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Advocates Struggle To Help Undocumented Immigrants Find Relief After Harvey


In the greater Houston area, there are more than 600,000 immigrants without legal status. That's 1 of every 10 Houstonians. Many have lost everything after Hurricane Harvey. Unlike other victims, they don't qualify for help from FEMA. NPR's Adrian Florido reports this is just one reason advocates fear these immigrants may be among the worst off after the storm.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Rosa Sosa lives in southwest Houston in a first-floor apartment in a sprawling complex that's home to lots of undocumented families. She lives with her husband, her 24-year-old daughter and her baby grandson. When the water rose, they fled to a vacant apartment upstairs. When it receded, they returned to find all of their belongings destroyed.

ROSA SOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The most important thing were the beds," Sosa said. I ask if they'll buy more.

ROSA SOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We could," she says, "but who knows when?" The family's been sleeping on the floor.

ROXANA SOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Her daughter, Roxana, says they're out of money because they haven't worked since the storm.

ROSA SOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We haven't even bought food," her mother says, "because we've got to pay the rent." Because they're undocumented, none of the adults in the Sosa family qualify for FEMA assistance. That's true for many thousands of immigrants left with nothing after the storm. The one exception in the Sosa family is Roxana's baby, who was born in the U.S. Even so, the family hasn't registered for help.

ROSA SOSA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We're afraid," Rosa says, "and that's why we stay like this. It's why rather than declare our losses we just stay quiet." Advocates say this fear of being deported is keeping a lot of undocumented Texas families from seeking help. They were already uneasy because of a strict immigration enforcement bill that was set to take effect in Texas until a federal judge temporarily blocked it last week. After the flood, Aura Espinosa of the advocacy group Fiel spoke to one woman whose story she said was common. She refused to go to a Red Cross shelter despite extensive damage to her home.

AURA ESPINOSA: One of the roof is falling on her, but she put sheets so she can at least have cover until she finds a way to fix her problem.

FLORIDO: And she refuses to leave?

ESPINOSA: Yes, because she's afraid that immigration is down there or there is something - if they get her information, eventually they're going to come and look for her.

FLORIDO: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has said repeatedly that there will be no immigration enforcement at shelters. But immigration officers, including Border Patrol agents, had been seen out front. Judson Murdock, the CBP official leading the Harvey response, says they won't be there anymore. He says they'd only been there to help.

JUDSON MURDOCK: We're not there to do immigration enforcement. They're - we're here to make sure that people can get to safe haven.

FLORIDO: Still, many immigrants have said they will not take the risk, so much of the work of helping unauthorized immigrants is falling to private groups.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Over the weekend, a group of immigrant volunteers from Austin drove a big trailer loaded with supplies into a strip mall parking lot. People started streaming in from the surrounding immigrant neighborhoods. Carlos Ramos got in line to try to get some diapers for his son. He said that during the flooding, he and others from his apartment complex left to look for food and help. But as they waded through the water, they spotted some rescuers with the letters CBP emblazoned on their uniforms - Customs and Border Protection.

CARLOS RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "We said, what are they doing here," Ramos said, "and we all ran back home. We knew they were here to help, but there's that fear, you know, of not knowing if they're going to take you away." Like many people I spoke with, Ramos said he didn't know how he would recover. He lost literally everything he owns. And he can't get FEMA. He's got no insurance, no more money. He does know that undocumented immigrants will be a critical part of the labor force in Houston's rebuilding effort, like they were after Hurricane Katrina.

RAMOS: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I'm hoping there will be a lot of work for us soon," he said, "so my family can start to rebuild." Adrian Florido, NPR News, Houston.


Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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