Four Years After Harvey: Building a Disaster Equity Program

The Houston Immigration Legal Service Collaborative’s (HILSC) Immigrant Disaster Equity Program was created in response to Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. At the time, many called it an equal opportunity disaster, but research demonstrates that immigrants were disproportionately impacted and slower to recover from Harvey than those born in the United States. In fact, the more Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid an area receives after a disaster the more wealth inequality grows

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Executive Summary

HILSC is a member-driven network of more than 40 immigrant-serving organizations that provide resources to low-income immigrants in the Greater Houston region. When Harvey hit, our partners inundated our listserv with detailed questions specific to immigrants such as, ‘My home was flooded and I had to relocate. Immigration Court is closed. How do I find out when my appointment will be rescheduled?’ HILSC began to identify and fill the gaps in information and resources.

In March 2019 we published the Humanitarian Action Plan, which formed the basis of our strategy and recommendations for increased disaster equity.

More recently, COVID-19 has forced us to find new ways of working, but also given us the time to develop these methods. It has allowed us to build and evolve disaster mitigation systems that will likely prove valuable in future disasters when it is not possible for people to physically be at sites where services are offered.

The following report highlights what HILSC learned about immigrant disaster equity between August 2017 and October 2021. The report includes our goals, key learnings, and ongoing issues in Greater Houston as we build towards immigrant disaster equity.

What is Disaster Equity?

Equity is difficult to define because it has evolved from the grassroots, and is different in any particular community. PolicyLink, a think tank for equity policy sees equity as, “the antidote to structural racism and social and economic disparities across the nation… policies to build a fair, inclusive America that delivers on the promise of opportunity for all.”

More recently, in September 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defined disaster equity in its “mission of making programs more accessible.” FEMA’s definition is, “The consistent and systematic fair, just and impartial treatment of all individuals.” FEMA defining and adopting equity into its mission is enormous progress, resulting from a whole lot of advocacy and finally President Biden’s Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. We will see how that mission translates to action on the ground.

ADDITIONAL READING: Why equity should matter in disaster philanthropy (Center for Disaster Philanthropy)

Equity vs. Resiliency

HILSC set out first to serve immigrants through Harvey, next to improve immigrant resilience through disasters, and finally to increase immigrant disaster equity. Resilience can be defined as the ability to return to one’s previous state after an adversity. However, HILSC and others are working to prioritize equitable recovery, irrespective of immigration status. With the amount of money invested in recovery and the increasing frequency of disasters, we must invest in making individuals, families and communities whole again, rather than back to a similar standard of vulnerability.

Agencies Involved in Disaster Management

Program Goals

HILSC’s Immigrant Disaster Equity Program has evolved greatly since Hurricane Harvey through the input of our members and partners, and learnings from working with the disaster mitigation community. It is clear that the immigrant disaster equity must be addressed through:

Improving Access to Actionable Information During Disaster

Increasing resources targeted to immigrants

Advocating for equitable approaches to disaster planning, response, and recovery

Key Learnings

When HILSC began our Immigrant Disaster Equity program, disaster equity was a fairly new field with little research to guide us. We have learned a multitude over the past five years, including the reinforcement of our understanding that this work is all about relationships.

(To explore further select a key learning below)

No one can argue with the increase in number and severity of disasters globally, let alone in the Texas Gulf Coast. Harris County responded to eleven incidents in the sixteen months from approximately July 2019- December 2020. And the amount of rain that defines a “100-year storm”, a storm that has a 1% chance of occurring in a single year, has risen by 3 to 5 inches in Harris County since estimates were last made in 2002. The impacts of Harvey (2017) continue to be addressed even in 2021, through buyout programs and continued home repair.

It is essential to bridge immigrant expertise with disaster expertise to increase equity, given that disasters have become a regular occurrence in Greater Houston where 23% of the 2017 population was born in another country, 30% of whom are “unauthorized” to be in the U.S., and many more who have family members of mixed immigration statuses.

Collaborations of immigrant-serving agencies can:

  1. Serve as trusted experts. HILSC’s Humanitarian Action Plan proved invaluable in building relationships between immigrant-serving agencies and disaster mitigation professionals, who now call on our expertise. 
  2. Build relationships! HILSC builds bridges between immigrant-serving agencies and disaster mitigation professionals. 

