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Conventional thinking often suggests that the people most vulnerable to climate change are those most directly hit—the individuals who experience the most damage in a flood, for example. However, recent research suggests that this is not the case. Instead, the question of who is most impacted by climate disasters has more to do with an individual’s pre-existing socioeconomic position and their corresponding access to disaster preparedness and recovery resources.

But a greater understanding of this kind of vulnerability is emerging, and efforts are now underway to close the gap. Community-based organizations and local governments are starting to recognize where such individuals may fall through the cracks and are creating policies and networks for more inclusive disaster response and recovery.

After Michael Méndez, an Assistant Professor at UC Irvine, published his first book on how environmental justice organizations were engaging in climate work, he began interviews for a new research project exploring the common ground between labor, immigration, and environmental groups. Everyone he spoke to wanted to instead talk about one thing: the 2017 Thomas Fire, which burned approximately 281,000 acres of land over the course of more than six months and primarily affected the Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in California. In these counties, an estimated eight to ten percent of the population is undocumented. Méndez abandoned the original premise of his project and dove into the research of differential climate disaster impacts, which ultimately resulted in the publication of what is perhaps the seminal paper on the climate vulnerability of undocumented migrants.

Racism’s legacy is just the beginning of the climate change story for the estimated 16 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The paper, “The (in)visible victims of disaster: Understanding the vulnerability of undocumented Latino/a and indigenous immigrants,” built on previous research around the concept of “social vulnerability” to climate change. Social vulnerability describes the way racist policies like redlining, for example, have created barriers to accumulating generational wealth and relegated people of color to living in environmentally undesirable areas. At the same time, these policies siphoned resources away from their communities.

Extensive bodies of research show that this structural oppression resulted in people of color, regardless of immigration status, facing the greatest impacts of climate disasters. “The neighborhoods that are hit the hardest are often those that had the least amount of resources to begin with,” says Jacqueline Martinez Garcel, the CEO of the Latino Community Foundation—an organization that works closely with a number of immigrant advocacy groups in California.

Climate Disasters and Hyper-Marginalization

Racism’s legacy is just the beginning of the climate change story for the estimated 16 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. They face what Méndez calls a “hyper form of marginalization.” Because of their immigration status, they rarely have access to jobs that pay a living wage or provide benefits like health insurance, leaving them without the resources, financial or otherwise, required to prepare for and recover from disaster. Undocumented immigrants are also overrepresented in manual labor jobs, which further marginalize them by exposing them to pesticides, long hours of intensive outdoor labor, and/or unhealthy air quality. Substandard housing conditions, including housing that is provided by employers, also contribute to poorer health outcomes even before disaster hits.

Practically, these circumstances leave many undocumented immigrants with no choice but to continue to work even in hazardous conditions, typically without hazard pay to compensate them for the risks they are taking.

Moreover, despite the fact that many undocumented immigrants pay taxes via Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, they are excluded from most federal aid programs. This includes aid provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as well as unemployment insurance. “Their work is deemed essential and critical to the economy. They contribute $485 million to unemployment insurance,” says Martinez Garcel. “Those same workers are not eligible for that insurance when a crisis hits. There’s no wage protection, they’re out of a job, they’re out of resources, they’re most likely out of homes because the homes that are built are usually closest to where the disasters happen.”

Practically, these circumstances leave many undocumented immigrants with no choice but to continue to work even in hazardous conditions, typically without hazard pay to compensate them for the risks they are taking. Both Méndez and Martinez Garcel tell stories of California farmworkers, at least half of whom are undocumented, who were sent back into wildfire evacuation zones to pick crops before they were tainted by smoke and ash while wealthier community members fled. An environment that makes wine grapes taste like ashtrays has even more alarming effects on the health of workers being asked to save them. “Some farmworkers talk about—after working days, hours, weeks—that they would come home and have black saliva,” Méndez reports.

These problems are hardly unique to California. Research has shown increased climate vulnerability for undocumented immigrants living in Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and elsewhere. Luis Mata, the Policy Coordinator at the Nashville-based Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, echoed the sentiments shared by Méndez and Martinez Garcel.

TIRRC is in the midst of launching a climate justice campaign on the heels of several climate disasters, including a flood that impacted South Nashville, a neighborhood with a large population of immigrants. “We realized that, when it comes to our disaster relief, a lot of our immigrants and refugees were being left out, even though we are the ones who face some of the most harmful impacts,” says Mata. He cited that the lack of linguistic and cultural relevancy of services remains the main barrier to equitable disaster response and recovery.

