For many immigrants, crossing oceans, deserts and mountains is only part of the journey, there are numerous challenges ahead. A complex immigration system is one of the most critical challenges that many immigrants must overcome. In a system that is not trauma-informed and lacks due process protections, a misremembered time, place, or sequence of events by an asylum-seeker could be interpreted by the judge as lacking credibility and resulting in a denial.

Over the years, HILSC has engaged in ongoing communication with our partners, which helps guide our work and our effort to support the immigrant community. One of the things we heard from our partners is the growing importance and increased need for forensic mental health evaluations. Such evaluations serve a vital purpose in immigration cases, especially for clients who have experienced complex trauma. Forensic evaluations can help bolster a client’s legal case. Specifically, the forensic evaluation can provide additional evidence, corroborate the client’s story, and support their credibility. In addition, clinical expert testimony can provide an objective expert opinion as well as psychosocial education regarding the impact of trauma on a person’s psychological and emotional well-being.

Immigration attorneys have noted the vital role of forensic mental health evaluations. The synergistic collaboration between attorneys and mental health providers often leads to successful outcomes for our clients. A high-quality evaluation can sometimes be the difference between a case getting approved or not. Unfortunately, these specialized services are not easily accessible due to limited financial resources and specialized training needs for clinicians.

In 2019, HILSC launched the forensic evaluations program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support our legal services partners and their clients. This capacity building project has helped to connect attorneys with local clinicians and most importantly, it has helped immigration clients gain access to forensic mental health evaluations. The project has focused on expanding the capacity of high-quality mental health evaluations by including various program initiatives including network development, case coordination, financial assistance, and training. We began by developing a network of Houston-based clinicians who have training in trauma-informed psychotherapy. Today, our clinical network comprises evaluators of various clinical backgrounds, including licensed clinical social workers, licensed professional counselors, licensed marriage and family therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Although their therapeutic approach and training might vary, all clinicians are trained to assess, treat, and diagnose mental health. The next step was to collaborate with our legal partners to offer specialized training focused on forensic evaluations.

Our forensic evaluation webinar series offers interdisciplinary instruction aimed to train clinicians and attorneys on best practices for conducting and incorporating mental health evaluations. Although attorneys and clinicians have different approaches and operate in different frameworks, the goal to support the immigrant community is the same. The webinar series incorporates cross training for both disciplines to give clients the best chance for a successful outcome.

After building a clinical network, HILSC focused on providing case coordination to connect trained forensic evaluators with immigration attorneys in our legal network. Case coordination consists of connecting attorneys with clinicians based on a range of factors including the client’s needs, the legal needs of the case and the evaluator’s clinical expertise. Once connected to the attorney, the clinician meets with the client, conducts the forensic interview, documents the psychological impact through a written report and provides oral testimony during the hearing. This multi-step process is often the key to successful outcomes for our clients seeking asylum.

Our commitment to program evaluation and quality improvement led us to establish critical training opportunities including our forensic evaluation mentorship program. The mentorship model is a collaborative training system which amplifies and enhances the work of our clinical network. Seasoned mentors share their knowledge, skills, and expertise in performing mental health evaluations in the immigration context. The mentorship model not only expanded our clinical network, but it has also helped set high standards of practice for clinicians who are doing this important work.

One of the challenges in accessing forensic evaluations is the cost associated with the specialized service. To minimize the access barrier, HILSC developed a stipend program focused on building capacity and defraying the cost of mental health evaluations. HILSC provides low bono stipends for forensic evaluators whose service is requested by HILSC’s legal partners. Since 2019, our forensic evaluations program has offered case coordination to pair attorneys and clinicians in 136 cases, provided more than $76,000 in stipends for mental health evaluations, with 21 cases pending. We have also developed a clinical network with clinicians of diverse backgrounds, provided interdisciplinary training on how to conduct and incorporate forensic evaluations, and finally, we have provided mentorship and technical assistance.

The pandemic has led to closure of the Immigration Courts for sixteen months, many hearings have been postponed. To ensure that clinicians are prepared to provide compelling testimony to support the clients’ cases, HILSC will offer another round of mentorship focusing on preparing clinicians for court testimony. The crux of these testimonies is to provide psychosocial education to the judge, to provide an expert opinion to explain the client’s behavior, to corroborate the client’s story and to bolster the client’s credibility. Clinicians in our mentorship program have shared that “it’s important to have support and continued growth for best practices and improvement for completing sound [forensic] evaluations.”

