By Melissa Crow
Gulf Coast Policy Attorney
The Louisiana agency responsible for devising a plan that sets forth how the state intends to use federal funds earmarked for Gulf Coast rebuilding has issued a proposal that inadequately addresses the needs of low-income residents, including many immigrants.
Via HR 2863, Congress allocated $6.2 billion to the state of Louisiana through the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD's) Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. These funds, along with an additional $4.2 billion requested by President George Bush, are subject to HUD approval of an action plan describing how they will be used. Accordingly, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which has been charged by the governor of Louisiana and the legislature with developing the plan, issued "The Road Home Housing Programs: Action Plan for the Use of Disaster Recovery Funds" on Apr. 5, 2006.
By the authority's own admission, the plan falls far short of meeting the needs of low-income renters who suffered hurricane-related losses, including many of the hundreds of thousands of Asian and Latin American immigrants and refugees living in Louisiana at the time of the storms. It proposes to spend $6.3 billion (61 percent) of the full $10.4 billion of CDBG supplemental funding directly on homeowner programs, while allocating only $1.5 billion (15 percent) to affordable housing/rental programs. Moreover, the plan threatens to effectively exclude many immigrant homeowners living in Louisiana, including lawfully present immigrants who have lived in the state for many years. In order to be eligible for homeowner assistance under the proposed plan, an owner must have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for its Individual Assistance program and the home must have been categorized by FEMA as having been "destroyed" or having suffered "major" damage.
Unlike federal CDBG funds, FEMA Individual Assistance is by law available only to "qualified" immigrants, a restrictive category that excludes many lawfully present immigrants. Many immigrants and citizens alike have not been able to obtain FEMA Individual Assistance because they were unaware of existing programs and/or deadlines. Press reports in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina indicated that literally thousands of Vietnamese and Hondurans bypassed officially sanctioned shelters in favor of temporary refuges such as the Hong Kong City Mall on Bellaire, where Vietnamese hurricane survivors received free food and shelter from fellow Vietnamese. Other immigrants and citizens with limited English proficiency were unable to fill out the requisite application forms due to the lack of translators at Red Cross shelters and call centers. Still others refrained from applying for FEMA Individual Assistance for fear that receipt of assistance would render them public charges and thus jeopardize their ability to adjust their immigration status in the future. All such individuals appear to be ineligible for homeowner assistance under the proposed plan.
Homeowner assistance should be available to any homeowner whose home suffered major damage, regardless of his or her particular immigration status. Although the new housing recovery plan specifies that homeowners who believe they have suffered "major or severe damage, but have not qualified for FEMA assistance[,] will be able to appeal their eligibility," the manner in which this provision will be applied in practice is unclear. Moreover, immigrant homeowners should have options other than a process by which to pursue appeals. While FEMA registration should be one criterion for screening applicants, the plan should delineate alternative mechanisms by which applicants may demonstrate that their homes suffered major damage.
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition, which comprises a broad spectrum of local and national organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of low-income people, submitted detailed comments on the plan, comments to which the National Immigration Law Center was a signatory. The comments addressed a variety of issues, including the inappropriateness of making FEMA the impromptu gatekeeper of program assistance, and requested an extension of the ten-day public comment period, which did not provide ample opportunity for meaningful input. The comments also noted that community hearings, which were held on Apr. 11, 2006, offered no formal opportunity for dialogue or discussion and did not adequately provide for local residents with limited English fluency or limited literacy to participate in the process.
Immigrants' rights groups such as NILC and national organizations representing the Vietnamese and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities submitted separate comments elaborating on the potential impact of the plan on immigrants and refugees in Louisiana. After considering the comments received, the Louisiana Recovery Authority will prepare a final proposed action plan, which will be submitted to HUD for review and approval.