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Jan 8, 2019

Houston Immigrant Women and Children in Need

In 2018, Tahirih’s Houston office has maintained a reputation for providing holistic direct services to immigrant women and children in addition to community education, outreach, and policy advocacy. We’re pleased to announce that the Houston office is on track to exceed our annual goals. 

Through September of 2018, we have:

  • Provided legal representation to 805 women and girls. 
  • Trained 1,357 professionals on trauma-informed approaches to supporting survivors of violence, well over our goal of 500.
  • Reached 3,835 individuals with our mission and message, further augmenting the community's awareness of issues that immigrant survivors of violence face and giving voice to our clients, who are often left voiceless. 

2018 Challenges & Local Response

2018 has also been witness to the continued erosion of asylum protections that directly impact our work, the needs of our clients, and the climate of fear that immigrant communities in Texas continue to live:  

  • Family separation policies that cruelly separate parents from their children, cause irreparable harm to families, and have resulted in hundreds of children being deemed “legally orphaned” after their parents were deported without them.
  • Matter of A-B-, in which former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision undermining the validity of asylum claims based on domestic violence – damaging more than two decades of legal precedent protecting immigrant women and children in the process, and resulting in many erroneous negative decisions in recent months.
  • New standards for unaccompanied children, requiring them to meet the much higher standards of asylum protection than the protections previously offered to minors.
  • The current “turn-back” policy, which severely limits access to asylum seekers creates chaos at the U.S. and Mexican border for thousands of individuals waiting to seek entry.

These challenges mean that our team has been called into action beyond what has historically been required, and at times have demanded that we shift our programmatic priorities to ensure that we are respond appropriately to the needs of the community we serve while continuing to support our existing clients. These responses, outside of our typical direct services, include:

  • Detained Women: Legal staff have visited women being held in detention facilities throughout Texas who received negative credible fear interviews.
  • Detained Children: Houston’s Children’s Attorney spent 4 days at a crowded emergency children’s shelter built on a non-operational U.S. Port of Entry outside of El Paso called Tornillo, where he provided intakes, court preparation, and Know-Your-Rights presentations to detained minors.
  • Migrant Caravans: Sent multiple teams to Mexico City and Tijuana to work with immigrant women and children traveling with the “caravans” to provide information about their rights and what to expect upon their arrival in the U.S., particularly for young girls traveling alone.

Client Impact

Through our work, we have been able to provide invaluable support to women like *Abigail.  Abigail is a 35-year-old woman from Central America who fled her home country in the wake of sexual assault, fleeing gang members who raped and assaulted her. Upon arriving in Houston, Abigail obtained a job working as a waitress at a nightclub and became acquainted with one of the security guards at work. She was looking for a new place to live and a roommate; her co-worker offered a room for rent in his apartment, and Abigail moved in. Sadly, instead of a safe place to call home, Abigail woke up one morning and found that she was trapped, with the door was locked from the outside. When her roommate returned home that day, he told her that she could not leave the house without him, handcuffed her to the stair railing, held a gun to her head, and raped her. He then proceeded to force her to prostitute herself over the course of several months.

Abigail escaped with the help of a woman she met at one of the bars where she was forced to work, and reported the trafficking to law enforcement.  Abigail was referred to Tahirih by the Houston Area Women’s Center. With the support Tahirih, Abigail learned about her legal options, including her eligibility to apply for a T visa as a victim of human trafficking. With Tahirih support, Abigail filed her application, and it was recently granted. Abigail worked with Tahirih staff to meet her goals and fill urgent needs for medical advocacy, assistance applying for CVC, and educational referrals. In addition, Abigail worked with our community partners, a refugee resettlement agency, to receive the benefits she is entitled to as a survivor of human trafficking. Abigail is now able to live and work legally in the United States, and continue the healing process in safety.

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Oct 12, 2018

Supporting Immigrant Women and Girls in the Wake of Hurricane Harvey

Over a year ago, Houston faced a devastating natural disaster, Hurricane Harvey, which created an imminent need for Tahirih to focus efforts on addressing hurricane related needs. Below is a recap of highlights from the past year.

