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The Changing Face of the Gulf Coast: Immigration to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama

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The Changing Face of the Gulf Coast: Immigration to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama

Rising flood waters threatened downtown New Orleans, including the famed Superdome, on August 31.

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hammered the coastal regions of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, becoming the most destructive and expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. The official death toll currently exceeds 1,300, though thousands are still missing, and the damage is estimated at $200 billion, topping the destruction caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

While the immediate aftermath focused on the inadequacies of the relief efforts, a rising death toll, and the more than one million persons displaced by the storm (including legal and illegal immigrants), concern has now shifted to reconstruction in these areas. In fact, very soon after the hurricane, newspapers reported that Spanish-speaking, foreign-born laborers were arriving in large numbers, many lured by the promise of better earnings in the construction industry, which was temporarily protected from sanctions if found to employ unauthorized workers.

What few people recognize is that the post-Katrina migration of Mexican and other Latin American migrants to the southern Gulf States signals the continuation of a new chapter of immigration, one that began in the early 1990s. In addition, these immigrants were among the victims who lost homes, possessions, and jobs.

This article documents the history of migration to the three Gulf Coast states affected by the hurricane. We first describe patterns and shifts in the national origins of the foreign born as well as the relative size and growth of these populations, and then speculate about immediate and long-term effects of the hurricane on immigration to these areas in the 21st century.

History of Migration to the Gulf Coast

The earliest known inhabitants of the land mass that now constitutes Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were the Mississippian Moundbuilders, a Native American nation that dates back to 900 AD. Named after the Mississippi River valley they inhabited, this Native American culture flourished in the centuries leading up to the arrival of Europeans in the early 1500s. With their arrival, diseases were introduced, and the once unified Native American nation disintegrated into smaller tribes that included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.

Although Spaniards were the first to explore the region, French fur traders colonized the area after traveling down the Mississippi River to expand their hunting lands. Subsequently, Spain, France, and England explored and eventually claimed parts of the region. The first Acadian exiles arrived in Louisiana after British forces forced them from Acadie, their homeland on the Atlantic Coast of Canada. Between 1764 and 1788, thousands of desperate Acadians sailed to New Orleans and settled in southern Louisiana. Their descendants, e.g. Cajuns, remain an important cultural influence today.

Generally speaking, most immigrants arriving in the New World settled in the Northeastern part of the country rather than in the fertile areas of the South in part because of arbitrary colonial policies and the difficult conditions in the southern cities, where overcrowding and illness were common. As a result, early development in southern coastal regions diverged from that in northern regions and created two geographically and socially distinct worlds.

Whereas northern cities developed a strong capitalist system dominated by food production, southern cities engaged in export production with slave-based plantations dominated by a landed aristocracy and an elite hierarchical social system. By 1860, U.S. Census Bureau estimates suggest that 1.2 million slaves were concentrated in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Immigration to the southern colonies consisted of a disproportionate number of British, French, and Spanish aristocrats and poor indentured servants from Europe. In fact, 60 percent of the nation's wealthiest, but only 30 percent of its free population, lived in the South.

Gradually, as southern labor markets' economic and social development stagnated and became increasingly isolated from western transportation routes, there were fewer jobs, and competition between immigrants and U.S. natives became fierce. Consequently, with little economic pull for new immigrants, the region did not experience much of the large-scale U.S. immigration that occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Gulf states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama still represent the poorest stretch of major coastline in the nation. Census estimates suggest that, in 2001, an average of 17.5 percent of the population in these three states had incomes below the poverty level. In 2002, half of the eight slowest-growing U.S. metropolitan areas were located in these states. Therefore, the region is culturally, economically, and demographically distinct from the remainder of the nation, but also, arguably, from cities like Atlanta and the rest of the South.

Louisiana deserves special attention given the important role that its Port of New Orleans has played in the last 300 years. Located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the port has been a center for international trade since 1718 when it was founded by the French. Since then, the port, known as the "Gateway to the Americas," has been a strong source of economic vitality.

