As the water rose on their first-floor apartment, Rosa Sosa and her family fled to a vacant unit on the second floor. They watched in horror as it continued to rise, as it swallowed most of the cars in the parking lot that rings their sprawling two-story complex, as it stuck around, stubbornly, even after the rain stopped.
The family waited nearly two days for the floodwaters to recede. When they finally returned home, they found all of their possessions destroyed and themselves back where they were three years ago when they first crossed into the U.S., illegally, fleeing the gangs of El Salvador. They had nothing then. They have nothing now.
“The beds were the most important thing,” Sosa said. She, her husband and their 24-year-old daughter, Roxana, have been sleeping on the floor. A hammock hangs in the living room for Roxana’s toddler. They would like to replace the beds, but can’t.
“We haven’t even bought food because we have to pay rent,” Sosa said. “We’ve just been eating the little things that people have brought by.”
The Sosa family’s has become a typical story in the days since Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on Texas’s Gulf Coast region. Houston is home to some 600,000 immigrants without legal status — 1 in 10 Houstonians does not possess the right to live in the U.S. — and in the storm’s aftermath, many of them now find themselves teetering on the edge of destitution.
Unlike other victims of the storm, immigrants in the U.S. illegally do not qualify for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The exception are those, like Roxana Sosa, who are allowed to submit an application in the name of a U.S.-born child. Even so, advocates say, many who qualify have not done so out of fear that asking for help might alert immigration authorities to their presence and ultimately lead to deportation.
“We’re afraid,” Sosa said, standing in the gutted living room that has been overcome by the odor of dampness and mold. “That’s why we don’t declare our losses. We haven’t even gone to the management office here at the apartment complex.”
Many immigrants in Texas were afraid even before the storm hit. They had been bracing for a tough immigration enforcement law that was to take effect Sept. 1; a federal judge temporarily blocked it last week.
Since the storm, local and federal officials have gone to great lengths to assure immigrants in need of disaster relief that seeking it will not have immigration consequences. Mayor Sylvester Turner promised the fearful that there would be no immigration enforcement at Red Cross shelters. Those applying for FEMA assistance in the name of a U.S.-born child are also protected.
The Department of Homeland Security similarly announced that the border agents it dispatched to assist with disaster relief were there to help, not to enforce immigration laws.
“We’re here to make sure people can get to safe haven,” said Judson W. Murdock II, the Customs and Border Protection official leading that agency’s storm relief effort.
The agency said that as of Tuesday, its officers doing disaster relief had deported zero people, while rescuing nearly 1,400, along with more than two dozen pets, including a lizard.
Despite the assurances, the presence of customs and border agents in Houston has dampened some immigrants’ willingness to seek help. Many rode the storm out at home. Since the water has receded, some, like the Sosas, have chosen to remain in soggy, flooded apartments rather than go to the Red Cross for food or shelter.
Carlos Ramos, an immigrant from Honduras, said that during the storm, he and several undocumented residents ventured out of their apartment complex in Southwest Houston to find food and help. But as they waded through the water, they spotted some immigration agents performing rescues.
“And we all said, ‘What are they doing here?’ and we all turned back,” Ramos recalled. He said they had recognized the rescuers as immigration agents because of the letters emblazoned on their uniforms: CBP, for Customs and Border Protection.
It is, in fact, Immigration and Customs Enforcement — ICE — that serves as the government’s main deportation force in the nation’s interior. Nonetheless, many immigrants see them all as part of the same immigration enforcement apparatus.
“We’d heard they were here to help,” Ramos said of his reaction upon spotting the agents performing rescues, “but there was that fear of not really knowing if they’re going to take you away.”
Advocates say the fear of immigration enforcement, poverty, lack of insurance, lack of trust in the government and other factors are conspiring to make Houston’s undocumented population among the most vulnerable in the storm’s aftermath. The situation has also exposed an urgent need for private groups to step in and help.
“It’s really bad,” said Alain Cisneros, an organizer with a local immigrant advocacy group called FIEL Houston. “A lot of families really have been left with nothing.”
Cisneros and a group of other staff and volunteers have been going door to door in immigrant areas most affected by the flooding. They’ve been assessing damage, taking down names and phone numbers, and asking immigrant families with no other options to hold tight as they try to cobble together donations and other resources to help them get back on their feet.
“We’re hoping to get donations for food, and maybe vouchers for beds and furniture, or for a first month’s rent at a new apartment,” Cisneros said. “But there are so many families, there’s no way we could help everyone who needs it.”