Immigrants and the Fires

By Seth Freed Wessler Oct 31, 2007

As the fires in Los Angeles cool and relief efforts heat up, we are once again posed with the bleak reality that when the smoke clears, people of color and immigrants face abandonment and punishment. Reports show incidents of undocumented immigrants being turned away from or arrested at evacuation shelters and detained by Border Patrol at neighborhood checkpoints when trying to go back home. Many veer away from services that might be available for fear of being deported and others sought help from authorities and were turned away. The fires have uprooted immigrants who, unlike their neighbors who are citizens, have no access to needed support services. Many of these immigrants remain unaccounted for and little is known about how many have been rounded up and deported. What is more, some have blamed immigrants for starting the fires themselves. While the California and the Federal agencies have abandon undocumented immigrants, the Mexican Consulate and service organizations have stepped up to provide support, aiding in search efforts for workers in hard to access areas and supplying financial assistance. Amanda Martinez, of New American Media writes,

Ironically, Dr. Leo Estrada, professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, believes the undocumented workers shouldn’t worry. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) won’t be conducting raids anytime soon, he says. In fact, he predicts, immigrant workers will be needed in reconstruction efforts after the fire. More than 410,000 acres of land have burned, and clean-up efforts will be critical. “With more than 1000 homes being demolished,” he notes, “contractors will be looking to immigrant labor forces to demolish, cart away, and rebuild houses.” “We saw it New Orleans,” says Estrada. Undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America were among the largest groups employed in rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina. “At the time of reconstruction, nobody bothered them. It will be interesting to see,” says Estrada. “They will be bringing back a labor force they have been trying to get rid of.”

As emergencies become seemingly more routine, those who we have already cast to zones of abandonment, without rights or recourse, will continue to be the hardest hit as policies continue to treat immigrants as criminals and commodities whose lives are contingent upon the needs of the day.