Immigrant Families Have Not Bounced Back From Hurricane Harvey

In Texas, some of the hardest-hit victims of last summer's hurricane season are still struggling to recover.

In August 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated large sections of the Gulf Coast, with the city of Houston suffering particularly, due to how much of its population lived in flood plains. In the eight months since that disaster, many area communities have substantially recovered from their losses. But to this day, many of the most vulnerable populations still struggle. In particular, immigrant families lost more and have recovered less than almost any other group.

And that's likely to continue.

A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation published in March studied the experience of immigrants living in the Texas Gulf Coast at the time of Hurricane Harvey. "For a variety of reasons," researchers found, "including potential language barriers, lack of social ties, and fears of drawing attention to their own or someone else's legal resident status, immigrants may be more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters and their aftermath compared to those who were born in the United States."

This vulnerability turned into lived experience during and after the hurricane. Compared to native-born residents, immigrants in Texas have been more than twice as likely to suffer a loss of employment or income in the months following the hurricane. Immigrant families have been less likely to receive disaster assistance, less likely to have insurance or receive payments, and have struggled to get medical care when they need it.

Part of the problem is the tenuous economic conditions under which many new arrivals to the United States live. Immigrant families often rely on hourly and fluctuating incomes, with schedules that can change based on an employer's demands. In the wake of the hurricane, this left them particularly bereft, as work more quickly evaporated in hourly industries such as service, retail and construction. This has also exposed many of these workers to rampant wage theft in the recovery atmosphere, a problem that has been increasingly well documented in recent months.

Yet money isn't the only problem. As Kaiser found, while "both race/ethnicity and income play a role … some racial and ethnic differences persist regardless of income. For example, Hispanic residents at both higher and lower income levels are more likely than their white counterparts to say someone in their household experienced employment-related disruptions as a result of the storm."

For many immigrants, fear of the government is a force equally as powerful, if not more so, as money. Half of all immigrant families documented by the Kaiser study said they have not sought help rebuilding their homes because of concerns over their own or a family member's immigration status. With the post-9/11 roll up of the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the Department of Homeland Security (which also operates Immigration and Customs Enforcement), this fear has grown particularly acute.

Although FEMA insists that undocumented immigrants who contact their offices will receive help instead of deportation, many (if not most) immigrant families remain unconvinced. Hispanic immigrant households who live in Texas cite the specific laws this state has passed cracking down on sanctuary cities and empowered the police to check individuals' immigration status. As a result, many immigrants have avoided seeking not only federal but also state and local assistance, seeking to rebuild with their own resources rather than risk calling attention to themselves or a loved one.

This has been hard, because these have always been particularly vulnerable communities.

"The starting point," said Madison Sloan, Disaster Recovery Director with Texas Appleseed, "is almost always the history of segregation of people of color and how the legacy of segregation has resulted in many of the most vulnerable communities living in areas that are more vulnerable to natural disasters and non-natural disasters."

Disasters can have a disparate impact on low-income communities of all ethnicities as well as on people of color, she said, among other issues because these communities typically have to live in areas with inadequate services. In Houston, for example, many black and Latino neighborhoods (which also typically have large immigrant populations) have what is called open ditch drainage. These are little more than channels intended to guide water away from populated areas, and are typically overwhelmed and subsumed by high water levels.

Poor infrastructure investment leaves many minority and immigrant neighborhoods almost set up to fail in case of a storm or natural catastrophe. Weak systems get overwhelmed more easily, allowing greater damage than neighboring wealthier, whiter communities experience (a trend Kaiser found consistently across its data).

And the people who live in these underserved communities lack the resources they need to clean up from that damage effectively. As Sloan pointed out, many emergency recovery programs, including those with FEMA, assume that disaster victims have a certain amount of resources. This can work well for people who have savings, insurance and salaries to fall back on, but offer little to people who can't ride out the waiting period (or who are too afraid to approach a government agency in the first place).

"The bottom line," she said, "is that everyone likes to say that disasters affect people equally, but it's the recovery that we should be concerned about. In order to recover as a state, as a larger community, we need to make sure that all the parts of our community have access to what they need to recover."

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