Post-Katrina, thousands of immigrant workers came to New Orleans to help the city.
Julie Mao came to help them.
“The workers were being exploited,” Mao says, noting that many worked in dangerous conditions, sometimes with no health or safety equipment, all while being paid less than a livable wage.
Mao is part of a four-person legal team at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, a center that was formed post-Katrina to organize workers across race and industry.
“When I started there it was this real grassroots organization,” Mao says. “New Orleans is definitely reflective of all the large problems we’re seeing in this nation, but post-Katrina it became so much more intense.”
Among the problems is guest worker exploitation. Guest workers are those who are in the United States because an employer is sponsoring their visa.
“This creates a problem if you have a bad employer,” Mao says. “The worker is then so scared to complain about bad conditions or unfair treatment for fear they will lose their status.”
According to Mao, Louisiana has one of the highest guest worker sponsorship rates in the nation. In 2014, Forbes Magazine named Mao among its “30 Under 30” for her work with student guest workers.
“These students were paying $5,000 to $6,000 to come over here for what they were told was a cultural exchange program,” she says. “Instead they ended up working at a factory.”
Mao’s work helped force government officials to crack down against the employers and recruiters involved let to new state department oversight and regulations.
A native of the northeast, Mao received her law degree at New York University. Her intention was always to tackle immigrant issues.
“I’m from an immigrant background, Chinese American, so I was always interested in those issues. It just naturally extended into the legal field where I felt I could do some good.”
Mao says she feels she has done some good and has seen important progress, but says there’s still a long way to go.
When things get too much, Mao says she likes to revel in the joys of her adopted city.
“I am constantly inspired by the resilience of the people here,” she says. “The music, the art, the culture, it keeps people going. The culture here is so strong that these people aren’t coming in and changing it, they’re adopting it as their own.”
mentor: My mom, for being the strong woman that she is and always has been, despite all the odds.
defining moment: Testifying before City Council on how the enforcement of immigration law by local law enforcement destroys community trust and harms their ability to report crime.
advice for young women: Don’t be afraid of your big dreams or your own opinions – speak up and speak out!
goals: To build a strong, safe, and vibrant New Orleans for all members of our community. On a personal note, I’d like to finally catch a Muses shoe!
favorite thing about what I do: That I have the privilege of working with community members to protect the civil and labor rights of all New Orleans residents.