fixed," Martinez told a crowd of Georgia's Hispanic government and business leaders Friday. ''First and foremost, we've got to do border enforcement. . . . Then we got to have a worker program. There are people that are here that this economy absolutely needs; there's nothing wrong with that."

Immigration has become a hot topic in this year's gubernatorial race in Virginia and other off-year election campaigns, which could prompt congressional action.

''It may happen only because immigration is shaping up as such a political hot potato in a variety of states. I think the Bush administration is trying to take the heat off by passing some kind of legislation," said Alan Kraut, professor of history at American University in Washington and a leading specialist on immigration.

Business groups and some labor unions are odd bedfellows in this debate, lobbying in tandem to legitimize the current undocumented workforce and create a legal way to bring in foreign workers.

Many in Congress, however, want border enforcement first. They fear any form of amnesty or guest-worker program will only encourage more illegal arrivals to compete for jobs, crowd schools, and tap social services.

Even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast, the flow of immigrants started to increase last year as the economy grew and the unemployment rate fell.

The number of foreign arrivals had reached a modern peak of 1.55 million in 2000, partly because of a tight labor market in the late 1990s, according to a report released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center. The number plunged to 1.17 million in 2002 as the economy drooped and officials secured the borders after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

By 2004, the number began climbing again to reach 1.22 million.

The massive hurricane recovery could propel this trend by intensifying demands for low-cost labor.

''It's a magnet for people on the move and looking for work at the highest possible wages," Kraut said. ''It sure beats standing around in a parking lot and hoping someone will hire you to tend their garden."

For many years, Mexican immigrants have streamed into Southern states along a land route from the Southwest border. Smugglers and labor recruiters carry them by truck, bus, and van to farms and worksites all the way down to the bustling service industries of South Florida.

''This is the dream workforce for employers," said Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. ''Go to any construction site and you'll find a high percentage of undocumented workers. What is driving the South Florida construction boom is very cheap labor."

In Gulfport, Floriberto Cruz, 19, sat with the other migrant workers from Fort Pierce, trying to figure out what to do next. He said he had been looking forward to the citrus season in Florida, but had followed the tales of lucrative work in the Gulf region.

''Yes, I am angry, but what am I going to solve here," he said, a small slick of tears betraying his look of anger at not being paid what he thought he had been promised.

By sundown the men sat around talking about taking a bus to Florida. Some thought of staying while others contemplated following other promises of work and money.

''We might go to New Orleans," said Juan Silvio Piedras. ''I heard there's lots of work there."

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