The second mentorship cycle will offer opportunities to support clinicians with varying levels of experience. New forensic evaluators will receive the necessary support to begin engaging in this work and experienced clinicians will have opportunities to further their professional development and get guidance from seasoned clinicians in preparing for court testimony. We will also offer a continued education curriculum with specific learning objectives and additional resources. The curriculum will emphasize integrating clinical and legal work to adopt an interdisciplinary approach in working with clients. We plan to roll out the curriculum through an on-line classroom platform that carries CEU credits for clinicians.

The forensic evaluations program has accomplished many things in the last three years. But perhaps, the most important accomplishment is to normalize mental health services and open the door for immigration clients to engage in counseling. Complex trauma can have long-lasting, detrimental effects. But mental health services can help minimize the impact and encourage clients to embark on a journey to begin healing.

~ by Zenobia Lai & Thalia Flores Werner

This past weekend, we remembered the thousands who perished in the attacks on September Eleventh twenty years ago as well as those who died in the toxic aftermath and in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, just about ten days ago, the last U.S. military flight left Kabul concluding a twenty-year war and the month-long frantic evacuation airlifting 112,000 people out of Afghanistan. The day September 11, 2001 may have been twenty years ago, but the shock, the pain, the anger, and the bewilderment feel as fresh as the moments when the four planes flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Many have said that the day, September 11, 2001, had forever changed this country. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe it only provided the justification to re-shape the post-Cold-War world order according to an American image and gave those who wanted to rein in voting rights and civil rights a political cover to do so.

In the immigration world, the crack-down on immigrant rights started years before 9/11. It began with the War on Drugs in the late 1980s. The rhetoric and actions ratcheted up in 1995 following the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and wounded 680 others in addition to destroying hundreds of city blocks on April 19, 1995. Almost exactly on the one-year anniversary of the bombing, Congress passed the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) on April 24, 1996, punishing defendants in criminal matters and immigrants alike. AEDPA curtailed defendants’ ability to challenge their conviction and severely restricted people on death row from appealing their sentence or seeking judicial review, making it easier for the government to execute people. Although immigrants had nothing to do with the bombing, they were punished any way. AEDPA limited judicial review on agency discretionary decisions, it broadened the spectrum of deportable crimes, it expanded the scope of mandatory detention and it limited relief from removal. AEDPA was the first draft of the emerging immigration enforcement framework.

Six months after Congress passed AEDPA, it passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in September 1996 ushering in the enforcement-centric immigration scheme as we know it today. Among the harshest provisions of IIRIRA are the following:

  • Curtailed judicial review in many agency actions, such as expedited removal discussed below.
  • Expanded the scope of deportable crimes by enlarging the definition of “aggravated felony” to include many non-violent crimes with unlimited retroactive application, making many long-term residents deportable for crimes that weren’t aggravated felonies when they committed them decades ago. IIRIRA also made immigrants convicted of “aggravated felony” ineligible for discretionary relief such as cancellation of removal, thus removing immigration judge’s discretion to grant deportation relief in cases where the immigrants have significant community ties and equity.
  • Created “expedited removal” giving immigration officers and border patrol unreviewable authority to summarily deport someone who attempts to enter with fraudulent or no document without the benefit of a hearing. Expedited removal significantly impedes access to asylum at ports of entry. Those who are summarily removed are barred from re-entry for a minimum of five years.
  • Significantly expanded the scope of mandatory detention, including asylum-seekers who are subject to expedited removal until they can establish a credible fear of persecution.
  • Created three- and ten-year bar preventing someone who left the United States from reentering if she has been unlawfully present in the U.S. for more than 180 days or 365 days prior to departure. (It was not until 2013 when U.S.C.I.S. created the provisional waiver allowing immigrants who accrued significant unlawful presence to leave the U.S. to process immigrant visa at consular posts overseas without being subject to the 3- or 10-year bar from re-entry, though they may still be barred from re-entry for other reasons.)
  • Stripped immigration judge’s discretion to grant deportation relief based on the immigrant’s community ties and equities by raising the hardship standard and lengthening the years of residence for long-term residents seeking cancellation of removal (previously known as suspension of deportation) making this form of relief much more difficult to obtain.
  • Imposed one-year filing deadline requiring asylum-seekers to apply for asylum within one year of arriving in the U.S., which has significantly harmed those who struggle with English, are not mentally ready to relive the trauma, who can’t understand the U.S. asylum system, who lack legal counsel and who struggle to establish a foothold in the U.S.
  • Establish the 287(g) program deputizing local and state law enforcement to enforce immigration laws leading to racial profiling and erosion of public safety as immigrant communities lost trust in law enforcement.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was the “cap stone” of the carefully orchestrated four-part anti-immigrant legislation that Congress passed in 1996. On April 26, 1996, Congress passed two laws: the Omnibus Consolidated Rescissions and Appropriations Act of 1996 and AEDPA. The appropriations bill restricted (and continues to) civil legal services that received any funding from Legal Services Corporation (LSC) from representing undocumented immigrants, challenging welfare reform and redistricting, filing class actions, engaging in legislative advocacy, or collecting attorneys’ fees, among other things. A month before Congress passed IIRIRA, it passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) that made recent immigrants who were not yet U.S. Citizens or had significant work history in the U.S. ineligible for most safety net programs funded by the federal government. Undocumented immigrants, unless grandfathered under the Act, would be ineligible for any federal benefits programs, including unemployment and housing subsidies. By defanging legal services lawyers under the appropriations bill, Congress made certain that once it moved forward with welfare and immigration reforms later in that year, there would be no legal services lawyers available to challenge these laws to protect immigrants and low-income people.

