Undocumented immigrants left behind in Sandy recovery

People look through donated clothes in a parking lot of the heavily damaged Rockaway neighborhood.

While thousands have tapped into $703 million in federal aid after Hurricane Sandy, the city’s undocumented immigrants find themselves empty-handed.

FEMA reports 236,000 New Yorkers have requested relief in the wake of the storm, but cash assistance for things like home repairs are only available to U.S. citizens, leaving thousands of undocumented immigrants with nowhere to turn.

FEMA officials did say there is some cash assistance available for undocumented immigrants, but only those who have U.S.-born children or relatives. A FEMA spokeswoman insisted undocumented immigrants who apply for assistance will not be asked for information on their immigration status.

In the hard-hit Rockaways, community organizer Dahlia Goldenberg of Queens Congregations United for Action said many undocumented immigrants who hold domestic jobs have been out of work for a month after the households of their employers were damaged.

“There are families where two out of three adults in the household have been out of work since the storm, and they don’t have the money to fix the boiler and can’t get help from FEMA for that,” Goldenberg said. “They have no plans for what to do when it gets colder.”

She added, “They’re big contributors to our city, so they should be getting help just like everybody else.”

Communities and churches have pulled together to provide
necessities like clothing and food to storm victims, but because
undocumented workers are not eligible for Disaster Unemployment
Assistance through FEMA, their financial needs have slipped through the
cracks.

Undocumented workers who don’t have U.S.-born children or relatives are eligible for crisis counseling and non-cash emergency aid, but Queens Councilman Daniel Dromm, head of the City Council Committee on Immigration, said FEMA hasn’t clearly communicated what is available to them.     

“On signs that FEMA posted, it says you need a social security number right off the bat,” Dromm said. “There are some things [undocumented workers] are eligible for, but those signs are very, very misleading.”

Jackie Vimo, the director of advocacy for the New York Immigration Coalition, said undocumented immigrants can apply for money raised by some organizations, like the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York and the Mexican Consulate. She’s also urging Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office to set aside some of the money it has raised for Sandy relief to go directly to undocumented immigrants.

“Many are without housing currently and are double, triple living in crowded conditions with relatives and really stretching family resources,” Vimo said. “In terms of long-term recovery, the fact that there is no specific plan is extremely challenging, and it’s something we are working on.”

One undocumented immigrant’s story

Krystyna, a Polish house cleaner who declined to give her last name, is one of New York’s undocumented immigrants who took a life-changing hit after the storm. She was overcome with emotion as she described her struggle to pay her daughter’s college tuition even as she was out of work for weeks after Sandy.  She is too scared to apply for any type of FEMA aid because she is in the country illegally.  

“One time we went to get hot food and they asked for an ID and we ran because we were scared,” Krystyna, who lives in Far Rockaway, told Metro. “I know I am not legal here, and I can’t get anything. It’s a difficult time. I hope it never happens again.”

She was recently hired to clean a house affected by the storm, but worries that the conditions are unsafe.

“I start coughing because everything is moldy,” Krystyna said. “After three or four weeks, it stinks and we are scared to say we won’t do it because I might lose the job.”


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