More than a month after Superstorm Sandy, many New Yorkers continue to struggle with the devastation of their homes, neighborhoods and livelihoods. One group that has faced particular challenges, but has received little attention, are the region’s thousands of immigrants. Some of the areas hardest hit by Sandy — such as Staten Island and Long Island — are home to large populations of recent immigrants. Long Island’s immigrant population has more than doubled in the past three decades, with nearly one in five residents now born outside of the US.
Overall, Latinos represent a third of all immigrants on Long Island. Tens of thousands of immigrants from El Salvador have established vibrant communities in the area, and are now the largest immigrant group on Long Island. On Staten Island, foreign born residents now make up 20% of the population, with Mexicans representing the largest group. The Latino population has grown 51 percent since 2000, now numbering more than 81,000. In particular, the Mexican population on Staten Island has greatly increased, more than doubling since 2000.
The September 11th attack in New York City and other past disasters around the country have demonstrated that recent immigrants are particularly vulnerable to the economic and other devastation in the aftermath of such events. Despite tremendous need, many fall through the cracks of disaster relief efforts, with language and eligibility barriers preventing them from fully accessing FEMA and other disaster relief services.
In New York City, thirty percent of immigrants are poor and 53% are low-income even if they are working. Missed paychecks as a result of the storm can greatly impact the ability of many immigrant families to meet basic needs. Immigrants and low-income Latinos are more likely to work in jobs without any paid leave. Many have returned to homes that are damaged and moldy because they have no other place to stay. Low-income immigrant tenants are already more likely to live in housing with poor conditions or overcrowding. The extremely low rates of housing vacancy after Sandy compound the difficulty that new immigrants — often carrying higher-than-average rent burdens — already face in finding suitable housing.
Undocumented immigrants and other immigrants who are “non-qualified aliens” under federal law, and their U.S. citizen children face the greatest hurdles. “Non-qualified” immigrants are barred from receiving cash assistance from FEMA or unemployment benefits. Some who may be eligible for disaster benefits from FEMA because their children are US citizens, are afraid to come forward and apply for fear of deportation or reprisal.