During the 20th century, the Port of New Orleans became a center for U.S. trade with many nations in Latin America and the Caribbean basin. By the early 1980s, it was the second busiest in the country, but its relative importance has declined although it remains an important point for exporting raw grain from the Midwest and importing crude oil and petrochemicals. Nonetheless, New Orleans' history of contact with its neighbors to the south has indelibly shaped the state's economy and has contributed to immigration.

The Foreign-Born Population in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama

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. 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 the rest of the United States.

Early in the first half of the 20th century, most immigrants to the Gulf Coast states were from Europe, with Italy being the key sending country (see Table 1). Seeking to replace African-American laborers with European peasants, planters in the late-19th century recruited Italian farmers, mainly from Sicily, to the region. Even though forced labor and disease took its toll, many of these immigrants were able to save enough to buy land and permanently settle.

Table 1. Top Five National Origins of Foreign-Born Populations in Louisiana, Mississippi

and Alabama and Their Share of Those States' Foreign-Born Populations
A. Louisiana
1910
%
1960
%
1970
%
1980
%
1990
%
2000
%
Italy
39.8
Italy
18.7
Honduras
12.8
Vietnam
15.0
Vietnam
12.1
Vietnam
14.5
Germany
18.6
Honduras
10.7
Cuba
11.9
Honduras
6.7
Honduras
9.2
Honduras
9.7
France
12.7
Germany
7.4
Germany
11.2
Germany
6.3
India
5.4
Mexico
8.0
Ireland
6.8
England
5.2
Italy
4.9
Cuba
5.4
Cuba
5.3
India
4.7
England
5.1
Canada
3.6
England
4.3
Nicaragua
3.0
Nicaragua
4.9
Cuba
4.7



B. Mississippi and Alabama

1910
%
1960
%
1970
%
1980
%
1990
%
2000
%
Italy
16.9
Germany
16.8
Germany
31.3
Germany
11.0
Germany
8.2
Mexico
27.7
Germany
11.9
England
14.6
England
8.9
England
5.2
India
6.7
Germany
7.6
England
10.2
Italy
10.1
Canada
4.4
Canada
4.5
England
5.7
Vietnam
5.3
OtherUSSR/Russia
6.8
Canada
9.6
Korea
4.4
Korea
4.4
Canada
5.4
India
5.0
Ireland
6.8
Japan
5.1
Italy
3.2
India
3.2
Korea
4.1
China
3.6

Sources: 1910 to 2000 1 percent IPUMS

By the second half of the 20th century, migration to Louisiana became differentiated from Mississippi and Alabama. In Louisiana, it began with the close trading relationship between the Standard Fruit Company, located in New Orleans, and banana growers in Honduras. By mid century, this relationship led to the settlement of many Hondurans in the city. In 1970, Hondurans represented 12.8 percent of the state's foreign-born population. Although their presence dropped to 6.7 percent of the foreign born in 1980, it grew to 9.2 and 9.7 percent by 1990 and 2000, respectively.

All classes of Hondurans settled in New Orleans. Among the first Hondurans were wealthy young women who were educated with Ursuline nuns and poor immigrants who worked as mechanics and carpenters at the steamship wharves. Later on, Hondurans and other Central Americans made up the bulk of the service sector working in casinos and restaurants in the New Orleans area. By the time Katrina hit, New Orleans was home to an estimated 140,000 to 150,000 Hondurans, making it the largest Honduran community in the nation.

In the mid 1970s, Louisiana began to attract many foreign-born refugees from Vietnam. The Catholic dioceses of Louisiana sought to bring Vietnamese refugees to southern Louisiana, a region that, like Vietnam, had French influence, a similar climate, and a fishing industry. Eventually, many Vietnamese moved into the area and developed a tightly knit ethnic enclave in eastern New Orleans.

By the end of the 1990s, estimates suggested that 25,000 Vietnamese lived in Louisiana. Because they concentrated in the New Orleans metropolitan area, the Vietnamese had a significant effect on the region's economy.

Although the earliest arrivals worked as unskilled laborers, over the last quarter of the 20th century, the Vietnamese have opened small businesses, from restaurants and small grocery stores to commercial fishing operations. By the 1990s, close to one out of every 10 Vietnamese men in Louisiana worked as fishers or shrimpers, and the Vietnamese accounted for one of every 20 workers in the state's fishing industry.

