Hispanic day-laborers have become a familiar sight to New Orleanians in the post-Katrina years, gathering at Home Depot and other spots around town as they look for work with contractors and builders.
In that time, New Orleans police officer Janssen Valencia has become a familiar sight to those same workers, many of them undocumented immigrants living in fear of the authorities — local law enforcement or federal immigration officials.
Valencia, the Police Department’s Hispanic liaison since 2009, spoke about the complexities of his post during a Sunday morning workshop at the Morial Convention Center sponsored by the National Council of La Raza.
The Hispanic-outreach organization is in New Orleans for its annual conference.
Valencia was joined by Puentes New Orleans, the local Hispanic-advocacy group formed in 2007, and by the Philadelphia-based Hispanic-outreach group APM.
The panel focused on crime-prevention strategies in the Hispanic community — and most of the talk centered on undocumented immigrants and their interactions with the law.
Before the storm, “there was a real disconnect between the Hispanic community and the NOPD, and a lot of fear,” said Puentes chairman Salvador Longoria.
Eva Hurst-San Martin, Puentes’ community liaison and language-access advocate, recalled when police started tuning in to law enforcement issues raised by the new arrivals.
After the storm, Hurst-San Martin helped undocumented laborers fight for wages when unscrupulous contractors would take advantage of their status vulnerability and not pay them for the work they had done.
Laborers had been gathering near the Police Department’s 6th District headquarters, she said, on a corner where in the pre-Katrina years they would have been arrested for loitering.
“One police officer was driving around,” she said, “wondering how to deal with this corner.”
The officer approached the activist, and since then Puentes has played a direct role in helping the police better understand the new community in its midst.
As the police started targeting crime directed at day-laborers, Valencia was named liaison to the new Hispanic population.
His points of contact, he said, include English-language classes, the day-laborer sites, and taco trucks.
“I get a lot of free meals,” Valencia joked.
He’s also teaching a “Spanish for Law Enforcement” class at the police academy this year.
Earning the trust of the wary workers was the first, hardest step, but Valencia approached them with a key message: He wasn’t there to deport them.
He counseled the workers to keep their gathering spaces clean and cautioned them to use sensitivity when approaching cars coming in and out of the Home Depot.
Where before the workers would scatter at the first sight of police, “now they look for him, they search him out,” Longoria said.
When it came to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials who would come around with a fugitive warrant, Valencia established himself as a middleman.
He distinguished New Orleans from other cities where local law enforcement and ICE work in “a partnership.”
“We don’t participate at a joint level with ICE,” he said. “We don’t work directly under them. I really don’t share any data with ICE.”
He tells the day workers that when ICE comes around, it’s usually because they’re looking for a specific fugitive to arrest or deport.
“I tell them, ‘They are doing their job,’ ” Valencia said.
Valencia said he tells the workers to use him as a go-between when ICE shows up: “If you assist us,” in capturing the fugitive, he tells them, “They will leave.”
But the day-laborers still have to walk a fine line.
If they want to avoid deportation, Hispanics living in the shadows have to be extra-careful about how they deal with unscrupulous contractors, Valencia said.
He tells workers to demand daily pay — and to keep their anger in check in the event they are ripped off.
Taking matters in their own hands, he warns, is a sure way to get deported.
“You don’t want what is basically a civil matter — not getting paid — to turn into a criminal matter” if the immigrant, say, vandalized his own labors after not getting paid for them, Valencia said.
A police officer from Kansas City spoke to Valencia about his own interactions with immigrants — and noted that efforts at Hispanic outreach by his city’s police force had been met with death threats from anti-immigration zealots.
Valencia said the xenophobia exists in New Orleans as well.
“The nastygrams, the threats — I’ve gotten them,” Valencia said. “They accuse me of ‘forming gangs.’ But I’m here to keep these people safe.”
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