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Representing Immigrants Affected by Natural Disasters

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Headshot of Remi Gavlick
Photo of Remi Gavlick

This blog was authored by Remi Gavlick, a 2022 Fellow in the Disaster Resilience Program. Remi is hosted by the Migrant & Immigrant Community Action Project (MICA Project). 

In my Fellowship at the Migrant & Immigrant Community Action Project, I primarily assist clients in filing asylum, U-Visa, and T-Visa Applications in Missouri. Obtaining legal status by winning an asylum claim or being granted a T-Visa or U-Visa not only offers stability and security to my clients—it opens them up to additional benefits if a natural disaster, such as a tornado, occurs.  

When faced with disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) may be able to provide assistance to qualified non-citizens, such as legal permanent residents and non-citizens granted asylum, a T-Visa, or a U-visa. Applicants who do not fall within one of these categories may still apply for federal assistance—namely, when they are a guardian of a child who is a U.S. citizen if they live in the same household. FEMA says that all individuals—regardless of their immigration status—may be eligible for various services such as crisis counseling assistance, disaster legal services, and other programs that provide medical care, shelter, food, and water if they are affected by a major disaster.  

While it is encouraging that FEMA offers assistance to those who do not qualify as a non-citizen as long as they have a U.S. citizen child they live with, it can seem daunting for someone who is undocumented to ask the government for help. Those who live in the United States without status often try to remain undetected by the government, and it is understandable why they might not feel comfortable applying for disaster assistance, even if the help is desperately needed.  

Additionally, immigrants who are new to Missouri may not be familiar with natural disasters that are common to the Midwest; specifically, tornados. Tornado damage is devastating to anyone, but especially to someone who is new to the country and does not know how to ask for help. Immigration status and fear of being undocumented should not be barriers when asking for disaster relief assistance. This is one reason why the work of organizations like MICA Project is so important. 

Tornado damage is devastating to anyone, but especially to someone who is new to the country and does not know how to ask for help.

Remi Gavlick /
2022 Disaster Resilience Program Fellow

Growing up in Missouri, I know how to stay safe during a tornado watch or warning. I am extremely fortunate I have not yet needed to ask for disaster assistance from FEMA. I want to help my clients who have been affected by a tornado, or who may be affected in the future, to feel safe asking the government for help. I especially want to assist my clients in gaining legal status to open them up to even more FEMA benefits. Tornados are a normal part of life in the Midwest, yet they can be ravaging. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, should feel comfortable asking for help when a natural disaster devastates the community.  

Immigration cases often last many years. In the first year of my Fellowship, I represented one client in her Individual Hearing in the Kansas City Immigration Court. During the hearing, I presented arguments before the Immigration Judge on why my client should be granted asylum and be allowed to stay in the United States. Winning my client’s asylum case would allow her to be eligible for disaster assistance, such as money for temporary rental assistance, medical expenses, or other serious disaster-related needs, the next time a tornado hits Missouri.    

Unfortunately, the immigration judge denied my client’s asylum claim. We are currently in the process of appealing the judge’s decision. Even though we lost, I will take my experience from my first Individual Hearing and use what I learned the next time I go to court. Now I can anticipate certain weaknesses in future cases and better prepare for questions the immigration judge may ask. Immigration law is continuously changing, so I must be open to learning from my losses and be ready for new challenges that may arise.  

To learn more about the Disaster Resilience Program, click here. To learn more about Remi’s work, click here.  

Tornados are a normal part of life in the Midwest, yet they can be ravaging. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, should feel comfortable asking for help when a natural disaster devastates the community.

Remi Gavlick /
2022 Disaster Resilience Program Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow