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In the wake of Harvey, Houston’s undocumented community faces uncertainty

September 1, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
For Houston's undocumented immigrant community, some 600,000 people, Hurricane Harvey has turned anxiety about immigration raids and deportations into a visceral fear to seek shelter. In addition, many who have been impacted by the storm are unable to qualify for government disaster relief. P.J. Tobia reports on how undocumented families are overcoming Harvey.
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MILES O’BRIEN: We have spent a lot of time covering people who have gone to shelters for aid and relief, but there are a number of immigrants in the Houston community who are nervous about getting that help.

Today, a controversial law in Texas was set to take effect. It would crack down on so-called sanctuary cities like Houston that don’t always cooperate with federal authorities.

A federal judge blocked much of the law, but Governor Greg Abbott and the state’s attorney general have vowed to appeal.

Some immigrants feel targeted.

The NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia has our report.

P.J. TOBIA: Holy Ghost Parish, Southwest Houston, six days since Harvey’s landfall, donations are pouring in.

Damaris Figueroa and a small army of volunteers work round the clock to get the generous bounty of food, clothes and other necessities to a waterlogged and desperate community.

DAMARIS FIGUEROA, Holy Ghost Church: We have been delivering every few hours, like 150 meals.

P.J. TOBIA: A big part of her efforts are directed at a group of Houstonians who remain in the shadows, even in this time of great need.

DAMARIS FIGUEROA: They be sending messages: Please, we’re in this place. We’re under this freeway. We are under this place. Please, can you come help us?

P.J. TOBIA: They’d rather live under a freeway overpass than go to a shelter run by the city, because they’re so scared?

DAMARIS FIGUEROA: Yes.

P.J. TOBIA: One-point-five million undocumented immigrants live in Texas. Nearly 600,000 of them call the Houston area their home. But there’s a real sense of anxiety among Houston’s undocumented immigrant population around immigration raids and deportations. Hurricane Harvey turned that feeling of anxiety into a visceral fear.

Marta — we agreed not to use her full name or reveal her identity — is also an undocumented immigrant. When her neighborhood flooded, she refused to take her three children to a shelter, for fear she’d be deported.

MARTA, Undocumented Immigrant (through interpreter): I hear in the news that, in some shelters, people and the police are asking for some fingerprints. That is why I have a lot of fear of going to the shelter and why I decided we don’t need to go.

P.J. TOBIA: She’d also heard that Border Patrol boats were cruising Houston’s flooded streets, looking for the undocumented.

MARTA (through interpreter): My biggest fear is being separated from my family.

CESAR ESPINOSA, Executive Director, FIEL: Number one is the fear factor.

P.J. TOBIA: Cesar Espinosa runs FIEL, an organization which supports undocumented immigrant families. He said neither of the rumors were true. He spent the past week trying to convince those at risk from the high water to seek shelter.

CESAR ESPINOSA: During the storm, we were running out of a mobile office out of my mom’s house through cell phones. And half of the calls we were getting were people saying, you know, I might need a shelter. Is it going to be safe for me and my family to go?

P.J. TOBIA: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has been unequivocal that shelters are safe for the undocumented.

SYLVESTER TURNER: There is absolutely no reason why anyone shouldn’t call, OK? And I and others will be the first ones to stand up with you. If you need help and someone comes and they require help and then for some reason that somebody tries to deport them, I will represent them myself.

P.J. TOBIA: But even as the floodwaters recede, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said the judge’s ruling on the sanctuary cities law makes Texas less safe.

Mark Krikorian, who heads the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, agrees.

MARK KRIKORIAN, Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies: Immigration law is an important tool for public safety in a place like Texas. It’s right next to Mexico. You know, most illegal aliens are just ordinary people, but there’s a significant cartel presence there. Cartels use immigrant communities as cover to operate in.

So, immigration law is not just an important tool. It is an essential tool to promote public safety, especially in a place like Texas.

P.J. TOBIA: Undocumented immigrants like Manuel Rosario, who have long lived in Houston, now have another worry: how to pay for the long process of recovery.

Rosario returned to his house in Northeast Houston for the first time to survey the damage.

MANUEL ROSARIO, Undocumented Immigrant: Oh, my — smell bad.

P.J. TOBIA: Rosario, along with his son, Darrel, wife and five daughters, barely escaped the storm with their lives.

DARREL ROSARIO, Houston Resident: So, he had to put on a rope, a yellow rope. The other end, he tied it to a small pool, a purple pool.

P.J. TOBIA: Like a plastic baby pool?

DARREL ROSARIO: Yes, a plastic baby pool. And then he put some blankets on the bottom, and then the babies on the top.

P.J. TOBIA: Wow.

DARREL ROSARIO: And then the rest of us were behind, and we got out.

P.J. TOBIA: He and his family are now staying in a shelter at the massive Toyota Center downtown.

He hasn’t been able to sleep, thinking about all that he’s lost and how he will rebuild.

MANUEL ROSARIO: Last night, I feeling bad, I think — and my son and my daughter, I think how we can come back to living in this house.

P.J. TOBIA: Because his son is a U.S. citizen, Rosario will likely qualify for FEMA rebuilding assistance. Many are not so lucky.

CESAR ESPINOSA: The sad reality, though, is that some of these families are not mixed-status family, meaning that they may all be undocumented. So, in that sense, unfortunately, through the federal funds, there’s not much that can be done.

P.J. TOBIA: Mark Krikorian thinks that people in the country illegally shouldn’t get recovery money.

MARK KRIKORIAN: There’s a basic difference between immediate emergency assistance, in other words, pulling people off the roof of a house, giving them water in an emergency, shelter, that kind of thing. That’s appropriate for everybody.

I mean, that’s, I would say, imperative to apply that to anybody regardless of who they are or anything else. It’s the next stage, the post-emergency assistance that’s funded by my tax money and yours which shouldn’t be going to people who have broken our laws, who shouldn’t even be in the United States.

P.J. TOBIA: In a statement to NewsHour, FEMA confirmed that undocumented families need one family member who is a citizen and has a Social Security number to apply for disaster assistance.

No matter who qualifies for government aid, immigrant activists say most flood victims will have to continue to rely on the outpouring of charity from private sources for months to come.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m P.J. Tobia in Houston.

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