Welcoming Cities Initiative Aims To Make Immigrants Feel At Home In New Orleans

Feb 22, 2016

New Orleans is officially a Welcoming City for immigrants. That’s because last September the City Council passed an ordinance to that effect, as part of a national initiative. But what does that actually mean? Now, four months after the resolution was passed, the City has taken some small but meaningful steps to make New Orleans feel like home for immigrants.

One evening around 5 o’clock, Santos Alvarado was with some friends on his front porch in the 7th Ward, when they saw a young man across the street point and fire a gun. No one was hit, but Santos says he and his friends watched as the shooter tossed the gun aside and changed shirts with one of his friends, to make it harder to be identified him.

Santos and his friends went inside and watched as a car came by and picked up the gun from its hiding place. They watched the police come investigate the scene, find nothing, and leave.  And they stayed quiet.

Testifying about a crime can be scary no matter who you are. Santos says he and his friends have two types of danger to fear, danger from the perpetrators themselves and danger from the police.

Santos says many Latinos want to help the police, but they don’t feel protected by them. He says there have been too many instances of racial profiling and police asking about people’s immigration status, when that’s none of their business, as local cops.

Santos says it’s unlikely that members of his community will call the police when they -- or someone else -- are in trouble. People feel like it’s safer to stay quiet and just put up with it.

Santos came to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to find a construction job, like many Central American workers did.  A lot of them landed in Mid-City, Broadmoor and Central City -- that’s City Council District B, represented by Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell. She says the contribution these workers have made to the city’s recovery after Katrina, and the way they’ve been treated here, don’t match up.

“The Latino community, pretty much in a very major way, rebuilt the City of New Orleans -- our housing stock,” says Cantrell.  “And in doing so they were victims of crime, and victims of fraud. And they were only trying to make an honest living and do a day’s work.”

Cantrell has taken up Latino issues. In 2013, she helped Sheriff Marlin Gusman get rid of what are known as "ICE holds." That means now, when local officials arrest someone they suspect may be undocumented, they’re not allowed to wait for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to come and check on their immigration status.

Cantrell says she wanted to build on that.  At a conference last year, Cantrell saw what other southern cities like Nashville and Atlanta were doing to make immigrants feel welcome. But it looks different in every city, and the people affected need to define what it means. Cantrell’s office helped draft a resolution.

“We heard from the community and they wanted to focus on several key areas, which was language access, ways that they can navigate City Hall. They wanted to focus on community and police relations there, because they saw themselves being victimized,” she says.

So far, the city has installed an electronic directory in the City Hall lobby. It lists all departments in Spanish, English and Vietnamese. Fourteen international flags hang in the lobby, representing countries with close relationships to New Orleans. It’s easier now to get translation services for public meetings and on the 311 information line.

Fernando Lopez is an organizer for the Congress of Day Laborers, which helped draft the resolution. He says this is a serious improvement on a badly damaged relationship.

“I feel like it’s something very emblematic, not very tangible," he says. "But also it’s the result of years of the community pushing on the government to be integrated and the population… right after Katrina, the mayor said we needed to be careful before 'New Orleans became a city run by Mexicans.'”

Lopez is referring to a comment made by former Mayor Ray Nagin. At a town hall meeting in 2005, he made a comment about Mexican workers overrunning New Orleans.

“So going from that,” says Lopez, “to at least where a City Council makes a statement that we’re going to be a more welcoming place for immigrants?” He counts that as a victory.

And, there are some tangible changes. More than 40 city employees have volunteered as translators, in 18 languages. Emergency preparedness info is now in Spanish and Vietnamese on the city website. And, to get back to Santos’ concern about the police, NOPD has increased pay for bilingual officers.

Santos says speaking Spanish is a good start, but language alone won’t make him or his friends completely trust the cops. Latinos aren’t seeking preferential treatment, he says. They just want to be treated equally, no matter the color of their skin. After all, "the Constitution of this country applies to everyone," he says.

“La constitución no dice, ‘Nosotros Los Blancos’. No dice, ‘Nosotros Los Morenos’. No. Dice, “We The People.” Nosotros, El Pueblo. Y Nosotros somos el pueblo también.”