The George W. Bush Administration started 2001 attempting to create common ground with the Mexican government and Congress to fix the immigration system. The tragic events on September 11th snuffed any hopes for immigration reform. Rather, the fact that those hijacked the planes that day entered the U.S. with valid visas quickly conflated the conversation of immigration with terrorism. Instead of considering any legalization measures to regularize the status of the three million undocumented immigrants, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act a year after 9/11 on November 25, 2002. The new law yanked the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from the Department of Justice and parked it with the newly created Department of Homeland Security cementing the enforcement-centric immigration policies that started with IIRIRA. No comprehensive immigration reform bills managed to pass Congress in the past twenty years, but the immense budget funding the Department of Homeland Security allowed immigration enforcement set in motion by IIRIRA to run on steroids, leading to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, tearing apart families and disrupting our community.

I remember that morning on September 11, 2001. I was awakened at 6 a.m. Pacific Time when my staff called to alert me of the attacks on the Twin Towers and asked me if I would close the office that day. At that early hour, I could not fathom how the tragic events of that morning would forever change our country and hardened elected officials’ anti-immigrant attitudes. Just five months before 9/11, I was worrying how the collision of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane and a Chinese People’s Liberation Army naval plane over the South China Sea and the subsequent detention of the American crew members by the Chinese government had led to reverberating calls to invoke the national security law to put Chinese Americans in internment camp. Now with 9/11, it would be a different population who would bear the blunt of xenophobia. Vigilantes went out of their way to exert private justice by terrorizing and killing anyone who might look like the 9/11 hijackers. Sikh American men who wear turbans and long beards as part of their religious observance, individuals who looked Middle Eastern and South Asians became the targets of hate.

Since the first nationality law was passed in 1790 that determined who could be American citizens, our immigration laws have been casted and recasted by successive waves of politicians who may be themselves immigrants or a generation or two away from being immigrants to exclude, to vilify and to challenge the newcomers’ worthiness and fitness to enjoy equal justice and the rule of law. On this twentieth remembrance of 9/11, I grieve the lives lost to the tragic events. I am also saddened by our state of immigration that fails to recognize the humanity of the people coming here to seek sanctuary from persecution, war, corruption, political instability, poverty, starvation, who yearn for freedom, safety, stability, better opportunities, and the life we want for ourselves and our families.

Zenobia Lai,
Executive Director

Dearest HILSC Network,

To take time to rest, take care of ourselves, and pursue our collective well-being, is an act of rebellion. The years 2020 and 2021 were incredibly difficult. We have gone (and continue to go) through some roller coasters as individuals, communities, organizations, and just humanity as a whole. HILSC is going to be taking a break in August.

We wouldn’t be worthy of the space we hold as a collaborative if we didn’t reflect on the privilege of having paid vacations, as so few immigrant workers do. The truth is, given the benefits vacations provide, too few people, documented and undocumented, can take them.

The U.S. does not guarantee workers paid vacation. Nearly one in four documented workers have no paid vacation and 22% have no paid holidays. The average worker in the private sector receives only 10 paid vacation days and six paid holidays a year. Even when employees receive these benefits, distribution is extremely unequal. While 90 percent of
full-time workers receive paid vacation and holidays, only 40 percent of part-time workers receive paid vacation and
44 percent receive paid holidays.