In Mississippi and Alabama, and to some extent in Louisiana, foreign-born Germans have been highly represented since early in the colonial period. From the German Coast villages in Louisiana (also known as the Cote des Allemands, or, in the present day, St. John the Baptist and St. Charles Parishes), to scattered owners of plantations throughout the Gulf Coast states, German immigrants have long had a presence in the region. Eventually, the geographic proximity of German migrants and the Acadians led to intermarriage so that many became known as German Cajuns.

To this day, Germany remains among the top immigrant-sending nations for Mississippi and Alabama (see Table 1). German military families retire in the Gulf's coastal areas, and the German-American Society of the Gulf Coast promotes strong connections by sponsoring an annual Oktoberfest.

To some extent, shifts in the immigrant-origin countries for Mississippi and Alabama were consistent with the abolition of national origin quotas in the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). As in other parts of the United States, Asian immigration rose.

By 1970, Korea had become a top-five country of origin for immigrants in Mississippi and Alabama, and by 2000, Vietnam, India, and China had also made this list. Indians entered as professionals, initially drawn to employment in hospitals and universities; subsequently, migrants were owners of small businesses. The presence of China among the top five countries of origin in 2000 reflects the 87 percent increase in the number of foreign born from China between 1990 and 2000. The Chinese are largely employed in managerial and professional occupations, and some work in technical, sales, and administrative support.

Despite their prevalence among migrants nationwide, Mexico only first appeared among the top-five sending nations to the three Gulf states in 2000. Mexico represented the national origin of eight percent of the foreign born population in Louisiana, and 27.7 percent in Mississippi and Alabama. In the early 1990s, Mexican migrants came to Louisiana to work in shipbuilding and fabrication yards in the southern coastal areas of the state, and many in Mississippi and Alabama were employed in casino construction or in forestry.

Other Latinos also played a large role in Louisiana's foreign-born population in the 1990s. Thousands of Hondurans and migrants from other Central American nations, including Nicaragua, arrived after Hurricane Mitch battered that region in 1998. During the three-month period after Hurricane Mitch hit land, an estimated 6,000 Central American undocumented migrants were captured and detained along the Texas-Mexico border — more than half of whom were from Honduras.

With more Spanish-speaking residents, media and cultural institutions geared toward the population emerged in New Orleans. La Prensa publishes its newspaper in Spanish twice a month, and two radio stations now broadcast in Spanish only. Religious and secular Latin American holidays and traditions are now celebrated with visiting local musicians, and almost all Catholic churches conduct at least some of their services in Spanish. Cultural associations have formed and promote the celebration of Cinco de Mayo and other events.

Trends since 1990

During the 1990s, one distinguishing characteristic of the foreign-born population in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama was its relatively small size (see Table 2). The largest foreign-born population is in Louisiana, followed by Alabama and Mississippi.

Although small in absolute size and relative ranking, the foreign-born populations in Alabama and Mississippi approximately doubled and experienced a higher rate of growth than did the nation as a whole during the 1990s.

Louisiana, on the other hand, experienced a slower pace of growth (32.6 percent increase), leading to a substantial drop in its foreign-born state ranking.

Table 2. Number of Foreign Born and State Ranking of Foreign-Born Population, 1990-2000
 
1990
2000
 
 
# Foreign born
Ranking (low to high)
# Foreign born
Ranking (low to high)
Percent Growth of foreign born
Louisiana
87,407
26 out of 51
115,885
19 out of 51
32.6%
Mississippi
20,383
7 out of 51
39,908
9 out of 51
95.8%
Alabama
43,533
17 out of 51
87,772
17 out of 51
101.6%
Total U.S.
19,800,000
 
31,100,000
 
57.4%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1990 Census of Population and Housing and Census 2000.

A second distinguishing feature of the region's foreign-born population was growth in the Mexican-born population. By 2000, the foreign-born populations in all three Gulf states had grown during the 1990s.

Mexicans represented approximately 27 percent of Alabama's foreign-born population, 24 percent of Mississippi's, and eight percent of the foreign-born in Louisiana. Figure 1 illustrates especially dramatic increases in the Mexican-born population in Mississippi and Alabama during the 1990s.

