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Harvey wreaks havoc on undocumented immigrants

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/4/2017 Aamer Madhani

Melissa Ramirez struggles against the current flowing down a flooded street helped by Edward Ramirez and Cody Collinsworth as she tried to return to her home for the first time since Harvey floodwaters arrived in Houston: Melissa Ramirez struggles against the current flowing down a flooded street helped by Edward Ramirez (L) and Cody Collinsworth as she tries to return to her home for the first time in Houston. Harvey evacuees return home HOUSTON — Magdalena and her family made it through Hurricane Harvey intact, but the fierce storm continues to devastate her family’s already meager finances.

Before the storm, Magdalena — who asked to only be identified by her first name because she is an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador living in the U.S. illegally— and her household of seven were barely subsisting on the poverty-level wages her sister and brother-in-law bring home from their jobs at a factory and meatpacking plant.

Then Harvey lashed the Texas coast and flooded one of the rooms in their squat two-bedroom apartment in southeast Houston. Even worse for her family, the storm meant no work for her sister and brother-in-law and a week less of much-needed wages.

Compounding the pain, Magdalena's daughter and her daughter's partner and their three young children’s apartment was destroyed by Harvey. Magdalena’s two-bedroom, one bathroom apartment now sleeps 12.

Activists Robert Rodriguez, left, and his son Zakary Rodriguez stand in front of the apartment building in Houston where many undocumented immigrants live who are struggling to pay rent and buy groceries after Hurricane Harvey. The two donated a mattress to a woman who had to take in her daughter, son-in-law, and their three children after their home was flooded. © Danielle Parhizkaran, NorthJersey.com via USA TODAY NETWORK Activists Robert Rodriguez, left, and his son Zakary Rodriguez stand in front of the apartment building in Houston where many undocumented immigrants live who are struggling to pay rent and buy groceries after Hurricane Harvey. The two donated a mattress to a woman who had to take in her daughter, son-in-law, and their three children after their home was flooded. “At least we have our health,” said Magdalena, who cares for her sister and brother-in-law’s children and two of her grandchildren, in an interview in her cramped living room. “I have to have hope that God will get us through this.”

The Houston region is still reeling from the wrath of Harvey that has left at least 44 dead and tens of billions of dollars in property damage in its wake.

Among the most vulnerable in a region on the mend are Houston's estimated 575,000 undocumented immigrants, the third-largest population of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.

Ahead of Harvey making landfall on the Texas coast on Aug. 25, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agencies announced “routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations” would not be conducted at evacuation sites, shelters or food banks.

But many undocumented immigrants in Houston in similarly difficult situations like Magdalena are wary of reaching out for government help because of the immigration stances staked out by President Trump, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other politicians seeking to crack down on entry of unauthorized immigrants, immigration advocates say.

The situation in Houston is playing out as Trump will reportedly announce in the coming days that he will end a controversial program that protects nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation. 

The president is expected to give Congress six months to craft a bill to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, a program that Trump inherited from President Obama, according to multiple news reports. Trump has also made building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border a focal point of his White House agenda, a proposal that has unsettled Latino immigrants and strained the U.S. relationship with Mexico.

On the slate level, a federal judge on Wednesday granted a preliminary injunction of Senate Bill 4, legislation backed by Texas' Republican governor that seeks to outlaw “sanctuary cities,” municipalities that refuse to enforce certain federal immigration laws. Abbott criticized the injunction, saying the “decision makes Texas’ communities less safe.”

In the aftermath of Harvey, immigrant advocate groups have canvassed lower-income areas of southeast Houston to see how they're doing after one of the most damaging storms in U.S. history.

They've repeatedly heard from undocumented immigrants — as well as other low-wage workers in those neighborhoods — who were concerned about falling behind on rent and other bills because of missed work caused by Harvey, said Zakary Rodriguez, an organizer with the Houston-based housing and immigrant advocacy El Pueblo Primero.

Many of Houston’s undocumented immigrants work in low-paying jobs in the service, construction and manufacturing industries, carving out a hand-to-mouth existence in which they are making just enough to pay for rent, utilities and groceries through hourly wages.

Some reported they have already faced threats from landlords warning that they would move to evict them if they didn’t pay rents on time, Rodriguez said.

"It is very difficult for the undocumented to raise their voice, especially with the current political climate,” Rodriguez said. "The conditions of some of these apartment complexes that rent to undocumented immigrants is already bad enough. Now these people are being exploited on top of that from building owners that have been profiting off these peoples difficult situation."

Rodriguez, his father and fellow activist Robert Rodriguez, and Rev. Edward Gomez, the pastor at San Pablo Episcopal Church in southeast Houston, said that they've appealed to several landlords operating private housing complexes to give tenants an additional three-weeks break to pay their rent this month because of the hardship caused by Harvey.

“I tried to hit them with the moral argument,” Gomez said of his appeals to landlords and building managers to cut tenants some slack. “Some listened and some turned away.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has already approved more than $114 million in assistance to 161,000 survivors of Harvey.

Undocumented residents, however, are not eligible to make a claim with FEMA for cash assistance the agency distributes to victims of natural disasters who lost work because of the catastrophe. FEMA also distributes up to two months of rental assistance to occupants of homes made uninhabitable in the natural disasters but requires that at least one U.S. citizen or legal resident reside at the dwelling.

In Magdalena's case, there are two legal residents in her household eligible to receive financial assistance for lost wages from FEMA. She and her family members told Rodriguez that they were uneasy about reaching out for aid because of her immigration status as well as a teenage relative in the house living in the U.S. illegally.

"They worry that that the government will use FEMA aid to help them conduct a government roundup," Rodriguez said.

Magdalena is not alone in her anxiety.

Carmen Zapata, 64, sought advice from the Rodriguezes for her niece and her niece’s husband who are living in the U.S. illegally and confronting a Sept. 6 deadline to pay the rent. 

If they can't pay, their landlord has indicated she will move to evict them. Texas state law allows for property owners to begin the eviction process quickly, if a tenant hasn't paid or violated terms of the lease.

Her niece’s husband worked for six years in Houston for a company that services air conditioners. He lost that job in 2009 when his employer discovered belatedly that he could not legally work in the U.S.

Since then, he has cobbled together enough cash-paying odd jobs that have allowed the family to barely stay afloat. This summer he hit a cold streak and found little work.

“He’s a good man who works very hard for his family,” Zapata told Robert Rodriguez as she appealed for his advice.

Last month, Zapata’s niece pawned her jewelry to pay the rent and made plans to look for work with someone willing to hire an undocumented immigrant once her youngest child was to start school in late August — a start delayed until Sept. 11 by school officials as they assess the damage caused to schools and district facilities.  

Her niece’s husband also landed an off-the-books painting gig that was set to begin in late August, a  job that would have brought the family a cash windfall just when they need it.

But then Harvey wreaked havoc on Texas.

And that building that Zapata’s niece’s husband was set to paint — and counting on to make rent — was destroyed by the storm.

Follow USA TODAY's Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad

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