Immigrant Profile

Immigrants are invaluable to the Houston region, and immigrants are disproportionately impacted by disasters.

The Greater Houston region is one of the most diverse places in the country. As of 2016, there were 1.6 million foreign-born people in the region, making up 23% of the total population. While an estimated 506,000 (33%) of those are undocumented, many families have “mixed” legal status, meaning that that some in the household have some type of legal status – such as permanent residency or citizenship – while others in the household are undocumented. At least 98,000 undocumented immigrants are married to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. An estimated 15% of children in Houston have at least one undocumented immigrant parent and 80% of these children are U.S. citizens.10


Map of Foreign-Born population vs. Harvey Damage Assessment, map courtesy of Kinder Institute

In Houston, The Woodlands, and Sugarland, more than a third of residents older than five years speak a language other than English at home, encompassing an estimated 145 languages. Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, French, and Hindi are the most spoken languages.11 Over 50% of foreign-born residents have limited English proficiency, including an estimated 350,000 undocumented immigrants and 350,000 green-card holders. Almost 40% of foreign-born residents lack a high school diploma.12

In 2016, working age immigrants contributed $124.7 billion to the GDP, held $38.2 billion in spending power, and contributed $3.5 billion in state and local taxes.13 In 2016, 56% of immigrants in Houston owned their homes, as did 41% of undocumented immigrants. Despite their significant economic contribution, 45% of foreign-born families live under 200% of the poverty line, or $48,500 annual income for a family of four, and 20% of foreign- born families live below the federal poverty line of $24,250 annually for a family of four.14

Each year, positive sentiment of the region’s residents towards immigrants grows. The number of Harris County residents who favor granting undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they speak English and have no criminal record increased from 75% in 2014 to 82% in 2018. Further, the opinion that immigrants generally contribute more to the American economy than they take rose from 59% in 2014 to 63% in 2018.15

Still, pre-existing racial, ethnic, and economic disparities compound disaster recovery. Research has found that “communities suffering from poverty, discrimination, unemployment, safe and adequate housing shortages, homelessness, and other issues even before disaster strikes are susceptible to the worst impact and experience greater difficulty in recovery and reconstruction.”16 This held true through Harvey.

A December 2017 survey of residents in 24 southeastern Texas counties found immigrants were more likely than U.S.-born respondents to report income of job loss due to the hurricane (64% versus 39%). Although immigrants were less likely to report home damage, those who did experience damage were less likely than U.S.-born to say they had applied for disaster assistance (49% versus 64%) or that they had any type of home or flood insurance (41% versus 55%).17

Research has long documented that less-privileged residents often suffer losses in economic, social, and cultural resources after disasters, while more-privileged residents tend to recover more quickly and may even benefit financially. In fact, the more aid an area receives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the more wealth inequality grows as a result of both physical damages and how recovery resources are designed and distributed.18

Assistance from both public (FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program) and private insurers is designed primarily to restore property – wealth – to help re-establish family and community well-being. Therefore those with more property and more income with which to ensure it will likely experience significantly different recoveries than those with less. More privileged property owners may gain access to new resources including low-interest loans, payouts from insurance policies, and opportunities to transfer improved properties to adult children. By contrast, for less privileged residents and non-property owners, local damages are likely to trigger financial liabilities resulting from an increased likelihood of job loss, having to move, paying higher rents due to reduced housing stock, and dipping into already meager savings to compensate for such expenses. Government recovery programs have even suspended legal protections for low-wage workers to speed recovery and stimulate local economies.19

Compared with native-born residents, immigrants in the Texas counties surveyed report more tenuous financial and social circumstances. Seven in 10 say they have few or no people living nearby they can rely on for support.20 Both real and perceived barriers prevented many immigrants from seeking Hurricane Harvey rescue, response, and recovery assistance outside of their limited trusted networks.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which is also home to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). During and after a disaster, FEMA is the most significant source of recovery assistance. Only “U.S. citizens, non-citizen nationals, and qualified aliens” are eligible for FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program (IHP).21 Undocumented immigrants can receive IHP only through a household member with a Social Security Number. A household is “all persons who lived in the pre-disaster residence... who are expected to return during the assistance period.”22 Immigrants not eligible for FEMA assistance include those with “non-immigrant” visas (work, student, travel) and those with temporary status, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS). [Appendix B].