Together This provides HILSC opportunities to inform programs, policies, and funding to remove barriers and be more inclusive of immigrants, and thereby more equitable. This includes informing actions, reports, and articles at the federal and local levels.

When policy and program plans are designed to reach the most vulnerable, they reach everyone. Specifically: 

  • When plans are designed to reach the most vulnerable, they reach everyone. See “Continuing Priorities” for more detail.

It is also clear that the work changes depending on context. During ‘blue skies’ there is more room for strategic planning, but less urgency on the part of agencies in disaster mitigation. 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 work with clients that can be applied to other disasters. These learnings must be documented and replicated. See “Program Strategies and Successes” for more details.

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. Examples include Living Hope Wheelchair Association and Harris County Public Health, both of which have been invaluable partners to HILSC. While this may seem obvious, there are very few agencies within either area of expertise that have staff focused on the other. 

Given the polarization around immigrants and the political climate in Austin, TX, making progress on federal and state laws that affect access to information and resources is difficult, though not impossible.  Leveraging existing trends to remove barriers at the County, City, and organizational levels can be impactful.

HILSC’s HAP was written in response to Harvey, and our work continues to evolve as a result of our learning through continuing disasters. The pandemic, intermittent floods, and winter freeze allowed us to test and evolve our approach. This resulted in our current logic model, a framework that is relevant regardless of the type of disaster. 

Continuing Priorities

HILSC’s Immigrant Disaster Equity Workgroup (IDEW) identifies and elevates the needs and resources in diverse immigrant communities, facilitating a louder, more unified voice elevating immigrant needs, and resources and strategies to meet them. IDEW has positioned itself as a resource among disaster mitigation communities striving for more equitable outcomes. Continuing priorities of the workgroup for Greater Houston include:

Human- and community-centered design approaches are required when building disaster mitigation systems. When systems are planned and built by and to serve the most vulnerable people, they will serve all.

  • After disasters communities must heal, and then prepare. 
  • Organizations serving disaster victims must help them move to being survivors by bringing people together in community. Most current systems serve individuals and families, and people stay isolated through recovery and subsequent disasters.
  • Invest in community building to grow, share, and shift power. As communities develop a unified voice they can create accountability with organizations and government agencies.

Investment in individual and family preparedness ensures a more equitable response and recovery.

  • Address preparedness throughout the year. 
  • Define common words, like ‘disaster’ to communicate the potential destruction and need for preparedness.  
  • Develop programs to co-develop plans and materials, and train-the-trainers from different communities to capitalize on existing relationships.

Language Justice must be accelerated.

  • Strategies:
    1. Use Dynamic Equivalence when translating – taking into account both the audience and the subject matter. This includes webpages, call-in numbers, text and email notices, fliers, and most importantly public facing employees. 
    2. Ensure that translators and interpreters understand the concept and purpose of the message, and have cultural knowledge of their audience. HILSC offers Cultural Safety training towards this end.
    3. Write at a 3rd grade reading level using Plain Language to explain complex terms in a culturally-relevant way. Plain Language makes it easier to both take action on the information and easier to translate. 
    4. Translate from English to a second language, then back to English.
    5. Use symbols in printed materials and videos. Maximize oral communication.
    6. Invest in digital literacy. Examples include YMCA International’s training on Your Texas Benefits and ECHOS’ computer lab with technical assistance.
    7. Ensure digital platforms are configured for mobile devices, including phones.
  • Empower communities to build language justice:
    1. Pilot materials with community members and incorporate their feedback before launching.
    2. Pay community-based organizations for translation services. 
    3. Hire staff that reflect the communities served, not just as translators and interpreters, but throughout an agency. 
    4. Take an empowerment approach by training immigrants into staff positions, developing economic opportunities and building power. 
  • Concrete solutions for Harris County and City of Houston:
    1. Text alerts must be AT LEAST in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese. Systems must accommodate non-Roman characters.
    2. Use tools commonly used in communities, like Whatsapp and Facebook. Create a bot that can be installed in our Whatsapp!

