Between Trump And A Devastated Place
Even months after Juan and Jonathan Leija were forced to evacuate their flooded homes during Hurricane Harvey, the cousins face challenges that go beyond just recovering their lives. Building back isn’t easy for anybody, but the Leijas are doing it as looming policy decisions threaten to uproot them again.
Juan and Jonathan are Dreamers — young adults who qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era policy that granted clemency to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. In September, President Donald Trump announced he was canceling the program, leaving it up to Congress to pass legislation on the issue — which it hasn’t been able to agree on.
Undocumented immigrants were hit especially hard by last year’s devastating hurricanes and wildfires. Immigrant populations were already struggling with higher rates of poverty and less access to medical care. Then storms, fires, and mudslides wiped out homes and disrupted industries like agriculture that employ a largely immigrant labor force. Despite the dire need for relief, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for federal disaster aid. Some were afraid to even go to emergency shelters or reach out for help out of fear of exposing their own or a relative’s immigration status. Post-disaster, many immigrants have turned to jobs in construction and face injury and exploitation rebuilding communities that were leveled.
“Yesterday was the first time since Harvey that it rained really hard,” Juan told Grist in March. “It definitely brought flashbacks and it triggered a little bit in me. And just to add onto it, tomorrow a year from now my DACA expires.”
While undocumented immigrants like Juan work to pick up the pieces after disaster, the Trump administration is placing targets on their backs. In addition to ending DACA, Trump has revoked Temporary Protected Status for countries at a faster pace than any other president and has intensified immigration raids, even in sanctuary cities, over the past year. For some immigrant Americans, it’s political insult to climate change-induced injury — and suggests that it may be a while before they find a measure of stability in the U.S. again.
When Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area, it brought with it a year’s worth of rainfall over in less than a week. The storm affected 13 million people across Texas and Louisiana, killing 88. Causing $125 billion in damage, Harvey was the second costliest storm (behind Hurricane Katrina) to hit the U.S. since 1900.
Ten days after Harvey made landfall in Texas, President Trump announced an end date for DACA the following March.
“I was angry. I was confused. I was sad. I was anxious,” Juan Leija recalls. “I thought it was really heartless for him to do that after a national travesty.”
Harvey hit Juan’s family’s home hard. The Houston house they rent flooded up to his thighs. Juan is 6’1’’ and says the water level was probably above his mom’s waist. The family evacuated. They waded through water for two miles before reaching a friend’s home. For the next four months, Juan, his two siblings, his mother, and her boyfriend squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment.
The Leijas joined hundreds of Texas families struggling to rebuild after the storm. While Harvey swamped all of Houston, its impacts were not felt equally.
“In terms of the extent of hardship or suffering, we definitely found disparities across racial, ethnic lines, and across income lines,” said Shao-Chee Sim, a researcher at the Texas-based advocacy group Episcopal Health Foundation, who helped lead a study of adults living in Harvey-damaged counties.
The survey found that, after Harvey, 64 percent of immigrants suffered unemployment and income losses compared to 39 percent of their U.S.-born neighbors. Immigrants were also more likely to have fallen behind on their rent as a result of the storm and were more than twice as likely to have had to borrow money from a family member or payday lender in order to make ends meet.
When Juan’s cousin Jonathan’s mobile home flooded, it was a huge setback. “Basically, we had to remodel everything,” he said. “That was going to cost money that we didn’t have.”