Figure 1. Mexican Foreign Born as Percentage of Total Foreign-Born Populations in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, 1990 and 2000
Source: 1990 Census of Population and Housing and Census 2000, Summary File 3.

A third distinct feature of the foreign-born populations in the three Gulf states is that most settle in metropolitan areas. Figure 2 describes the increase in foreign-born persons in the three Gulf states and their concentration in metropolitan areas.

In Louisiana, as the foreign-born population increased, so too did its concentration in the New Orleans metropolitan area. In Mississippi, although the population grew somewhat since 1990, foreign-born persons concentrated in the Biloxi metropolitan area in 2000 and 2004.

Only in Alabama is the trend toward metropolitan concentration somewhat attenuated. Although the foreign-born population increased in the state, the concentration of the foreign born in Mobile was not much higher than in the state as a whole.

Figure 2. Percent Foreign-Born by State and Metro Area, 1990-2004
Note: In 2000 and 2004, New Orleans refers to New Orleans City; Biloxi area refers to the cities of Biloxi, Gulfport, and Pascagoula, Mobile refers to Mobile County. These definitions are consistent with the Census Bureau's 2005 hurricane data site.

Sources: Census 2000 and 2004 American Community Survey.

Immediate Effects of Hurricane Katrina

In the weeks following the storm, 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 immigration-enforcement sanctions. In the days after the hurricane, President Bush also temporarily suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which guarantees construction workers the prevailing local wage when paid with federal money.

The media picked up on the trend in early October 2005 and described how employers were seeking Latino immigrants to help rebuild the affected areas. Together with a cartoon in the Los Angeles Times that depicts an African American walking out of New Orleans holding two suitcases and a Mexican laborer walking in holding tools to repair a broken levee, articles with titles such as "Illegal Workers Eying the Gulf Coast," "Big Easy Uneasy about Migrant Wave," "La Nueva Orleans" and "A New Spice in the Gumbo" all signal the role that immigrants, many of them Latino laborers, will play in the efforts to rebuild.

Yet Latinos responding to labor-market demand have not been all that welcome. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin famously asked at a forum with business leaders, "How do I make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers?" Although he quickly distanced himself from the remark — which provoked a joint statement about unity by civil rights and Latino organizations — many in the region believe contractors favor cheap, foreign labor over local, native workers. Due to criticism from local Gulf Coast residents, the prevailing wage rule went back into effect approximately two months after its suspension.

One report in a December issue of Newsweek suggests that undocumented immigrants from Mexico now in New Orleans earned $12 an hour, working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, cleaning up schools in St. Bernard's parish. A Chicago Tribune article estimated that migrant Latino laborers in the battered areas of the Gulf Coast face an extraordinary opportunity for jobs as long as they are willing to work 70 to 80 hours a week for an hourly wage of at least $8 per hour. A December 18 article in the Washington Post focused on undocumented immigrants' struggles to find jobs and the problems they face — being abandoned by contractors and receiving less than or none of the pay promised.

Still, reports suggest that the influx of Mexican and other migrants will continue as many attempt to reap the benefits of the new "Gulf Opportunity Zone." Although there are no official estimates, Andy Guerra, president of the Gulf Coast Latin American Association, told Gannett News Service in November 2005 that about 30,000 Latino workers had flocked to the Gulf Coast since Katrina. These arrivals include U.S. residents as well as new migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and other Latin American countries.

Conclusion

What remains unclear is whether Mexican and other Latino immigrant laborers will remain once the clean-up work is done. Just as unclear is how much of New Orleans and other Gulf cities will be rebuilt. Although most migrants may not intend to stay, the longer those jobs last, the more likely they will settle permanently, evidence suggests.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew displaced 250,000 residents in southeastern Florida, then triggered a construction boom that attracted large numbers of Latino immigrants who have now settled in the area. By 2000, Hispanics comprised nearly one-fifth of Florida's Broward County population and in towns such as Homestead, the Latino population grew by as much as 50 percent during the 1990s.

Similarly, migration to the Gulf Coast states since Hurricane Katrina underscores the demographic changes that began in the 1990s. 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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