STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Staten Island immigrants as a group were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy and continue to suffer economic and emotional hardships.
But most, perhaps 60 percent, haven’t applied to FEMA for help, with the fear of deportation a major factor. And even if they have filled out the paperwork, chances are they’ll be denied, according to the advocacy group Make the Road New York.
Farmer Agustin Juarez of Port Richmond, a member of the group, expressed frustration that he suffered thousands of dollars in damage in the storm but isn’t eligible for FEMA assistance because he’s not a citizen.
Juarez, who has lived on Staten Island for 20 years, leased a portion of Historic Richmond Town’s Decker Farm last summer and sold his produce at the St. George Greenmarket, an enterprise that was featured in the Advance. The farm was decimated by flooding.
“I lost my business and my livelihood,” Juarez said.
He said he is living off savings and support from relatives as he looks into options such as a loan from the Small Business Administration and grants from non-profit organizations.
“I know there are a lot of decisions being made about how to rebuild after the storm, but no one is asking our [immigrant] community what we need and what our priorities are,” he complained.
“We want to participate in the process so that we can provide food and services for our neighborhoods and come back stronger than before.”
Make the Road is among 50 community organizations, unions and faith-based groups calling on President Obama, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg to provide more funding for New Yorkers pounded by Sandy, rebuild the city’s infrastructure to address what they regard as “economic inequality” and include affected communities in a “transparent process when making decisions that impact their neighborhoods.”
They also urged Congress to pass the Hurricane Sandy relief bill to bring more federal aid to New York and New Jersey. The groups are planning a rally in Albany at the State of the State Address on Wednesday.
Despite having experienced devastating losses, only 22 percent of immigrants polled have applied for public or private relief; the percentage was even lower, 18 percent, for those with limited English.
The top reason the immigrants gave for inaction in Make the Road’s survey was that they didn’t know how to apply for relief. Due to various eligibility and institutional barriers, only one in four immigrants polled was actually able to receive help.
But there’s another compelling factor for their inertia. “Fear is always at play, especially when deportations are at a high and FEMA is a federal agency,” said Daniel Coates, lead organizer for Make the Road on the Island.
“Additionally the FEMA process has not been as aggressively explained to immigrant communities, who are not used to interacting with government agencies and often think they’ve been denied when they have not. FEMA could be much more aggressive, and continue to partner with organizations like MRNY, to reach these communities.”
A FEMA spokesman strongly disagreed.
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been working very hard to reach the immigrant and non-English-speaking communities of Staten Island since early November 2012, work that continues to this day,” said Greg Hughes, FEMA spokesman for Richmond County.
Make the Road is calling on FEMA to expand and improve its outreach. The group also wants comprehensive mental health services for immigrants who lack health insurance and expansion of the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In addition, the State Department of Labor should create a fully staffed unit devoted to protecting worker safety and rights during the Sandy recovery efforts, Make the Road says.
For FEMA assistance, call 800-621-3362 for Spanish and English, or 866-333-1796 for other languages. The deadline for contacting FEMA with Hurricane Sandy claims is Jan. 28.
One member per family, such as a son or daughter, needs to have a U.S. birth certificate or Social Security number to apply. Applications may be made through Disasterassistance.gov.
Hughes recommends that, before calling, claimants make a list of destroyed or damaged property and be ready to answer questions about their housing needs.