Undocumented Communities Devastated By Calif. Wildfires Are Now Being Left Out of Federal Relief

Grassroots fundraising efforts aim to prevent undocumented immigrants from slipping through the cracks.

Julianne Tveten

Ben Hernandez Jr. (L) sifts through the remains of his Coffey Park home that was destroyed by the Tubbs Fire on October 23, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Since ear­ly Octo­ber, fires in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia have rav­aged tens of thou­sands of acres of land. While now con­tained, the infer­nos have intro­duced a num­ber of grave reper­cus­sions, com­pro­mis­ing access to food, water, hous­ing and jobs.

Deprived of these services as a result of their citizenship status, undocumented immigrants are rendered vulnerable to extreme, protracted scarcity.

The ruina­tion has impact­ed count­less res­i­dents, but the Bay Area’s undoc­u­ment­ed pop­u­la­tion suf­fers unique­ly dire consequences.

At the time of the fires, the region’s Napa Coun­ty was home to approx­i­mate­ly 15,500 undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants. Rough­ly 28,000 undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants live in the neigh­bor­ing coun­ty of Sono­ma, anoth­er area pro­found­ly impact­ed by the wreckage.

These num­bers, how­ev­er, may soon be in flux. Aggra­vat­ing the loss­es they’ve brooked, undoc­u­ment­ed com­mu­ni­ties in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia are debarred from some of the most cru­cial forms of fed­er­al aid in the wake of dis­as­ter, includ­ing that from the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA) and dis­as­ter unem­ploy­ment assistance.

Depend­ing on a num­ber of fac­tors, FEMA-eli­gi­ble sur­vivors may be enti­tled to assis­tance with obtain­ing and financ­ing var­i­ous neces­si­ties — such as employ­ment, hous­ing, food and med­ical care. Sim­i­lar­ly, dis­as­ter unem­ploy­ment assis­tance, while lim­it­ed and often insuf­fi­cient, mit­i­gates the finan­cial after­math of job loss for those who qual­i­fy. Deprived of these ser­vices as a result of their cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus, undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants are ren­dered vul­ner­a­ble to extreme, pro­tract­ed scarcity.

Inel­i­gi­ble for gov­ern­ment aid, undoc­u­ment­ed Sono­ma Coun­ty res­i­dent Agustín Aguil­era approached a cred­it union relief fund and the Red Cross for finan­cial assis­tance short­ly after los­ing his home, car and belong­ings. At the time of the inter­view, Aguil­era hadn’t yet received approval from the cred­it union, and the Red Cross was pro­vid­ing hous­ing assis­tance but not funds, he said. (The Red Cross told In These Times that, while it offered aid with food, shel­ter, and oth­er needs begin­ning Octo­ber 8, it didn’t pro­vide fund­ing for sur­vivors until approx­i­mate­ly Octo­ber 21.) In the mean­time, Aguil­era and his fam­i­ly have pri­mar­i­ly relied on the largesse of their com­mu­ni­ty, receiv­ing emo­tion­al and mate­r­i­al sup­port from friends whose homes have remained intact.

The only sup­port I’ve been hav­ing right now is [from] some of my friends,” Aguil­era told In These Times. They have been able to help us out with cloth­ing and some food and a lit­tle bit of every­thing. That’s the only sup­port that we’ve been getting.”

To address the needs of peo­ple who share Aguilera’s plight, Sono­ma Coun­ty orga­ni­za­tion Undocu­Fund was con­ceived days after the fires began as an alter­na­tive fundrais­ing resource. In part­ner­ship with local non­prof­its like La Luz Center and North Bay Orga­niz­ing Pro­ject, Undocu­Fund had raised over $930,000 by the begin­ning of Novem­ber, accord­ing to coor­di­na­tor Omar Medina.

Such assis­tance is prov­ing vital, as undoc­u­ment­ed res­i­dents scram­ble for places to live amid threats of dis­place­ment from their neigh­bor­hoods. Many have seen their homes reduced to ash. The prospect of secur­ing a new liv­ing space is ten­u­ous for work­ers who are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly like­ly to make low wages in the already-exor­bi­tant and com­pet­i­tive hous­ing mar­ket of Sono­ma Coun­ty — an increas­ing­ly unaf­ford­able loca­tion whose medi­an income reach­es north of $64,000.

