Louisiana doesn’t share a border with our Latin American neighbors to  the south, but it looks   like New Orleans is increasingly becoming a “gateway” for Latino immigrants.

From 2000 to ’10 the Latino population in the New Orleans metro area surged by 57 percent, according to an analysis of Census findings by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, a local research nonprofit. Most of that growth came after – and as a direct result of – Hurricane Katrina.

“The main driver for anyone, including  Latinos, to move somewhere is work, and post-Katrina there was a lot of work here,” says Allison Plyer, the center’s chief demographer.

She says the new figures suggest that New Orleans may be emerging as a modern gateway for Latino immigrants. That’s because another big factor guiding relocation is a destination’s social network, which can range from family and friends who might already live there to what services, businesses and community resources are in place that cater to their specific needs. While the national economic malaise has reduced immigration overall, Plyer says, if immigration increases again the New Orleans area’s higher profile among Latinos could mean more people heading this way.

“Once you get established as a gateway, if immigration picks up again more people will likely come through here because of that social network, because there’s more assistance here for them to get settled,” she says.

New Orleans already has a precedent of helping new immigrant groups become established from its experience with Vietnamese people moving here since the 1970s.

“There was an intentional effort then to assist these folks and help them get settled, and these types of welcoming activities can make a big difference,” Plyer says.  
While immigration can be a sticky political issue, some cities around the country that have suffered population decline have more recently been actively courting immigrants who arrive in the country legally. They can replenish a city’s residential base and they typically prove more willing to take on the risks of starting new businesses or rebuilding in neglected neighborhoods.

“If the city wanted to attract more Latinos, it could promote home auctions in Spanish or seed more bilingual schools,” Plyer says. “These things would make it clear New Orleans welcomes them.”