Two Disasters


Before Hurricane Katrina hit, an estimated twenty to thirty-five thousand undocumented immigrants lived on the Gulf Coast. In the weeks following the disaster, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) refused to provide assurance that undocumented individuals who sought government aid would not be deported. Instead, DHS announced that it would not “turn a blind eye” to violations of the law and would take a “case by case” approach to “illegal aliens.” The results were predictable. In Long Beach, Mississippi, federal officials demanded that undocumented residents leave a Red Cross shelter or be deported. In El Paso, Texas, DHS initiated deportation proceedings against three Gulf Coast evacuees.

As a consequence, needy immigrants in the Gulf region did not seek emergency aid. (Although the undocumented do not qualify for food stamps and federal cash assistance, they can receive short-term, noncash disaster relief like emergency shelter, medical care, food, and water.) As Homeland Security officials surely know, most immigrants will not seek help if doing so might lead to deportation. Nor will they come forward to report crimes, share information regarding potential terrorist threats, or inform officials of a potential public-health emergency.

Five years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, immigration officials took a more compassionate approach. Ten days after the attacks, the commissioner of Immigration and...

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About the Author

Donald Kerwin is the executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.