Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, North America

US: Latin American Storm Victims Adrift

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Sep 21 2005 (IPS) - Thousands of Latin American immigrants in the southeastern United States uprooted by Hurricane Katrina are now fleeing Hurricane Rita, while activists are demanding that the U.S. government provide them with special protection, because so many are hesitant to seek assistance out of fear of deportation.

Katrina left 300,000 Latinos homeless and jobless, and “as far as we know, at least two immigrants who did seek aid have been arrested because they were undocumented,” said Maricel García, spokeswoman for the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC). But she warned that “there might actually be many more.”

Although the George W. Bush administration states that it is providing humanitarian aid without regard to immigration status, “that is not what is really happening, which is just terrible,” García said in a telephone interview with IPS from Chicago, Illinois.

Her organisation and around 60 other immigrant advocacy groups are demanding that the U.S. government grant humanitarian immigration status to migrants uprooted by Katrina, who either had no papers or have lost them, to allow them to receive aid and to remain in the United States.

The groups are also considering asking for that status for those who might be affected by Rita, which had grown into a category 4 hurricane by Wednesday as it headed towards Texas, a state that is home to an estimated six million people of Latin American and Caribbean origin.

Rita, expected to make landfall in Texas on Saturday, currently has the same destructive force as Katrina, which devastated large parts of the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida on Aug. 29, leaving a death toll of upwards of 1,000 due to the storm damage and subsequent flooding.

“The evacuation efforts here are intense today, and have included many of those already uprooted by Katrina, who were still in shelters,” Nelson Reyes, director of the Central American Resource Centre (CARECEN), told IPS from Houston, Texas.

Authorities in Houston ordered evacuations Wednesday in several parts of the city, which has a population of around two million, one-third of whom are Latinos.

“When it rains, it pours, and once again the Latin American immigrants will be among those bearing the brunt of the suffering,” said Reyes, a Salvadoran immigrant who has been living in the United States for 16 years.

“Katrina confirmed that immigrants are the most vulnerable, because the losses they suffered from the storm were compounded by their situation as undocumented migrants,” said the activist.

According to official figures, Katrina affected more than 34,000 naturalised immigrants, nearly 72,000 immigrants with different kinds of visas, and an undetermined number of undocumented migrants.

García estimated that a total of 300,000 immigrants were among the storm refugees, most of them Mexicans and Hondurans. “It’s hard to know the exact number, because they hide and become invisible out of fear of being deported,” she said.

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the Latino community in the United States amounts to 39.9 million people, most of whom are Mexican, out of a total population of 290.8 million. At least five million of the Latin American immigrants do not have legal documents.

The possibility that humanitarian immigration status will be granted to those uprooted by Katrina will depend on “to what extent the government and Congress are willing to leave aside their current hypocrisy” with regard to migration policy, said Reyes.

“On one hand they say the humanitarian aid is reaching everyone hit by the storm, regardless of their immigration status, but on the other, Latinos are being registered and questioned, and there is even evidence that they might be deported,” he said.

Spokespersons for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Homeland Security have issued assurances that aid is being extended to storm victims without taking their immigration status into account.

But they clarified that immigrants who are not residing legally in the United States are not entitled to cash assistance, although they can receive food aid, temporary shelter, and medical and psychological assistance.

However, many immigrants are wary and avoid asking for aid, and they hide or “travel fearfully around the country looking for relatives or friends who could help them,” said Reyes.

“We Latinos come to this country in search of opportunities that we don’t have in our countries, but we end up suffering a lot and paying high dues,” he added.

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