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.

Trump Administration Continues Anti-Immigrant Assault with Decision to End TPS for Salvadorans

The Trump administration today escalated its assault on immigrant communities, canceling Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadoran nationals living in the United States legally for over 15 years. Salvadorans are by far the largest community of TPS beneficiaries in the country, and this move throws life into chaos for thousands who call the United States home, as well as for the estimated 192,000 U.S. citizen children of Salvadoran TPS holders.

UUSC calls on Congress to pass permanent protections for all long-term TPS holders, a solution that has already been introduced in the form of the Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and in Emergency (SECURE) Act, developed in part through the efforts of UUSC’s partner the UndocuBlack Network. Meanwhile, local governments must expand sanctuary policies that hold the line against federal efforts to deport and criminalize our communities until we have won permanent status for all long-term TPS holders.

Today’s TPS decision is appalling, but unsurprising. It continues this administration’s harsh stance against immigrant communities, including those with legal status, as indicated by its recent decision to revoke TPS for Haitians and several other nationalities, as well as its ongoing efforts to tie passage of the Dream Act to border militarization and restrictions to diversity visa and family-based migration.

Terminating the status flies in the face of bipartisan consensus and reveals as starkly as ever this administration’s core objective of slashing documented and undocumented immigration pathways alike, regardless of the human toll. The TPS program for Salvadorans has been renewed by both Republican and Democratic administrations since it was first designated in 2001. Scholars have extensively documented that country conditions in El Salvador continue to warrant the extension of TPS.

UUSC’s work in Central America confirms this finding. In 2016, UUSC conducted extensive research among Salvadoran asylum seekers, alongside our partners at the Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador. The stories they told further substantiate the widely reported facts that organized criminal networks operate with impunity in El Salvador, that state authorities are unable or unwilling to provide protection, and that gangs deliberately prey upon people with known U.S. ties, including recent deportees, meaning that deportation would be tantamount to a death sentence for many.

Meredith Larson, UUSC’s Director of Advocacy, stated, “UUSC continues to work in solidarity with immigrant communities in the United States in the fight for permanent status for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and TPS holders, as well as with our partners in El Salvador, Foundation Cristosal, who are working to build new and lasting solutions to protect victims of organized violence. Working together across our shared continent, we can and will hold the line against attempts to endanger and tear apart our communities.”

Love Resists Deportation on the Capitol Steps

On Wednesday, December 6, I joined more than 180 people who were arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, in what organizers reported to be the single largest immigrant-led act of civil disobedience of the Trump era. United We Dream, CASA in Action, and the Center for Community Change organized us to came to Washington to demand a clean Dream Act and permanent protections for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, sacrificing a bit of our freedom to halt a xenophobic agenda that threatens the freedom of millions. Together, we told Congress that the pending loss of status for 59,000 Haitian TPS holders and 700,000 Dreamers is an emergency and that the time to act is now, before the December 22 spending bill deadline.

“We will not forget the original dreamers: our parents, our grandparents,” said Denea Joseph, a leader with UndocuBlack. “We will not be complicit.”

On behalf of UUSC and Love Resists, I was honored to join this action, which included Dreamers, labor leaders, immigrant activists, educators, and faith leaders of all traditions. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) and Judy Chu (D-CA), two current members of Congress and long-standing advocates for immigrant rights were arrested alongside us. Cheering us on were thousands of Dreamers and supporters, chanting encouraging words to remind us: We believe that we will win!

Activists gather on the steps of the Capitol in protest of congressional inaction on TPS and the Dream Act.

An honor to be arrested with you

On December 5, the day before the action, UUSC’s partners the UndocuBlack Network and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC), an ally organization, held a joint press conference in front of the Capitol as part of their Black-AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islander) Immigrant Day of Action. The inspiring conference featured four members of Congress and directly impacted activists. All spoke to the urgent need to pass a clean Dream Act and a TPS solution – and, in particular, to ensure that neither comes at the expense of other immigrants. “We will not forget the original dreamers: our parents, our grandparents,” said Denea Joseph, a leader with UndocuBlack. “We will not be complicit.”

Their example and that of many others helped me to find my courage the next day. As a first-time participant in civil disobedience, I felt no small amount of trepidation, but I was  inspired by the Dreamers who I know have risked far more in other acts of peaceful protest and found enormous strength in the people around me. I was in the company of veteran leaders from across the immigrant rights movement. In the pen next to mine was Gustavo Torres, the executive director of CASA de Maryland, the largest immigrant rights group in the state and an important figure for years in the campaign for immigration reform. Becky Belcore from NAKASEC, one of the lead organizers of the 22-day Dream Action Vigil that Love Resists joined in September, was there as well. Shaking hands across the metal traffic barrier, I told Becky it was an honor to be arrested with her.

“We see you, we love you”

A particularly unforgettable moment from Wednesday’s action came as we – the more than 180 of us arrested – were being led away by the police. An organizer from United We Dream leaned out of the crowd and called to us. “Thank you for sacrificing yourself for our rights. We see you, we love you, we see you, we love you.

These words moved me more than I can say, especially in that moment. At the same time, I realized that I was not really worthy of them—my detainment was only for about two hours. And while I had to return to a police station the next day to submit my fingerprints and a pay cash fine, I was safe and on a train back home to Boston the same day.

Between the minimal freedom that I parted with, and the freedom that is taken from the thousands of people held in immigration detention, or who are deported from their loved ones, there is no real comparison. To contemplate the risks that so many others have taken to travel across borders, to live and work without papers, to seek asylum from persecution, is to understand that my own ‘sacrifice’ weighs very lightly in the balance.

Activists await arrest.

We cannot continue to deny Dreamers and TPS holders this opportunity. It is their futures, in some case their existence itself, that are on the line. Staring up at the Capitol Dome from the steps where we sat, a line from Yeats came back to me: Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

As the next few weeks unfold, members of Congress may be tempted to waiver in their support for our immigrant communities. They may ask whether the Dream Act cannot wait until another time, or whether it really needs to be “clean” (i.e., with no anti-immigrant riders). This is because they are seeing through the eyes of privilege, with the myopia of power. As politicians who make many legislative decisions, they can afford to accept “compromises” and delays. But this process has a cost and we must recommit ourselves to supporting communities and individuals who would be directly and irreparably harmed by this inaction.

In the coming days, I invite others to join me in reflecting on this injustice, and to ask if we cannot perhaps give a little bit more for a clean Dream Act than we already have. When every hour is threatened for some of us, we all can devote a few minutes to writing to our local paper. When some of us are being silenced, we must all raise our voices to our legislators to defend our shared community. Let us dare to give more for freedom, and ensure that all of us have the chance to celebrate that right and live without fear.

U.S. Withdrawal from Global Compact on Migration is a Failure of Leadership

Saturday night, the Trump administration suddenly announced that it is pulling out of talks to develop the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) – a grave abdication of U.S. leadership and its moral obligations to the international community. The decision was the latest in a string of blows to multilateral efforts to address global injustices, including forced migration and climate change, and continued the government’s pattern of showing contempt for the rights and well-being of refugees and migrants.

Critically, the news came just two days before a key U.N. preparatory meeting in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – part of ongoing discussions to develop the GCM. UUSC’s Senior Program Leader for Environmental Justice and Climate Action, Salote Soqo, who is currently in Mexico to attend the meeting notes that “with this decision, the United States has lost another opportunity to lead, to guide, and to contribute its rich migration history and experience to this global discussion.”

The United States continues to actively contribute to the underlying global injustices fueling displacement, even as it turns its back on efforts to protect their victims. For example, despite its intention to bow out of the Paris Agreement it remains among the world’s worst carbon emitters. Additionally, the people of Honduras – including UUSC’s partners at Foro de Mujeres por la Vida – struggle to defend their democratic institutions against a post-coup government and militarized security forces, both of which have received substantial U.S. support. The corruption, impunity, and violence of U.S.-backed actors have been a driver of forced migration from Honduras and many other countries across the globe for years. The decision by the U.S. government to withdraw from the global discussion on migration is appalling in light of this involvement.

The GCM promises to be the first truly comprehensive international framework addressing all forms of migration (including but not limited to forced displacement) from a perspective grounded in the human rights and dignity of people traveling across borders. It touches on nearly every aspect of our work to advance human rights, including our efforts alongside our partners to end the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, to uphold the dignity and self-determination of peoples threatened with climate-induced forced displacement, to support migrants escaping persecution in Syria, to protect families fleeing violence in Central America, and to resist the criminalization of immigrant communities in the United States. UUSC has championed the aspirations of the GCM since its inception in 2016 and will continue to do so, with or without the U.S. government at the table.

Tell DHS: Hands Off Immigrants’ Social Media!

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is taking new steps to monitor and criminalize immigrant communities: they’re pro-actively gathering and recording social media information of all immigrants to the United States – including new immigrants, permanent residents, and naturalized citizens.

This data could be used to prosecute, deny benefits to, limit due process of, and even deport people. It may also affect those who communicate with immigrants on social media by including their conversations in government surveillance.

UUSC sent the comment below in response, urging DHS to rescind this rule. Join us to defend immigrants’ privacy at and submit your own public comment by Wednesday, October 18, 2017!

October 17, 2017

Mr. Jonathan R. Cantor
Acting Chief Privacy Officer
Privacy Office
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528-0655

Re: DHS-2017-0038 – Notice of Modified Privacy Act System of Records

Dear Mr. Cantor:

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee submits this comment for the public record to express our opposition to the Department of Homeland Security’s recent modification to the Privacy Act System of Records, published as docket number DHS-2017-0038 (the “proposed rule”). In particular, we are concerned by the new provisions on p. 43557, paragraph 1, column 1, to “expand the categories of records to include […] social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results[.]”

We respectfully request that the agency withdraw this proposed rule. As a human rights agency with over 40,000 members and supporters across the United States, we believe this proposed rule threatens the rights and principles we and our partners work to uphold. Our chief concerns are as follows:

This proposed rule is discriminatory.

The proposed rule unfairly burdens naturalized citizens with a degree of surveillance that does not apply to birthright citizens. It thereby sets up a two-tiered system of citizenship, in violation of the principle of the equal protection of the laws.

The proposed rule would expose immigrants and others with Alien files to higher levels of surveillance and government scrutiny than other U.S. residents. This is a form of , i.e. subjecting some members of the community to an unjust presumption of suspicion.

This proposed rule chills free speech.

Information posted on social media may be misrepresented as “gang-related” and place an immigrant at heightened risk of deportation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) frequently prioritizes deportation of immigrants based on alleged gang ties, and immigration agents have, according to several recent lawsuits, repeatedly misinterpreted hand gestures, tattoos, and colored clothing as symbols of gang membership.

Gang membership accusations are made and acted upon without due process or lawful conviction and on the basis of unreliable “gang databases.”[2] They are therefore particularly vulnerable to being informed by racial and ethnic bias.

This proposed rule threatens privacy.

While this new rule directly affects only publicly available information on social media, CBP and ICE agents have in the past asked immigrants to divulge social media passwords. We are concerned that the collection of information on social media accounts under this new rule, as well as the linking of online aliases to real people, could easily create more targets for future government efforts to obtain social media log-in credentials and other private information.

Government surveillance and data collection on such a scale may intrinsically be rife with potential for abuse, including stalking, data breaches, and other major invasions of privacy.[3]

This proposed rule will not make anyone safer.

The use of information on social media has not proven to be a valuable tool in screening for immigration benefits. DHS’s Office of the Inspector General found in a February 27, 2017 report that DHS pilot programs to collect social media information “lack criteria for measuring performance to ensure they meet their objectives.”[4]

Theories of “radicalization” that treat opinions and statements made on social media as reliable indicators of future violent or terrorist behavior have been debunked.[5] Violent acts are not reliably linked to specific ideologies, belief statements, or personality profiles, and vice versa.

This proposed rule threatens due process.

This new rule arrives at a time when Congress is considering options that would further undermine due process for lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, and other immigrants. (See the “Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act” (H.R. 3697), e.g.)[6] Now is a particularly dangerous time to open more immigrants’ photos and personal information to potential misinterpretation as gang-related.

In these ways and others, we remain concerned that this proposed policy will encourage the use of unjust stereotypes about criminality and terrorism as a basis for government actions.

We strongly urge you to heed these concerns and rescind the new rule.


Joshua Leach
Associate for Programs, Research and Advocacy
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

[1] National Public Radio, “Undocumented Teens Say They’re Falsely Accused Of Being In A Gang,” August 17, 2017.; Vice News, “How ICE Uses Secret Police Databases to Arrest Immigrants,” August 28, 2017.

[2] Ali Winston, The Intercept, “Vague Rules Let ICE Deport Undocumented Immigrants as Gang Members,” February 17, 2017.

[3] Upturn, “Civil Rights, Big Data, and Our Algorithmic Future,” 2014.

[4] DHS OIG, “DHS’s Pilots for Social Media Screening Need Increased Rigor to Ensure Scalability and Long-term Success,” February 27, 2017.

[5] Faiza Patel, Meghan Koushik, Brennan Center, “Countering Violent Extremism,” March 16, 2017.


Immigrants have the same rights to free speech and privacy as everyone. No one should feel they are the targets of profiling, monitoring, and unreasonable suspicion by the state. We must raise our collective voices against this far-reaching rule. Tell the government: Respect the privacy and safety of immigrants by keeping out of their social media.

UUSC Responds to Violence in Las Vegas

This morning I awoke to news that at least 50 lives were lost and hundreds more injured due to senseless gun violence in Nevada. My heart goes out to all who are directly affected by last night’s shooting—the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

There is still much to learn about the situation, but make no mistake — this act was preventable, and as the community mourns and recovers, we must support them with a renewed vow to stop violence in all its forms. Additionally, if you are in the Las Vegas area and interested in helping directly, I encourage you to donate blood if you are able.

UUSC works across the world to dismantle systems of oppression and uplift and affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all, to ensure that people can live safely and securely. To live a life free from the fear of violence is an issue of human rights. We join in solidarity with all those afflicted by this and other forms of violence.