After Massive Fires, California Considers Doing More to Help Undocumented Victims

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They lost jobs or weeks of wages. Some faced days of unexpected child-care costs. Many couldn’t pay their rent and had to borrow money from relatives or uproot their families to move elsewhere.

Claudia Armann has interviewed dozens of undocumented farmworkers impacted by the Thomas Fire and mudslides in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last winter. All tell similar stories of financial hardship and stress following the disasters, situations made worse by long-standing poverty and fears of deportation.

“It drove home how this particular population—the farmworkers—already struggle financially and what a tremendous burden it is to unexpectedly have a loss of income and not have their kids in school,” said Armann, a steering committee member for the 805 UndocuFund which provides disaster relief to local immigrants. “It just made me realize the ripple effects that a natural disaster can have.”

California is home to an estimated 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are farmworkers or are employed in service jobs such as housekeeping or landscaping. In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, almost one in 10 residents are undocumented, according to a 2011 report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Other wildfire-ravaged counties have similarly high numbers of undocumented residents. In Sonoma County, which was devastated by the Tubbs Fire last October, close to 9 percent of the population is undocumented. In Mendocino and Lake counties, where this summer’s massive Mendocino Complex Fires raged, undocumented people account for approximately 5 percent of the population, the report estimated.

Assemblymember Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) introduced a bill that would require all counties to translate emergency communications into the second most spoken language in their region. The legislature approved the bill this summer, and it is now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Limón said she realized a need for the bill during the Thomas Fire when about a quarter of her district was evacuated, but Spanish translations of emergency information were often lacking or inaccurate. She said counties in Northern California that were affected by wildfires this summer did a better job of getting information out to Spanish speakers because they’ve learned from the experiences of the past year.

“It’s not that these things didn’t come up before, but it’s just when you have nearly 100,000 people evacuated in your district, it really matters that we get the information right about what freeways are closed, what roads are open, what streets you can’t drive on, when you can come back,” she said. “In 2018, we have the capacity to solve this problem.”

Genevieve Flores-Haro, associate director of the Mixteco Indigena Organizing Project in Ventura County, called the bill “a huge policy win,” although she noted it won’t require translation into indigenous languages. There are approximately 165,000 indigenous Mexican farmworkers in California, according to a 2010 study.

“I think it would be very helpful to eventually also have these services provided in Mixteco and Zapoteco,” Flores-Haro said. “But I think the baseline was to get Spanish in there first and then we can start working on the other languages in the county.”

Despite the prevalence of undocumented immigrants in the state, as well as immigrants in general, disaster response for this population has been haphazard. As a result, much of the responsibility for informing and helping immigrants affected by wildfires has fallen to non-profit and community groups. During the Napa and Sonoma fires, for example, the bilingual community radio station KBBF became a lifeline for displaced Spanish speakers seeking information.

Local non-profits have taken the lead in providing financial aid to undocumented people. In Sonoma County, a coalition of immigrant service providers and advocates created the UndocuFund for Fire Relief raising $6.5 million to assist undocumented victims of the Northern California fires. Inspired by the Sonoma model, advocates and local foundations in Southern California launched the 805 UndocuFund for those affected by the fire and mudslides in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Steps have been taken in some counties and at the state level to improve emergency response and protections for immigrant communities. Ventura County recently hired a bilingual public information officer to help reach Spanish speakers during emergencies and inform them about government programs. Sonoma County spokesperson Briana Khan said authorities there did translate fire emergency and recovery information into Spanish during the fire, and are continuing to partner with community organizations to reach the Spanish-speaking community.

The bigger question is whether non-profit groups will continue to provide the bulk of emergency aid to people who are undocumented. While Sonoma’s UndocuFund garnered national attention and raised enough money to help everyone eligible who applied, the 805 UndocuFund has received fewer donations and still needs about $500,000 to assist families on its waiting list, said Vanessa Bechtel, president of the Ventura County Community Foundation, which helped set up the fund.

It’s not yet clear how many undocumented families will need assistance as a result of the more recent Northern California fires, said Len Marabella, who heads Catholic Charities in Santa Rosa. His organization provides assistance to immigrants, including those in Mendocino and Lake counties.

For Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for CAUSE, it’s unsustainable to expect community organizations to finance aid for undocumented people over the long term, given the size of the population and escalating risk of wildfires.

“What we’ve realized is just that, in the long run, donations are just not enough to make up for a lack of federal aid from FEMA,” he said. “What we really need is systemic policy change, like a state wildfire relief fund that wouldn’t rely on federal immigration eligibility.”

Bechtel, however, said she thinks philanthropic organizations play an essential role in reaching undocumented natural disaster victims, who are often too afraid to seek government help.

“I think philanthropy is the only real way to help these families,” she said. “Obviously more is needed, but in this current climate it’s just not safe for these families to seek out (government) assistance and so philanthropy has flexibility and is able to be responsive in a way that I don’t think that the public sector can be.”

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