Hurricanes like Matthew leave undocumented immigrants with fewer options to rebuild

Florida has about 610,000 undocumented immigrants.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara
CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

Undocumented immigrants living in Florida may have the most to lose as Hurricane Matthew hit the state Thursday night, bringing with it dangerous storm surge, destructive winds, and flooding rainfall.

Florida has about 610,000 undocumented immigrants, who contribute more than $588 million in state and local taxes according to recent calculations. But because of their legal status in the country, they are prohibited from receiving some forms of disaster assistance since they are less likely to be insured and may not have Social Security numbers to qualify for aid.

Nonprofit agencies like the Guatemalan-Maya Center in south Florida, which specializes in providing care for indigenous communities and can speak to people in Spanish and Mayan dialects like Mam and Q’anjobalan, have stepped in to fill some of those gaps. The center itself will be closed, but workers will keep a hotline open for immigrants who need help. Other advocacy agencies have told ThinkProgress without attribution that they are planning on a similar course of action.

As the first line of help, it’s likely immigrants will turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for short-term assistance.


“All individuals, regardless of citizenship status, that have been impacted by a Hurricane are eligible for short-term, non-cash, in-kind emergency disaster relief programs,” a FEMA spokesperson told ThinkProgress via email. Programs include search and rescue, medical care, shelter, food and water, as well as “Disaster Legal Services and Crisis Counseling.”

“U.S. citizens; non-citizen nationals; and qualified aliens impacted are eligible to receive individual and household assistance,” the spokesperson added, noting that people with U.S. citizen children could qualify for expanded assistance like “funds to help with the repair or replacement of a home, clothing, and other essential needs.”

About two million residents in Florida are in the path of Hurricane Matthew. As of Friday morning, as many as 360,000 people were without power, a local NBC affiliate reported. Both Georgia and South Carolina are also bracing for an impact this weekend. President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency for the three states, allowing federal agencies to respond to state and local emergency responses.

“We have not seen the likes of this in our lifetime in Jacksonville,” Mayor Lenny Curry said as he ordered the evacuation of almost half a million people in the region.

Beyond Hurricane Matthew’s initial impact, undocumented immigrants may be unable to rebuild their lives long after short-term aid has been dispensed. One year after Hurricane Sandy, many undocumented immigrants were still struggling to rebuild their homes on Staten Island. Many simply didn’t have the funds to rebuild because they lacked insurance to help cover the costs. Others were hesitant because they were afraid of being deported during the reconstruction.

Undocumented immigrants frequently provide critical help during the reconstruction process after natural disasters. Many headed to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit on promises of abundant jobs and high wages as New Orleans was rebuilt. However, a decade after the storm hit, many are still waiting to be paid.


UPDATE: As of Friday afternoon, Hurricane Matthew still has potential to make landfall in either Georgia or South Carolina. Nearly one million Floridians are without power.