For hourly wage workers, there are also striking disparities between income levels. Over 90 percent of high income-
earners get paid vacation and holidays, while only about half of low-wage workers (bottom 25 percent of all earners)
receive paid annual leave and paid holidays. The estimated 7.6 million undocumented workers (nearly 5% of all
workers) — overrepresented in essential jobs in agriculture, construction and child care — have little to no acces to paid
vacations. Even American workers who do receive paid time off are also reluctant to take it due to workplace
pressures.

This information was sourced in part from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “No-Vacation Nation, Revised.” Information also sourced from Pew Research Center.

We are working together as a staff to nurture ourselves, reflect on the privilege of paid vacation, and to challenge the consistent urgency built into our work. We invite you to reach out to our staff to hear our intentions, what we learned, and incorporate more paid vacation and rest into your organization’s culture. Here is what is in store for us:

During the first week of August, HILSC will be engaging in a week of rest. HILSC will be closed to allow staff to rest, reset, repair, reflect, learn, grow, and nourish themselves (body, mind, and soul). This week of rest is an act of rebellion against a world of capitalism that monetizes time.

In the second week, we will engage in team building activities to build and foster relationships among staff. We recognize that the pandemic and working from home has made it difficult for us to get to know each other. We want to immerse ourselves in our relationship with each other. We cannot work as a collaborative in the value of consensus, if we do not take time to hold relationships (the beautiful and the not so beautiful) sacred.

In the last week of August, we will begin working on the strategic plan for HILSC. We will move into conversations about the future of HILSC: what we want HILSC to look like and how we move that vision forward.

In the month of August, HILSC will be slow to respond to requests and emails. We will be working on ourselves, our relationships, and our organization. We are grateful for your understanding, and continued participation in this collaboration.

From our humanity to yours…

As the Biden-Harris Administration approaches the 150-day mark, Vice President Harris’ visit to Guatemala has elevated the urgency to advance the immigration agenda. Immigrant rights advocates have fought hard for this moment when restoring humanity and dignity in our immigration system that honors family unity, supports a growing economy and provides safe haven for those fleeing persecution, war and calamities appears within reach. Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC) has been meeting with local NGO partners, city and county representatives and the border sector to coordinate strategies and efforts to support asylum-seekers coming from the border. There is a deep sense of urgency to be prepared.

President Biden has taken 94 executive actions on immigration during the first 100 days of his administration, more than half of these actions were to reverse the anti-immigrant measures of the previous administration. The rapid and bold actions of President Biden on immigration are welcomed relief for immigrant rights advocates. The reversal of the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies of the Trump Administration has opened potential avenues for many to obtain legal immigration status.

Some of the Biden Administration’s actions have immediate implications to the immigrant community and the immigrant-serving organizations. For example, the end of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP, also known as Remain in Mexico) has enabled more than 12,000 individuals to enter the U.S. since February 19, 2021, about 10% of them have resettled in Harris County. Following the MPP processing, the Administration has begun to allow vulnerable migrants encamped along the Mexico borders to enter the U.S. under narrow exemptions of the Title 42 public health expulsion policy. Many of them have also resettled in Greater Houston. Whether they are released under the MPP program or the Title 42 exemption or released by CBP for other reasons, these migrants are in removal proceeding and they need legal assistance to sort out the posture of their immigration matter, and to continue their asylum claims and other immigration relief.  Changes in enforcement and removal priorities also allow immigrants in removal proceeding to reopen cases to seek termination, continuance, new hearing on the merits, or to petition for bond or parole, etc. Non-profit immigration legal services providers need immediate and sustained infusion of funding to ramp up staffing capacity to help immigrants seek immigration relief during this small window of opportunity under the Biden Administration.

In addition, the Biden-Harris Administration also expanded humanitarian protection by designating nationals from Venezuela and Burma for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and redesignating Syrians and Haitians for TPS protection and expanded the scope of those covered. An estimated 323,000 Venezuelans and 1,600 Burmese in the U.S. are newly eligible for TPS. The redesignation of Haitians and Syrians for TPS is likely to double the current number of 64,000 TPS beneficiaries. Nationwide, nearly 420,000 foreign nationals from 10 countries are TPS beneficiaries prior to the recent designation of Venezuela and Burma, almost 13% of them live in Texas [i] among whom are more than 50,000 Salvadoran and Honduran TPS recipients. The fate of Salvadoran, Honduran, Nepalese, Nicaraguan, and Sudanese TPS-holders is up for redetermination when the current designation expires on October 4, 2021. At the same time, President Biden also increased refugee admission from 15,000 to 62,500 for fiscal year 2021 and he vowed to double this number next year. Texas is among the top refugee receiving states having resettled 10% of the refugees over the past decade. Houston area immigration legal services need to stand ready to provide legal assistance to many who would be eligible for protection under Biden Administration’s expanded humanitarian relief programs.