“This is why it is so important to work with local organizations, grassroots organizations that are led by people of color…people who understand and know their communities so that the nuances of where people are and how to reach them can be met with urgency.”

Community-Based Organizations Filling the Gaps

Language access can be one of the most prevalent challenges in disaster recovery. This is true not only for undocumented people—some of whom speak Indigenous languages—but for all populations with low English proficiency. Often, people sent by the federal or state government to provide aid don’t speak locally relevant languages, leaving translation duties up to local immigrant-serving organizations like TIRRC or grantees supported by LCF. For Martinez Garcel, this highlights the need for government emergency management agencies to build relationships with community-based organizations. “This is why it is so important to work with local organizations, grassroots organizations that are led by people of color…people who understand and know their communities so that the nuances of where people are and how to reach them can be met with urgency,” she explains.

Partnerships with community-based organizations are especially crucial when populations impacted by disasters are undocumented because there is an additional layer of trust needed. Undocumented individuals may be hesitant to seek aid even if it is available because they fear deportation, especially given the fact that FEMA and federal immigration enforcement are both under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. CBOs, which often have established relationships with impacted community members, can help ease fear for undocumented residents and act as intermediaries between community members and these governmental entities.

Nowadays, CBOs often fill the gaps left by government agencies in the aftermath of climate disasters. “We are on the frontlines, in the community, making sure that folks are getting the materials, resources, and services in their language,” Mata says. A prime example of this can be found in the work of several immigrant-serving CBOs who teamed up after the 2017 Tubbs fire in Northern California. The CBOs started a disaster assistance fund specifically designated for undocumented people, dubbing it an “UndocuFund.” The idea spread, and there are now about 40 UndocuFunds around the country that cover immediate necessities such as food, emergency shelter, and transportation, among other critical needs.

LCF, which supported the launch of the UndocuFund network, is proud to be a part of getting resources in the hands of the people who need it most. But Mata, Méndez, and Martinez Garcel all agree that the resources CBOs are able to provide are not sufficient. Though partnerships between nonprofits and governments are key, CBOs can’t be expected to provide disaster relief for undocumented communities by themselves. As Martinez Garcel puts it, “These UndocuFunds are the band-aid…there are some root causes that need to be addressed.”

What Méndez has taken away from his research efforts is that there is a vital need for government support when undocumented populations are affected by climate impacts. CBOs are doing what they can, but without policy intervention, it is likely that undocumented communities will continue to be disproportionately affected. “[Immigrant-serving nonprofits] have limited budgets,” Méndez says. “Disaster planning, response, and recovery is not part of their core mission. They have become de facto disaster relief experts, not because they wanted to but because they were forced to.”

Directly impacted communities, like the members of TIRRC, the organizations funded by LCF, and Méndez’s research partners, are leading the charge for policy change. “If we really want to tackle disaster risk reduction, it starts with the social integration of undocumented migrants before a disaster happens,” Méndez says. “Our governments need to do better. They need to support undocumented migrant communities and provide the necessary resources to prepare and be safeguarded before, during, and after disasters. That includes additional funding and relationship building with the nonprofit sector.”

Immigration reform, such as creating a pathway to citizenship for people who are working and paying taxes, may be a key step towards more equitable disaster outcomes. “It has to start from there,” Martinez Garcel says. National polling has shown that a majority of Americans support such pathways to citizenship for essential workers.

Disaster Recovery is Changing for the Better

Slowly, change is beginning to happen.

In early 2023, California’s Sonoma County became the first in the country to create a disaster aid fund that is accessible to all residents, regardless of immigration status. It is likely no coincidence that Sonoma County is home to the 805 UndocuFund—one of the most successful in the network. The 805 UndocuFund has distributed over $8 million to 17,000 undocumented Central Coast residents, demonstrating a need that the county government is now taking steps to fill. Also, in California, the latest expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid health insurance program, now includes people who are undocumented.

In Tennessee, Mata and his colleagues at TIRRC are working with the Mayor’s Office of Nashville to launch a Cultural Ambassadors for Disaster Communication program that places trusted community members in disaster response and communication roles.

In the meantime, climate change rages on. As Mata says, “These disasters are going to continue to happen.” When they do, we need to be ready to provide support for all impacted residents, immigration status aside, and that won’t happen without giving voice to the undocumented people who continue to be erased in the policy sphere.

Méndez’s research, building upon the work of other studies, has shown that when vulnerable communities are involved in disaster planning, outcomes improve. “Our communities, being the ones that are the most impacted, should be the ones whose voices are most amplified,” Mata says. “We should have a seat at that table. Period.”