Political Context

Many immigrants have evidenced-based mistrust of government agencies and policies, while many local response and recovery systems create barriers to immigrants receiving services. Emergency responders must mitigate fear and address barriers to ensure immigrants obtain services.

Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC) interviewed more than 80 people from 40 organizations and agencies [Appendix C], as well as undocumented immigrants for this Humanitarian Action Plan. We found that the anti-immigrant political climate discouraged many from seeking assistance that they may have been eligible for, a finding which has been corroborated by multiple studies. The Living Hope Wheelchair Association found that fear kept immigrant families from shelters and asking for help in order to prevent interaction with law enforcement or government agencies.26 In a November 2017 survey of 351 day laborers, nearly two-thirds (64%) who identified as being undocumented indicated that they do not feel safe asking for help from government officials.27 A December 2017 survey found half of immigrants whose homes were damaged (46%) said they were worried that if they tried to get help in recovering from Hurricane Harvey, they would draw attention to their or a family member’s immigration status.28

This fear was not unfounded. Overshadowing the chaos of our inundated region were proposed and newly-implemented policies from the Trump administration to significantly restrict legal immigration, curtail protections for refugees and asylees, and increase immigration enforcement.

ICE arrests of noncitizens without criminal records increased 147% between 2016 and 2017 nationally.29 Locally, the Houston ICE office made 13,500 arrests in 2017, and Harris County has the 4th highest number of ICE “community arrests” in the U.S.30

The Trump administration has also taken steps to end DACA and TPS designations for those from some countries suffering from natural disasters or civil unrest. Those designations protect an estimated 59,000 people in our region from deportation from their homes.31

Despite “official” policies of inclusivity, rumors and first-hand experiences spread like wildfire across informal communications channels, such as Facebook. For example, despite the inclusivity policy of the American Red Cross, representatives were reported to have asked people in the streets for Social Security numbers before providing assistance after Harvey.

At the George R. Brown Convention Center, ICE officers were used for added security, and were documented standing stationed around the immigration legal services assistance table. Though their role was to maintain public safety, their presence inside and visible DHS vehicles outside kept away many who needed shelter from the storm.

Anti-immigrant public policy is being implemented in more subtle ways as well, most notably in proposed changes federal public charge rules. If an immigrant is labeled a “public charge,” their eligibility for legal residence is put at risk, and rumors of big changes to this rule were leaked several times in 2017 and 2018. For the first time in history, the U.S. administration is proposing to include the use of Medicaid, food stamps, and Section 8 housing vouchers as grounds for labeling an immigrant as a public charge.

Due to the lack of clarity of the proposed public charge changes, many immigrants forego assistance of both publicly and privately funded assistance, even for their citizen children, at the expense of their health and safety in order to avoid compromising an immigration case – even during disaster recovery, which is technically exempt. The Urban Institute found that foreign-born children had fewer visits to the emergency room than their U.S. counterparts, but their expenditures were more than three times higher, presumably due to limited access to primary care.32 It expects public charge provisions to exacerbate that. Pediatricians, public health researchers, and child health and policy experts strongly oppose the changes to public charge rules as they endanger the health and well-being of immigrants and their children.33

At the state level, Texas Senate Bill 4 (SB4) was signed by Governor Greg Abbott on May 7, 2017, but was set to go into effect on September 1, 2017, in the midst of Harvey recovery. The anti-immigrant bill makes it nearly impossible for local law enforcement and public institutions to protect the safety of undocumented residents, and threatens police chiefs and sheriffs with jail time for not helping federal immigration officials. Noncompliant cities and counties are threatened with fines of up to $25,000 per day. Some local jurisdictions in Texas, including Houston, joined one of two lawsuits against SB4, but the law was almost entirely upheld by the Fifth Circuit in March 2018. ICE justified the need for policies like SB4 as a way to target undocumented individuals accused of “violent crimes, human smuggling, gang/organized crime activity, sexual offenses, narcotics smuggling, and money laundering.” However, a 2011 study from the Migration Policy Institute found that about half of immigration detainers used in jurisdictions with such agreements were for people arrested in connection with misdemeanors and traffic violations.34

When local law enforcement becomes entangled with ICE to enforce federal immigration laws, public safety and community trust suffer.

The University of California found that when undocumented Mexican immigrants were told that local law enforcement worked with ICE, they were 61% less likely to report crimes they witnessed and 43% less likely to report being the victim of a crime, than those who were told that local law enforcement was not working with ICE.35

In addition to new anti-immigrant policy and practices, locally the Houston-region has systemic barriers to equitable recovery. Many agencies suspect low-income people of “double-dipping” when seeking aid, so rather than finding paths to assist those in need, many organizations diligently find ways to disqualify them. Unintentional barriers such as requesting Social Security numbers when not required discourage immigrants from even applying. Ultimately, the aid that goes to low-income people to rebuild their homes and lives is miniscule compared to the budget allocated to rebuild infrastructure, businesses, and the more expensive homes of higher-income families. Which is one reason that wealth inequality grows with aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).36

Numerous elements contribute to the complexity of connecting immigrants with services through disaster response and recovery. To retain public health and safety of our region, Harris County and the City of Houston must understand and mitigate the impact of federal and state rules that create barriers to immigrants accessing disaster assistance. Mayor Turner’s Welcoming Houston commitments are one step towards this.37 Our continued Harvey recovery offers us the opportunity to build systems that support equitable recovery and build trust in local government. This trust in turn contributes to use of public services and thereby increases public health and safety.


26 Pre-Existing Conditions in a Time of Disaster: Challenges and Opportunities Advancing an Equitable Recovery for Vulnerable Populations, Living Hope Wheelchair Association, January 2019, https://lhwassociation.org/sites/default/files/pre-existing_conditions_in_a_time_of_disaster.pdf.
27 Nik Theodore, After the Storm: Houston’s Day Labor Markets in the Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
28 Liz Hamel, Bryan Wu, Mollyann Brodie, Shao-Chee Sim and Elena Marks, An Early Assessment of Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on Vulnerable Texans in the Gulf Coast Region: Their Voices and Priorities to Inform Rebuilding Efforts, The Kaiser Family Foundation and The Episcopal Health Foundation, December 2017, http://www.episcopalhealth.org/files/7315/1240/4311/An_Early_Assessment_of_Hurricane_Harveys_Impact.pdf.
29 Randy Capps, A Profile of Houston’s Diverse Immigrant Population in a Rapidly Changing Policy Landscape.
30 Syracuse University, TRAC Immigration, “Counties Where ICE Arrests Concentrate.” Available: https://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/533/
31 DACA was rescinded on September 5, 2017. For more information on each of these policies, see https://www.houstonimmigration.org/immigration-policy/.
32 Sarah Horton, Kristin Yarris, and Whitney Duncan, “Public Charge Provisions Hurt Citizen Children Too,” The Hill, December 9, 2018, https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/healthcare/420464-public-charge-provisions-hurt-citizen-children-too.
33 “Children’s HealthWatch’s Statement Opposing Changes to Public Charge,” Children’s HealthWatch, September 25, 2018, http://childrenshealthwatch.org/childrens-healthwatchs-statement-opposing-changes-to-public-charge.
34 Laura Muñoz Lopez, “How 287(g) Agreements Harm Public Safety,” Center for American Progress, May 8, 2018, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2018/05/08/450439/287g-agreements-harm-public-safety.
35 Laura Muñoz Lopez, “How 287(g) Agreements Harm Public Safety.”
36 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.
37 Welcoming Houston, Office of New Americans and Immigrant Communities, welcominghouston.org.

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