After Massive Fires, California Considers Doing More to Help Undocumented Victims

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They lost jobs or weeks of wages. Some faced days of unexpected child-care costs. Many couldn’t pay their rent and had to borrow money from relatives or uproot their families to move elsewhere.

Claudia Armann has interviewed dozens of undocumented farmworkers impacted by the Thomas Fire and mudslides in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last winter. All tell similar stories of financial hardship and stress following the disasters, situations made worse by long-standing poverty and fears of deportation.

“It drove home how this particular population—the farmworkers—already struggle financially and what a tremendous burden it is to unexpectedly have a loss of income and not have their kids in school,” said Armann, a steering committee member for the 805 UndocuFund which provides disaster relief to local immigrants. “It just made me realize the ripple effects that a natural disaster can have.”

California is home to an estimated 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are farmworkers or are employed in service jobs such as housekeeping or landscaping. In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, almost one in 10 residents are undocumented, according to a 2011 report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Other wildfire-ravaged counties have similarly high numbers of undocumented residents. In Sonoma County, which was devastated by the Tubbs Fire last October, close to 9 percent of the population is undocumented. In Mendocino and Lake counties, where this summer’s massive Mendocino Complex Fires raged, undocumented people account for approximately 5 percent of the population, the report estimated.

Assemblymember Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) introduced a bill that would require all counties to translate emergency communications into the second most spoken language in their region. The legislature approved the bill this summer, and it is now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.