Resources must be available and accessible regardless of immigration status – through preparedness, response, and recovery.

  • Remove barriers to access for immigrants and other vulnerable populations. HILSC’s Immigrant Accessibility Index identifies such barriers. 
  • Invest in direct cash assistance that is accessible to all.
  • Provide clear communication of eligibility, required documentation up front. Communicate the full process transparently — from application to receipt
  • State that disaster recovery is not a factor in Public Charge considerations.

When providing direct services, there must be 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. 

Tone down government branding — it is a deterrent to immigrant’s seeking services.

Develop a HILSC Network response strategy.

  • HILSC will continue to develop strategies and tactics within our network, so we can speak with a more unified voice to decision makers on issues like the topics we have identified above.

Community-based organizations (CBOs) are effective partners in policy and program planning and implementation. They are trusted partners in the community and can build bridges with government and larger service agencies.

  • CBOs need financial support for last mile efforts getting information and resources to their communities. 
  • CBOs have refined practical experience of successfully serving their communities — ask questions and implement solutions. 
  • Plan for the future. In Harris County and the City of Houston decisions and processes are often defined at the last minute, making community input and advocacy difficult and ineffective.

Collaboration between government departments and overlapping municipalities is essential to ensuring clear communication and successful collaboration with non-profit organizations and communities.

Program Background

HILSC began our immigrant disaster equity work in 2017 in response to Hurricane Harvey. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, HILSC was overwhelmed with questions from our network of over 400 Immigrant advocates about how to support immigrants during this time.

What should an asylum seeker with an ankle monitor do if their power is out and they can’t recharge?

When will immigration court reopen?

How will people who had to relocate learn when their case will be rescheduled?

HILSC worked quickly to compile questions and answers from our listserv into an FAQ, and researched those without answers yet. As we worked, we became acutely aware of the lack of access to such information and unique resources for immigrants and the disproportionate impact of disasters on immigrants. 

Our initial disaster response transitioned to a full assessment of immigrants’ ability to access services and resources during a disaster, and incorporating needs challenges, and barriers. In 2018, HILSC interviewed over 40 immigrant-serving organizations and ten disaster mitigation agencies – both government and non-profit – as well as a number of immigrants who lived through Harvey. This resulted in the Humanitarian Action Plan (HAP), which contains over 30 recommendations for a coordinated approach to improve disaster preparation, response, and recovery for immigrants in Greater Houston. Launched in March 2019, HILSC focused on inclusive communication, accessible resources, and culturally competent approaches. 

Also in 2018, HILSC granted $575,872 to four partner organizations to support Immigration Legal Fellows as part of Equal Justice Works’ Disaster Recovery Legal Corps to address the legal needs of hurricane survivors and launch the careers of passionate leaders.

HILSC Disaster Equity Program Timeline

In 2019, HILSC hit the street with the Humanitarian Action Plan. We met with almost 70 emergency mitigation professionals and collaboratives to advocate for equitable disaster mitigation through our recommendations. We also responded that year to Tropical Storm Imelda, during which we focused on connecting our partners with timely information to better serve their immigrant clients. In April 2020, HILSC launched AccessHOU.org, an open-source database of services for immigrants in Greater Houston. When COVID-19 hit, we redoubled our efforts. We evolved our disaster FAQ into a crowdsourced Immigrant Disaster Resource Guide, raised money to distribute to grassroots immigrant-serving organizations, and worked with funders to reduce barriers to immigrants in accessing public relief funds.

Program Strategies and Successes

HILSC’s Immigrant Disaster Equity Program has evolved greatly through the input of our members and partners. HILSC hosts Quarterly CO-LABorrative meetings, at which we held workshops to gather information on needs of and share solutions from our partners in serving their clients through disasters. We have evolved our program accordingly. We now address immigrant disaster equity through:

  1. INFORMATION DISSEMINATION of quickly changing regulations and resources, and tools and forums for sharing learnings between network agencies.
  2. Increasing ACCESS TO RESOURCES for immigrants.
  3. ADVOCATING to government, funders, and other agencies for equitable approaches to disaster planning, response, and recovery.

