Bety Martinez, her husband, and Francisco Resendiz Cruz outside their home in Houma. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

Editor’s note: Two translators, Maria Luísa Rosal and Ana Karina Delage, interpreted interviews in Houma. Both translators work with a New Orleans translators cooperative called BanchaLenguas, and have been involved in mutual aid work in the Houma area. They, along with an organizer named Sabina Hinz-Foley Trejo, introduced the Lens to the Houma families interviewed here.An interview with members of Familias Unidas en Accion was interpreted by Natalie Yahr, a credentialed interpreter and friend of the organization’s co-founder.

Early last week, Francisco Resendiz Cruz invited a reporter to the home he shares with his sister-in-law, Bety Martinez, and brother on the east side of Houma. The power was still out, and one side of the house was torn off during Hurricane Ida. He walked down a hallway on the opposite side of the house. The floor had collapsed in the storm. He’d patched it with plywood, but it bounced underfoot.

“Look at this area here,” he said, gesturing to one bedroom off the hallway. Part of the ceiling had fallen, and the floor was caving in. “This was my bedroom as well,” he said, pointing to a second room.

Asked what the family needed most urgently, Martinez said, “I don’t know, a mattress. We’re on the floor right now — everything got wet.”

Cruz stayed in the house during the hurricane, which made landfall on Aug. 29. The rest of his family went to a safer building elsewhere in Houma. 

“I had no choice,” he said, speaking Spanish through two translators who accompanied the Lens. “I heard this [wall] fall, then the other side as well. You should have felt the house moving.”

He said he was glad that Martinez had left—”she would have been scared.” But, he acknowledged, he was “a little scared” too. “I thought I would exist no more,” he said later in the conversation.

The next morning, Aug. 30, he had to dig his way out of the debris. 

“The porch fell, and the door was closed.” It was two days before the government began handing out food and water.

But having survived, the family is stuck. 

“For now, there’s nowhere to go,” says Martinez. “The hurricane destroyed everything. There aren’t even apartments available.”

Cruz said that the family pays $650 a month for the house, and only ever sees the landlord when the rent is due. Cruz painted the inside himself, and did some repairs to the floors before the storm. He doesn’t know if or when the house might be made livable again. He said he’s doubtful that the landlord will care enough to fix the storm damage, and he can’t afford to do it himself. 

“I don’t want to put in any work any longer, because I don’t own this home.” (He asked the Lens not to publish details about his job.)

It’s been weeks since Cruz worked, and he says that he needs the money to replace basic necessities, like a mattress. 

“I have to find work where there’s more money, because I need that now. We lost our washing machine. That costs money. It’s not just us. It’s so many others that were left with nothing.”

Martinez lives right in the middle of a federally declared disaster zone, which for many would mean at least the hope of some help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

FEMA aid — for rebuilding, for temporary shelter, for “critical needs” — may be slow at arriving in the hands of other Louisianans, but Cruz and Martinez are unlikely to ever see it. They are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and therefore unable to access FEMA funding.

Even as mutual aid groups have formed to fill the most urgent needs, the lack of FEMA funding means that migrant communities, who face numerous barriers to federal funding, will be unable to tap into some of the most substantial recovery funds.

“Just because we don’t have papers doesn’t mean they should abandon us in these moments that we really need help,” Cruz said. “Because we really need help. I think everyone has a right to some help, don’t you think?”

Cruz and Martinez are far from alone.

“Our [undocumented] students and families are often living in precariously situated and maintained rental units and trailers,” said Lisa Maria Rhodes, the founder of a group called Free Alas, an advocacy group that works with undocumented students in the New Orleans area. “This has exacerbated their vulnerability to and incidence of wind damages to homes, in addition to subsequent water damages and flooding in the face of hurricane Ida.”

“Working day labor jobs means that most of our families have no job security, contracts, or future income guaranteed to meet the extreme basic needs we are seeing in the areas of food, water, transportation, temporary housing, and home repairs.”

“We want them to take us in as humans,” said Leticia Casildo, the cofounder of a mutual aid group in the New Orleans area called Familias Unidas en Acción. “We’re not looking for them to give us everything. We want to be able to live.”

