By Denise Collazo and Juan Cartagena
A year ago, Hurricane Maria barreled down on the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In her wake, Maria left death and destruction – devastation made worse by a horrific response to the hurricane by the government. The president, who this week praised the response to a hurricane that left nearly 3,000 people dead, waited 13 days to travel to see the devastation. He tossed paper towels at the dazed disaster victims who had been bussed in from a nearby hurricane shelter. And the U.S. response went downhill from there, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has effectively abdicated its duties to the survivors of Hurricane Maria.
After months and months of advocacy that included moms, grandparents and children traveling countless hours on buses to Washington, D.C. to tell members of Congress about their plight, it became clear that FEMA wasn’t going to budge.
As a result, we partnered with various legal and community-based organizations to work on a class action lawsuit against FEMA to get them to do their job and help disaster survivors regardless of their race, ethnicity and national origin. The judge in the case lamented the fact that he couldn’t order FEMA to be humane.
Last week, hundreds of the most vulnerable families were forced to leave only shelter they have while FEMA stands by silently watching. FEMA could have activated the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) which is a post-Katrina partnership between FEMA and the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that provides long-term support to help families get back on their feet. This kind of assistance was deemed by previous Republican and Democratic administrations alike to be a needed next step for hurricane survivors who are on the long road to recovery.
But they didn’t.
Instead, claiming a lack of available funds to protect U.S. citizens whose lives were devastated by the hurricane, the Trump Administration is putting the nation’s immigration enforcement machine into turbo drive.
This past summer, while Hurricane Maria survivors were telling the world about their plight, FEMA, along with the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard transferred $200 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), doing little more than lining the pockets private prison company executives and padding the budgets of local sheriff departments.
Approximately 45,000 people are detained by ICE every night, as ICE rounds up immigrants in interior of the country and houses them in immigration detention facilities hundreds of miles away from their homes. Sheriffs and private prison companies, in turn, make campaign contributions to “tough on crime” politicians who pass stricter and stricter laws.
It is another example of President Trump’s myopic form of governing.
Create a crisis by aggressively arresting peaceful people in their homes, at schools, hospitals and courthouses, then tell Congress the agency needs more money to pay for the manufactured crisis and take the funds from a real crisis – like Hurricane Maria – and leave its survivors out in the cold.
So, what is FEMA doing to help Hurricane Maria survivors who have no place to go? They are offering one-way tickets back to Puerto Rico and sending the same simple message that President Trump and DHS are sending to our immigrant brothers and sisters: Go back where you came from.
Denise Collazo is chief of staff of Faith in Action (formerly PICO National Network). Juan Cartagena is president and general counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF