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Disaster Legal Aid Trainings: Addressing the Unique Needs of Immigrants During Disasters

/ Blog Post

On March 2, Maria Vazquez (she/her/hers), Equal Justice Works Fellow at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, kicked-off the first training session for Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, titled, “Addressing the Unique Needs of Immigrants During Disasters.”

Maria led a Q&A-style panel discussion to provide valuable information to assist immigrant individuals in the disaster preparation and recovery process. Joining Maria were guest speakers Jill Campbell, director of immigration and citizenship at BakerRipley, and Katy Atkiss, the disaster resilience manager at the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC).

The group discussed some of the most common issues for individuals who are seeking adjustment to their immigration status following a disaster—for one, the loss of vital records. The importance of keeping copies of all immigration-related documentation in a waterproof, safe place at all times could not be overstated. This is one of the most profound pitfalls for the immigrant population following a disaster, as replacing such documents can be very time-consuming and expensive, which inevitably ends up impeding immigration proceedings that follow. Though fee waivers are sometimes accessible in the quest to replace lost documents, the panel offered tips to mitigate this risk and avoid the headache entirely, like properly storing physical documentation and retaining a digital copy of all documents via photographs, which can be shared with trusted friends and family and accessed remotely, in the event that a phone or computer becomes damaged. While strongly advocating for individuals to take the appropriate precautions, Jill assured the audience that catastrophic loss of documentation does not mean a loss of a person’s current immigration status, but it is likely to significantly delay progress on the pathway to permanent residency.

Immigration status is not the only element to cause immigrant populations a great deal of anxiety in the wake of disasters. Like many others, folks are in dire need of emergency assistance, which is often sought through federal, state, and local programs. Katy provided a breakdown of the federal programs typically on offer following a disaster declaration by the President of the United States: Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance, loans from the Small Business Administration (SBA), and Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP) benefits. Eligibility for most of these forms of assistance requires applicants to be a U.S. Citizen, a “Qualified Alien” (refugees, asylees, other people with some form of legal status), or a Non-citizen National (born in a U.S. territory). However, those falling outside of these categories may still apply for funding through another member of the household, including a child under the age of 18, that fits into one of the above eligible categories.

Combatting some common misconceptions around immigrants seeking public assistance, Jill stressed the importance of knowing that individuals who decide to pursue these disaster-related forms of emergency assistance are not subject to public charge. Furthermore, the Biden administration has recently expressed interest in reviewing the applicability of the public charge rule more generally. While seeking disaster assistance cannot be held against an individual as a public charge in immigration proceedings, it is most important that all information submitted in an application for assistance be entirely truthful. Providing misinformation to a government agency can result in a criminal charge, which could be extremely detrimental to subsequent outcomes on the immigration relief front.

While a disaster can be particularly devastating to immigrants in the United States, the panel reminded attendees that most people in a disaster-affected area are likely experiencing similar troubles. Federal buildings, such as immigration courts, are prone to closures as a result, and there is a good chance that an attorney providing legal advice will be out of reach due to internet and cellular outages. In these instances, it is crucial that individuals take every possible measure to meet requirements, like court dates and annual check-ins with ICE. If an appointment is on the horizon, vigilance and documentation of efforts to make contact with the relevant government agencies is paramount—keep calling and emailing!

The speakers covered many more facets that individuals should be mindful of, such as the importance of filing taxes in a timely manner, the dangers of fraudulent emergency assistance offers, and the benefits of following local legal aid organizations and government agencies on social media platforms like Twitter. Here are some helpful resources for immigrants seeking legal advice in the aftermath of a disaster, as discussed during the session:

If your organization is interested in teaming up with Equal Justice Works for Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, please reach out to us at [email protected]

Disaster Resilience Awareness Month is made possible thanks to the generous support of Equal Justice Works host organizations: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Disability Rights Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., and YMCA International Services.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, and individual contributions.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow