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Immigrant evacuees weigh safety, fear of deportation

September 10, 2017 at 6:11 PM EDT
Before Hurricane Irma hit land, Florida Gov. Rick Scott urged more than 6 million of the state's residents to evacuate their homes and get out of harm's way. But many people within the Latino community who only speak Spanish, or are undocumented, avoided official shelters, instead relying on their neighbors and churches for support. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports on the challenges.
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IVETTE FELICIANO, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: College student Michelle Song and her church group came this shelter today at a middle school in Seminole County, north of Orlando.

MICHELLE SONG: The most important thing is they provide us food, so we don’t have to worry about not having things to eat later.

FELICIANO: It can hold up to 160 evacuees, and when we visited, it still had room for people trickling in.

Walt Griffin, the superintendent for the school system in this area, said his nine schools are sheltering 1,100 evacuees.

WALT GRIFFIN: I’ve checked out the food and the space at every single location, and it looks phenomenal.

FELICIANO: Roy Davis is homeless and says he’d be weathering the storm on the street if he didn’t have this option.

ROY DAVIS: It’s warm, it’s air conditioned. There’s also a television and restrooms, which aren’t locked at night. So it’s really good.

FELICIANO: Yet some migrants and recent immigrants in central Florida’s growing Latino community are avoiding city and county shelters.

FATHER JOSE RODRIGUEZ: The biggest thing has been language barrier.

FELICIANO: Father Jose Rodriguez runs an Episcopal church in downtown Orlando. He’s received calls from concerned parishioners who don’t speak English and couldn’t find information about where to go for shelter during mandatory evacuations. He helped set up this unofficial shelter inside an episcopal retreat and conference center in the town of Oviedo.

RODRIGUEZ: For a lot of people coming in from the outside, they don’t really know the landscape of Orlando. And so many people did what they normally do — they picked up their phone, they dialed up their local priest, and the priest told them, ‘You have a place to come, we have a refuge for you.’

FELICIANO: Rebecca Perez is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico and came here with her three children instead of the local government shelter in Kissimmee, where they live.

REBECCA PEREZ, IN SPANISH: I never expected that the church would support me in this way. All of my family is in New York. This church is my family. They’re more than family.

FELICIANO: Perez was worried if a government shelter asked to fill out forms, her personal information could end up in the hands of federal immigration agents.

PEREZ IN SPANISH: The first thing they ask is do you have a Social Security number? And obviously I don’t have one. That’s happened to me many times before.

FELICIANO: 50 miles west, in Polk County, Daniel Barajas, who runs a grassroots immigrant rights organization, has turned his family’s home into makeshift shelter for the undocumented. Polk County ordered everyone living in mobile homes, as many immigrants do, to evacuate.

DANIEL BARAJAS: My family is staying here in solidarity. We have family out of the state as well, who asked us, has begged us to leave, but we know that these people will not be receiving assistance. And if there’s any assistance available, they’re going to be afraid to ask for it, because the Department of Homeland Security sent out a press release stating that immigration agents will be present with FEMA.

VIDEO: Everyone has constitutional rights.

FELICIANO: Barajas posted this video on Facebook giving advice after the Polk County Sheriff tweeted that law enforcement officers would be checking ID’s at the doors of all county shelters.

So what are you hearing from the families that have been calling you?

BARAJAS: “Is it true? Will they be detained? Will they be pressured into asking?” Some families have been so scared that they’re trying to send their children to the shelters and staying behind in the mobile homes. It’s heartbreaking.

FELICIANO: For some Latino citizens, like 25-year-old Chrisalee Cuevas who was evacuated from her apartment west of Orlando, language barriers and status issues aren’t a concern. She and nine relatives rented two rooms at the Econo Lodge in Kissimmee. Yet as an employee in the food and beverage department at Disney World’s magic kingdom, she lost income this weekend, because the park is closed until further notice.

How are you feeling right now?

CHRISTALEE CUEVAS: Kind of devastated. It’s going to be rough, ‘cause I have to pay my health insurance, I have to pay car insurance, I have to pay rent food. I’m a student as well — full time job, full time student. Gas money to travel. Food supplies. It’s going to be rough.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ivette Feliciano joins me now from Orlando. Ivette, I’m sure the folks you spoke with who are staying at this hotel are happy to be away from the storm’s deadlines, but some of them who are living paycheck to paycheck, I’m assuming they’re thinking about the costs associated.

IVETTE FELICIANO: That’s exactly right, Hari. The financial impact of the hurricane is one of the biggest concerns for them. especially Chris Ali who we were speaking to, she works at Disney World. And it’s not just her that this is affecting, her boyfriend works at Disney World, she lives with him, and several of her family members, and they’re all missing these days of work. She was telling me that her uncle is actually going to cover everyone’s hotel costs, which are of course inflated at this point, and they’re going to take some time to be able to pay him back.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Let’s talk a little bit about the ripple effects, especially if people have families. a lot of people in Florida have relatives that are in the Caribbean or further south that were affected by the storm.

IVETTE FELICIANO: That’s right, that was the case for Chris Ali and her family. Her family is in Puerto Rico, of course Irma didn’t directly hit them but many people on the island are delaying with power outages or taking in hurricane victims from other islands. And also people in the Mexican immigrant community in central Florida, of course Mexico was hit with that devastating earthquake earlier in the week and of course a lot of people in this area have family in Houston who dealt with Hurricane Harvey recently. so on top of the stress of being able to find the resources that they need they’re also concerned about families, some of which they haven’t been able to speak to as of yet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Okay, Ivette Feliciano joining us from Orlando tonight. Thanks so much.

IVETTE FELICIANO: Thank you.

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