August 3, 2008

FEMA says illegal immigrants can benefit from assistance, but some local leaders aren't so sure

August 3, 2008 - 5:00PM
Laura Tillman
The Brownsville Herald

BROWNSVILLE - In Hurricane Dolly's aftermath, one group is hit particularly hard - illegal immigrants.

Many are afraid to seek federal help, they say, for fear of deportation or of not being treated with simple human dignity.

But although the Federal Emergency Management Agency joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2003, FEMA officials insist undocumented residents are at no risk of deportation if they seek aid available through President Bush's local disaster declaration last week.

"Information is shared (between DHS departments), but only on a need-to-know basis," FEMA spokesman Don Jacks said. "We're not a law enforcement agency; we're here to help people."

Nevertheless, local and international officials worry that because of the area's high concentration of undocumented immigrants, local residents' fears will prevent a large segment of the population from seeking assistance.

"We have to provide avenues to help anyone who will fall through the cracks of FEMA," said Richard Garza, a developer with Padre Island Health Specialists, during a meeting at Brownsville's Mexican Consulate on Friday.

Safety buffer

The volume of illegal immigrants whose homes Hurricane Dolly devastated has prompted Garza to team with other local leaders to create a national organization that acts as a safety buffer for natural disaster victims unqualified for FEMA assistance.

Mexican Consul General Victor Manuel Treviño Escudero plans to meet with FEMA officials at his Brownsville office this week to clarify what he called the "confusing" collection of services available to undocumented immigrants.

"We have to serve as the intermediary between people here and the government," Treviño said. "People don't feel comfortable going directly to (U.S. officials)."

Another Consulate official agreed.

"Some people are so afraid of DHS at this point that they won't even go to the hospital when they're sick," said Gabriela Robinson, who represents the Consulate's health program, Ventanillas de Salud.

Former Brownsville Port Director of Customs Jorge Flores - who once directed the Mr. Amigo organization that promotes U.S.-Mexico relations - said the increasingly aggressive attitude toward undocumented immigrants has made it important to create an organization that can serve as a go-between with FEMA for illegal immigrants.

"With the raids that have transpired over the past year, people hold back on everything," Flores said, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations across the country. "The laws have changed to the point where you can get deported the first time you're caught."

"Be careful"

According to FEMA officials, undocumented immigrants homeowners can receive non-cash assistance like food, medical services, temporary emergency housing and Crisis Counseling, regardless of documentation status.

If a member of their household is a legal resident, or if they have a child who is a legal resident, then they can file for cash assistance through that relative.

Documents proving that the home belongs to the individual applying for assistance at that point - such as a deed, tax statement or insurance policy - as well as the Social Security number of the resident applicant, will be necessary for individuals to receive aid.

Rev. Michael Seifert - a priest at San Felipe de Jesus Church in Cameron Park, where he says approximately 25 percent of homes have at least one undocumented resident - said external organizations should continue to serve as watchdogs to ensure FEMA does not use such information for future legal action.

"You're asking people who are hiding from the system to hand their information over to FEMA," Seifert said. "I think we just have to be careful."

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