The expansion of humanitarian protection together with the process of allowing MPP migrants and those exempt from Title 42 public health expulsion have opened the safety valve for many seeking safe-haven in the United States, these are but band-aid to the broken and inequitable immigration system. Several bills pending before Congress offer the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform.  However, four months have elapsed since the United States Citizenship Act of 2021 was introduced in Congress and more than three months have gone by since the House passed the Dream and Promise Act of 2021 and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, none of these bills has advanced. Without continued advocacy, the legislative process will stall, and these bills will die of inaction and foreclose the hope for any real immigration reform for years to come.

There are 44.9 million foreign-born individuals in the U.S., they account for 13.7% of the total U.S. population. Nearly half (45%) of immigrants are naturalized citizens. Immigrants make up an outsized share of essential workers working on the frontlines risking their lives to respond to the pandemic as physicians (28.7%), nursing assistants (22%), registered nurses (15.7%), respiratory therapists (13.6%), grocery and supermarket workers (16.6%), food delivery workers (18.2%), freight laborers (15.8%), meat cutters (34.7%), farmworkers (42.1%), maids (46.7%) and janitors (25.7%) despite persistent anti-immigrant attacks. Over the past two decades, both Democratic and Republican Administrations designated billions of dollars in federal budgets to attack immigrants. In 2018 alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had a combined budget of $23.8 billion, an increase of 39% since 2012 even though immigration has flattened over that period.

During the period of intense assaults on immigrant rights during the Trump Administration, a survey of 254 top local funders across the United States in 2018 showed that philanthropy gave $304 million in grants that benefited immigrants and refugees across the country, and another $116 million to support pro-immigrant, pro-refugee movement groups. [ii] The philanthropic giving to immigrant and refugee community represented a many-fold increase since 2016, but at 1% (for service organizations) and 0.4% (for movement organizing) of all foundation dollars given out, it continues to be disproportionately tiny relative to the size of the immigrant population and the threats it has been under.

In Texas, one in six Texans is an immigrant, a quarter of them live in Greater Houston. Nearly half (44%) of children in Greater Houston live in immigrant household and 15% of the children have at least one parent who is undocumented. The immigration policy changes under the Biden Administration have enormous impacts on the children and families in this region. The Greater Houston philanthropy needs to adequately invest in the immigrant community to help this community thrive and succeed.

Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative has organized a three-part funder briefing since May 2021 to apprise the philanthropic community of the impacts of the changing immigration landscape on Greater Houston. Through the funder briefing, we also share strategies in building equitable disaster management for immigrants and highlight examples of public-private partnership as mechanism to provide sustaining support for holistic immigration legal services.

The election of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris to be President and Vice President of the United States is only the first step toward the aspiration of building an equitable immigration system and inclusive society. By the stroke of a pen on an executive order, hundreds of thousands of individuals who lack immigration status may win the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain deportation reprieve. There is an urgency for the immigrant-serving non-profit community to be prepared to help our immigrant neighbors realize the benefits from any immigration reform. Philanthropy can help us get ready. Here are a few things that philanthropy can do to support a vibrant and inclusive future [iii]:

  • Designate proportional funding in the immigrant and refugee portfolio and give flexible, multiyear funding to support the immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations to enable them to pivot and allocate resources to swiftly adapt to emerging needs.
  • Fund a long-term vision while also support organizing and service to address short-term and immediate needs that include legal services, case management, mental health support and stabilization services to ensure immigrants’ long-term success in integration.
  • Use your network and social capital to advocate for inclusive immigration policies, make public statements against raids, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and include immigrants and refugee community members for your board, staff leadership and advisory councils.

The Covid 19 pandemic has made clear that the status quo pushing to maintain the system of exclusion has deepened inequality and disproportionately harmed communities of color. Philanthropy can respond to the sirens of the time by resolutely supporting immigrant communities that are organizing to combat hate and racism to build a better future for all.

