... umber=1788

City Limits WEEKLY
Week of: October 3, 2005
Number: 504

The city is helping hundreds of evacuated families now in New York, but displaced immigrants face special challenges. > By Cassi Feldman

The Hurricane Katrina Welcome Center, recently relocated to the state office building at 80 Center Street, is meant to serve as a reassuring entry point for survivors of a storm. Last Thursday, a security guard stationed at the door helped direct visitors. "Right over there," he said. "They're waiting for you."
But for immigrant evacuees, advocates say, even finding the Welcome Center may be a challenge. "Some immigrants are not receiving the benefits of most Katrina evacuees because they don't know that they exist," said Javier Valdés, special projects coordinator with the New York Immigration Coalition. "They're worried about going to the government for help and fearful of authorities in general."

The Welcome Center itself is housed in an imposing government building, Valdés pointed out, the type an undocumented immigrant might want to avoid. And, as of Friday, the day after it opened, its entrance was unmarked. When City Limits called the city's Immigration Services hotline and asked, in Spanish, where the Welcome Center was located, we were directed to its former location, 138th Street and Convent Avenue. By Monday, however, the correct address was provided.

"Anytime you set up a facility like this, it's not going to run like a well-oiled machine right away," said Jarrod Bernstein, spokesperson for the city's Office of Emergency Management, which is coordinating Katrina relief. But when it comes to basic aid like food and shelter, Bernstein said, "immigration status is not an issue. We don't ask." OEM has made a special effort to reach out to immigrants, he added, by providing translators, posting flyers at the hotels where some evacuees are staying, putting out a press release to ethnic media outlets, and working with local community groups.

Yet members of those groups say many immigrant evacuees may still be reluctant to seek help. The immigration desk at the uptown Disaster Assistance Service Center (DASC) was initially staffed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agents. When advocates complained, the city asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York to run the desk instead. Bernstein said the USCIS workers were briefly installed by FEMA, but were not there in an "enforcement capacity."

The problems facing displaced immigrants extend far beyond New York. A bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would protect immigrants whose legal status depended on relatives who died in the storm. It would not, however, help temporary residents or immigrants whose workplaces survived the storm. "The bill that passed the House is appallingly inadequate," said Josh Bernstein, senior policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center. "The people that are helped are such a small proportion of those in need." His group and others are pushing for other, more generous Katrina relief bills.

In the meantime, evacuees in New York are simply trying to navigate their way through a new city. For Rodolfo Rosales, 23, an immigrant from Honduras, finding a job is priority one. His family fled their home in Kenner, Louisiana, and moved in with relatives in North Carolina. But squeezing eight people in a one-bedroom proved impossible. "We were fighting," he said. "It wasn't good."

So he left his family and traveled to Naples, Florida, where a cousin had offered to help him find work as a bar-back. When the job didn't materialize, he flew to New York and is now staying, with many other evacuees, at a Holiday Inn near JFK. He hopes to remain in New York, he said, and already looks the part, wearing a white Yankees cap and clean white sneakers. But first, he said, he needs to find a job, any job, and get out of the hotel. "I don't like Queens," he said.

Other immigrants are set on moving home. Lin, 40, a petite, bespectacled woman who declined to give her last name, seemed a bit harried as she made her way out of the Welcome Center, clutching a letter addressed to the Louisiana Department of Labor.

In halting English, she explained that she and her husband ran a Chinese restaurant in Chalmette, Louisiana that was, like their house, completely flooded. Their odyssey to escape Katrina had included temporary stays in a university and then a Chinese church in Baton Rouge. Now they are sleeping on the floor of a friend's house in Harlem. "I don't know how to care in the future," she said, shaking her head. "I don't know what to do."