By Nick Valencia, CNN
New Orleans (CNN)- Humberto Guzman drove big rigs in Alabama for two months. As an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, he feared being deported everyday.
“The police would come after us a lot,” Guzman said. “Where we parked was the problem because they always asked us for our papers.”
Last week, two more parts of Alabama’s tough immigration law, which makes it more difficult for illegal immigrants to live and work in the state, were blocked by a federal appeals court. Another piece, requiring schools to check the immigration status of students, was put on hold last year. The entire law is being challenged by the federal government and activist groups.
Anticipating the worst, around the beginning of the year, Guzman packed his belongings and headed for Louisiana. He was familiar with the state. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, illegal immigrants like Guzman flocked to the city. They came in droves, drawn by the high paying jobs.
“Louisiana is a state where [police] don’t bother you. Over [in Alabama], you can’t even eat in peace,” Guzman said of the reason why he chose to come to the state, instead of stopping in Mississippi on his drive-in from Alabama. “The governor from here has been very kind to us…and he’s Republican!”
Despite Guzman’s sentiments, Louisiana did pass two immigration laws in May 2011, which Governor Bobby Jindal signed. They are both designed to make sure businesses check that their workers are legal. A much tougher bill was introduced in the same session– and withdrawn.
Louisiana law has not stunted the flow of unauthorized immigrants or the businesses who hire them. In 2010, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated the illegal immigrant community to be around 65,000 people in Louisiana. By comparison, neighboring Mississippi had an undocumented population of about 45,000.
Hiberto Apolo owns the hauling business that contracts Guzman. Apolo, originally from Ecuador, came to Louisiana looking for work after Hurricane Katrina. Now others are coming to him looking for a similar opportunity.
“The reality is many have come here and they’ve said to me, “Sir, can you help me get work? Can you give me work? I have problems in Alabama and they’re supposedly going to deport me,” Guzman says.
Of the 13 workers that Apolo currently contracts, about a third came from Alabama in the last few months. More are coming, he says.
“The truth is here is a bit calmer, I see that. But what I hear on the news is that everyone is afraid of what’s happening, so who knows? That fear could touch here too,” Apolo says. “We may have to run here too, but at this stage it’s beautiful in Louisiana, and we thank God that they treat us well.”
Although most of the work for undocumented workers is found in New Orleans, many immigrants have chosen to settle in nearby Kenner, Louisiana. Some areas of that city have seen a dramatic shift almost overnight. Latinos now make up about 25 percent of the population of Kenner—nearly a 10 percent increase since before Katrina, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
With the boom comes adversity. Jacinta Gonzalez is the head of the Congress of Day Laborers, an organization that supports undocumented immigrants. She says the wave of anti-illegal sentiment that led to strong laws in Arizona and Alabama is already impacting reality in Louisiana.
“I think many residents want people to be part of the community but it seems like the only institution in the city that’s really receiving them is the criminal justice system,” Gonzalez says. “We’re really seeing an upsurge in people that are being arrested and that are being kept in the jails for very minor incidents”
At the day laborer site where Guzman hangs out, the tension is clear. Just as a CNN crew arrived on the scene, a security guard from a local business was chasing them off the grounds. A day later, a police car was parked in a lot overlooking the workers.
So far Guzman has been able to avoid arrest. It’s easier to do that in Louisiana than Alabama, he says.
“I don’t understand, I don’t understand over there what the reason is that they bother us so much, because here…here in New Orleans, it’s not said that the laws have to be the end of you,” he says.
For now he’s glad to be out of Alabama and looking forward to helping New Orleans rebuild.
“A lot of people look at it and say, ‘Look how ugly New Orleans is,’” Guzman says. “But I hope that one day more people will understand how beautiful it is here. And it’s with our [Latino] hands that this city will move forward.”