Attorneys from the New York Legal Assistance Group's Storm Response Unit did outreach after Sandy to try to make sure undocumented immigrants were receiving the help they needed. Credit: NYLAG
In the weeks after Hurricane Sandy, concerns grew about an especially vulnerable population of storm survivors: undocumented immigrants.
FEMA officials told Metro back in November that there was some cash assistance available for undocumented immigrants with U.S.-born children or relatives, and insisted the agency would never ask applicants for information on immigration status.
But advocates feared that undocumented immigrants would be fearful of applying, or confused or unable to understand the information available about FEMA or other assistance.
A year later, it seems those fears were very legitimate.
Many undocumented immigrants who lived in some of the worst-hit neighborhoods in the city did not receive much-needed aid, said Keiko Cervantes-Ospina, the supervising attorney with the Storm Response Unit at the New York Legal Aid Group.
One of NYLAG's undocumented clients was in her ground-floor home with her brother and her daughter when the storm hit. They could hear the wind whipping against the windows but didn't believe the storm would reach them until they started noticing "puddles as big as lakes" and water surging up the street "like a river."
They started panicking when they lost power. They had to leave their apartment to get to the second floor unit that another family rented, and when they opened the door, water rushed into the house, destroying their carpeting and furniture.
Almost immediately after the storm hit, her landlord told her not to contact FEMA. "We'll handle this between us," the landlord said. The woman didn't even know what FEMA was at the time. When she learned and put in an application with them, her landlord threatened to call immigration. Her landlord made that threat repeatedly, stopping her from seeking out rental assistance that might have been available because her daughter had been born in the U.S.
Cervantes-Ospina said M.'s is a common story: Landlords often take advantage of undocumented immigrants, bullying them into accepting subpar living conditions with threats of deportation.
One of the concerns about undocumented immigrants in the wake of Sandy was employment: many work in home-care positions, and with power cut off and many homes damaged, it was likely housekeepers would not be needed. M. cleans houses, and was one of those who was left unemployed for months on end. Even now, she has gained back a few clients, but nowhere near enough to support her and her daughter in the new home she had to find after being evicted.
There is also the emotional element Sandy survivors face: M.'s daughter is now terrified to live on a first floor apartment. Factoring that consideration into finding a new place to live was just one more obstacle in M.'s path.
For many undocumented clients, Cervantes-Ospina said, fear of deportation was only half the battle.
Applying for assistance is "a very stressful and onerous process for anyone," Cervantes-Ospina said. "Then you've got language barriers on top of that."
Many undocumented immigrants were also reluctant to appeal application denials.
"It's an overwhelming process and the more you fight, the more you feel like you're calling attention to yourself," she said.
Since NYLAG got involved in April, Maria's situation has improved slightly, but serious issues remain.
Because Maria's daughter is a U.S. citizen, NYLAG attorneys were able to secure some public assistance and food stamps. Their last appeal of her FEMA application denial was unsuccessful, however.
And since her landlord kicked her out, she's paying more for her new apartment, and still doesn't have as many clients as she did before the storm. If business doesn't pick up, she said, she may need to figure out a new line of work.