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."

When pressed for details on what private company and local law enforcement agency requested the checks, Black punted to ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C. Richard Rocha, ICE’s deputy press secretary in D.C., stuck by Black’s statement.  

"Agents asked each worker, irrespective of ethnicity, to produce for our review documentation proving they were legitimately employed," said Rocha in an e-mailed statement, which also repeated that ICE was there at the invitation of local law enforcement agencies.

But the two local law enforcement agencies involved in the oil spill, and mentioned in previous reports, first denied requesting ICE’s help. Correal wrote, "St. Bernard Parish … assured that the local government had nothing to do with the checks and had no knowledge of them."

When we first contacted St. Bernard’s sheriff’s department yesterday morning, public information officer Steve Cannizaro said, "I don’t know anything about that."  But by evening, Sheriff Stephens finally released his statement admitting he called in ICE in response to "reports of illegal aliens" attempting to start "criminal enterprises."

"Sheriff Stephens’ fears are misplaced, as the vast majority of undocumented immigrants have no criminal history," says Laila Hlass, a staff attorney for the Loyola University law clinic who’s worked on immigration cases. "As we have learned from reports such as the Tulane-Berkeley study as well as numerous new reports, immigrants who engage in disaster recovery and rebuilding are more likely to be victims of criminal exploitation, rather than perpetrators of crime."

ICE spokesperson Rocha told ColorLines that the agents’ visits are not part of a criminal investigation or a current worksite enforcement operation, but couldn’t rule out that either of those might occur in the future. Asked what was the difference between what the ICE agents are doing now and an enforcement operation, Rocha said only, "ICE’s worksite enforcement investigations are focused primarily on employers who may be employing an unauthorized workforce. Worksite investigations develop over the course of time and ICE coordinates these actions with DOJ to seek criminal prosecution." 

According to ICE’s policy on worksite enforcement strategy, which was reformed last year, local offices must provide a 14-day notice to ICE headquarters "in advance of developing or executing enforcement activity." Rocha again would not confirm or deny that such notice had been received by his office from the oil spill area.

Immigrant workers’ advocates say the oil spill actions reflect an ongoing problem with the way local law enforcement agencies, including Louisiana ICE, think about the Latino migrants who came to southeast Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

"Workers came here after Katrina to rebuild and it’s because of their efforts that many families came home," says Soni of the Workers’ Center for Racial Justice. "Meanwhile, immigration agents created a reign of terror and made no meaningful distinctions, and went after immigrants as if they were criminals just for standing on the streets.

"The Department of Homeland Security faces a crisis of confidence that it still hasn’t overcome precisely because of its actions after Katrina, when immigrants who were rebuilding were targeted and ICE colluded with employers to deport them."

Photo: Getty Images/ John Moore