Leticia Casildo inside Familias Unidas’ shelter, where they ran a cooling center during the blackout. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

The United States often relies on undocumented labor in recovering from disasters, noted Anna Karina Delage, one of the two translators who accompanied the Lens to Houma. After Hurricane Katrina, Latino immigrants with various immigration statuses helped rebuild the city, but often suffered labor abuse and wage theft.

“As we’re seeing now in southern Louisiana, there aren’t enough skilled workers,” said Delage. Those undocumented workers are “similar to the linemen that are coming in from different states. Anytime that there’s a disaster, there’s this flow of resources and skilled labor that has to come into the area.”

Migrant communities, said Maria Luisa Rosal, another translator, “are the lifeline for the food industry, the crawfish, the shrimp, all of this. They’re so integral, yet they’re at the margins.”

FEMA policy

FEMA provides disaster relief in the form of temporary rental assistance, home repairs, personal property loss, and other serious disaster-related expenses not covered by insurance or other means.

Under federal law, FEMA can only distribute funding to “qualified immigrants,” a narrow group that includes green card holders and some asylum seekers. Undocumented immigrants, those on guest worker visas, and some domestic violence survivors do not qualify. The policies are the result of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, often called the welfare reform bill, which restricted access to a number of federal benefits for both immigrants and the general population. 

The Lens contacted members of Louisiana’s Congressional delegation who represent the parts of the state that saw the worst damage from Ida, for comment on the policy. Rep. Garret Graves —  a Republican whose district includes parts of Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes — and Rep. Steve Scalise — a Republican whose neighboring district also includes parts of Lafourche and Terrebonne, along with Plaquemines Parish and Lower Jefferson Parish — did not respond to questions about the appropriateness of the restrictions.

Democratic Rep. Troy Carter — whose district includes the River Parishes between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, provided a statement via a spokesperson: “I want to look at any restrictions that are keeping people from getting help they need. We need to improve our entire disaster response process to help all members of our community recover and rebuild.”

Some families with mixed immigration status may be eligible. If “another household member, including a minor child, meets the eligibility criteria during the registration process,” the household can still apply for aid, wrote FEMA spokesperson Debra Young in an email to The Lens. Parents or guardians of a minor who meets the citizen requirements can also apply on behalf of the child.

“People who don’t qualify for monetary assistance may still call the FEMA registration line for referrals to voluntary agencies,” another FEMA spokesperson told the Lens.

And immigrants of any documentation status are eligible for non-cash disaster relief, like medical care, disaster counseling, and legal help.

But Mary Yanik, the director of Tulane University’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, told the Lens that she’s still waiting to see how those policies are implemented. 

”Are [federal officials] collecting that information? Because there’s heightened concerns right now where that information goes.” said Yanik “If people apply with one US citizen in the household, do they get fewer benefits, because there’s only one eligible person to receive? Or will they give full benefits to the household?”

“I have not heard of anyone getting FEMA money who didn’t have a Social Security number and [qualified] status themselves,” said Rachel Taber, a volunteer with the worker’s advocacy group Union Migrante.

The barriers to aid run deeper than the law, however.

Jeremy Jong, an immigration lawyer who’s volunteering his time to work on a factsheet for Louisiana’s immigrant communities, said that there’s widespread confusion about who is actually eligible for aid.

He said that he often hears people express eligibility as “if you have a Social Security number, you can apply,” but it’s not that simple. “There are plenty of people who have Social Security numbers, but aren’t eligible.”

For example, people who are covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children from deportation — do not qualify.

“Here’s the stereotypical example: people with DACA. they have some level of lawful permission to be in this country. They have work authorization, they have social security numbers.” But they’re not eligible for FEMA aid, he said.

Communication problems

Information access is also a problem, Delage said, particularly with cell networks down after the storm. And those who have service may not be following news and social media accounts providing information on federal aid.

“When I went to LaPlace, where there’s less [mutual aid network] organization, people there weren’t applying for FEMA, even though they owned their trailer, and had US citizen children in the house,” Delage said. “They just weren’t aware. The internet’s not coming back, so you don’t have access to the internet to even find out about those resources.”