The major­i­ty [of undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants in the area] are already low-income,” Med­i­na said. In terms of com­pet­ing for new places for those that have been com­plete­ly dis­placed, they don’t have that mon­ey to make a deposit on a new spot.”

In the city of San­ta Rosa, con­di­tions are par­tic­u­lar­ly grim. Vacan­cy rates in the rental hous­ing mar­ket are a mere 3.2 per­cent, accord­ing to esti­mates from the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment. Worse, there was no type of evic­tion pro­tec­tions, no type of rent con­trol,” said Med­i­na. Local hos­til­i­ty to such reg­u­la­tions came to the fore when a mea­sure to insti­tute rent con­trol and just-cause pro­tec­tions for evic­tions in San­ta Rosa failed ear­li­er this year. If you lost your spot, or maybe you had a good, rea­son­able, let’s say $1,200 rent, now you’re mov­ing into the reg­u­lar mar­ket, where the aver­age before the fire for a two-bed­room was around $1,900 a month,” said Med­i­na. Now, the prices have gone up significantly.”

Such cir­cum­stances are com­pound­ed by the loss of jobs for large num­bers of undoc­u­ment­ed work­ers who, accord­ing to Med­i­na, pro­vide labor paid by the hour or day, such as clean­ing ser­vices, farm­ing or con­struc­tion. With the destruc­tion of hotels and hous­es, and the des­ic­ca­tion of arable land for Sono­ma and Napa vine­yards and mar­i­jua­na farms, job oppor­tu­ni­ties have shriveled.

Aguil­era was one such labor­er; the hav­oc wreaked by the fires forced him into unem­ploy­ment for sev­er­al weeks. I do con­struc­tion for a liv­ing, so a cou­ple of the jobs that my com­pa­ny had were affect­ed by the fires, too,” Aguil­era said. I wasn’t able to work until now…Several of my friends lost their house and lost their job, too.”

In addi­tion to a lack of finan­cial secu­ri­ty, a lan­guage bar­ri­er exists for those undoc­u­ment­ed sur­vivors who aren’t com­fort­able com­mu­ni­cat­ing in Eng­lish, fur­ther obscur­ing the process of nav­i­gat­ing gov­ern­men­tal struc­tures. Though Sono­ma Coun­ty gov­ern­ment has improved its bilin­gual pres­ence in recent weeks through minor efforts such as a Span­ish-Eng­lish tex­ting ser­vice, the area retains a rep­u­ta­tion for sub-opti­mal ser­vice to Span­ish speak­ers, Med­i­na said.

Exac­er­bat­ing these chal­lenges is an even more exi­gent per­il: law enforce­ment. Ini­tial­ly, Med­i­na said, local relief shel­ters were rid­dled with police, along with the Nation­al Guard, cre­at­ing a preda­to­ry envi­ron­ment for belea­guered undoc­u­ment­ed com­mu­ni­ties and deter­ring them from receiv­ing des­per­ate­ly need­ed aid. (Height­en­ing dis­may, FEMA is a divi­sion of the Depart­ment of Home­land Security.)

You have these shel­ters where there’s mil­i­tary-uni­formed folks. There’s law enforce­ment all over,” recount­ed Med­i­na, who said he wit­nessed such a scene in San­ta Rosa. You’ve got all these Home­land Secu­ri­ty cars around, peo­ple with Home­land Secu­ri­ty out­fits all over the place. Think about that view from an undoc­u­ment­ed perspective.”

Recent­ly, coun­ty offi­cials have sought to dis­pel rumors of immi­gra­tion crack­downs, and Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) has stat­ed that it would sus­pend its activ­i­ty at shel­ters. But Med­i­na argued the time frame remains vague. Now that we’re a cou­ple weeks out, we don’t know if [the ICE ban] is still in effect or what that means,” Med­i­na said.

Amid fears the fires will con­tin­ue to uproot undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, Med­i­na empha­sized the urgency of orga­niz­ing to pro­tect those who rank among the area’s most vul­ner­a­ble populations.

The com­mu­ni­ty that I know, the diver­si­ty with­in it, is in dan­ger of being lost through hous­ing and dis­place­ment,” said Med­i­na. Immi­grants and peo­ple of col­or, low-income folks, are most like­ly to be dis­placed, fur­ther decreas­ing the diver­si­ty of the com­mu­ni­ty that we have here right now.”

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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