Background

HILSC stepped up for immigrants in Harvey response and recovery and is building systems to do so again in the next disaster.

Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC) is a member-driven network of more than 40 immigrant-serving organizations that provide resources to low-income immigrants. Stakeholders include non- profit legal services providers, advocacy organizations, the business community, university legal clinics, public agencies, and private foundations. HILSC serves these organizations, with the vision that no immigrant in the Greater Houston region goes without legal assistance while seeking legal status and navigating the complexities of the U.S. immigration and local social service systems.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017, HILSC did not imagine a role in disaster response and recovery, nor did most of our member organizations. Within 24 hours however, HILSC partners inundated the HILSC listserv, which is used by 400 non-profit staff and attorneys that serve immigrants, with detailed questions from clients such as:

  • My home is flooding, but I am an asylum seeker with an ankle monitor. Can I leave?
  • Is it safe for me to go to a shelter if I am undocumented?
  • I have a loved one detained, but have lost communication because of the flood. How can I find out if they’ve been transferred or deported?
  • How can I find out if my immigration court appointment will be rescheduled especially since I don’t know where I’m going to be living? Will I be deported if I miss a court date?
  • I lost my green card when my home flooded…what do I do, especially if I’m pulled over by police?

Listserv participants shared information and learnings, and HILSC staff filled in gaps. HILSC compiled a list of these Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) [Appendix D], researched and provided answers, and shared the information widely with service providers.

These questions highlighted the need for immigration lawyers at local shelters. While Lone Star Legal Aid provided disaster expertise, Houston Volunteer Lawyers turned out their broad network of volunteer attorneys, and HILSC recruited immigration attorneys. Beyond answering questions, volunteers advocated for mixed-status families to FEMA and asked ICE officers at the George R. Brown shelter to move away from the legal table to ensure no one feared approaching.

The FAQ was also shared through HILSC’s Immigrant Rights Hotline (833-HOU-IMMI), which was advertised on Univision and Telemundo. For two days, August 31 and September 1, hotline calls went to the Univision phone bank, and volunteers from HILSC partner agencies including United We Dream, ACLU, BakerRipley, Catholic Charities, Tahirih Justice Center, Bonding Against Adversity, Texas Center for Community Services, and others responded to 1,393 calls with quality, timely, and actionable information.

Low-income disaster survivors often face significantly more severe losses and significant obstacles in their path to recovery than middle- and upper-income people.38 As Harvey’s waters receded, HILSC and our partners focused on how to better serve the region’s low-income immigrants. We responded in a number of ways including:

  • Social Services Advocacy – HILSC began engaging in organizational advocacy and providing expertise to break down institutional barriers to serving immigrants.
  • Availability of federal and state disaster relief for immigrants – The Penn State Dickinson Law Medical Legal Partnership Clinic conducted pro bono research documenting which types of disaster-related public assistance immigrants of various legal statuses are eligible for.
  • NeedHOU.org – HILSC developed a social service database of safe, secure services verified and maintained by our Access to Services workgroup.
  • Harvey Assistance for Immigrants – HILSC raised and distributed $200,000 in direct cash assistance to immigrants via grants to immigrant-serving organizations [Appendix E].
  • Disaster Recovery Legal Corps Immigration Fellows – HILSC raised funding for four immigration legal fellows to join Equal Justice Works’ City of Houston cohort of lawyers delivering legal and recovery assistance to people impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
  • State Bar of Texas’ Disaster Relief Legal Manual – HILSC provided the base research for and edited a new chapter dedicated to immigrant-specific issues in the Bar’s “Resource Materials for Responding to Legal Questions from Those Affected by Disasters.”
  • Humanitarian Action Plan – HILSC crafted this coordinated emergency management plan to improve preparedness, response, and recovery services to increase resiliency of immigrants and our region.

Subsequent projects include creating the Immigrant Accessibility Index [Appendix F], which helps organizations assess their program’s accessibility to immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented. Participating organizations can consult HILSC to identify best practices to fill gaps and reduce barriers for immigrants who need access to legal and social services. HILSC also created a template organizational policy to respond to ICE requests for information or access.

Simultaneously HILSC developed cultural competency training, which has been implemented with 100 front line staff of Harris Health’s Financial Assistance Program. The program serves nearly 100,000 people annually, about 40% of whom are non-citizens and 46% of whom are non-English speaking. The recommendations below include expanding cultural competency training to additional programs.


38 “Disaster Task Force,” Legal Services Corporation, accessed February 2019, https://www.lsc.gov/disaster-task-force.

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