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Honduran Immigrants in New Orleans: Fleeing Hurricanes Mitch, Katrina and Now the U.S. Government

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It is estimated that 120,000 Hondurans lived in the New Orleans area. Many were refugees from Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Honduras in 1998 killing up to 10,000 people. While many Honduran immigrants were granted temporary legal status, others are undocumented and fear deportation. Democracy Now! travels to Louisiana to speak with some of the Honduran survivors there. [includes rush transcript]

It is estimated that 120,000 Hondurans lived in the New Orleans area. Many were refugees from Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Honduras in 1998 killing up to 10,000 people. Others came to the area to work at Louisiana’s ports and fisheries. Now in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this community is on the move again. Though the U.S granted temporary legal status for the Honduran victims of Mitch, others are undocumented and fear deportation–and it is unclear how the U.S government will handle their citizenship status.

According to an article in Inter Press Service, Honduran ambassador to the United States Norman Garcia lamented that the offers of food, medical and logistical support made by Latin American and Caribbean governments have been turned down.

Mexico’s consul in Houston told IPS “undocumented migrants live in a state of terror.”

Democracy Now! traveled to Louisiana this weekend and spoke with some of the Honduran survivors there. Just out of New Orleans is the community of Gonzales.

  • Jorge Vitanza, Honduran Consular Agent.
  • Santa, Honduran immigrant.
  • Melissa Gutierrez, the pastor of Healing Place church in Gonzales, LA.
  • Mirta Flores, Honduran immigrant.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! traveled to Louisiana this weekend, and we spoke with some of the Honduran survivors. Just out of New Orleans is the community of Gonzales. First we met with Honduran Consular Agent, Jorge Vitanza, in a local mall parking lot.

JORGE VITANZA: We have all people from Honduras all spread out in the area, and we are trying right now to find out where they are, giving them assistance with the information, how to get help from FEMA, and if they don’t apply, to look at other ways to help them out. We already have people from our government coming on this last week and gave us some money to help out the people that don’t have anywhere to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Are Hondurans who come here — I don’t think most people realize how large the Honduran community is in the greater New Orleans area. Can you talk about it?

JORGE VITANZA: Yes. We know that there are about 82,000 people in — are from Honduras in New Orleans. Plus the people that don’t have documentation, we can go — talking about 100,000.

AMY GOODMAN: Are they afraid to go into some of the shelters?

JORGE VITANZA: Sure, they are. We have talked to them, and they’re going at night and sleeping and coming out in the morning, early in the morning, because they are afraid that they have — they are going to be deported, which that’s not true. At this moment, they’re not doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any assurances from the Department of Homeland Security?

JORGE VITANZA: Yes. Yes. They have sent a letter telling us that right now, there are no deportation of the victims that are here in this area.

AMY GOODMAN: Jorge Vitanza, the Honduran Consular Agent, speaking to us just outside Gonzales, Louisiana. He then took us over to the Healing Place Church in Gonzales, where we met with Honduran Katrina refugees, some double survivors from hurricane Mitch in Honduras. This is a woman who identified herself as Santa.

SANTA: [translated by Jorge Vitanza] She say there’s a lot of people that have left the shelters because somebody came and told them that the immigration were looking for them, and there were the border patrols here. And so, they left. A lot of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Border patrol came here?


JORGE VITANZA: No. They were on the street. That’s what somebody came and tell them, and they were afraid. Nobody have come here.

AMY GOODMAN: Santa, speaking to us at a shelter in Gonzales called Healing Place. This is just outside of New Orleans. We also spoke to the pastor of the Healing Place in Gonzales. Her name is Melissa Gutierrez. And she talked about FEMA and Katrina victims trying to get hurricane relief.

MELISSA GUTIERREZ: Well, it varies. Some days there are like 90, maybe 75. We have had 150, 120. It just kind of varies every day.

AMY GOODMAN: How many Hondurans are here?

MELISSA GUTIERREZ: I really can’t tell you. I don’t have that number exactly. But there’s — we have a lot of Hondurans. I’m not real sure. Maybe close to 20-25, maybe.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about their immigration status? Are they concerned about coming to a shelter and not having the documents?

MELISSA GUTIERREZ: I think we have — they’re not all undocumented. We have some that are undocumented, but then we have those who have been here for years and have their residency and all. And so there, we have a little bit of both. You know, that stress of just not knowing and not being able to get the relief from the government, and there’s others who are fine, because they know that something is coming up ahead. So we are kind of dealing with both situations.

AMY GOODMAN: If someone is not documented, can they apply for help?

MELISSA GUTIERREZ: I believe right now, they can apply for food stamps. FEMA, they cannot apply for FEMA.

AMY GOODMAN: They can’t?


AMY GOODMAN: How do you know that?

MELISSA GUTIERREZ: Because I had a lady bring me a paper, and they had to provide a Social Security.



AMY GOODMAN: Melissa Gutierrez, Pastor of the Healing Place Church in Gonzales. And then she brought over a young woman named Mirta Flores, who had not only survived Katrina, but she had survived Hurricane Mitch. We’ll go to her after break.


AMY GOODMAN: Over 100,000 Hondurans live in the New Orleans area, it’s estimated about 10% of the population there, a story that is not very well known outside of the area. Some of the survivors are also survivors of Hurricane Mitch, 1998 in Honduras, believed to have killed something like 10,000 people in Honduras. A number of people came to this country, among them Mirta Flores, who recently came here. She told her story to us at the Healing Place Church. She was translated by the pastor of the church as she talked about surviving hurricanes Katrina and Mitch.

MIRTA FLORES: [translated by Melissa Gutierrez] She said that they were actually near the lake, and they had not left yet from where they were living, and actually, they really got a lot of the hurricane, but they were able to barely able to get out. But they were in a car with a Brazilian friend.

We have come here from Honduras, and we have five children, and we’re here to just make a better living, and we just want to thank — I just want to thank you all also for coming to see us and some of you have come to visit us, and we’re just thankful for that, because we can see that people care for us. Also, we just ask that you help us, because we are here without legal papers, and we just don’t really know what’s up ahead. And so, we just — we need help.

And I ask God with all my heart to please keep us safe, because we have five children in Honduras.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you come to the United States?

MIRTA FLORES: [translated by Melissa Gutierrez] In June.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you survive Hurricane Mitch in Honduras?

MIRTA FLORES: [translated by Melissa Gutierrez] We left the community that we lived in and went to another area.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they are Hurricane Mitch survivors?

MIRTA FLORES: [translated by Melissa Gutierrez] At that very time, we also suffered very much.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened?

MIRTA FLORES: [translated by Melissa Gutierrez] Well, all of the houses were filled with water, and everything that was inside was pretty much destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how do you feel to come here and go through this again?

MIRTA FLORES: [translated by Melissa Gutierrez] She says really only God really knows, but that I would really like, sometimes have the feeling to just get up and leave and go back to my country, but when I think about my five children, I think that really, there I have — they have no future, because of the poverty that we live in there. And so I just feel and I believe in my God that he’s going to help us to get through this, and eventually, we’ll be able to get a job in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Mirta Flores, a survivor of Hurricane Mitch and Katrina in the Healing Place shelter. She was translated by Melissa Gutierrez, who is pastor of the Healing Place Church in Gonzales, Louisiana. Well, finding Honduran refugees was difficult, because they’re so afraid of being caught by U.S. Border Patrol, whether or not they’re documented, and think about it, who has documents after the hurricane?

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