Early Mobilization, Response, & Advocacy

Early efforts involved direct outreach to all of Tahirih’s clients, mobilization at local shelters to provide information and support to survivors, and coordination with local responders.  In addition to identifying needs within the community, Tahirih engaged in civil liberties advocacy, working with the Department of Homeland Security to address grievances about monitoring of disaster aid efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While immigrants were given assurances that enforcement efforts would not be exercised against those seeking assistance during and after Hurricane Harvey, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were seen patrolling shelters and other relief sites, which created a culture of fear and deterred many from seeking assistance at shelters.  Even more troubling, when Tahirih set up immigration and domestic violence assistance tables in the Convention Center shelter themselves, five different individuals supporting immigrants observed and photographed ICE agents patrolling the tables inside the shelters. Tahirih organized conference calls with Homeland Security to share this information with the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties department, and met with a team in Houston to discuss and evaluate its response to the disaster relief efforts. 

Ensured Continued Access to Legal and Social Services

In September of 2018, The Migration Policy Institute released a report entitled A Profile of Houston’s Diverse Immigrant Population in a Rapidly Changing Policy Landscape, which highlighted that while immigrants impacted by Hurricane Harvey were more likely to report income or job loss due to the hurricane, they were significantly less likely to apply for disaster assistance, largely due to concerns around immigration status. The report also highlighted abuse of landlords and problems seeking disaster assistance.  Tahirih was able to contribute to research for this report based on our own experiences working with our clients and the community in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. 

Out of 282 individuals, roughly 15-20% of Tahirih clients initially reported impact.  One year later, additional clients have reported ongoing issues (such as landlords unwilling to make necessary repairs) while new clients have also reported impact in the form of flooded homes, loss of wages, loss of their only car, or inability to make rent because they could not get to their place of business.  We have provided assistance advocating on behalf of clients with landlords who did not address issues creating health risks to apartments, obtaining loss documents, and at times, locating new housing options.   We have continued to provide support making referrals to partnering agencies, providing social services, and deploying direct financial assistance funds.

In addition to the elevated legal complexity created by Harvey, case management needs became more complex. Tahirih continues to participate in ongoing citywide efforts through the Harris County Long Term Disaster Recovery Committee, to ensure that the voices and ongoing needs of immigrants impacted by the storm are being heard and to tap into resources specifically created for those who suffered on account of Hurricane Harvey.

As of October 1, 2018, Tahirih has also joined with three other organizations in Houston to become part of the Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corp, a new Fellowship program, made up of 21 lawyers who will deliver legal and recovery assistance to individuals affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.  On staff, Tahirih now has an attorney dedicated to providing a variety of legal services specifically to clients who were impacted by Hurricane Harvey who fall within Tahirih’s mission of serving vulnerable, low-income immigrant women and girls who are survivors of gender-based violence throughout the Houston region.

“Paola”, whose name has been changed to protect her identify provides an example of one of the clients we have been able to assist.  Paola is a survivor of child marriage and domestic violence, who is seeking asylum here in the United States with Tahirih’s help. She and her family had to evacuate during Hurricane Harvey, and she missed several weeks of work. Already behind on her bills after the flooding subsided, Paola was forced to miss several more weeks of work in early 2018 when she became a victim of a violent crime here in Houston. Tahirih was able to assist her by providing her with a $500 gift card to offset her lost income and allow her to continue to provide for her children as well as heavy case management to meet her social service needs as she starts her new life. 

Informing & Developing a Humanitarian Action Plan

Hurricane Harvey highlighted particular gaps in delivery of disaster recovery assistance to the immigrant population and Tahirih understands the importance of not only addressing immediate needs, but also the critical need to build systems so that in the event of another disaster, all individuals are able to access disaster recovery assistance.  To that end, Tahirih has continued work with the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC), Access to Services committee to develop a Humanitarian Action Plan that will guide our region in responding more effectively to the needs of the immigrant community.

The Humanitarian Action Plan is being developed with input from:

  1. interviews with undocumented immigrants who lived through Harvey;
  2. interviews with staff of organizations providing case management, legal assistance to immigrants impacted by Harvey;
  3. interviews with stakeholders of government and larger disaster relief organizations.

With research conducted with support of the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation, Tahirih and other grassroots and legal organizations serving the undocumented populations are seeking to put in recommendations and best practices so that undocumented immigrants are better informed and able to access resources and support during times of crises and to obtain long-term support after a natural disaster.  Throughout the year, Tahirih has met with various organizations and stakeholders as part of this process.  In August, Tahirih hosted a client based focus group to provide input. 

This research was also informed by an early collaboration with the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative and a law firm in Pennsylvania, who quickly mobilized to develop an initial Houston-wide evaluation of all the federal, state and local disaster-relief programs available to those impacted by Harvey, and how those programs can be accessed by immigrants.

