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Low-income Latinos have become growing targets across the South. In a report released this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center, poor Latinos described life in the South as living in a ‘war zone.’

The SPLC’s ‘Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South’ documents the widespread abuse facing low-wage Latino workers in Southern states. Focusing on Nashville, Charlotte, New Orleans, rural southern Georgia and northern Alabama, the Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights nonprofit surveyed hundreds of residents who detailed a striking degree of abuse, including ‘widespread hostility, discrimination and exploitation.’ Researchers said they found a ‘population under siege and living in fear’ — fear of the police, fear of the government and fear of criminals who prey on immigrants because of their vulnerability.

The South is a steadily changing region demographically. The U.S. Census shows the region has had the nation’s fastest growing immigrant populations since the 1990s. By 2006, six Southern states (Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee) recorded a tremendous growth in their Hispanic populations, having added some 1.6 million Latinos.

As more immigrants move South to fill low-wage jobs in fields and factories across the region, a growing anti-immigrant climate has taken root, worsened by the crackdown on illegal immigration at the federal level in recent years. The anti-immigrant climate is harming all Hispanics in the South, whether or not they are illegal immigrants, according to the report.

In fact, the discrimination against Latinos filters down into all parts of their daily life. For instance, Latinos are routinely the targets of wage theft, racial profiling, police harassment and workplace abuse, according to the report. Employers know that immigrants, even those here legally, are often poorly equipped to protect their rights, resulting in intimidation and unsafe working conditions in the workplace. Hispanic women suffer high rates of sexual harassment as male supervisors threaten to report them to immigration authorities if the women don’t provide sexual favors.

In the South laws to protect workers from abuse are weak and almost nonexistent, making it even more challenging for Latinos suffering from wage theft, workplace discrimination or workplace injuries to seek justice. Nearly one third of people surveyed reported on-the-job injuries, and only 37 percent of those said they received appropriate treatment. The rate of deaths for Mexican workers in the South was one in 6,200–more than double the national average.

Latinos interviewed reported having little confidence in police. Respondents said they’re pulled over by police for ‘the most minor of offenses — or no offense at all.’ In fact, Latinos often become the victims of crime because they do not feel safe reporting abuses to police or the government, making them attractive targets for criminals. Police checkpoints and roadblocks in predominantly Latino areas were also a common complaint, particularly in rural areas of northern Alabama. In fact, in Alabama more than 55 percent of respondents said there are police checkpoints where they live.

‘This report documents the human toll of failed policies that relegate millions of people to an underground economy, where they are beyond the protection of the law,’ said Mary Bauer, author of the report and director of the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. ‘Workplace abuses and racial profiling are rampant in the South.’

Yet, little has been to promote fair treatment and reform. Instead of acting to prohibit and eliminate systematic exploitation and discrimination against Latinos, state and local governments in much of the South have exacerbated the situation, according to the report. A number of Southern communities, have enacted ordinances designed to limit services to undocumented immigrants. In addition, many law enforcement agencies in the South work under the 287(g) program, which allows local or state police to enforce federal immigration law. But these law enforcement agencies are enforcing immigration law in a way that has led to accusations of systematic racial profiling and has made Latino crime victims and witnesses more reluctant to cooperate with police, according to the report.

Since the 2005 hurricane season, the Gulf Coast region has also seen an explosion in its Hispanic population, particularly in New Orleans where migrant workers flocked to fill the construction jobs that opened up during the post-Katrina recovery effort. Estimates indicate the New Orleans metro area’s Hispanic population has tripled in the last three years, from about 60,000 to about 180,000. The SPLC’s report shows that in New Orleans migrant workers have faced rampant wage theft, coercion, and abuse. Some 80 percent of these workers said they had not been paid for work performed. Other research in post-hurricane New Orleans has shown this similar level of rampant worker abuse. In 2007 the National Immigration Law Center, the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, and the Advancement Project published a report called ‘And Injustice for All: Workers’ Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans’ documenting poor working conditions for immigrant workers rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice also released a report in 2007, Working on Faith : A Faithful Response to Worker Abuse in New Orleans, which surveyed 218 reconstruction workers in the summer of 2006, found that 47 percent reported they didn’t receive all the pay they were entitled to and 55 percent said they received no overtime pay.

‘Discrimination against Latinos in the region constitutes a civil rights crisis that must be addressed,’ the report says. The report concludes by urging the federal government to strengthen labor laws and civil rights protections, which would make crime victims and communities safer, curb racial profiling and other abuses, and better protect the wages and working conditions of all workers.

Some findings from the study include:

* Nearly 50 percent of respondents knew someone who had been treated unfairly by police.
* 77 percent of the women who responded said sexual harassment was a major workplace problem.
* 41 percent surveyed had not been paid for work, a figure that climbed to 80 percent in New Orleans.
* Two-thirds of respondents said they had been made to feel unwelcome by others in the community, while 68 percent said they encountered on a regular basis what they perceived as racism — from ‘looks’ to physical abuse.
* 46 percent have confidence in police.
* 46 percent with court experience say there were no interpreters.