Ramon Mejilla stood by the curb at the former park-and-ride under the West Bank Expressway in Gretna, waiting for a job to come along.
Ordinarily, he's one of a crowd. "Normally, there's 20, 25 people here," he said. On Friday, though, there were only about half a dozen others, and most of them hung back, away from the street.
“They have to be able to run away quickly," Mejilla said, explaining that he didn't have to worry so much because he's a U.S. citizen.
For the past six years, the old park-and-ride has been a haven of sorts for mostly Hispanic day laborers looking for work. Gretna set the space aside so the laborers wouldn't congregate at places like Home Depot. And the workers say law enforcement typically hasn't bothered them.
But that changed in the past month or so.
U.S. Border Patrol agents have suddenly started conducting regular sweeps, looking for individuals in the country illegally.
Rachel Taber, an organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers, which advocates for the men who congregate here, said she was shocked by the raids.
"This is racial profiling," she said. "And it's especially unfair since this space is there because of an agreement we reached with the city. This is a scheme violating the day laborers’ most fundamental rights. It’s like raiding a union hall. These are people who rebuilt the city after the storm; they’ve got a right to be there."
Taber said the agents' first visit to the area came on Aug. 23. Since then, she said, they have been regular visitors, showing up almost every day last week.
Robert Brisley, the agency’s Louisiana spokesman, confirmed that the Border Patrol is operating in the area but declined to give specifics. He would confirm only that on Sept. 18 and 19 agents “encountered two male subjects” in Gretna and took them into custody, after which they were “turned over to ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations.”
The agency is part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Workers say the recent raids — a word Brisley did not want to use — typically proceed like this: Unmarked cars will be parked nearby for a while, and then agents will jump out and try to detain as many people as they can as the workers scatter.
“It’s dangerous,” said one man, who declined to give his name.”They will run into the street, no matter whether there’s a car or not.”
It's the kind of situation city officials were trying to prevent when they set the area aside for day laborers in 2011.
Former Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris remembers the situation well. Workers would congregate in front of the nearby Home Depot and area gas stations, clogging up traffic and intimidating potential customers, he said. Some drivers would stop in the middle of the busy road to negotiate with potential workers.
“It was a safety hazard,” Harris said. One councilman even proposed making it illegal to hire day workers in Gretna.
Instead, the city repurposed an unused park-and-ride at Chilo and Pratt streets under the expressway.
“It’s a safe place out of the traffic; it has an easy in, easy out,” Harris said. Trash cans were put in place; the immigrant workers brought some picnic tables and paid for a weekly cleanup.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was when everyone was satisfied," Harris added. "It was one of my proudest moments as mayor.”
Gretna is just one of many cities and towns around the U.S. that have come up with pragmatic ways to deal with immigrant communities — ways that satisfy the needs of both the newcomers and longtime residents but not always those of the federal government.
The Gretna solution worked for more than six years without complications. But now it appears to be in peril.
Brisley, the Border Protection spokesman, said his agency “works alongside our local, state and federal partners on a regular basis."
But current Gretna Mayor Belinda Constant said she had been unaware of the new raids until a reporter asked her about them. She wasn't happy about the news, saying the city was still pleased with the arrangement: “We thought this was an amicable solution for everyone.”
Anthony Christiana, deputy chief of the Gretna Police Department, said his department was also left out of the loop. “No one has contacted the Gretna Police Department about that. I don’t even know that this is occurring,” he said.
Christiana said Gretna police will continue to leave the "safe corner" alone. But Border Patrol agents are not bound by any agreements made by local authorities.
Immigrants and their advocates worry that the situation will revert to the chaos that was commonplace before the agreement.
Constant concurred: "It probably will. And I will have to deal with people who are unhappy about it."
Nonetheless, she has no plans to talk to the federal agency about her concerns. “I have no authority over what Border Patrol does. I’m not going to get involved in the business of the federal government,” she said.
It is unclear whether the activity in Gretna is part of a broader effort to step up enforcement of immigration laws. According to local immigration lawyers, in the New Orleans area such arrests have normally been handled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has been increasing its activity.
An August story by The Advocate revealed that this year's numbers for administrative arrests by that agency had almost quadrupled from the previous year, an apparent consequence of an executive order by new President Donald Trump.
But Michael W. Gahagan, a local immigration attorney, said he has never heard of the Border Patrol making the type of arrests that have happened in Gretna. "It's normally outside of what they do," he said. "It sounds like they're trying to get in on the fun."
Border Patrol officials were not willing to shed much light on their recent activity but suggested it was not outside the norm.
"Enforcement actions away from the border are within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Border Patrol," Brisley, the spokesman, said by email. "We never operated solely around the points of entry."