Hurricane Harvey (“Harvey”) was a frightening experience for all who lay in the path of the storm and were affected by its flooding. For many immigrants, though, uncertainty about status, protections under the law, and access to local, state and government assistance continue to be a source of unease and confusion.
To help clarify a few of the most common and important questions about immigration and emergency assistance, we offer some answers about access to local shelters and food banks, emergency unemployment assistance and FEMA grants. And because the documentation you may need to apply for these benefits may have floated away, we offer guidance on replacing your lost documentation and seeking free legal aid.
Can Harvey Affect My Immigration Status?
It’s quite possible that the direct effects of Harvey caused you to fall out of status. Fortunately, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recognizes that this natural catastrophe was beyond your control. Failure to timely apply for an extension or change in status before expiration of your authorized stay may be excused by USCIS if the delay was due to the effects of Harvey.
Similarly, if you have missed a scheduled immigration interview or were unable to submit a response to a Request for Evidence or a Notice of Intent to Deny in a timely manner, USCIS may excuse your lateness if you explain your circumstances.
To make this request, please explain how the impact of Hurricane Harvey created a need for this requested relief. The USCIS National Customer Service Center can be reached at 800-375-5283.
If your InfoPass appointment was affected by this storm, appointments can be rescheduled online or by calling the USCIS National Customer Service Center at 800-375-5283.
Am I Qualified for Local Shelters and Food Banks?
At the community level, emergency disaster relief is available to everyone affected by the storm and its aftermath, regardless of immigration status. To be clear, that includes Houston’s estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants. This non-cash relief includes access to emergency shelters and food banks. Most shelters are run by community centers, faith-based organizations or volunteer agencies such as the Red Cross, whose stated humanitarian mission is to provide assistance without regard to citizenship status.
No immigrant affected by Harvey should be afraid to seek help at an emergency assistance center or evacuation site, whether or not it is affiliated with a governmental agency. To address these concerens, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a public statement on August 25, 2017, asserting that neither agency would be conducting routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations at these sites. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has likewise professed the city’s belief that these disaster resources be available to all storm victims, regardless of immigration status.
Also, note that USCIS does not consider acceptance of emergency disaster relief to be public cash assistance. This exclusion means that, if you accept disaster relief by staying at an emergency shelter or accepting donated food, you do not automatically become a public charge, which could make you inadmissible to the U.S. and ineligible to become a permanent resident.
For information about emergency disaster relief services or to locate a local shelter or food bank, call the Red Cross at 877-500-8645 or visit www.redcross.org.
Will I Have Access to State Unemployment Assistance?
Legal workers are protected during and after natural disasters in Texas. Employers, for example, may not discriminate against employees who evacuate under emergency orders. If you lost your job as a direct result of Harvey, and you have a work permit, you may be eligible for regular unemployment compensation through the State of Texas. To apply for regular unemployment benefits, visit www.twc.state.tx.us.
You must apply for regular benefits and be found ineligible before you apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). DUA provides financial help to employed or self-employed workers in a federal disaster area whose employment is lost or interrupted due to a major disaster. DUA is available to citizens, permanent residents and those with valid work permits.
Will I Have Access to Federal Assistance and FEMA?
Federal emergency aid, including long-term assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is available only to U.S. citizens, non-citizen nationals or qualified aliens. The primary group of aliens qualified to apply for federal disaster funds through FEMA comprises lawful permanent residents—that is, immigrants who hold green cards. Other qualified aliens include refugees, asylees, persons granted “withholding of removal deportation,” those paroled into the U.S. for at least one year, and certain domestic abuse victims. To be clear, immigrants who are not eligible to apply for FEMA cash assistance include those who are in the U.S. on temporary tourist visas, student visas, work visas or temporary resident cards.
Importantly, though, only one member of your household must meet the qualified alien definition, and that one person may be a U.S. citizen child. So, for example, an undocumented parent may apply for FEMA benefits on behalf of a qualified minor child who lives in the same household. If that child is qualified, then everyone else in the household is qualified for FEMA assistance, regardless of the other household members’ immigration status. While the child’s name, age and social security number are required for the application, FEMA will not collect the immigration status of other members of the child’s household.
Note, though, that a green card and a social security number alone do not qualify an immigrant for FEMA aid. Immigrants must also meet all of the FEMA eligibility requirements established for citizens, as detailed in the application process at www.fema.gov/apply-assistance. The application information that FEMA requires includes:
- Social Security number
- Address of the location where the damage occurred (pre-disaster address)
- Current mailing address
- Current telephone number
- Insurance information
- Total household annual income
- Routing and account number for your checking or savings account
- A description of your disaster-caused damage and losses
Note that, even though FEMA grants are cash-based, the USCIS exempts this emergency disaster relief from consideration as public cash assistance. In other words, accepting FEMA assistance will not cause you (or members of your household) to become ineligible for lawful permanent residence or citizenship.
How Do I Replace Lost Documents?
Many victims of Harvey lost important documents when their homes flooded, including documents needed to verify immigration status and apply for FEMA assistance. The forms needed to request replacements of the following documents are available at www.uscis.gov or 800-870-3676:
- Green Card –file Form I-90 to replace
- Arrival/Departure Record I-94—file Form I-102 to replace
- Employment Authorization –file Form I-765 to replace
- Fee Waiver–file Form I-912 to waive fees for replacing your immigration documents
Legal Assistance: Answered in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, the State Bar of Texas’ Hurricane Harvey Hotline at 800-504-7030 is a valuable resource for immigrants. Representatives can help connect you with legal aid providers who can assist with navigating unemployment compensation or FEMA applications, replacing lost documents, answering insurance questions or addressing concerns about discrimination in the emergency based on your immigration status. The Houston Volunteer Lawyers Association is also available to help at 713-228-0732.