The same barriers may apply to the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or DSNAP, program, which was approved for all Louisiana residents in the disaster zone, regardless of immigration status, on Sept. 14.

Some residents don’t know that they are actually eligible for DSNAP, possibly because they know they aren’t eligible for FEMA, said Delage, who has been translating DSNAP applications.

Language access has been a problem before the storm, and throughout COVID, said Mary Moran, the executive director of Our Voice/Nuestra Voz, a community advocacy group in New Orleans. She said that by the time city messaging around hurricane preparations reached Spanish-speaking New Orleanians, they either didn’t have time to evacuate, or the message had been garbled in translation. 

“By the time it gets to the Spanish speaking community, it’s, ‘Hunker down, don’t leave.’”

Spanish language application materials are available on FEMA’s website, but Casildo, who is a Honduran immigrant, called the translated application “difficult to access,” and “hellish.” 

Supplies at a mutual aid distribution site at the Terrebonne Parish NAACP. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

Casildo noted that many Latin American immigrants speak Spanish only as a second language. 

“In my case, I’m Honduran Garifuna, I speak a language that’s completely different [than Spanish],” she said. Other immigrants from Guatemala and southern Mexico grew up speaking Mam, Q’eqchí, or Quiché, all indigenous Mayan languages.

“It’s abundantly obvious that eligibility on paper does not mean eligibility in life,” Yanik said. She described one client who was eligible for FEMA relief, and marked on their application that they spoke only Spanish. Still, that person was contacted by an English-speaking FEMA inspector.

‘The delays also dissuade people, and prevent the informal networks from helping,” said Yanik.  “As in, ‘This worked for me, you should apply.’ There’s a lot of people who are eligible who are not applying. Especially in the immigrant community — they don’t know they can apply, or they’re afraid to apply.”

To Casildo, and other immigrants who spoke to the Lens, those barriers create arbitrary distinctions between who can get aid, and who can’t, even if they’re eligible.

“They’re condemning our children. The children who are born in this country with undocumented parents suffer the same exclusions as their parents. Where are the rights of those American children?”

Immigration enforcement fears

Fears of immigration enforcement may keep even eligible applicants — particularly those in families that include both documented and undocumented people — from seeking federal help after a storm. 

FEMA is an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, which also oversees U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. People in immigrant communities are well aware of that relationship, numerous sources told The Lens. And while a FEMA FAQ says that “FEMA will not proactively provide applicant information to immigration or law enforcement,” it adds that the agency will share that information based on specific requests within DHS.

Immigrant rights groups often push DHS to release statements saying that it will not conduct immigration enforcement in disaster zones, said Yanik. On August 27, DHS released a statement saying that “absent exceptional circumstances, [ICE and Customs and Border Protection] will not conduct immigration enforcement at locations where disaster and emergency relief related to this storm is being provided.”

But after years of aggressive immigration raids, there’s little trust in DHS promises, said Casildo. While IDs aren’t required to access state-run hurricane shelters, said Yanik, “It only takes one person who’s doing intake in the shelter to think they need to ask for ID, then word spreads, and people aren’t going to go.”

“A lot of people would rather risk the storm in their home than risk deportation,” Yanik said. “That’s dangerous for everyone, and should not be a moment of consideration during these moments of crisis.”

‘I want to take care of them’

Cruz, the Houma man whose house was damaged in the storm, said last week that he was hopeful that he would be able to earn some money for necessities by going back to work. 

“If we had work, we could buy everything,” said Cruz. He was supposed to return to his job last week, but he said he’d gone to his employer Monday morning, and found everything closed up. “So tomorrow I’m going to see what’s up again.”

“I’m not even afraid of ICE. I’m not afraid of anything,” said Cruz. “But I’ve got my sister in law. I want to take care of them. Her and my brother.”

“We’ve never failed once with the bills,” he said. He repeated that over and over — saying he hadn’t missed a single rent payment or utility bill until the hurricane. “Me, I like to be on time. Because I don’t want to fail the city of Houma.”

Carly Berlin contributed to this report.