An estimate of 600,000 Harvey residents are in the United States illegally
Alain Cisneros, a community organizer for the Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle, an advocacy group known by its Spanish acronym FIEL, speaks with Adabella Fonseca, a Mexican woman whose parents brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was a year old, with her 10-month-old daughter, as he counsels Harvey evacuees who are in the country illegally at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston. (AP Photo by Elliot Spagat), photo: AP/Elliot Spagat
31 of August 2017 18:12:37
HOUSTON – Alain Cisneros walked past thousands of cots filled with storm victims at the Houston convention center holding up a poster with the words, "Do you have questions?" written in Spanish in bold black letters.He pulled up a chair next to a woman from Honduras and tried to deliver a reassuring message as the 23-year-old recounted in an exhausted voice how waters rose to her chest in her Houston apartment, forcing her to wade to safety with her three young children.Ricxy Sánchez listened to Cisneros' assurances that although she is in the country illegally she shouldn't worry about being deported if she asks for help and that she should consider applying for disaster relief. With almost everything she owns destroyed in the storm, she's thinking about moving back to violence-ravaged Honduras."Stay here to suffer with our children?" Sánchez asked, shaking her head.The encounter illustrates the complexity of responding to a disaster on the magnitude of Harvey in a city where an estimated 600,000 residents are in the country illegally and immigrants have been on edge amid stepped-up immigration enforcement under the new White House. Authorities have gone out of their way to tell jittery immigrants that they will not be arrested for seeking help, and outreach workers like Cisneros have been delivering that message in person at shelters like the George R. Brown Convention Center and on social media and Spanish-language media outlets.The Harvey victims Cisneros met at the shelter shared the same concerns as almost everyone else: When can they return home? When can they start earning money again? How will they replace their belongings? The ones in the country illegally had deeper fears of deportation amid the chaos of having their homes wiped out."We basically lost everything," Sánchez said, drinking from a Styrofoam cup half-filled with black coffee. "Everything."Sánchez, who arrived a year ago from Honduras, told Cisneros she has been raising her three young children — ages 5, 2 and 1 — alone on wages cleaning houses since being abandoned by their physically abusive father two months ago. She recently skipped a date in immigration court, but Cisneros suggested seeking legal status under protections for victims of domestic violence.Then the 38-year-old Cisneros, himself an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Houston since coming to the United States 20 years ago, said goodbye to her with a favorite line. "Don't stay here with your arms crossed" he said.Houston is one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country: Only Los Angeles and New York have a larger population of immigrants in the country illegally. The percentage of Latinos and Asians in the Houston area nearly doubled in 20 years, according to a 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute, which also found the percentage of immigrants who are U.S. citizens to be well below the national average. The city has the third-largest population of Mexicans, Vietnamese and Hondurans, with large pockets of Pakistanis, Nigerians, Filipinos and Indians.
Groups like FIEL have made it their mission to help immigrants who are fearful of immigration authorities. Its staff has been working around the clock since last week in its office on the second floor of a two-story building in immigrant-heavy southwest Houston, and has dispatched outreach workers like Cisneros, who has also counseled immigrants following Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Ike in 2008.After driving on a near-empty freeway to the convention center, Cisneros found 35-year-old Adabella Fonseca resting on a cot with her 10-month old daughter while her husband was out inspecting damage to their trailer home. She fled Saturday when the water reached her chest; her husband stayed until it was neck-deep.Fonseca, whose parents brought her to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a year old, said she had wanted to avoid the convention center because she feared immigration authorities. Now she was scared to leave.Cisneros clasped her hand, told her not to be afraid, and promised support. Before leaving, he asked how she felt."Better," she said, managing a faint smile.
Immigration enforcement operations are not being conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks— ICE (@ICEgov) 31 de agosto de 2017