The Heightened Devastation of Superstorm Sandy on Undocumented Immigrants

Photo by the Huffington Post

Undocumented immigrants have been among the populations most impacted by Superstorm Sandy in New York City.

The federal government recently granted New York City $51 billion in aid for Sandy recovery. Of the initial $1.8 billion installment, $350 million has been distributed to 9,300 low-to-moderate income single-family homeowners, and $250 million has been allocated to low-to-moderate income tenants living in 13,000 units of houses and apartments. When the storm made landfall, homes and businesses were destroyed, sustaining nearly irreparable damages. In an effort to reclaim destroyed homes, lost possessions and steady employment, survivors turned to the federal government for support, but this has been no easy task for the undocumented population.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires that in order to access relief funds, one must present his or her Social Security number.  This, of course, is a problem for most undocumented people, and has prevented thousands from accessing much needed post-storm relief. In addition, many businesses were destroyed in Sandy’s aftermath, causing many workers to lose their jobs, many of whom were undocumented. Again, FEMA required that in order to receive unemployment benefits, one must present their Social Security number.  This, of course, created the same problem.  Without access to FEMA’s unemployment benefits, many undocumented workers found employment in construction (regardless of what they were doing previously.)

FEMA’s sheer presence in disaster areas has struck fear in many undocumented communities—FEMA employees dress in military uniforms and, while they are supposedly there to help, the uniforms can insight fear rather than comfort.  Many undocumented people who have stepped out of the shadows to receive FEMA relief funds or other assistance reportedly were denied assistance without explanation. Clearly, something is not right with the way that relief funds have been handled for the city’s most vulnerable populations.

The Investigative Fund‘s article “Rebuilding After Sandy” discusses the ways  that the country handled undocumented populations in post-Katrina New Orleans. The workforce responsible for rebuilding that city was predominately Latino and 54 percent were undocumented. During this period, Bush’s administration waived certain aspects of the immigration law around hiring undocumented people to ensure a well-populated workforce. While this waiver created more opportunities for work and capacity for rebuilding efforts, undocumented immigrants were paid much less than documented worker ($16 with papers, $10 without papers) and were forced to work in unsafe conditions. To better address the needs of undocumented workers impacted by Sandy, we must take some direction from New Orleans regarding immigration law waivers while simultaneously implementing fair labor practices for undocumented workers (no matter their jobs).

The disproportionate impacts of Sandy on undocumented immigrants is devastating and speaks to a much broader xenophobic sentiment that exists in the United States. To change this reality, undocumented immigrants and allies are rallying around immigration reform in Washington D.C. this Wednesday, April 10th . With 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, immigration reform is absolutely needed more than ever! To support immigration reform and, in turn, improve Sandy relief efforts for all New Yorkers, attend the rally in D.C. this week!

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