In the Wake of Harvey and Federal Announcement on DACA, Disaster Relief for Undocumented Immigrants and Their Families

Photo: Flickr user The National Guard.

“We are recovering from a massive, unprecedented, historic storm,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told a crowd gathered Tuesday amid ongoing recovery efforts. He’d been in Kashmere Gardens in northeast Houston earlier that day talking about debris and trash pickup following the storm and in Kingwood the day before talking about the recovery there. This press conference, however, was not about the storm, but immigration, coming shortly after the federal government announced it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, leaving it to Congress to keep it going via new legislation in the next six months – a statement President Donald Trump seemed to later walk back on Twitter, saying he’d “revisit” it.

Houston has roughly 10 percent of the country’s estimated 800,000 DACA recipients, undocumented individuals brought to the United States as young children and who have met a host of other requirements, according to the mayor. And the announcement comes when many of them and their families are dealing with the aftermath of a historic storm, during which fear kept some undocumented immigrants and their families from seeking help.

“It just takes so much to gain the trust of the immigrant community,” said immigration lawyer Carolina Ortuzar-Diaz with Monty and Ramirez LLP. “Now, it will be even harder to help those who need it the most.”

She said though undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for most federal emergency benefits, “those who do qualify will have to provide their information and that information will be shared with the Department of Homeland Security.”

“That is serious because you have mixed families with documented and undocumented people so those who may be able to get benefits will think about it twice to protect their families,” said Ortuzar-Diaz.

“What strikes me as truly unfathomable is the timing of this decision, and its particular impact on Houston at a time of great distress,” wrote Rice University President David Leebron in a statement Tuesday. “At the time of a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey, we are reminded that we are, indeed, ‘all in one boat.’  Those suffering in our city include many immigrants who, whether eligible for DACA or not, were brought to the country as children,” he continued.

There are some disaster relief services, including those provided by many charities, which are generally available to all regardless of immigration status. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides some short-term, non-cash resources to all individuals as well, according to the National Immigration Law Center. But there are restrictions on cash assistance and long-term services. For mixed-status families, there are some opportunities for assistance. Undocumented parents, for example, can apply for assistance for their children under the age of 18 who are citizens and they should not be required to provide Social Security numbers, according the NILC. But the announcement Tuesday put particular focus on DACA recipients.

“Pretty much all Houstonians were impacted, including DACA students and employees,” Turner said during the conference, joined by the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Anti-Defamation League, Greater Houston Partnership and others. “They were impacted and they are part of the recovery of this city,” he added.

Still, many undocumented immigrants and their families are hesitant to access recovery resources. But the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative stressed that anyone in need of shelter, should seek it regardless of immigration status, reiterating the mayor’s statement that shelters would not ask about immigration status. The collaborative also indicated that immigrants who received assistance from FEMA would not jeopardize their future applications to become permanent residents, stating that the government “does not consider acceptance of emergency disaster relief to be public assistance that would affect the eligibility of you or your household members to become lawful permanent residents (green card) or to get a visa.” 

While the federal government’s announcement Tuesday does not change any of this, it does have implications for DACA recipients. Existing recipients will be allowed to maintain their status until their permits expire and for those whose permits were set to expire prior to March 5, they’ll be given the opportunity to apply for a two-year renewal, according to the legal collaborative and should look to do so quickly.

“I cannot imagine, at this point in time, that we would say, ‘No,’ to them,” said Turner, “when they have said, ‘Yes,’ to Houston.”

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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