Hurricane Harvey: Immigrants in Houston fear deportation even as authorities claim no arrests will be made for seeking help

Houston: Alain Cisneros walked past thousands of cots filled with storm victims at the Houston convention center holding up a poster with the words, "Do you have questions?" written in Spanish in bold black letters.

He pulled up a chair next to a woman from Honduras and tried to deliver a reassuring message as the 23-year-old recounted in an exhausted voice how waters rose to her chest in her Houston apartment, forcing her to wade to safety with her three young children.

Ricxy Sanchez listened to Cisneros' assurances that although she is in the country illegally she shouldn't worry about being deported if she asks for help and that she should consider applying for disaster relief. With almost everything she owns destroyed in the storm, she's thinking about moving back to violence-ravaged Honduras.

"Stay here to suffer with our children?" Sanchez asked, shaking her head.

File image of resuce operation in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. AP

File image of the rescue operation in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. AP

The encounter illustrates the complexity of responding to a disaster on the magnitude of Harvey in a city where an estimated 600,000 residents are living in the country illegally and immigrants have been on edge amid stepped-up immigration enforcement under the new White House.

Authorities have gone out of their way to tell jittery immigrants that they will not be arrested for seeking help, and outreach workers like Cisneros have been delivering that message in person at shelters like the George R Brown Convention Centre and on social media and Spanish-language media outlets.

The Harvey victims Cisneros met at the shelter shared the same concerns as almost everyone else: When can they return home? When can they start earning money again? How will they replace their belongings? The ones in the country illegally had deeper fears of deportation amid the chaos of having their homes wiped out.

"We basically lost everything," Sanchez said, drinking from a Styrofoam cup half-filled with black coffee. "Everything."

Sanchez, who arrived a year ago from Honduras, told Cisneros she has been raising her three young children - ages 5, 2 and 1 - alone on wages cleaning houses since being abandoned by their physically abusive father two months ago.

She recently skipped a date in immigration court, but Cisneros suggested seeking legal status under protections for victims of domestic violence.

Then the 38-year-old Cisneros, himself an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Houston since coming to the United States 20 years ago, said goodbye to her with a favourite line. "Don't stay here with your arms crossed" he said.

Houston is one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country: Only Los Angeles and New York have a larger population of immigrants in the country illegally.

The percentage of Latinos and Asians in the Houston area nearly doubled in 20 years, according to a 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute, which also found the percentage of immigrants who are US citizens to be well below the national average.

The city has the third-largest population of Mexicans, Vietnamese, and Hondurans, with large pockets of Pakistanis, Nigerians, Filipinos, and Indians.

Updated Date: Sep 01, 2017 16:04 PM

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