All FEMA IHP applicants must sign a Declaration and Release Form (O.M.B. No 1660-0002), which requires agreeing to potential information disclosure to ICE: “I understand that the information provided regarding my application for FEMA disaster assistance may be subject to sharing within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) including, but not limited to, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”23 This disclosure is a significant disincentive for families with qualified household members to apply for aid.

Citizenship eligibility requirements do not apply to some emergency assistance (search and rescue, medical care, shelter, food and water, and reducing threats to life, property, public health, and safety), disaster legal services, crisis counseling, disaster case management, and disaster food stamps.24 Short-term, non-cash emergency assistance – such as Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) – is also available to undocumented immigrants, though underutilized by mixed status families.20


10 Randy Capps, A Profile of Houston’s Diverse Immigrant Population in a Rapidly Changing Policy Landscape.
11 Lomi Kriel, “Just How Diverse Is Houston? 145 Languages Spoken Here,” Houston Chronicle, November 5, 2015, https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/article/Houstonians-speak-at-least-145-languages-at-home-6613182.php.
12 Randy Capps, A Profile of Houston’s Diverse Immigrant Population in a Rapidly Changing Policy Landscape.
13 “New Americans in Houston: A Snapshot of the Demographic and Economic Contributions of Immigrants in the Metro Area,” https://www.newamericaneconomy.org/city/houston/.
14 Randy Capps, A Profile of Houston’s Diverse Immigrant Population in a Rapidly Changing Policy Landscape.
15 Stephen L. Klineberg, The 2018 Kinder Houston Area Survey: Tracking Responses to Income Inequalities, Demographic Transformations, and Threatening Storms.
16 “Addressing the Needs of Immigrants in Response to Natural and Human-Made Disasters in the United States,” American Public Health Association, accessed February 2019, https://www.apha.org/policies-and-advocacy/public-health-policy-statements/policy-database/2014/07/23/17/36/addressing-the-needs-of-immigrants-in-response-to-natural-and-humanmade-disasters-in-the-us.
17 Bryan Wu, Hurricane Harvey: The Experience of Immigrants Living on the Texas Gulf Coast.
18 Junia Howell and James R Elliott, “Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States,” Social Problems, spy016, accessed March 2019, https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spy016.
19 Junia Howell and James R Elliott, “Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States,” Social Problems, spy016, accessed March 2019, https://doi.org/10.1093/socpro/spy016.
20 Bryan Wu, Hurricane Harvey: The Experience of Immigrants Living on the Texas Gulf Coast.
21 “Citizenship/Immigration requirements,” Federal Emergency Management Agency, last updated December 2, 2015, https://www.fema.gov/faq-details/FEMA-Citizenship-Immigration-requirements-1370032118159.
22 Individuals and Households Program Unified Guidance, Federal Emergency Management Agency, September 2016, https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1483567080828-1201b6eebf9fbbd7c8a070fddb308971/FEMAIHPUG_CoverEdit_December2016.pdf.
23 Form referenced on page 11 of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Individuals and Households Program Unified Guidance (UHPUG), FP 104-009-03. Accessed March 5, 2019. Available: https://www.fema.gov/media-library/assets/documents/124228
24 Randy Capps, A Profile of Houston’s Diverse Immigrant Population in a Rapidly Changing Policy Landscape. See also: https://www.parkviewmc.com/app/files/public/1484/2016-Poverty-Level-Chart.pdf.
25 Bryan Wu, Hurricane Harvey: The Experience of Immigrants Living on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Change in the opinion that immigrants generally contribute more to the American economy than they take:

2014:
59%
2018:
63%

All FEMA IHP applicants must sign a Declaration and Release Form (O.M.B. No 1660-0002), which requires agreeing to potential information disclosure to ICE.

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