No papers, no help

Ignored by federal agencies, thousands of illegal immigrants made homeless by Katrina are struggling to survive.

Published September 19, 2005 11:56PM (EDT)

"If you don't have a Social Security number, it's like you don't have no damage, you haven't lost anything, you don't exist," says Yarida Valladares. She leans forward with tears in her eyes. Valladares, a native of Honduras, is one of the thousands of undocumented immigrants whose lives have been erased by Hurricane Katrina and whose stories have been largely untold.

Valladares, who fled New Orleans in a crammed bus, has been living in a shelter at the Reliant Park complex in Houston for a week. Although she has been calling multiple agencies, they have all told her she is ineligible for aid because she is undocumented. "All this stuff, they ask for Social Security numbers," she says pointing to a marked-up sheet full of numbers of agencies to help hurricane victims.

Thousands of Gulf Coast evacuees in Houston have received donated food and clothing, debit cards from the Red Cross and FEMA, and opportunities to take buses and planes to any destination in the country. However, many of the same services are not available to undocumented workers. "They just ran away and can't get help anywhere," says Paul Ramirez, who works with Houston Esperanza, a nonprofit group that seeks housing and shelter for Hispanics.

Latin American authorities say nearly 300,000 people from Mexico, Central America and South America lived in Gulf Coast areas struck by Katrina, according to a report by IPS, the Inter Press Service News Agency. It's difficult to tell how many undocument immigrants have been uprooted by Katrina. But Louise Zwick, who, with her husband, Mark, runs the Houston Catholic Worker Casa Juan Diego, a center for immigrants and refugees, figures the number must be in the tens of thousands.

"There were hundreds of thousands of Hondurans and Mexicans in New Orleans, so we would assume a lot have come here," she says. "However, no one's been able to find them very well. Many have probably been taken into homes." Ramirez says he knows of one Hispanic family that took in 18 evacuees, and a local church that has taken in even more.

Last week, Christian, a Salvadoran who has a work permit but also an undocumented pregnant fiancée, tried to gain entrance to the Astrodome but was told it wasn't accepting any more people. He declined to share their last names. Christian, his fiancée, Cecilia, and baby daughter, Kaila, are all living with a friend who has taken them in. They speak only Spanish.

"They take taxes from us, they take everything from us, and then when someone needs help..." his voice trails off. "Because I'm not a citizen, they can't help me."

Before offering assistance, FEMA asks evacuees for their Social Security numbers. Its Web site states that it may be able to assist undocumented workers who have children who were born in the United States. Also, all immigrants, regardless of status, are eligible to receive "short term, non-cash, in-kind, disaster relief," which means emergency shelter, emergency health care, food, and water. In the longer run, says Lisa Navarette of the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group, she's not sure what help is available to undocumented workers. Federal authorities like FEMA, she says, "have given very mixed signals about the help that [undocumented workers] can get."

As IPS reports, consular authorities from Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru and El Salvador have traveled to the affected areas to set up hot lines and offer help to immigrants. However, says Norman Garcia, Honduran ambassador to the United States, "the consulates cannot operate as they would wish in the area because the State Department is not allowing us to." Garcia says his country has not been given access to State Department lists that could help identify how many Hondurans may have died from the storm.

In Houston, Valladares, Christian and Cecilia are eligible for emergency relief, but getting the aid is easier said than done. Valladares, who lived in New Orleans for 16 years and speaks English fluently, says she was on hold for hours with some of the agencies, trying to get through the red tape. She says it would be even harder for immigrants who don't speak English or who fear the authorities and centralized agencies.

Carlos Madrid, a 24-year-old undocumented Honduran, is one of the many who don't speak English. After fleeing New Orleans in his own car before the hurricane, he rushed back to save his girlfriend, Yenny Sanchez, a legal immigrant from Guatemala. She had nowhere to go, but with her papers she's been able to receive assistance from the Salvation Army to support Madrid and her four children. "Undocumented people have the same basic necessities as people with papers," says Sanchez, 26.

Mark Zwick of the Casa Juan Diego center and shelter explains that "undocumented people cannot benefit from federal funds or any funds, so we've developed a pattern of services like food for the poor without questions." He mentions that undocumented immigrants can't take advantage of the country's healthcare system past the emergency room and can't get federal welfare or emergency aid.

Over the past two weeks, Casa Juan Diego has seen donations pouring in from food banks in Houston that can't handle the influx. But Zwick says he doesn't have many evacuees staying with him because most have been taken in by the Hispanic population. "They have relatives. Hondurans are great on primos. They can't turn them down, so they've just got houses full of people," he says, adding that immigrants will stop by during the day to get food for the 20-odd people staying in their apartments.

