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Post-Sandy Aid Inaccessible For Some Immigrants

Rosa Maria Ramirez lost most of her belongings in the storm and is moving out of her damaged house on Staten Island. Because she's undocumented, she doesn't qualify for federal financial disaster assistance. (NPR)

The living room was muddy and foul when 16-year-old Prisma revisited her family's apartment days after Superstorm Sandy washed through it last month. The furniture was tarnished, and most of the family's belongings were scattered and in ruins. The home was uninhabitable.

"Everything was completely in a different place," Prisma says. "It was really nasty."

Prisma's story is similar to those of thousands of others left immediately homeless by the winds and waters of Sandy. But, unlike many, her family can't receive the same kinds of help that others are relying on to rebuild their lives.

Prisma's parents, who asked us to not reveal their last name, are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. The storm wiped away her dad's business, and he doesn't qualify for unemployment disaster assistance, food stamps or small-business loans.

While searching for a new apartment, the family of five stayed with Lauren Burke, an immigration lawyer and friend, who heads Atlas DIY, an organization for immigrant youth and their allies.

We need help. Not that much. We ask just for a little ... only enough to help us rent a house.
Rosa Maria Ramirez

"Undocumented families are much less likely to have insurance, they're much less likely to own their homes," Burke says. "They're much less likely to have any of the support systems that we think about having in place for a natural disaster."

Federal financial disaster assistance also isn't an option for undocumented immigrants, unless one person of the household has a Social Security number. Luckily, because Prisma is a citizen, her family could apply for FEMA disaster assistance, and recently received a check to help cover rent and damaged possessions.

Prisma says they also found relief and emotional support from their tightknit community.

"For us, it was different than other families that are immigrants because we volunteer with a lot of different local organizations," she says. "So, we were able to get help much faster."

Without A Community

But Burke says many other immigrants, especially those with limited English, have been keeping under the radar in the Sandy aftermath for reasons like lack of access or fear of calling attention to their immigration statuses.

"I think the people that are hit the hardest by all of this are the ones that aren't connected to any social service agencies," Burke says. "They're too afraid to answer the door when someone comes by with supplies; they're the ones who aren't connected to an organization; and they're the ones who we're not hearing from."

Rosa Maria Ramirez from Mexico was one of those people. The 53-year-old says she hasn't been to any relief centers or food distribution sites since the storm slammed her house on Staten Island, simply because she wasn't aware of them.

"We need help," she says in Spanish. "Not that much. We ask just for a little ... only enough to help us rent a house."

The gray exterior of her house resembles any standing home, but it's crumbling on the inside. Ramirez cleans houses, and her son, who lives with her, works in a bakery close by. Because they're undocumented, they don't qualify for FEMA financial disaster assistance.

Only recently was she contacted by Make the Road New York, an advocacy group for Latino and working class communities. The organization is one of many that are looking for ways to provide financial assistance for those who do not qualify for disaster assistance or don't know how to find it.

"It's as if we came with nothing and have to start from the beginning," Ramirez says.

Starting Over, Again

In the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, Abdo Ellahabi also feels like he's had to turn back the clock. He lost more than $100,000 after Sandy washed through his store, destroying all of the merchandise. Even though he's documented and qualifies for federal assistance, he worries the help won't be enough.

"I lose all the stuff in the store. Only what you have in the high shelf, that's safe," he says. "Otherwise [everything is] finished. All the refrigerators, finished. All the stuff, finished."

The 42-year-old from Yemen lives alone; his wife and three kids live abroad.

Even two weeks after the storm hit, you could count on one hand the number of customers who trailed into his store. Despite the lack of power and stench of expired milk, Ellahabi stood stiffly behind the counter, hands clasped together, waiting for business.

"Buy one, get one free!" he exclaims, pointing to the signs above the damaged cans of food. "And nobody wanna buy it."

Ellahabi says it'll take about two months for the store to return to normal — to fix the floors, walls and shelves. He also has to knock down a row of brand new refrigerators he installed just three months ago.

The drugstore is the third one he's built since moving to America after the first two failed.

"It's mine," he says, as his eyes scan the disheveled aisles. "I don't want to lose it."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So tens of billions of dollars will be spent to help those whose lives were appended by Sandy. Well, we're going to hear now about one group that will have to start over without that help: undocumented immigrants. NPR's Reema Khrais has that story.