Logic Model Guiding HILSC’s Disaster Equity Program

HILSC developed an internal Disaster Response Plan based on these three interventions and the commitments we made through the Humanitarian Action Plan. In general, HILSC responds to a disaster when it is clear it is impacting our partners and their clients because it is impacting 1) large proportions of Greater Houston, 2) large proportions of immigrants, or 3) we are hearing from our partners through our Listserv, emails, and phone calls. 

Learn more about each intervention addressed in our Disaster Equity Program below:

Throughout a disaster, regulations and resources change quickly, and access to timely, actionable information is essential. Especially information about eligibility for public and private relief funds and documentation requirements, which are not always clearly stated in applications or on websites.

Dissemination of quickly changing regulations and resources.

  • The HILSC Listserv reaches over 400 professionals serving immigrants through non-profit organizations, foundations, and government agencies. This extensive network allows us to identify issues and share resources. HILSC monitors our Listserv throughout disaster response and recovery to respond to questions and pull information into our Immigrant Disaster Resource Guide — whether universal information, such as where to find reliable information on weather, government announcements, and preparedness; as well as information for specific disasters, like relief and recovery resources. 

  • Our Immigrant Disaster Resource Guide is designed to be flexible in response to specific disasters. The resource guide is a platform for immigrant advocates to find and share information and resources directly, via Google Docs. It contains information such as eligibility, documentation requirements, and myth busters, as well as links to resources with up-to-date information. HILSC has kept it up to date through the long, slow burn of COVID-19, but it is most actively used during acute disasters, such as the Winter Freeze of February 2021.

Immigrant Disaster Resource Guide – A Case Study of Use

When the freeze hit in February 2021, HILSC immediately began pulling information from email, local papers, Twitter, and other sources. It was one of the first resource guides online, uplifting both formal and grassroots efforts to get immigrants in Harris and surrounding counties the urgent resources they needed. The guide is designed to evolve as needs and resources evolve, in this case, starting with warmign centers and shelters, and moving to food and water, to home repairs, and on to recovery resources. HILSC staff sent daily updates on Twitter. Our team posted 107 tweets, which garnered 63,000 impressions and 35 mentions; 6,427 profile visits, and 62 new followers over a two-week period. The Disaster Resource Guide itself has averaged 300 visits per month.

  • AccessHOU.org is an open-source database of services for immigrants in the Houston region. The system was designed by HILSC’s Access to Services workgroup to reduce time consuming redundancy of each agency maintaining their own referral database. Over time we have improved the quality of data and evolved the system to better meet user needs. The database was launched in April 2020, coinciding with the beginning of COVID-19 shutdowns. 

AccessHOU maintained about 600 views per month throughout the summer of 2020, and stayed steady throughout the fall at about 500 page views per month. The most dominant search was, not surprisingly, ‘coronavirus’, followed by searches for immigration legal services and cash assistance. HILSC worked with our Access to Services workgroup each month train to our partners on using the system and gather feedback on what they need. The AccessHOU.org system is also used by HILSC’s Immigrant Rights Hotline operators, who also were trained on the Immigrant Disaster Resource Guide in early 2020.

We continue to refine AccessHOU as our budget allows, launching our most recent version of updates in November 2021. This new version improves functionality, refines data fields and filters, and features a HILSC Network Partner Map to help agencies find allies geographically, by language, or by service. To note, however, is that the map only contains those partners that provide direct services and are featured in the AccessHOU.org database. 

  • Webinars. In May 2020, HILSC launched a series of four webinars with our partners, diving deeply into issues that were worsened for immigrants due to COVID, including Housing Rights and Resources, Employment Rights and Resources, and Food Resources. The webinars were posted on our website’s Disaster Resources page. This page contains a compilation of information and links, as well as policy recommendations, resources, and data on immigrants and disasters.

We also hosted a webinar with the Harris County Budget Management Office to learn about the July 2021 COVID Relief Fund, and offer feedback on barriers to immigrant access. Unfortunately the most glaring barrier was that non-citizens or qualified aliens were not eligible for this round of funding due to the interpretation of the American Rescue Plan by our County Attorney’s Office.

