HOUSTON — Immigrants came from across Houston to a Baptist church gymnasium and stacked dollies with boxes of cereal, orange juice and household necessities like cleaning bleach.
For many of them, the church was the safest place to seek relief after Harvey devastated Houston and left thousands of immigrants fearful of turning to the government for help amid fears they would get deported. A similar response was seen in immigrant-heavy sections of Florida after Irma swamped the state.
“We have to come together as churches to help the undocumented,” Emmanuel Baptist Church pastor Raul Hidalgo said while mingling with victims and volunteers on the church gymnasium's parquet floor.
Places of worship and private charities in Texas and Florida are playing a pivotal role in the recovery effort from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma because so many storm victims are immigrants in the country illegally — and therefore ineligible for federal disaster aid. They are doing charity giveaways like the one at Hidalgo's church. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston is hosting workshops for immigrants to explain FEMA eligibility and answer other questions.
Federal Emergency Management Agency rules allow people in the country illegally to apply for disaster aid on behalf of children under 18 years old with legal status, but many worry about the government sharing information with immigration authorities.
Cesia Lux, a 25-year-old Guatemalan, went to the church giveaway in the heavily Latino Houston Heights area for help, loading a family member's pickup truck with diapers, canned beans and other goods after her house took on a foot of water. She is in the country illegally, but her husband, 2-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son are U.S. citizens.
Her husband applied for FEMA aid despite misgivings that it might lead immigration authorities to her.
“One never knows what they do with the information,” Lux said.
Houston has nearly 600,000 people in the country illegally, more than any U.S. metropolitan area except New York and Los Angeles, the Pew Research Center estimates. Florida has 850,000, more than any state except California and Texas.
Immigrants in Florida and Texas have been on edge after federal agents have stepped up enforcement efforts under President Donald Trump, who has made immigration a top priority of his administration.
Texas adopted a tough law against cities that don't cooperate with immigration authorities, fueling more fears even though a federal judge largely put it on hold Aug. 30. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has praised Miami-Dade County for dropping its “sanctuary city” policy this year and honor requests from immigration authorities to hold people in jail. Florida saw conflict arise on immigration during the storm when the sheriff in a county between Tampa and Orlando had officers check IDs for anyone entering shelters. The Florida Immigrant Coalition complained immigrants were frightened to seek shelter there.
The Florida city of Immokalee — home to a large migrant worker population — was hit hard by the storm. FEMA has set up a registration site in the city, but many immigrants rent their homes there and aren't planning to apply for government assistance. Churches in the city have been handing out food and water to immigrants struggling in Irma's aftermath.
FEMA's disaster aid application warns immigrant parents who apply for their children that information including addresses may be shared with immigration officers. It suggests consulting an attorney or other immigration expert with questions.
William Booher, FEMA's public affairs director, said the agency won't “proactively” share information with immigration enforcement agencies but will on request “if a significant law enforcement interest exists,” including national security cases.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which employs thousands of deportation officers, “generally would not request this information for immigration enforcement purposes, except in the case of a national security threat, public safety threat or other criminal investigation,” said spokeswoman Liz Johnson.
Senior officials in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama said FEMA's warning predated them. They said they never knew of information being passed to immigration authorities under their watch.
“In the Bush administration, when there was a disaster it was all hands on deck to try to help the humanitarian side,” said Julie Myers Wood, ICE director from 2006 to 2008. “It was not a focus to gather information for enforcement purposes.”
Craig Fugate, the FEMA director under Obama, said he referred people in the country illegally to Catholic Charities during an earlier stint as Florida's top crisis response manager.
“People are so afraid of deportation or being arrested that they won't get assistance they need just to survive,” he said.
Young immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and were living in the country illegally faced a similar dilemma when applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program started by Obama that allows them to stay in the U.S. When President Donald Trump announced last week that he was ending DACA, his administration said it doesn't “proactively” share information on its 800,000 recipients with immigration enforcement officials unless they meet criteria that include posing a threat to public safety or national security.
Marta Rivera, 36, sat in a folding chair at Emmanuel Baptist Church and told an immigration advocate across the table that she avoided shelters after Harvey hit because she thought it might lead to getting deported. As she explained how Trump's presidency has made her more anxious, her 10-year-old daughter began to sob.
“I feel like my life is here,” said Rivera, who came to the U.S. as a child. “If they send us to Mexico, I have nothing there. I don't know anyone.”
After some coaxing, she said she would apply for FEMA aid on behalf of her three children who were born in the U.S.
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