REEMA KHRAIS, BYLINE: When I met Rosa Maria Ramirez in Staten Island, she was lugging large black bags from her home to the sidewalk. She's a petite woman.

ROSA MARIA RAMIREZ: This one's heavy. These ones are garbage.

KHRAIS: Just bags of garbage.

RAMIREZ: Yes. My CDs, cassettes, frames.

KHRAIS: Furniture, clothes, television, it's all ruined after Sandy slammed her place. She's moving out. Ramirez, who's an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, cleans houses. Her son, who lives with her, works in a bakery close by. I asked her if she's been to any relief centers or food distribution sites, and she shakes her head. She hasn't heard of any.

And have you tried applying to FEMA?

WOMAN: No. FEMA say no because we are illegal.

KHRAIS: If you're undocumented, you don't qualify for federal financial assistance. The exception is if one person in the household has a Social Security number, like in the case for Prisma's family in Coney Island. Prisma is 16. When I met her, she was picking up a big brown dresser with her parents. It's the family's newest and only piece of furniture since Sandy destroyed most of their things. She watched as her dad tried to stuff it into the car.

PRISMA: Trying to get the furniture into the truck, but it doesn't fit. Now, we don't want to get pulled over.

KHRAIS: Prisma's parents, who asked us not to reveal their last name because they're undocumented, moved to New York from Mexico 20 years ago. Since the storm washed their apartment, they've been camped out at the home of their friend Lauren Burke, who's an immigration lawyer.

PRISMA: So we're looking for an apartment for them, and then I realized that we also needed, like, furniture.

(LAUGHTER)

PRISMA: And because they're all in my room, so we need, like, things to put...

KHRAIS: You mean all five of them are staying in your room?

PRISMA: Yeah, and I'm in the living room.

KHRAIS: After the storm hit, the family spent every night searching for an affordable apartment. Prisma said it's not just the price tag that makes it tough. It's their undocumented status.

PRISMA: So that's why it was often hard for us to get apartment because most of them ask for, like, your credit report or, like, your bank account number.

KHRAIS: But all the apartment hunting has paid off. I spoke with Prisma yesterday and she told me they found a new place in their old building. Now, the real hurdle is for Prisma's dad to find a new job. He lost his hair weaving business in the storm. And because of his status, he doesn't qualify for unemployment disaster assistance or food stamps. Their friend Lauren Burke heads Atlas: DIY, an organization that works with immigrant youth.

LAUREN BURKE: You know, undocumented families are much less likely to have insurance. They're much less likely to own their homes, and they're much less likely to have any of the support systems that we think about having in place for a natural disaster.

KHRAIS: But Prisma's family is lucky. They have the cushion of a tight-knit community with access to bilingual resources and organizations. Many immigrants hit by Sandy, even those who are documented, don't have communities to rely on.

ABDO ELLAHABI: The water start coming out here from the door.

KHRAIS: Forty-two-year-old Abdo Ellahabi is one of them.

ELLAHABI: I lose all the stuff in the store.

KHRAIS: When I walked into his drug store in Far Rockaway, he told me he lost more than $100,000 after Sandy destroyed almost all of the merchandise.

ELLAHABI: Only what you have in the high shelf, that's safe. Otherwise finished. All the refrigerators, finished. All the stuff, finished.

KHRAIS: Ellahabi is 42. He's from Yemen and lives alone. His wife and three kids are abroad. You could count on one hand that day the customers who trailed into his store. Power was out. There was a slight stench of expired milk. But Ellahabi stood stiffly behind the counter, hands clasped together, waiting for business. He only stepped away to give me a tour.

And you have a crate of cans right here and the sign says, buy one...

ELLAHABI: Buy one, get one free, and nobody want to buy it.

KHRAIS: Do you think it's going to take a few weeks for things to get back together? How long do you think it will take?

ELLAHABI: No, it will take like not less than two months to fix the floor, fix the walls.

KHRAIS: He also has to knock down a row of brand-new refrigerators he installed just three months ago. Even though he applied for a small business loan, he worries it won't be enough. After all, this store is the third one he's built since moving to America. The other two failed. Reema Khrais, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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