– Zenobia Lai, Executive Director

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[1] See Pulling Back the Curtain: Analysis of New Government Data on Temporary Protected Status (TPS AWG, March 2021) https://cliniclegal.org/resources/humanitarian-relief/temporary-protected-status-and-deferred-enforced-departure/pulling.

[1] _, Won’t You be My Neighbor? Local Foundations, Immigrants & Refugee Populations (National Center for Responsive Philanthropy), https://www.ncrp.org/initiatives/movement-investment-project/our-active-movement-areas/pro-immigrant-and-refugee-movement/2020-local-foundation-funding.

[1] See e.g. Call to Action for Philanthropy to Address Urgent Regional Humanitarian needs for Asylum Seekers (Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, Feb. 2021) https://www.gcir.org/funder-recommendations/2021-02/Strategic-Investments-in-Mexico-to-Support-Regional-Humanitarian-Vision-Recommendations.

Last week was National Hurricane Preparedness Week, followed by this week’s heavy storms. Are you prepared for this season? Though the National Weather Service maintains that June 1 is the start of hurricane season, they have extended the time within which they will issue weather advisories – now starting May 1. The lesson we’ve all learned after four 100-year floods in five years, the slow burn of COVID-19, and most recently our region’s winter freeze – disaster management is a permanent state.   

Disaster management includes preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. What has been made clear in this new reality is that though water, COVID, and freezes do not discriminate, the impact on individuals is far from equal. In fact, it has been documented that as damages increase from a disaster, so does wealth inequality – particularly along lines of race, education, and homeownership.   

These truths drove HILSC to develop our Immigrant Disaster Equity Program, and we’ve learned some important lessons since Hurricane Harvey that can reduce the harmful impact on those who are most vulnerable:  

  1. Immigrant and disaster management expertise must be bridged. HILSC has made great strides in developing relationships with disaster managers and connecting them with our immigrant-serving partners. These partnerships must continue to develop and grow. In the Houston Metropolitan Area, unauthorized immigrants make up 30% of the population. Including their needs in planning, response, recovery, and mitigation will only alleviate the burden on our first responders and disaster managers in times of crisis.
  2. Vulnerable populations, including immigrants, must be centered in policy and program planning. When plans are designed to reach the most vulnerable, they reach everyone. Specifically: 
    • Language justice means not just translations, but common vernacular targeting low-literacy levels. This includes webpages, call-in numbers, text and email notices, and most importantly public facing employees. All budgets must include translation and interpretation from local community members. Some community-based organizations can be employed for this! 
    • Eligibility and ID requirements must be clearly stated upfront in all materials. 
    • There must be better opportunities for people without transportation, people with disabilities, and seniors. Whether services are offered via drive through or walk up, they must be designed to serve all. 
    • Community-based organizations are effective partners in policy and program design and implementation. They are trusted partners to community members and can build bridges with government and larger service agencies.
  3. Issue-focused staff puts agencies light years ahead. Having disaster-focused staff at non-profits and immigrant/equity-focused staff at emergency management agencies puts them light years ahead. The agencies that meet this criterion have been the most successful in addressing immigrant equity through disasters. While this may seem obvious, there are very few agencies within either area of expertise that have staff focused on the other. Budgets must accommodate this.
  4. Government policies must protect all, government programs are intended to serve as a social safety net. With the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines, our government agencies were called on to hold mass events to serve as many as possible. This again left immigrants behind. While hospital systems, which received the lion’s share of vaccines, called their patients for appointments, other well-resourced folks were working the public system. Registration systems at first did not provide for people not fluent in English or technology, or unable to spend hours tracking when, where, and how to register. Again, vulnerable populations must be centered in policy and program design from the beginning.
  5. The opportunities to impact disaster management change between active response/recovery and “blue skies.” It is clear that the work changes depending on context. During ‘blue skies’ there is more room for strategic planning, but less urgency. Harvey, Imelda and other flooding events require very different responses than our current pandemic. But the pandemic has brought us incredible learnings on how to increase that can be applied to other disasters. We need to document and use these lessons well. 

HILSC, the Immigrant Disaster Equity Workgroup, and other HILSC workgroups will continue to serve as trusted partners and build and grow relationships. We will continue to disseminate timely information, target resources to immigrant-serving agencies, and advocate to remove barriers to immigrants benefiting from disaster mitigation policies and programs. Let us know how we can work together towards equitable disaster outcomes for immigrants in the Greater Houston region and beyond, that are better for all. 

 

Katy Atkiss
Immigrant Disaster Equity Program Manager