Oct 23, 2017
Our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones or were left homeless or jobless by the recent North Bay fires. As with most natural disasters, the poor and marginalized suffered disproportionately. There are an estimated 38,500 undocumented immigrants in our County and many lost homes or jobs in this catastrophe.
Ironically, many of these people most in need were afraid to seek help because they feared immigration authorities would apprehend them at government shelters or evacuation centers and deport them. So, when the fires broke out on October 9th, countless numbers headed to the beaches instead. The New York Times reported that, by 5 am on the first day of the fire, there were crowds of Spanish-speakers filling Doran Beach. Other county beaches looked much the same. “What we saw was a huge flood of Latino evacuees to the coast,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins noted. “Folks just went right past the shelters and they tried to get, I think, as far away from the fire as possible, but also beyond institutional help, on purpose.”
Why were people afraid? Perhaps it’s the result of repeated and well-publicized statements by the federal government since January, pledging to deport “millions” of undocumented immigrants. In June, the Secretary of Homeland Security told Congress the undocumented “should be worried” about deportation at the hands of his department. Then, just one week before the fires, the Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) promised his agency would “conduct at-large arrests in local neighborhoods and at worksites” in California in response to the state’s passage of S.B. 54, legislation limiting state law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE. After the fire crisis began, local leaders like Hopkins and Sheriff Rob Giordano tried to reassure immigrants that they were safe from deportation in shelters, but still there was a reluctance to use them in the undocumented community. “We pressed ICE to release a statement,” Rep. Jared Huffman told the press.
Finally, four days after the fires started, ICE announced it had suspended “non-criminal immigration enforcement operations” in the affected areas. There is no word yet on when ICE might resume its deportation operations here. Understandably, the ever-present fear still haunts the undocumented at every contact with law enforcement or a government agency: is this the official who will turn me over for deportation and separate me from my family and my life in America?
Our legal system allows a U.S. citizen to sponsor their close family members On a positive note, there were many who acted nobly to help our immigrant community in need during the recent crisis. Here are a few examples:
• Our local, non-profit and bilingual radio station KBBF (89.1 FM) has provided key evacuation and emergency information in Spanish throughout this crisis. Thanks, KBBF!
• Praise and thanks should also go to a coalition of groups and businesses –Waves of Compassion, the Bodega Bay Grange, the Ceres Project, Ginochio’s Kitchen, Blue Water Bistro Restaurant and the Backyard Restaurant – who all pitched in to feed and care for hundreds of immigrants and others who fled to the coast in the first few hours of the conflagration. Bodega Bay resident Patty Ginochio mobilized those helping out and kept the fire refugees warm and well-fed.
• Juan Carlos Orantes, an immigrant from El Salvador himself, and his Alpha Psi fraternity brothers at Sonoma State, established a fund for fire victims. The group has raised thousands of dollars within the first week. People can donate at: gofundme.com/APsiFireFund
• The North Bay Organizing Project, the Graton Labor Center and other community organizations have set up a fund specifically for undocumented immigrants who were victims of the fire but are not likely to qualify for federal aid. UndocuFund for Fire Relief. Donations to the fund can also be made at any Exchange Bank or mailed to Undocufund, c/o GCIR, P.O. Box 1100 Sebastopol, CA 95473.
• The Graton Labor Center is holding a Benefit for the UndocuFund for Fire Relief and the Graton Day Labor Center’s Restoration Works Program. It will take place at Shone Farm Pavilion, Saturday, October 28, 2017, 6 to 10 p.m. There will be a live Auction, dinner, and dancing. More info available at: gratondaylabor.org/love-justice
On November 16th, My American Dreams is hosting a benefit to raise money to help undocumented fire victims and its other work on behalf of immigrants. The event will be held at theSebastopol Center for the Arts and will include the premiere screening ofThe Only Home I Know, a film about DACA recipients to be aired on November 20th by our local PBS station, KRCB. “The Only Home I Know” is a collaboration between My American Dreams and Define American, founded by former Washington Post reporter, Jose Antonio Vargas. The film tells the story behind Vargas’ high profile expose of himself as an undocumented “alien” and includes highlights from his presentation at a My American Dreams event at Sonoma State in January. Also featured are profiles of six young North Bay DACA recipients, including local artist Maria De los Angeles. Following the film, a community discussion will be led by a panel of local leaders in academia and law and some of the featured DACA “stars” from the film. The evening begins at 6:00 pm with a catered reception and silent auction.
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