Without the support of GlobalGiving, Tahirih would not have been able to provide immediate and lasting support to the significant number of individuals impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Jul 25, 2018

Hurricane Harvey Impact Update

As we approach the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, Tahirih’s work to address the impact of Hurricane Harvey continues. Our efforts in 2018 include:

Ensuring Access to Legal and Social Services

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Tahirih contacted all of its current clients to make sure they were safe and determine what additional support was needed. We have consistently observed a similar average aligned with the general population of individuals impacted – about 15%-20% of clients, which is about 282 individuals and their family members. Many of these individuals had unique needs, for example, their house was flooded, they lost their only car, or they could not meet rent because they could not get to their place of business. In recent months, we have also assisted clients whose landlords did not address issues creating health risks to apartments.  We continue to provide support making referrals, providing social services, and deploying direct financial assistance funds it raised in the aftermath of Harvey.

As new survivors come to Tahirih, we continue to hear about struggles during and post Hurricane Harvey. Recently, Lida* came to Tahirih for assistance with her legal case. Lida is a survivor of domestic violence as well as sexual assault. She is also the mother of a young child. Her spouse abused her both physically and emotionally throughout their relationship, frequently withholding money. After Hurricane Harvey, when she was unable to work, the abuse escalated. Despite being unable to work, he provided her with no money and she used her little savings to compensate for the loss of employment.  Violence in their relationship escalated, forcing Lida to leave her abuser but without him and without the job she held before Hurricane Harvey, she has suffered ongoing financial hardship. When we met with her she spoke of the difficulties she has faced and how on a regular basis she must make decisions between buying formula for her young baby or buying personal care items, like menstrual pads, for herself. In addition to providing financial assistance, we have been able to provide case management support including, safety planning, crisis intervention, supportive counseling, educational resources, and housing assistance.

*Name changed to protect client privacy.

Co-leading the Harvey Systems Project

As part of our leadership in the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC), Tahirih has co-chaired the Access to Services committee. Since Harvey, this committee has been working on a Harvey Assistance fund plan and has hired staff to further the following goals:

  1. To manage a contract with January Advisors, a Houston-based data consulting firm that is designing a new program called NeedsHOU, which will be a more transparent way for social service providers and the experiences that undocumented clients have when trying to access various systems;
  2. To work with local experts to educate and advocate for service providers whose intake procedures create barriers for immigrants; and
  3. To create a “humanitarian action plan” for HILSC to help immigrant-serving organizations, and particularly immigration legal service providers, be better prepared for future natural disasters and to make recommendations about how the city/county can be more responsive to the needs of undocumented residents during a disaster.

To further these goals, Tahirih has continued to actively participate in working group meetings and has additionally supported the committee in facilitating interviews with 32 directors, managers and service providers, participating as a service provider in a focus groups to share the immigrant experience during Hurricane Harvey, and providing feedback on data systems. Next month, Tahirih will be hosting and seeking clients to participate in a client-centered focus group in with the goal of better understanding the experiences of immigrants during Hurricane Harvey.

 

Community Mobilization. Tahirih, in collaboration with the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative and a law firm in Pennsylvania, led efforts to develop a Houston-wide evaluation of all the federal, state and local disaster-relief programs available to those impacted by Harvey, and how those programs can be accessed by immigrants. Harvey brought to light additional, legal barriers preventing immigrants from seeking access to key assistance programs, and the critical need to remove those barriers to enable the assistance to be utilized. For example, there is a program called SNAP that provides disaster aid, and undocumented immigrants are eligible to participate. However, applicants need to enter a Social Security Number in order to apply, and many do not have a Social Security Number. As part of the evaluation, the SNAP program is identified as a source of support, along with critical instructions about how to enter a string of zeros in place of a Social Security Number. This tool, which was completed at the end of 2017, will directly inform the Harvey Systems Project, and the ongoing work of Tahirih and the community.

Civil Liberties Advocacy. Tahirih continues working with the Department of Homeland Security to address grievances about monitoring of disaster aid efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While immigrants were given assurances that enforcement efforts would not be exercised against those seeking assistance during and after Hurricane Harvey, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were seen patrolling shelters and other relief sites. Even more troubling, when Tahirih set up immigration and domestic violence assistance tables in the Convention Center shelter themselves, five different individuals supporting immigrants observed and photographed ICE agents patrolling the tables inside the shelters. Tahirih has organized three conference calls with Homeland Security to share this information with the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties department, and that team is coming to Houston to discuss and evaluate its response to the disaster relief efforts.

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