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Immigrants Struggle After Hurricane Sandy

ISS-33_Hurricane_Sandy_-_cropped.jpgImmigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, were hit especially hard by Hurricane Sandy. Many living in the affected areas found their homes destroyed or severely damaged, but hesitate to make any significant effort at repair or recovery for fear of arrest and deportation. Even some documented immigrants may fear confusion due to lost documents or incomplete application processes. Although the federal immigration agencies have publicly stated that they will not conduct enforcement actions in the context of relief efforts, this appears to have done little to assuage those fears. For individuals and businesses awaiting action from immigration authorities, the storm may have slowed the process, but officials have offered some guidance.

Undocumented Immigrants and the Storm

The Associated Press reported on undocumented immigrants, many from Latin American countries, living in the New York area. After suffering substantial losses in the storm, they are afraid to come forward for assistance, including temporary housing and food. Advocates have reportedly gone through affected neighborhoods, hoping to inform people of their options. Representatives of the Mexican government even visited shelters in affected areas, offering assistance to Mexican nationals regarding temporary assistance for storm victims.

Undocumented immigrants with a connection to the U.S., such as natural-born U.S. citizen children, may qualify for certain benefits despite their status. One individual interviewed by the Associated Press could apply for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) because his children are citizens. Most benefits through FEMA and other agencies are only available to citizens or permanent residents. Other means of relief may be available, however, such as recovery of security deposits for rental property damaged or destroyed by the storm, meaning through no fault of the tenant.

Immigration Enforcement and Storm Relief

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the two primary federal immigration enforcement agencies, issued a joint statement in Sandy’s aftermath identifying “life-saving and life-sustaining activities,” evacuation, public order, and protection of property as their highest priorities. Any activities of the two agencies towards storm relief would serve these priorities. They stated that they would conduct no “immigration enforcement initiatives” in connection with sheltering or evacuations. They further asked that, should any local law enforcement agency seek to release an individual with an ICE hold from custody, that the agency contact ICE solely to determine if the agency considered the individual a threat to public safety. Whether ICE and CBP has held to these statements, of course, may remain to be seen.

Application Deadlines and Sandy

In a separate statement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services outlined its efforts to assist applicants and petitioners affected by the storm. The agency stated that it would accept requests to change or extend nonimmigrant status for people in the U.S. during the storm, even if they are received late. F-1 students experiencing “severe economic hardship” may receive expedited processing of request for off-campus employment. The agency also stated that it would use its discretion to extend filing deadlines or interview dates for certain active petitions and applications.

The Rant

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, dubbed “Superstorm Sandy” by the media, has been chaotic for everyone it affected. With regard to the immigration system in this country, it has stirred up an already-chaotic environment, causing confusion for immigrants who need and are eligible for assistance. We should learn from the successes and failures of Hurricane Katrina how to rebuild for all members of the community. That so many people (both documented and undocumented), businesses, and organizations could be left in such disarray speaks to the need for education and advocacy for everyone involved in the system.

More Blog Posts:

UndocuBus: Putting a Face on Undocumented Immigrants in U.S., ImmigRantings, September 10, 2012
More States Expected to Exert Control Regarding Illegal Immigration Problems, ImmigRantings, August 3, 2012
Prosecutorial Discretion – Amnesty By No Means, ImmigRantings, May 29, 2012
Photo credit: ‘ISS-33 Hurricane Sandy – cropped’ by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.