The devastation and displacement that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused has brought domestic and international attention to people living in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.
According to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates, 34,242 naturalized citizens, 24,087 legal permanent residents, and 71,992 nonimmigrants may be affected by Hurricane Katrina alone. Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that at least an additional 20,000 to 35,000 unauthorized immigrants are also victims.
This month's Spotlight examines the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of foreign born in the official disaster areas of the four affected states. It also includes the DHS response to the challenges non-U.S. citizens (legal permanent residents, foreign nationals who are in the U.S. on temporary visas, and unauthorized migrants) face in the aftermath of both hurricanes.
Foreign-born Population from the Hurricane-Affected Areas, Census 2000
Foreign born in the
Hurricane Katrina disaster areas
Foreign born in the
Hurricane Rita disaster areas
The data used in this Spotlight come from the U.S. Census Bureau's Census 2000 Public Use Micro-Sample (PUMS) five percent file (database provided by Urban Institute). We use the following definitions for the affected areas:
1) the Hurricane Katrina area is composed of counties in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as eligible for both individual and public disaster assistance as of September 14, 2005; and
2) the Hurricane Rita area includes 14 counties in Louisiana and Texas designated by FEMA as eligible for both individual and public disaster assistance as of September 24, 2005, plus five Texas counties that are part of the Houston-Galveston-Brazoria consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA). Due to the limited geographic breakdown available in the PUMS data, in some cases adjacent counties were included in order to capture FEMA-designated counties.
Public Benefits Issues
Besides immediate personal and financial losses, hurricane victims who are not U.S. citizens face unique challenges because of their immigration status. Among others, these include:
According to the 2000 census, 6,427,074 persons lived in the Katrina area; 153,396 or 2.4 percent of them were foreign born (see Table 1).
There were 247,189 foreign born in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in 2000; 62.1 percent lived in the Katrina area.
About 90,000 foreign born lived in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Biloxi-Gulfport-Pascagoula metropolitan statistical areas (MSA), representing 58.6 percent of all foreign born in the Katrina area (see Map 1).
In 2000, the foreign born made up 5.1 percent (63,062) of the total population of New Orleans, 2.8 percent (17,141) of the population of Baton Rouge, and three percent (9,650) of the population of the Biloxi-Gulfport-Pascagoula MSA.
The national origin of the foreign-born population in the Katrina area is diverse as there is no dominant country of birth. Vietnamese born accounted for 13.8 percent of the foreign born, followed by Mexican born (10.2 percent), Honduran born (8.3 percent), German (4.9 percent), and Indian born (4.5 percent) (see Figure 1).
According to Census 2000, 5,622,210 persons lived in the Rita region; 917,738 or 16.3 percent of them were foreign born (see Table 1).
In 2000, there were 3,021,353 foreign born in Louisiana and Texas, 30.2 percent lived in the Rita area.
About 906,180 foreign born lived in the Houston consolidated metropolitan statistical area (CMSA) and the Beaumont-Port Arthur metropolitan statistical area (MSA), representing 98.7 percent of all foreign born in the Rita area (see Map 2). In 2000, the foreign born made up 19 percent (888,099) of the total population of the Houston CMSA and 4.7 percent (18,081) of the population of the Beaumont-Port Arthur MSA.
Fifty percent of all foreign born who lived in the Rita area came from Mexico (see Figure 1). Together with persons born in El Salvador (7.1 percent), Vietnam (6.1 percent), India (3.5 percent) and Honduras (2.2 percent), these five countries account for 69 percent of all foreign born.
Almost half of the foreign born in the Rita affected area (48 percent) arrived between 1990 and 2000 (see Figure 2). Another 28 percent arrived in the 1980s, and 21 percent came before 1979.
Among the foreign born who lived in the Katrina area, 40 percent came in the 1990s, 25 percent came in the 1980s, and 35 percent arrived before 1979.
In the Katrina area, 10.6 percent of the foreign born worked in production, 10.4 percent in sales, and 8.9 percent in office and administrative support. Food preparation and serving-related and management occupations made up another 15 percent of the foreign born in the Katrina area.
Three occupational groups — construction, production, and sales — accounted for 34.3 percent of all foreign born in the civilian labor force in the Rita area (see Table 1). Combined with building, ground cleaning, and maintenance (8.4 percent) and office and administrative support (8.4 percent), these five occupational groups composed 51.1 percent of all foreign born in the area.
In the Katrina area, 23.9 percent of foreign born and 24 percent of native born had family incomes below the poverty line. A person's poverty status is determined by comparing the person's total family income with the poverty threshold appropriate for that person's family size and composition. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty threshold in 1999 for a family of four was $17,029.
In 2000, 27.4 percent of foreign born and 17.4 percent of natives in the Rita area had family incomes below the federal poverty level.
Public Benefits Issues
On September 6, 2005, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made an announcement that for the following 45 days, it would not initiate employer sanctions against employers that hire victims of Hurricane Katrina who lack personal identification and employment eligibility documents. At the end of the 45-day period, DHS will review this policy.
USCIS reported that it surveyed the status of its office in New Orleans and found no apparent damage either to the building or the files. Operations have been moved temporarily to the Memphis, Tennessee sub-office. USCIS has not reported when the New Orleans office will reopen.
USCIS has issued a flyer describing the services available to its customers affected by Hurricane Katrina. The flyer also describes how to replace lost immigration, travel, and naturalization documents.
Unauthorized and temporary migrants are eligible for short-term, in-kind emergency disaster relief and services that include food and shelter, search and rescue, and emergency medical care. In addition, immigrants who are legal permanent residents, refugees, asylees, and Cuban/Haitian entrants are eligible for other benefits. These include rental and mortgage assistance, temporary housing allowances, small business loans, etc.
It is not clear, however, whether eligibility rules for the major federal means-tested benefit programs will be eased for at least certain groups of noncitizens, such as legal permanent residents who are currently ineligible for welfare benefits.
The loss of family members and financial assets, as well as the destruction of businesses, directly impacts eligibility to sponsor family members and workers from abroad via family reunification and employment sponsorship.
Foreign students whose legal status depends directly on being enrolled in U.S. educational institutions have to either leave the country, wait until their school becomes operational, or transfer to another school.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has established a toll-free number (800-961-5294) and updated their website with information to assist foreign students who were attending a school affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Other nonimmigrants whose legal status and activities are restricted by their visa conditions are also affected by the hurricanes and the aftermath. The USCIS flyer provides information on how to replace I-94 (nonimmigrant entry document) and employment authorization documents.
Unauthorized migrants who fear deportation may be reluctant to seek any kind of assistance from federal or local government agencies.
Although DHS stated that rescuers would provide assistance to people regardless of status, it has not yet confirmed that the information FEMA collects will not be shared with law enforcement agencies and ICE.
Wasem, Ruth Ellen. 2005. Hurricane Katrina-Related Immigration Issues and Legislation. Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress, September 19, 2005
USCIS Hurricane Katrina and Rita Resources
USCIS Hurricane Katrina Flyer
U.S. Census Bureau Hurricane Data
FEMA — 2005 Federal Disaster Declarations