Post-Katrina wave of Mexican migrant workers reflects changing immigration trends from 1990

Rice University sociologists studied history of migration to Gulf Coast states

The large influx of Mexican and other Latin American migrant workers seeking construction jobs in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last fall was mainly a continuation of a new pattern of immigration to the Gulf Coast that began in the early 1990s, according to research by Rice University sociologists.

"These immigrants were among the victims who lost homes, possessions and jobs during Katrina," said Katharine Donato, associate professor of sociology at Rice and co-author of a paper about the changing face of Gulf Coast immigration in the January 2006 issue of Migration Information Source (www.migrationinformation.org).

Donato and Shirin Hakimzadeh, a sociology research associate, studied the history of migration to the Gulf Coast from 900 A.D., when the earliest known inhabitants of that land mass were the Mississippian Moundbuilders, a Native American nation, to the present.

During the first half of the 20th century, most immigrants to the Gulf Coast states came from Europe - mainly Italy, where farmers from Sicily had been recruited to replace African-American laborers with European peasants, and Germany.

By the second half of the 20th century, migration to Louisiana became differentiated from Mississippi and Alabama. Thanks to a close trading relationship between the Standard Fruit Company in New Orleans and banana growers in Honduras, Hondurans accounted for nearly 13 percent of Louisiana's foreign-born population by 1970. They were followed by a wave of Vietnamese refugees sought by the Catholic dioceses of Louisiana. Specializing in the fishing industry, Vietnamese accounted for 15 percent and 12 percent of Louisiana's foreign-born population in 1980 and 1990, respectively.

In Mississippi and Alabama, most immigrants during the second half of the 20th century came from Germany, which accounted for 31 percent of those states' foreign-born population in 1970.

These patterns changed in 2000, when Mexico first appeared among the top-five sending nations to the three Gulf states, representing 27 percent of the foreign-born population in Alabama and 24 percent in Mississippi, where Mexicans sought mostly jobs in casino construction or forestry. Mexican immigrants accounted for eight percent of Louisiana's foreign-born population in 2000, with many working in shipbuilding and fabrication yards.

Other Latinos played a large role in Louisiana's foreign-born population in the 1990s, as evidenced by thousands of Hondurans and other migrants from Nicaragua and other Central American nations who arrived after Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998.

"Throughout most of the 20th century, patterns and trends in the foreign-born populations of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were highly particularistic and differed from those elsewhere in the nation with respect to national origin and size," Donato said.

"Since the 1990s, however, growth of the Mexican-born population combined with greater concentration of the foreign-born in metropolitan areas has created a migration pattern similar to that of the rest of the United States."

Although the foreign-born population in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama was relatively small compared to the rest of the U.S., that population in Alabama and Mississippi approximately doubled and experienced a higher rate of growth than did the nation as a whole during the 1990s, Donato noted. She also found that most of the foreign-born populations in the three Gulf states settled in metropolitan areas.

"In the weeks following Katrina, the construction industry quickly became a magnet for Latino immigrants who were lured by the promise of paychecks and an emergency federal decree temporarily suspending immigrant-enforcement sanctions," Donato said.

Despite some communities like New Orleans where contractors were criticized for favoring cheap, foreign labor over local, native workers, reports suggest that the influx of Mexican and other migrants will continue as many take advantage of the "Gulf Opportunity Zone," Donato said.

According to the Gulf Coast Latin American Association, by last November about 30,000 Latino workers had flocked to the Gulf Coast since Katrina. Donato noted that whether those immigrant laborers will remain after the clean-up work is completed is unclear, but the longer those jobs last, the more likely the immigrants will settle permanently. In southeastern Florida, for example, after Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, the construction boom attracted large numbers of Latino immigrants, and in Florida towns such as Homestead, the Latino population doubled during the 1990s.

"Similarly, migration to the Gulf Coast states since Hurricane Katrina underscores the demographic changes that began in the 1990s," Donato said. "The region's present reliance on immigrant labor from Mexico and other Latin American nations may mean even faster growth in the foreign-born populations in these communities than such growth pre-Katrina."

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Migration Information Source is published by the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington.


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