So far, the immigrant-haters have not found a way to actually blame Latino immigrants for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But there is plenty of immigrant-bashing going on in the wake of the storms. CNN’s Lou Dobbs, the Washington Times and Fox News have jumped on the use of immigrant labor in cleanup and repair to whip up another round of attacks on immigrants.

People who never gave a damn about the poverty of Black residents of New Orleans and environs before are now shocked, shocked to find that jobs in the cleanup that could have been given to poor residents who lost everything are instead being given to Latino immigrants, no doubt many of them without papers. They paint a picture of immigrants as sneaky job thieves, who wait until other workers are down and then pounce to take their jobs away from them. Mexico’s President Fox added to this impression with his insensitive remarks to that Mexican workers are just right for this type of job.

A good many immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, from outside the area are being hired by contractors to work in the cleanup. Various sources report that day labor agencies around the country can’t keep up with the demand for contingent cheap labor in New Orleans and the Gulf, while people washed out of the Ninth Ward still do not know what is going to become of them. And, no doubt, labor laws, including overtime and health and safety regulations, are being flouted by unscrupulous contractors. What else is new?

Who is responsible for this state of affairs, and how do we correct it? Immigrant-bashing is worse than useless in answering either of these questions.

The winds had scarcely died down before the Bush administration suspended the most important laws that would have been helpful in this situation. Not only affirmative action regulations (the only legal mechanism to make sure that private contractors hire African Americans), but the vitally important Davis-Bacon law was swept aside to “facilitate” cleanup and reconstruction.

Davis-Bacon requires companies receiving federal contracts to pay the prevailing wage of the region in which the work is to be carried out. In the New Orleans area, “prevailing wage” for construction work ranged between $9 and $13-something per hour. When Bush waived Davis-Bacon, he created a situation in which contractors could, if they liked, pay the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. This would ensure that nobody could pull themselves out of poverty by getting a job on the cleanup and repair projects. When Bush did this, he made it inevitable that contractors would look around for the cheapest labor they could round up, not to “save the taxpayers money,” but to stuff their own pockets with the difference.

Bush also suspended some documentation requirements for obtaining employment. This was, in fact, necessary because in the flooding many people, not just immigrants, lost documents they would need (such as birth certificates), and there is no telling how long it will take them to get duplicates. So poor residents of the area who lost everything in the storms benefit from this, but the immigrant-bashers portray it as a plot to “hire illegals.”

There were lots of Latino immigrants already living and working in the Gulf area, and many lost their jobs, their homes and even their lives. The Mexican Embassy says that about 145,000 of its citizens lived in the affected area pre-Katrina. The massive hiring of immigrant labor in agriculture and in hotels, restaurants, resorts and casinos in recent years had brought people from many lands into the region.

Far from coddling them, the government has left many in suspense. Immigrants without papers do not know whether they dare to ask for government help in their day-to-day survival struggle, let alone in building their lives. Immigrants legally here on other than permanent resident visas do not know what is going to happen to them, as their legality may have been wiped out by the destruction of their places of employment. In at least one instance, federal immigration police showed up at a shelter for people displaced by the storm and threatened the residents based merely on a report that there were many Latino people seen there.

All of this proves once again that a central need of capital is to find ways of playing workers off against each other. And it also illustrates the central need of labor: unity and solidarity. The policies of this reactionary government have now given big contractors the opportunity to rake in profits from the super-exploitation of workers in the cleanup operation, whether immigrants or not.

Immigrant-bashing only divides workers. Far better is uniting immigrant and non-immigrant workers to force employers to pay decent wages and benefits and provide safe and healthy working conditions, and to force the government to rescind its suspension of affirmative action. Is this achievable? Certainly. Because of massive public outrage at the Davis-Bacon suspension, President Bush backed down, announcing that prevailing wage rules will be restored Nov. 8.

To prevent the undocumented status of immigrant workers from being used to undercut the wages, benefits and working and living conditions of all workers, it is essential to create a quick path to legalization and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, who are impeded by their precarious legal status from joining unions, uniting with other workers in the fight for better conditions for all.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.