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The Media Silence About
Louisiana Dodging Anti-Immigrant Laws

And the Death of José Nelson Reyes-Zelaya

José Torres-Tama

New Orleans, Louisiana

On July 29, 2010, members of the Congress of Day Laborers (CDL) held a vigil for the mysterious death of José Nelson Reyes-Zelaya, a 28 year old immigrant from El Salvador. He died in the custody of ICE after twenty-four hours of being picked up by them. Their press release on his death noted that Reyes-Zelaya committed suicide and died of apparent asphyxiation. ICE refused to give out any more information. The CDL presented a Freedom of Information petition to ICE agents, but to this day, they have not heard anything more. There was hardly any news coverage in the local media about this tragedy, and it exemplifies how little immigrant lives matter in New Orleans, a city that has been rebuilt by thousands of Latino immigrants after the storm. The CDL protested on the same day that Arizona's infamous anti-immigrant law SB1070 when into effect. Photos and captions by José Torres-Tama.

July 29, 2011, marked the first year anniversary of Arizona's infamous SB 1070 officially becoming a law, and since, it has spawned other states to follow.  The new confederacy of Southern states signing harsh anti-immigrant laws has grown considerably this summer, and Tennessee is expected to join South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia with similar Arizona copy-cat laws that demonize Latino immigrants.  In Louisiana, the great news is that two such laws, not one but two, were actually voluntarily withdrawn by their respective legislators.  A highly effective grassroots campaign and coalition to oppose the passing of these bills was formed by local organizations such as the Congress of Day Laborers, PUENTES New Orleans, Catholic Charities, and the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University.

Representative Ernest Wooton, an Independent from the Belle Chase area, was forced to voluntarily withdraw his bill called The Louisiana Citizen’s Protection Act or H.B. 411 in a legislative session on June 6 in Baton Rouge.  Wooton made a show of continuously identifying "illegal aliens" with exaggerated emphasis on the word "illegal".   Had it passed, his bill empowered local and state police to detain anyone they suspected of being undocumented.  The $11 million fiscal expense to implement his bill was not received favorably by Louisiana legislators already grappling with a $1.6 billion budget deficit.  However, even the state's conservative lawmakers did not exhibit a bloodlust to criminalize Latino immigrants who have been vital to the recovery of this Gulf State post-Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and post-BP oil spill.  I filmed three legislatives sessions in Baton Rouge, and while I am no fan of this state's red conservative tendencies, I have to confess that Wooton's colleagues did not exhibit his outrageous passion in trying to pass his odious bill.

In May, Representative Joe Harrison, a Republican from Houma, was forced to table his bill H.B. 59, and in the Judiciary committee I filmed, he encountered strong opposition to his anti-immigrant law by Representative Joey Bishop, Democrat from New Orleans, and Representative Walker Hines, a New Orleans Republican who in late 2010 switched ranks from his previous Democratic affiliations. Both were critical and unsupportive of a bill that criminalized Latino immigrants who had helped to reconstruct the devastated city after the flood. It was grand political theater indeed, as befitting the inherent drama of Louisiana politics, but the biggest headline that this Gulf State has resisted drafting a despicable anti-immigrant law is nowhere to be found in local, statewide, or national media news. This great good news story has been flying below the media radar, and outside of a short Associated Press article that followed the initial deferment of HB 411 in mid June, there has been nothing. Simplemente nada!

The New Orleans Times-Picayune daily hardly mentioned it and public radio stations have been silent as well. One would think that this would be great news to profile for the local and statewide Latino community and for the national community in general. Unlike its neighboring states of Alabama and Georgia, Louisiana has not joined in passing another Juan Crow law.

For those of you who may not know, the 2011 summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, a heroic coalition of racially integrated black and white students who risked their lives riding on Greyhound and Trailways buses into the segregated Deep South. In Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, they encountered terrorist-like attacks by Ku Klux Klan members, local and state police, and white residents opposed to their commitment to desegregate public facilities, restaurants, and buses.

The Freedom Riders challenged the racist Jim Crow laws that kept the South in an officially condoned state of apartheid. Fifty years later, this hatred has been reborn in Juan Crow laws that openly demonize a new race of color. Fear in the Deep South is rearing its ugly face again. We must not relent in defeating this new cancer! Adelante Mi Gente!

When an Immigrant Dies in New Orleans …

Also, on July 29, 2010, the Congress of Day Laborers held a vigil and protest that took place in New Orleans. Latino immigrant activists and their allies took to the streets to protest the mysterious death of José Nelson Reyes-Zelaya, a twenty-eight year old El Salvadoran immigrant. He died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents after 24 hours of being in their detention facility. Members of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) filed a Freedom of Information Act petition that was handed to ICE agents in front of their offices on Poydras Street (across from City Hall). To this day, the NOWCRJ and the Congress of Day Laborers have not received any further information. Shortly after his death on July 17, 2010, ICE authorities released a statement that the death of Mr. Reyes-Zelaya was a result of "apparent asphyxiation" from suicide. He was the eighth immigrant to die in ICE custody by July 2010, and customarily, ICE classifies these deaths as "suicides".

Sadly but not surprising, there was hardly any news coverage in the local media or public radio station about this tragedy, and it exemplifies how little immigrant lives matter in New Orleans, a city that has been rebuilt by thousands of Latino immigrants after the storm. Currently, Latino immigrants are fighting for the RIGHT TO REMAIN in a city that they have reconstructed, but they live in a parallel universe where their suffering goes unnoticed.

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Published in In Motion Magazine August 25, 2011

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