Forums for sharing effective practices

In addition to disseminating disaster information, HILSC hosts forums for network partners to elevate issues immigrants are facing and to share learnings on how to navigate relief and recovery systems. The needs elevated in these forms inform the tools and resources we develop, as well as our overall Disaster Equity Program strategy . Forums include monthly meetings of the Immigrant Disaster Equity Workgroup, sessions at Quarterly CoLAB meetings, and periodic meetings of agencies that share a commonality. 

The following tools and approaches came from immigrant advocates at organizations which HILSC granted money to in order to provide emergency preparedness workshops just before COVID led to shutdowns. These grants were sponsored by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. We gathered three months later to share learnings and strategies to effectively reach clients. Many of the strategies that agencies were forced to develop continue to prove efficient as we navigate COVID post-shutdowns.  

Practical Tools for:

Information dissemination

  • Viber – group chats.
  • WhatsApp – group chats.
  • WhatsApp Plus – not a group; folks can’t reply. 
  • Email.

Education

  • Simple videos made in-house and links were shared via any of the tools above.
  • Workshops, in-person – with small numbers of people, masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and other precautions.
  • Workshops, streamed on FaceBook Live. 

Conducting screenings/intakes

  • Zoom – new technology takes acclimation but it worked as many clients have wifi. Staff helped people get their phone or computer setup for Zoom, taught them how to use it, and provided support. 

Group meetings

  • Uber conference call – dials everyone automatically so folks only need to answer their phone. No special equipment or learning needed. 
  • Zoom. 

Usually during a disaster there is an immediate crisis that needs to be attended to, and many other needs become lesser priority. The COVID-19 pandemic has been an exception to this rule. 

Regardless of what tools are used, it was agreed by the advocates that how staff relate to people is most important. Many people come to community-based organizations as victims and become clients. In some agencies they then become members. In many, they become leaders and informal promotoras. They may engage in creating programs and learning technical skills.  Trauma-informed approaches allow staff to see their clients as whole people,  not victims. 

Effective Approaches to Serving Immigrants:

  • Appreciate and express your appreciation to your clients. 
  • People don’t have to be grateful when you help them. We live in a system that oppresses people so “success stories” aren’t the only appropriate stories. 
  • Staff with lived experience similar to the clients/members is essential! For example, poverty in the US is attached to shame. So even someone who looks like and speaks the same language as clients may not understand the experience. 
  • Needs are constantly shifting based on the clients that show up. Hire interpreters on contract for languages that are out of your organization’s norm. And hire them as full-time staff when it is apparent the need isn’t temporary.
  • Emergency preparedness
    • Learn from your clients about coping through emergencies – many immigrants living in poverty have expertise to share. 
    • Train your leaders! And hire them to go door-to-door in apartment buildings to have preparedness conversations at a distance.
    • Bundle preparedness information with other services.
    • Provide updates to clients on approaching disasters — real-time information on disasters isn’t readily available beyond English and Spanish. 

Safe member engagement: Lessons from Living Hope Wheelchair Association

  • Keep your work human centered. Service providers are stretched thin and can never meet all needs. We can never do enough, but we are enough as human beings. 
  • Approach people with dignity and compassion. Dignity ensures we do not cause harm.
  • Learn from your clients – privilege can prevent us from formulating the most relevant questions, let alone answers. People are the experts of their own experiences. 
  • Think through how to make existing templates and models relevant to your clients. Better yet, engage clients to create their own templates based on their own language  and circumstances, and teach others to customize theirs. People must come up with their own approach based on their own reality. 
  • Work to intentionally dismantle our systems and assumptions. Ensure that our agencies do not become the barrier. 
  • Don’t focus on clients’ behavior, look at your operations. Putting the burden on clients exhausts all of us. Instead of asking, “How can we get clients to finish filling out their applications?” ask clients what their barriers are. Remove those.
  • Don’t make decisions for people – ask for what you need and let them tell you no, or modify to get to yes.
  • Plan relationship-building and client support into all events. Don’t treat them as isolated functions.
  • Engage in policy advocacy; choosing not to is also a political decision. Your insight is too important not to bring to decision makers.
  • Gain credibility with decision makers by engaging your clients in policy and program meetings. There are huge positive results over time from a relationship between clients and decision makers. 