They also stop by the tiny front room of the house of Eva Flores. She has set up folding chairs around the room and in front of a small table packed with canned food, diapers, and clothing. It doesn't compare to the Reliant complex, which offers rows of food tables, a health clinic, Internet access and armies of volunteers. But like Casa Juan Diego, it is one of the few places to which undocumented immigrants can turn.

Flores volunteers for the Central American Resource Center and has been one of the leaders in fundraising and gathering supplies from the Hispanic community. "Houston has always shown that the Hispanic community is ready to help," says Flores. She can only take so much time off work, so people usually stop by at night to get information from her and to pick up donated items.

Valladares, 34, has come to Flores' home to pick up some food for her family and some extras for her 3-year-old daughter. She tears up as she talks about losing her home, her two cars, and her belongings, but says she's grateful for the help she's received from the Hispanic community.

Valladares and her family found a family to stay with. They were wandering the street, looking to buy food after their long bus ride from Louisiana, when a stranger approached and asked if they were from New Orleans.

A legal immigrant from Honduras, Japhed Rodriguez, immediately offered them a place to stay. He managed to find room in his apartment for Valladares, her two children, and her husband, though he has a wife and three kids of his own. His wife takes Valladares' 8-year-old to school with their own children.

At the Rodriguez house, with the children squabbling and the TV blasting cartoons, Rodriguez explains his decision to take in the Valladares family. "I like to help a lot of people that come from my country and other countries who don't have papers," he says, "I know exactly how this life really is because when I came here I slept under the freeway." Rodriquez is confident that the evacuees will be able to start over, but Valladares looks more concerned.

Even with all of the help coming from the Hispanic community, job prospects look grim. "Houston is city with few sources of work," Flores says. She says most jobs are in the business sector, not in construction or landscaping, which are more apt to hire undocumented immigrants. In fact, Christian and Cecilia moved to New Orleans from Houston a year and a half ago because there were more job opportunities there. He worked installing glass with a company while she stayed home with Kaila. Now they're back where they started, but without a house and any means to support themselves.

Christian's former boss has contacted him to tell him his job is secure when he returns to New Orleans. The question is when that will be, and whether the family can hold out for that long. Christian has applied for several jobs in Houston but hasn't heard back from anyone.

His voice tightens with emotion as he looks at his daughter. "I feel like my hands are tied. To get somewhere -- the car costs gas. We can't do anything," he says. "What worries me the most is my daughter. An older child can put up with hunger, a baby can't." On top of everything else, the car they drove to Houston is acting up. Christian is afraid that if it breaks down, it will destroy any chance he has to get a job.

Other undocumented immigrants have already found jobs, however. Out of the roughly 50 undocumented evacuees that Zwick estimates received housing at his shelter, hardly any remain.

"The contractors from Louisiana come and hire our men," Zwick says. He adds that he's sent vans "full of workers" back to Louisiana, to do cleanup and reconstruction work. Only a day earlier, he had sent a group of seven women back as well, to do cooking and cleaning for those workers.

Exploitation and employment often go hand in hand for undocumented immigrants, but Zwick does his best to ensure decent working conditions. He insists on a minimum $7 an hour for workers. Zwick says he prefers not to specify which contractors he works with regularly, so as not to get them into trouble. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security announced a 45-day grace period for employees to produce documentation, so contractors for now can legally hire whomever they want for reconstruction.

However, since the hurricane, Carlos and Yenny have yet to find jobs. They also have not heard from the well-off couple they both worked for in New Orleans. "Right now, it's like we're floating in the air, with nothing," Yenny says. Carlos rushes to say that the city of Houston has been incredibly supportive, but bitterness creeps into his voice when discussing the Astrodome and the assistance that most evacuees are receiving. He does not know where to turn for work.

Neither Christian nor Carlos is enticed by offers of reconstruction work in their old city. They have young families to consider, and safety is a priority, they say. Valladares is also suspicious of such offers. "The Spanish people, that's the people they using to do all the dirty work," she says darkly. Her husband has found temporary landscaping work in Houston, but wants to return to Mexico. According to Valladares, her husband would rather beg on the street than go back to work in New Orleans' current condition.

Undocumented immigrants will stay or go where they can find a job. For the moment, their only lifelines are possible employment and advocates like the Zwicks and Flores. "We help them because they're in need and hungry," says Zwick. For federal agencies, people like Valladares and Christian remain invisible.

By Amanda Kludt

By Amanda Kludt and Caitlin Miner-Le Grand are journalism students at New York University.

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