Immigrants Face Bigger Hurdles in Sandy Recovery
Immigrant New Yorkers are facing an even more daunting recovery process in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy than native-born residents. Language and cultural barriers are complicating efforts by nonprofit and government relief workers to provide assistance, raising the prospect of serious health and financial consequences for this already-vulnerable population.
Joseph McKellar, executive director of Queens Congregation United for Action, offered sobering anecdotes of immigrants from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean who have lost their jobs as a result of Sandy, have been living in cold, damp homes without electricity or heat, and face mounting health problems from mold and other chronic conditions. Many, he said are low-income day laborers or domestic workers, and some are undocumented, meaning they’re generally ineligible for financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
“We’re failing our immigrants in this relief effort,” said an anguished McKellar, who is half Mexican and half Scottish. “I’ve worked all around the world and I don’t think I’ve ever seen the level of suffering that I’ve seen here, and I don’t think that story is being told.”
Sue Fox recounted similar problems in Brighton Beach and Coney Island, where she works as executive director of Shorefront YM-YWHA. “I’m concerned that five and a half weeks in,” she said, “there are real health crises developing, especially for our immigrant communities, involving mold and mold mitigation.”
These and other concerns were aired at a meeting December 7 between nonprofit groups that have been working extensively with immigrant residents, and their government counterparts in the Bloomberg administration and FEMA. The meeting was hosted at Baruch College by Fatima Shama, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and Chung Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. For both groups of relief workers the event had emotional overtones, with several speakers fighting to retain their composure, saying this was the first opportunity they had had to reflect on the intensity of the previous five weeks.
Among the unique problems affecting immigrant residents that were cited at the meeting:
- They are often unable to get information in their own languages about how to apply for assistance.
- When government officials knock on doors in buildings without heat or electricity, speaking in English and wearing badges, immigrants are often too afraid to open their doors.
- Undocumented residents cannot get government emergency financial assistance for themselves, with the exception of a new emergency food stamp program. Flyers for that program, however, have so far only been translated into Chinese, Russian and Spanish.
- As occurred after 9/11, many immigrants are helping with the clean up efforts without proper health and safety protective gear, creating potential health problems in the future.
- Many immigrant workers can’t access FEMA’s offices because they leave for work before the offices open in the morning and return home after they have closed.
- Many immigrant residents are living in rental units where the landlords, absent or negligent, have not repaired boilers, arranged for mold mitigation, or applied for the city’s rapid repair program. (Renters aren’t eligible to apply for the rapid repair program.)
The status of immigrants’ recovery has taken on greater significance because they are so heavily represented in the low-income, low-lying areas of Staten Island, Coney Island and the Rockaways.
In recent years, said Rev. Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality, the largely Italian and Irish communities on the south shore of Staten Island have been replaced by Polish, Mexican and Albanian residents, while, in the affected areas of Midland Beach, she said, the newcomers are largely Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican. Troia estimated that 40 percent of the 210 people that are living in the Staten Island evacuation center are immigrants from Albania, Poland, Russia, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador.
Since many immigrants are isolated by language barriers, fearful of government officials, or afraid to reveal their undocumented status, they have not been streaming into the city’s relief offices in the affected areas, requiring nonprofit groups to seek them out, primarily in their places of worship. Local community service providers know, for instance, that they need to go to religious services celebrated separately for Spanish, Polish, or Filipino worshipers.
An organization that represents day laborers, El Centro de Immigrante, decided to take matters into its own hands and hold its own information session, despite getting considerable push back from FEMA and other officials, according to Gonzalo Mercado, the executive director. “We needed our own event, in our own place, so people could come and feel comfortable, and recognize people from their own community,” said Mercado. “FEMA told us later they had never seen an event like that, they’d never seen these people before.”
While there was general consensus at the meeting as to the depth of the problems, representatives of government agencies sought to fend off criticism by conveying how Herculean their task is, especially considering that some of them were also displaced from their homes or offices.
“Let’s be perfectly clear, this is something that none of us has ever faced before,” said Diahann Billings-Burford, chief service officer for the Bloomberg administration. “The problems are of epic proportions; we were never set up to address problems of this nature.”
To help immigrant New Yorkers find out about disaster services they may be eligible for, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs has prepared a detailed guide that is available at www.nyc.gov/immigrants.