Hurricane Harvey: Fear and Courage after the Storm

In early December, nearly four months after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast, Kathleen McTigue of the UU College of Social Justice and I traveled to Houston, Tex. to meet with Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) partners providing disaster relief and recovery assistance to those affected by the storm. In line with UUSC’s commitment to grassroots collaboration, our grants to these groups target community-based organizations reaching populations that struggle to access mainstream relief and services.

Two such groups in Houston include Living Hope Wheelchair Association and Fe y Justicia Worker Center. Living Hope works at the intersection of immigration and disability rights, and Fe y Justicia (“Faith and Justice”) protects the rights of “second responders,” the mostly low-wage, immigrant workers performing a bulk of the city’s post-hurricane reconstruction work.  We also met with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (, an environmental justice organization working with the predominantly low-income, minority neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel.

Throughout the trip, we were reminded that natural disasters exacerbate existing inequalities. We also felt the heightened sense of fear among certain populations, particularly undocumented immigrants, in today’s political climate. Yet, even in the face of such daunting challenges, we also witnessed the courage and dignity of countless individuals still fighting for the rights of those worst affected by Harvey.

Exacerbated Inequalities: “We were already living in a disaster situation.”

Natural disasters around the world have demonstrated that low-income households and communities of color are disproportionately affected by extreme weather. Many of these communities reside in high-risk living conditions to begin with, whether due to the quality of their housing, poor infrastructure, or proximity to flood waters and pollution. In Houston, Harvey merely intensified these struggles.  Structural barriers to accessing relief and services make longer-term recovery more difficult for the poor, racial minorities, immigrants, and those living with disabilities.

Living Hope Wheelchair Association works primarily with undocumented immigrants suffering from spinal cord injuries, most of which resulted from workplace accidents or crime. Its modest office consists of two rooms and a storage unit for medical supplies and a handicap-accessible vehicle. Many members are on constant medication, in regular pain, and in some cases, require dialysis, but very few have medical benefits. As Pancho Argüelles, Living Hope’s Executive Director, put it, “We were already living in a disaster situation with respect to health care, housing, transportation, and undocumented status,” before Harvey. After the storm, the organization’s members needed to replace electronic wheelchairs lost to flood waters, repair houses and wheelchair ramps, and raise financial assistance to cover medical, transportation, and basic living expenses.

Fear on Top of Fear

For the approximately 600,000 undocumented people living in Houston, limited access to medical benefits and health insurance, coupled with fear and mistrust of immigration authorities, have made them one of the most vulnerable populations after the storm. The majority of Fe y Justicia Worker Center’s constituency consists of undocumented immigrant workers. In the face of continued anti-immigrant political rhetoric and crackdowns by local police and immigration agencies, people have been scared to seek even the assistance and benefits for which they are eligible. This fear, on top of existing language and other accessibility barriers, has magnified needs and vulnerabilities after Harvey. Whether it is medical care for a sick child, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) benefits, or wages due, people must conduct a mental calculus to assess the risk of claiming their rights.

Alberto Luera, Fe y Justicia Worker Center Board member

Fear and insecurity also leave people prone to abuse. In numerous cases, tenants have been afraid to push back against landlords who have failed to ensure safe living conditions or unfairly evicted residents at short notice. This additional layer of fear has also had a chilling effect on activism. Living Hope’s members are now less willing to travel for state-level advocacy through hostile counties between Houston and Austin out of fear that police may inquire about their immigration status. And while the storm has increased media interest in people’s stories and highlighted important needs and concerns, speaking to journalists and publicizing identifying details creates serious risks.

A Toxic Tour

The Houston area is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the United States and the second largest in the world. On our second day, t.e.j.a.s. took us on a “toxic tour” of various municipalities between Houston and Baytown, Tex. along the Houston Ship Channel, a key transport route for petrochemicals and other goods into the Gulf of Mexico. The torrential rains and ensuing floods from Harvey resulted in “a stew of toxic chemicals, sewage, debris and waste” that disproportionately impacted nearby neighborhoods, comprised primarily of low-income people of color. A long stretch of oil refineries, chemical plants, waste processing facilities, and other industrial plants borders the ship channel. Homes, schools, parks, and playgrounds, including Hartman Park shown here, sit in close proximity to many of these facilities, regularly exposing residents to harmful chemicals.

Mural in children’s playground at Hartman Park.