Services beyond our primary mission: Lessons from Ibn Sina Foundation

  • Clinical team is motivated to ensure every medical visit has an educational component. 
  • Added emergency prep Qs to behavioral health questionnaire that surfaces issues. 
  • FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance – provides two templates for emergency kit: medication management and contact info for household members as well as community emergency support. Make sure ALL members of a household have ALL information. 
  • Explain all elements of the emergency kit including templates – their purpose and how to use them. 
  • Sometimes it’s good to step aside. Even the words we use commonly may have a different context in a different language. Who is presenting? Do they know how to speak culturally-appropriately to the audience? Language is just the beginning of it. When your staff reflects your clients, information is more likely to be culturally appropriate. 
  • Formally recognize and celebrate staff who perform more than their jobs, and clients who take leadership positions.

The long, slow burn of COVID provided an urgency to change many usual practices in providing client services, and has been sustained long enough to grow their efficacy. Some of these practices continue even as lockdowns have lifted, and may become permanent. Others were suspended but could be useful to reinstate in the case of a different type of disaster or other circumstance where it may not be possible to physically arrive at an office for services.  

Since Hurricane Harvey, HILSC has regranted almost $2M to address immigrant’s disaster-related needs:

  • Direct Cash Assistance and Admin:  $1,009,774 
  • Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corps: $575,872
  • Information Dissemination:  $54,000 
  • Client Emergency Prep Plans and Kits: $38,475 
  • Home Repair: $20,000
  • Equal Justice Works Disaster Recovery Legal Corps: $282,238

Access to resources includes funding of course, but also safe, high-quality services that answer the unique needs of immigrants. 

Funding to Support Immigrants Through Disaster

Relief and recovery funds often have eligibility restrictions that do not include immigrants without legal status in the United States, or come with requirements for extensive documents to demonstrate eligibility that pose barriers to immigrants applying or receiving funds. There is also a distrust among many immigrants of such assistance, given the political climate in Texas and at the federal level. Even when eligible immigrants may not apply to large, unknown agencies they do not know and trust. Therefore the known community-based organizations that have provided services to various immigrant communities become an essential bridge between larger relief and recovery systems and many communities. HILSC has worked to develop and direct funds to these agencies so they reach the people that government and large agencies often find “hard to reach”. Diverse examples are included below. 

  • In 2020, HILSC received a $500,000 grant from the Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund, which we regranted to our grassroots partner organizations that immigrants trust, reaching people that funds distributed through larger agencies usually miss. A total of 1,200 people received direct cash assistance that they could use to meet whatever needs they had – be it housing, transportation, medical care or prescriptions, utilities, food, or otherwise. HILSC also provided technical assistance, as many of the agencies did not have the capacity to manage the grant and requirements. The impact was two-fold: 1) agencies built capacity to apply for and manage grants, and 2) these grassroots agencies were put on the radar of the disaster mitigation community and invited to apply for future rounds of funding. This was just one of several grants HILSC was able to secure and redistribute to our network partners.

Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund:

  • $500,000 to re-grant to trusted partners.
  • Served more than 1,200 undocumented and mixed-immigration-status families.
  • Flexible financial aid between June and August 2020.
  • Exempted from using the shared database with personally identifiable information.
  • In 2018, HILSC granted $575,872 to four partner organizations to support Immigration Legal Fellows as part of Equal Justice Works’ Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, to address the legal needs of survivors of hurricanes, including Harvey.
    Equal Justice Works held trainings for the Fellows and convened them to share challenges and effective strategies. The Fellows addressed a critical gap in services for undocumented immigrants who’s legal challenges were exacerbated by disasters. 

    The Fellows focused on delivering legal services related to immigration matters, including affirmative and defensive cases to pursue humanitarian forms of relief including asylum, U and U visas, and other protections from deportation. They also helped families replace Lawful Permanent Resident cards, provided Know Your Rights workshops, and addressed notario fraud.

  • At the request of our partners, HILSC raised and granted funds for two rounds of Client Emergency Preparedness workshops. In total:
    • Seven agencies provided client emergency preparedness services.
    • 526 participants developed family preparedness plans. 
    • 386 families received emergency kits.
    • People from thirteen countries were served – including Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Afghanistan, West Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Eritrea, Ghana, and Ethiopia.
    • Workshops were conducted in six languages – Spanish, Arabic, Dari, Urdu, Gujrati, and Congolese.

With the challenges of COVID, many agencies developed and trained leadership teams, including youth, to work with people in their apartment complexes or remotely, which provided additional value to the trainers and participants during a time when the world was disconnected.

Capacity Building

HILSC also offers educational and capacity building resources to immigrant-serving organizations to help them reduce barriers and weather disasters. This includes: 

  1. HILSC’s Cultural Safety Training’s incorporate a curriculum which teaches culturally safe practices that promote creating a secure space for persons of diverse backgrounds, in pursuit of an environment informed by anti-racist teachings, and a commitment to ending acts and omissions that promote discrimination. The trainings have been provided to government and nonprofit agencies to ensure safer and more equitable access to services for immigrants within and outside of disaster contexts. 
  2. HILSC developed an Immigrant Accessibility Index (IAI) to help organizations identify unintentional barriers to providing services to immigrants. It was developed by staff in partnership with our network through a series of Quarterly CoLABorative meetings. HILSC offers both the tool and technical assistance to implement it and address barriers that are identified.
  3. HILSC also developed an ICE Response Policy template, to help agencies prepare for visits from Immigrantion and Customs Enforcement. Such visits became more common during the Trump years, and served to further intimidate and deter immigrants from accessing services they have a right to. Many staff however do not know how to respond in order to keep their clients safe. Therefore HILSC offered this template to help agencies establish a policy, which also encourages training of all staff.
  4. HILSC partnered with the City of Houston to offer immigrant-serving agencies Continuation of Operations Planning (COOP) training workshops and technical assistance. Fifteen partners participated in the training. What we learned, however, is that time is the biggest barrier to developing these plans and additional resources are needed to ensure agencies are able to fully develop and implement their plans when needed.

Services Targeting Unique Needs of Immigrants

During Hurricane Harvey, shelters were the first primary need and Harris County opened two mega shelters — at the George R. Brown Convention Center and at NRG Stadium. Lone Star Legal Aid has an agreement in place to provide legal services at shelters in times of disaster. Due to our relationship with them, HILSC was able to recruit volunteer immigration lawyers, and Lone Star’s volunteer registration system to manage these volunteers. 

Immigration lawyers were able to offer services that lawyers from other disciplines could not, as well as advocate for immigrants staying at the shelter. For example, at one point Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officers, charged with keeping peace at the shelter, were taking a break near the legal services table. An immigration lawyer recognized that several people did not approach the table for fear of the officers and asked them to take a break somewhere else. When they protested they were not enforcing immigration laws, the lawyer insisted that their presence was intimidating and asked them to move on. Immigration lawyers also provided translation services for FEMA representatives, and advocated for immigrants who are legally eligible for FEMA aid through a citizen child but were not offered this option. 

It can be difficult to make needed systems changes during a disaster – there are too many urgent needs to attend to. However, this is often the only time people feel the urgency to make change. Most recently, HILSC has been especially effective during COVID and Winter Storm to encourage changes that improve accessibility of resources for immigrants. Examples are include:

  • In October 2020, HILSC launched the Immigrant Disaster Equity Workgroup (IDEW) to diversify HILSC’s work in this arena. IDEW includes agencies that serve: Spanish-speaking people with disabilities, Vietnamese and Chinese people, Muslim people, Latino people living in the East End, refugees, and more. Our goal is to shape a more equitable disaster response for immigrants in Houston, both within the HILSC network and in collaboration with disaster mitigation professionals.
  • Shortly after our launch, Harris County Public Health contacted us wanting to identify how to reach immigrants with vaccines. IDEW immediately turned our attention to this and were able to gain wins in the registration and distribution processes and push for the now-common community-based drives hosted by trusted agencies. Currently, our focuses are to 1) center immigrants in policy and planning, to ensure all people are reached, and 2) language justice, which our partners have been advocating for across all programs for over fifteen years. See Continuing Priorities for more detail.
  • The same COVID-19 Relief Fund we re-granted money from, we also helped design.   The Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way have joined forces to develop a comprehensive disaster response system. This single system is becoming the major mechanism for the distribution of disaster relief and recovery support.  HILSC worked with Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF), the United Way of Greater Houston, and Connective, which designed and implemented the outreach and reporting processes. These entities  have sought HILSC’s advice when setting up relief and recovery funds, and the system they are creating has been deeply informed and shaped by HILSC’s work. HILSC and our partners were able to reduce immigrant barriers by designing more inclusive requirements for eligibility and supporting documentation. Many of these standards continue to be the basis on which additional relief fund processes are designed, depending on the source of the money. 

We also elevated the need to include grassroots agencies in order to reach immigrants who are not connected with the larger agencies that usually distribute relief and recovery funds. Some of our partners were invited to apply directly, while others received funds for their clients through HILSC. HILSC built capacity with many sub-grantees by supporting them through the application and reporting processes. Subsequent invitations from GHCF to apply for funds have included HILSC’s original subgrantees, who have been able to build relationships with this funder and visibility within Harris County and the City of Houston for their impressive work.

COVID-19 Relief Fund design, still being used to inform funds

  • Inclusive requirements for eligibility and supporting documentation.
  • Grassroots immigrant-serving agencies invited to apply to this fund, and have continued to receive invitations for subsequent funds.

These efforts, especially distribution through grassroots agencies, resulted in relief funds being distributed to a more diverse population than the funds distributed via the public intake process.

  • The year 2020 also saw our first foray into national disaster policy. HILSC had presented our Humanitarian Action Plan to Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia’s office. One year later they reached out to us, wanting to sponsor legislation that would provide protections for immigrants through disasters. After consultation with partners and months of drafts, the Protect Victims of Major Disasters Act was introduced in May 2021. The bill prohibits information sharing between FEMA and other departments of DHS for immigration enforcement. 

The lack of this protection has kept many mixed status families from applying for FEMA funds they are eligible for, out of fear. This fear is soundly based in the disclaimer on the bottom of the current FEMA application which allows for information sharing among departments within the Department of Homeland Security, including FEMA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Border Patrol Services. This bill is one federal step towards more equitable recovery, and towards righting the wealth inequities created by FEMA. 

  • HILSC continues to advance and deepen research on immigrant disaster equity, which we know will inform and benefit our and others’ advocacy work. HILSC has connected nearly seventy non-profit organizations in Harris County with the Migration Policy Institute to inform a paper due in 2022, and has facilitated conversations around MPI’s research.
  • Disaster equity cannot be an added appendage to disaster mitigation, but must be centered in planning from the beginning. Therefore HILSC staff have participated in multiple disaster mitigation collaboratives — at the State, County, City, and nonprofit levels — to identify and eliminate barriers to immigrant equity. Examples include SETRAC — the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council, the Harris County Uniform and Unified Approach to Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Project, Mass Care Coalition, and United Way’s Long-Term Recovery Committee. 

As HILSC was a part of the Mass Care Coalition from the start, we were able to ensure that one of the group’s four priorities is language access. 

While other trends have driven the need for it, Harris County has identified and is currently implementing a national disaster preparedness model, of which their nonprofit collaboration is a part. HILSC has influenced the County’s thinking in selecting and implementing a model that includes many of the capacities needed to reach and support immigrants during a disaster.

HILSC was also able to incorporate policies to remove barriers to immigrant access to resources into the City of Houston’s Resiliency Plan, informed by our Humanitarian Action Plan.


Other advocacy has also been conducted through publications and public testimony, including:

The Touro Law Review, Volume 35, Issue 3: Disaster Legal Tech: Strategies for Providing Legal Information to Survivors, Jeanne Ortiz-Ortiz and Jessica Penkoff. 

Texas Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights; December 2020. Whether COVID-19 response has reached vulnerable populations. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services; August 2020. 

Poverty Law Conference, COOP Planning: Best Practices and Lessons Learned; July 2020.