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Houston Immigrant Women and Children in Need

by Tahirih Justice Center
Houston Immigrant Women and Children in Need
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.

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Organization Information

Tahirih Justice Center

Location: Falls Church, VA - USA
Website:
Project Leader:
Kim Wensel
Falls Church, VA United States

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