T.e.j.a.s. staff explained that childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments affect a significant portion of the local population. A 2007 University of Texas School of Public Health study reported that children living within two miles of the ship channel had a 56 percent higher incidence of leukemia than those ten miles away. In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists and published a report finding higher levels of toxicity from chemical exposure in east Houston than more affluent west Houston neighborhoods. Indeed, to us, the pollution was visible and palpable. In some areas we visited, the air smelled, and almost tasted, sickly sweet.

In the first week after Harvey, damaged oil refineries and facilities released over two million pounds of hazardous substances into the air. Flood waters also triggered the release of thousands of gallons of spilled petroleum. Neighborhood residents experienced headaches, sore throats, eye irritation, and nausea at greater rates than usual. While air and water pollution has been a longtime point of contention for frontline communities, Harvey magnified the problem.

Unidad Park, complete with a picnic area, skate park, children’s playground, and baby swings. Industrial buildings can be seen in the background.

Needs and Opportunities

In the face of these overwhelming challenges, t.e.j.a.s. and Living Hope both emphasized that Harvey brought not just urgent needs but rare opportunities. The storm has provided a chance to draw increased national attention to underreported problems. Local civil society is using Harvey as a catalyst to raise awareness, build coalitions, and call for reforms to address the structural reasons low-income and minority communities are so adversely impacted by disasters in the first place. Living Hope explained that it is using services and campaigns to build organizations and movements toward long-term change. It has activated its members, raised its voice, and reached a new level of visibility.

As recovery continues, UUSC is proud to support organizations working to address the needs of underserved communities following Harvey. We are especially grateful to the generous donors who made this work possible. Six months after the hurricane, thousands of people are still unable to return home or rebuild their lives in parts of Texas. But among those most affected by the storm, we are encouraged and inspired to see people overcoming fear and adversity with dedication, strength, and courage toward a just recovery for their communities.

Syma Mirza is a consultant supporting the Rights at Risk portfolio.

UUSC applauds court ruling and continues the call for an end to family detention

Last week, Texas District Court Judge Karin Crump ruled that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) could not issue child care licenses to the family detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City. The licenses are required by a federal settlement agreement and without them, the facilities cannot lawfully hold families with children. UUSC Senior Program Leader for Rights at Risk, Jillian Tuck explained Judge Crump’s ruling, “Again a court has found that locking up children and their parents in prison-like facilities is unacceptable. Flores requires that facilities detaining children have state child care licenses, and without them, ICE, as well as the private and public providers they contract with, are operating outside the law.”

“Locking up children and their parents in prison-like facilities is unacceptable.”
– Senior Program Leader for Rights at Risk, Jillian Tuck

Virtually overnight Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released over 470 mothers and children from detention centers to UUSC partner, RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services). RAICES serves immigrants and refugees by providing immigration legal services, advocacy, and opportunities for educational and social support. In partnership with RAICES, UUSC has long been a vocal advocate for the tens of thousands of refugees who come to the United States after fleeing violence in Central America.

RAICES reports that the asylum-seeking families who were released are in various stages of the legal processes that normally take place in detention and is working to place them with their families and friends. They will continue to accept released families from detention at their shelter in San Antonio. UUSC is committed to ending the practice of detaining immigrant families seeking asylum and supporting those who’ve been released in their quest to seek permanent protection.

According to ICE, as of Monday, December 5 there were still 2,479 mothers and children in family detention centers across the country: 1,787 people held at Dilley; 606 at Karnes County Residential Center; and 86 held at the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, Texas DFPS, which argues that their child-care licensing meets minimum standards set by Flores and improves safety, has already filed an appeal to Judge Crump’s decision. UUSC continues to join RAICES, among multiple others, in calling on President Obama to end family detention before he leaves office.

Rights Reading

Frustration and fear

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss. This weekly series is taking next week off, but it’ll be back in March!

1. “Intimate Portraits of Flint Show Frustration, Fear, Perseverance,” by Wayne Lawrence, National Geographic

“For months we had city officials tell us that it was OK to drink the water. We all had different types of illnesses going on but we never thought it was from the water.”

These striking portraits, accompanied by the words of Flint residents decrying the human-right-to-water violations they’ve been experiencing, bring home the effects of this crisis while honoring the people enduring it. Advocates, including UUSC, are working together across Michigan to address the crisis through public education, longer-term legal reform at the state and national level, and more.

