One community was hit doubly hard by Superstorm Sandy: undocumented immigrants, already poor and working unsteady jobs, were left homeless, jobless, and scared to seek assistance for fear of deportation. Now, it is being left out of the city's plans for the billions of federal disaster aid it received.
Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a proposal to spend most of its first $1.8 billion in federal aid on loans and grants for homeowners and on preparing public housing and utility networks against future disasters — but there was no mention of undocumented immigrants.
On Long Island, 21-year-old Esmeralda Ramos recently inventoried the contents of her refrigerator to gauge how her family would scrape by during the frigid month of February.
“We have some rice and beans, eggs and tortillas,” said Ramos, whose family has been displaced and without work since Sandy struck on October 29, 2012. “And milk for the girls. That's all. We'll have to live on that.”
Like many other immigrants, the El Salvador native has been denied federal disaster unemployment insurance or Federal Emergency Management Agency cash assistance for temporary housing and replacing damaged possessions.
Ramos twice applied for FEMA benefits for her two-year-old daughter Nubia, who's eligible as she was born in the United States. Both times, she was denied aid. “They say we don't qualify,” she said. “They won't tell me why.”
Ramos, who was eight months pregnant when the storm hit, used to live in an apartment in Brentwood with her husband Gustavo Vargas, 27, and their daughter Nubia. But after Hurricane Sandy, the front door and windows were damaged. For five days afterward, they had no power, no heat or hot water.
The landlord, she said, refused to make repairs. Vargas lost his landscaping job. He spent the rent money buying food. Ramos said they moved because the apartment was exposed to the elements; the landlord kept their rental deposit. She went into labor prematurely ten days after Sandy, delivering by Caesarean section a daughter, Maria Alejandra, who was born with a heart murmur.
The family of four now stays in a small room at the Brentwood apartment of a friend. “We don't have money for rent or gas or food,” said Ramos, who receives about $200 a month in food stamp benefits for her two-year-old. “We've looked for work everywhere.”
Some undocumented immigrants have found temporary work in post-Sandy cleanup and reconstruction efforts.
In that respect, they are following in the footsteps of New Orleans' undocumented community, where immigrant labor played an important part in the rebuilding of the Louisiana city post-Hurricane Katrina. In fact, according to a joint study by the University of California at Berkeley and Tulane University in 2006, nearly half of the reconstruction workforce in New Orleans was Latino, and 54 percent of that undocumented. These workers performed the lowest-paid and most hazardous jobs.
In New Orleans, the federal government made it easier for employers to hire undocumented workers by granting special waivers of immigration laws. The Bush administration also suspended the Davis-Bacon act, which requires employers to pay at minimum the locally prevailing rate for public works projects, in the worst affected areas. This meant that undocumented workers earned significantly less than their documented counterparts in the post-Katrina reconstruction, roughly $10 an hour as compared to $16.50 for workers with papers, the study found.
“For people who have helped and contributed so much, shouldn't we find a better way to treat them?” said a co-author of the 2006 study, Patrick Vinck, now a research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, who spoke to me about the laborers in New Orleans and New York. “We can at least grant them minimal access to services and protections and, perhaps, all the way to finding a long-term solution to their immigration status — whether it's work status or US citizenship.”
According to ThinkProgress, “Latino workers were directly responsible for making 86.9% of households habitable after Hurricane Katrina in six parishes surrounding New Orleans in 2008.” Even in Texas, after Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, undocumented workers were a key part of the recovery effort.
As yet, there have been no immigration waivers for employing undocumented workers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. With or without waivers, the undocumented community is undoubtedly already playing a major role in the rebuilding of the city, while they struggle with rejected FEMA claims and spotty federal assistance.
“The irony is that many immigrant day laborers are working on rebuilding and repairing the housing for homeowners without even knowing where they'll be housed,” said Jackie Vimo, advocacy director for the New York Immigration Coalition. “There's a bitter contradiction.”