Afraid to Get Help

For Illegal Immigrants, Some Aid Is Too Risky

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The man who stood with his head bowed outside a cheap motel room here said his name is Almicar of Guatemala. He crept across the Mexican border into the United States a few years ago and since that time has found work as a painter in New Orleans.

But several weeks ago, Hurricane Katrina turned his world upside down along with everyone else's. Almicar, who gave only his first name for fear of being deported, said his situation is worse because he is an illegal immigrant. Since the storm hit, he has watched his neighbors at the motel call the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get money he will never see and food stamps that are forbidden to his family of five, and to seek jobs at the Social Security office, where he dares not show his face.

Almicar didn't speak a word of English, but his body language said it all. Eyes down, arms folded, back slumped, he had the visage of a defeated man.

"I'm afraid," he said in Spanish. His family's "situation is getting harder and harder. You don't know what to think, starting from zero again."

Much has been said about the suffering of the poor in New Orleans, but Latino civil rights advocates and relief workers say those troubled Americans are better off than immigrants who live in Gulf states illegally, working in restaurants, casinos, farms and construction.

Some have managed to get into shelters run by the Red Cross and Catholic Charities, which provide food and medical care, no questions asked. But when U.S. citizens in those shelters flock to cardboard tables where FEMA, Social Security and Internal Revenue Service agents sit, Latinos stay behind, watching from their cots, relief workers said.

The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that immigrants have no immunity from deportation when providing information required to receive federal aid.

"The administration's priority is to provide needed assistance: water, food, medical care, shelter," said Joanna Gonzalez, a DHS spokeswoman. "However, as we move forward with the response, we can't turn a blind eye to the law."

That point was driven home when two illegal immigrants, from Honduras and El Salvador, were taken into custody in West Virginia by state police after a military cargo plane carrying 305 evacuees arrived there Sept. 5. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the two, who are friends, were taken into custody after state police received a complaint that one had been accused of a sexual assault.

"What that suggests is that the federal government is prepared to serve some victims but not others," said Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza. "That sends a terrifying message to the larger community."

In his national address Thursday, President Bush read off a list of services that the estimated 40,000 Mexicans and 150,000 Hondurans who lived in the New Orleans area cannot get: checks from Social Security, mail delivery by the Postal Service, money to rent apartments and temporary trailer homes.

Opponents of illegal immigration, such as Numbers USA, have fought giving financial aid to illegal immigrants. On the other side, a group of U.S. senators including Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) urged DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff to issue a statement reassuring immigrants that they could come forward without fear of deportation.

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