Related, “Without Black Lives Matter, Would Flint’s Water Crisis Have Made Headlines?” — by Susan J. Douglas at In These Times — raises an important question. UUSC’s Patricia Jones has found that 53% of African American Michiganders are living in cities that have violated the human rights to water and sanitation under Snyder Administration “emergency management” austerity measures, as opposed to 3% of white Michiganders. The Flint crisis certainly would have been on the radar of UUSC and its supporters, but the consciousness-raising effects of the Black Lives Matter movement have surely influenced awareness of the general public in a way that makes mainstream headlines about environmental racism possible. And thank goodness — more people need to be talking about this.

2. “Texas Child Protection Agency Moves Forward in Licensing Family Detention Centers,” by Lindsay Harris, Immigration Impact

“It remains to be seen whether, legal maneuvers and technicalities aside, the federal government, the states, the counties, and the massive for-profit private prison corporations, GEO and CCA, will take the only morally appropriate step and end the detention of children and their mothers once and for all.”

As this article details — and as was feared by immigrant and refugee activists and advocates, including UUSC — the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has moved forward with allowing family detention centers in Texas to become licensed as child-care facilities. We’ve said it many times before, and we’ll keep saying it: detention centers are not child care. Stay tuned for more on this from UUSC.

3. “Hoaxmap: Debunking false rumors about refugee ‘crimes,’” by Teo Kermeliotis, Al Jazeera English

“It is this kind of coverage — articles that reinforce negative stereotypes and anti-refugee sentiment — that the team behind Hoaxmap said they want to expose.”

Karolin Schwarz, a resident of Germany, was sick of anti-refugee sentiment in the guise of false rumors about refugee-committed crimes. So, as this article explains, she and a developer created Hoaxmap, “an online platform that allows people to separate fact from fiction by debunking false rumours about supposed crimes committed by refugees.”

Anti-refugee sentiment is insidious — and it can lead to violence against refugees and discriminatory policies in the countries that refugees are seeking safety in. This is why we think it’s so important to do public education about the plight of refugees — and it’s why we’re partnering with grassroots organizations in Europe and the United States to facilitate such awareness raising along with providing immediate aid and longer-term advocacy. It’s cool to see innovative educational campaigns like Hoaxmap popping up to counter negative stereotypes of people who are fleeing violence and seeking safe refuge. Not sure how to counter misinformation you’re hearing about Syrian refugees? Check out this UUSC guide.

Rights Reading

Children and workers in danger

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1. “Lessons from Flint’s Water Crisis,” by Sharmila L. Murthy, WBUR Cognoscenti

“Municipal water service is so essential for public health — and for life itself — that it should not be treated as merely another budget line-item. . . . We need to create a financial safety net so that municipalities faced with slash-and-burn budgeting are not forced to compromise the health and welfare of their citizens. We must draw a line in the proverbial sand and not cross it.”

This opinion piece highlights the damage done — to communities, to families, to children — when money is prioritized over human rights. As people throughout the country and the world take a closer look at what is happening in Flint, many are beginning to learn that this is not an isolated occurrence, another vital point made by the author and also shared by Patricia Jones, UUSC’s senior program leader for the human right to water. UUSC has been working with grassroots organizations in Flint and throughout Michigan to address the gross violations of the human right to water that too many communities are dealing with.

2. “Texas Officials Want Controversial Family Detention Centers To Be Labeled As ‘Child Care’ Centers,” by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, ThinkProgress

“Calling them ‘child-care facilities’ makes people forget the main thing about detention: you’re not allowed to leave. . . . No matter how rosy a picture the government may paint of these facilities, restraining children in a place that they’re not allowed to leave can cause them ‘long-lasting psychological, developmental, and physical harm.’ That doesn’t sound like ‘child care’ to me.”
—Nicholas Marritz, a pro bono attorney with Legal Aid Justice Center

The latest on Texas efforts to reclassify family detention centers as “child care” facilities (um, no, they’re not). As the article details, much to the dismay of advocates for children’s and immigrants’ rights, Texas is putting this up for consideration with the state’s Health and Human Services Commission. What we know — from our work with RAICES, our partner in Texas, and the findings of No Safe Haven Here, our report on the conditions that mothers and children face in immigration detention — is that these facilities are unhealthy and traumatizing to families who have already been traumatized. To designate them as “child care” facilities is dangerously ridiculous.

3. “‪Meet the minors risking their lives to come to America — alone,” by ThinkProgress Video

“I see myself having a great future here. I want to study and I want to be a doctor when I grow up.”

