By Susan Kim*
June 12, 2013— Lila Stanmore, a United Methodist disaster response coordinator, has been able to reach undocumented citizens in the wake of this year's spring storms. But it hasn't been easy. “First we might end up helping a documented citizen from the same ethnic group,” she said. “Then we tell that person, if they know someone who needs help, have them come to us.”
In a post-disaster situation, UMCOR's policy is to help the most vulnerable people with unmet needs. That includes undocumented citizens. But Stanmore said the biggest challenge is developing a sense of trust. “They're afraid of being turned in, of being reported,” she said.
In fact, their fears are not unfounded. Stanmore changed her name and chose not to reveal her location because she wants to keep privacy intact for the undocumented citizens she is helping. She's also well-aware that a significant number of people around her don't believe she should be helping undocumented citizens at all.
Still she forges ahead. If the disaster survivors speak English, it's a little bit easier to gain their trust, she said. “Then we don't have that communication barrier. Recently, we have had translators and that helps a great deal.”
As a few people within an ethic community begin to see that UMCOR offers relief and recovery without pushing for documentation where none exists, the 'invisible' undocumented citizens slowly begin to come forward. In the case of documented citizens, UMCOR does use an individual's documentation to verify damages and advocate for help.
“A lot comes from them watching what we're doing, how we're treating other people,” said Stanmore.
Local relationships and resources are key in UMCOR's response to undocumented citizens, explained Catherine Earl, US Disaster Response executive. “It is great to have a local pastor or another local person who has already developed a sense of trust among undocumented citizens, because in the wake of a disaster, we can ask that local person to help communicate important messages.”
Often, undocumented citizens are unclear on the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said Earl. In general, FEMA cannot offer assistance to undocumented citizens. “However, FEMA's rules regarding households with undocumented citizens are far broader and more inclusive than many people assume,” she said.
Due to privacy laws, FEMA officials conducting damage assessments cannot report undocumented citizens to U.S. Immigration and Customs.
Local church pastors or members often help point undocumented citizens toward UMCOR during a post-disaster situation, added Earl. UMCOR's practice of training local case managers also has been an effective way to build trust within communities of undocumented citizens.
“Pre-existing local trust is a resource for UMCOR during disaster recovery. The lines of communication with undocumented citizens can be so fragile. The local church often does the job. They know. They understand. They have the credibility in the community,” she said.
The church has a role in helping those most in need, particularly after a disaster, said Earl. “We have a responsibility to be a sanctuary – a safe haven. To me, the church needs to be that safe place, to be those opening arms. Because then the people most in need will be folded into that embrace.”
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*Susan Kim is a journalist and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.