When you read the news about refugees from Central America seeking safety in the United States — many of them minors, on their own — you see a lot of numbers and hear a lot of political grandstanding. Some might forget that we’re talking about people. Individuals with hopes and dreams — and more fears than anyone should have to shoulder. This video from ThinkProgress brings it back to that fundamental, and moving, truth.

4. “Wage Theft, Sexual Assault, And No Sick Leave: The Horrible Conditions Facing Poultry Workers,” by Esther Yu-Hsi Lee, ThinkProgress

“It’s not an issue of simple disagreement over a particular wage. . . . This is about dignity and justice for the workers. It’ll take quite systemic change for these things to be in line for full rights and dignity for workers.”
—Amber Moulton, UUSC Researcher

What can we say, ThinkProgress and Esther Yu-Hsi Lee are rocking it this week! It’s awesome to see them focus in on the conditions facing poultry workers in Arkansas after our partner the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center released an eye-opening report last week.

Rights Reading

Reports edition

Our weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1.Wages and Working Conditions in Arkansas Poultry Plants, by the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center (NWAWJC)

“This report is one of the most detailed and comprehensive looks at life inside poultry plants in recent years. It reveals serious problems, from unpaid wages to gender and racial discrimination and health and hygiene lapses that harm both workers and consumers. This hard evidence should spur policymakers and poultry companies to action to protect the rights and dignity of the people who put chicken, Americans’ favorite meat, on our tables.”
— Amber Moulton, Researcher, UUSC

Full disclosure, NWAWJC is one of our partners and we supported the creation of this report. That said, this report is a deep and essential look at the challenges that Arkansas poultry workers face every day. In it, you’ll hear from poultry workers about being denied bathroom breaks, having to work sick in dangerous conditions, and more.

2. Families in Fear: The Atlanta Immigration Raid, by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights

“We must uphold our constitutional values as we address this humanitarian crisis. It is time to ensure that immigrant families no longer live in fear.”

This report gives an eye-opening look at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids that began on January 2, 2016, sharing the personal stories of those affected by the raids and critical recommendations for ensuring that the United States lives up to its responsibilities and offers asylum-seeking families safe haven. We know that family detention doesn’t work, and this report makes the effects of the ICE raids devastatingly clear.

Rights Reading

Immigration, Deportation, and Environmental Racism

This is the first installment of our new weekly roundup of what we’re reading: a few select articles from the front lines of human rights that we don’t want you to miss.

1. “In Exile,” by Jonathan M. Katz, the New York Times Magazine

“As international attention turned away, however, people of Haitian descent quietly began crossing Hispaniola’s divide. In some cases, they were removed by Dominican troops and immigration patrols, which have officially deported 14,000 people since the June deadline, according to the Dominican government. But far more have left on their own — some 70,000, according to the Dominican Republic’s director general of immigration. They have become voluntary migrants of the least voluntary sort, fleeing an atmosphere of fear and confusion created by ever-shifting laws, vague threats, byzantine registration programs and spasms of racial violence.”

An excellently reported deep dive into a mostly ignored crisis at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. People of Haitian descent are being driven out of the Dominican Republic, many into a country they have never known, with no shelter, resources, or clear future. We’re working with Zanmi Timoun, a Haitian grassroots organization, to ensure that deported children can find refuge, safety, and healing. We’re focusing our efforts in the border villages of Belladère and Fond Parisien with special attention to the needs of unaccompanied children, newborns, orphans, children with disabilities, and teenage mothers.

2. “How the System Is Failing Central American Families Facing Deportation,” by Max Rivlin-Nadler, VICE News

“The families removed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had, for the most part, fled worsening violence in Central America within the last two years, and upon deportation to their homeland now face the prospects of continued persecution.”

A good overview of the sad state of immigration. Families seeking safe refuge in the United States face detention in unacceptable conditions (check out our No Safe Haven Here report), confusing legal processes, and continuous fear of deportation back to the violence they are trying to escape. This article features RAICES, our partner in Texas that is working to support families seeking asylum and facing deportation.

3. “A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint,” by John Eligon, the New York Times

“If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?”

Our guess: probably. It wouldn’t surprise us; we see systemic racism affect people’s right to the water every day throughout the world and throughout the United States. And we work with communities — including in Michigan, where we work with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization to stop water shutoffs affecting low-income communities of color — to defend their right to accessible, affordable, sufficient, and acceptable (read: safe) water for daily human needs. (See also: The Color of Water, by our partner Mass Global Action, which found that with each 1% increase in a Boston city ward’s population of people of color, the number of threatened water shutoffs increased by 4%.)