Around the Nation
3:22 am
Fri October 18, 2013

In Flooded Colorado, Immigrants' Livelihoods Washed Away

Originally published on Fri October 18, 2013 1:15 pm

In flood-ravaged Colorado, much of the recovery has focused on rebuilding roads and bridges to mountain towns cut off by last month's floods. But take a drive east to the state's rolling plains, and a whole new set of staggering problems unfolds in farm country.

Living In Limbo

A woman named Claudia, who doesn't want to use her last name because of her immigration status, is sitting on a couch in the lobby of a shabby hotel in Greeley, about an hour's drive northeast of Denver.

She's come because a friend has been staying here. Both women lost their homes when the floodwaters wiped out the mobile home park in the nearby town of Evans.

"Where can we go?" Claudia says in Spanish. "We lost everything in the floods — all of our clothes, everything, from our 10 years living here."

Her husband is trying to keep his construction job. The family has been told that they qualify for FEMA assistance because her youngest daughter was born in the U.S. and is a citizen. But the agency is still processing their application, and she doesn't know if it's been approved.

The rental market here was already tight due to an oil boom. The women say landlords are preying on them, asking them questions like: "Have you received FEMA money? How much did you receive? What is your immigration status?" And the county hasn't returned her calls for help finding an apartment.

These are common stories being told right now across this flooded region, where thousands of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador have flocked to jobs in the fields and the dairy and meatpacking industries.

"Many of these families that were displaced and taken out of their homes, and currently are homeless, are the workforce of northern Colorado," says Sonia Marquez of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

By the coalition's counts, hundreds of immigrant families have lost their homes. Some don't have any family members who are citizens and eligible for aid. Many are turning to private charities like hers, Marquez says. And some churches are trying to raise money to buy families new mobile homes.

But money is tight. Almost everywhere you look around hard-hit towns like Evans, there's a need.

A Town Overwhelmed

The floods hit this town of about 19,000 people hard. The east side, where most of the immigrant community lives, took the brunt of the storms.

In one neighborhood along the South Platte River, which swelled its banks when several levies broke five weeks ago, half of the road is gone. Mud and trash is strewn everywhere. Feral cats are mingling around a van where an elderly couple has been living for a month.

The town's main wastewater treatment plant is still offline. Auxiliary pumps are being used to hook it onto Greeley's larger system that wasn't destroyed.

At one of the decimated mobile home parks nearest the failed plant, Lyle Achziger, the mayor of Evans, points out what's left of a girl's English as a second language certificate. A layer of raw sewage and mud and chemicals covers what used to be the family's living room.

"Who knows what was in that water," Achziger says. "It was all coming across here — 8, 9 feet high in here."

A Fear Of Coming Forward

As of the 2010 Census, Evans was about 45 percent Latino, but Achziger says immigration status did not affect who got help. The focus was to find residents shelter and food, to see that they were taken care of.

"We don't bring that up, whether they're documented or not," he says. "We had people that were living in here and they were in a desperate situation. Some of these people barely got out of here with their lives."

In the days after the worst of the flooding, the town of Evans had bilingual staff on hand at shelters and meetings to answer questions and point people toward help. Today, FEMA seems to be doing the same.

But some people are afraid to ask for help because of fears of deportation. FEMA says that fear is unfounded.

"Our first and foremost mission is to make sure that each individual has a safe, healthy environment in which to continue their journey," says William Lindsey, the agency's northern Colorado spokesman.

Back at the hotel, there's some good news for Claudia's journey. A man in a navy blue FEMA jacket has just walked into the lobby. He's a native Spanish speaker, and he's helping her check on the status of her application.

No word yet. But she says she's determined to make it through one way or another. This is home, she says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's return now to Colorado. That state was hit recently by some of the worst flooding in living memory. Much of the focus during the huge recovery effort has been on repairing and rebuilding roads and bridges to mountain towns cut off by the floods last month.

NPR's Kirk Siegler spent time farther east, in the state's rolling plains, where some of the challenges victims face are different.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

CLAUDIA: Bueno.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Three women are sitting on a couch in the lobby of a shabby hotel about an hour northeast of Denver. One of them has been staying here since the flood waters wiped out the mobile home park where they all lived in the nearby town of Evans. One month on, they're confused and sad.

CLAUDIA: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGLER: Claudia, who doesn't want to use her last name due to her immigration status, does most of the talking.

CLAUDIA: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGLER: Where can we go, she says? We lost everything in the floods - all of our clothes, everything from our 10 years living here. Claudia's husband is trying to keep his construction job. They've been staying with friends, but have to leave soon. The family's been told they quality for FEMA assistance. Her youngest daughter was born in the U.S. and is a citizen.

CLAUDIA: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGLER: FEMA is still processing our application, she says, but we don't know if it's been approved. And the local county hasn't returned her calls for help finding an apartment. The rental market here was already tight due to an oil boom. Her friend Jasmil chimes in. She says landlords are preying on them.

JASMIL: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGLER: Did you get FEMA money, these landlords ask? What is your immigration status? And then they jack up the rent, she says. These are common stories being told right now across this flooded region. It's a place where thousands of immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador flock to jobs in the fields and the dairies and meatpacking industry.

SONIA MARQUEZ: Many of these families that were displaced and taken out of their homes and currently are homeless are, you know, the workforce of northern Colorado.

SIEGLER: Sonia Marquez of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition says hundreds of immigrant families lost their homes. A few don't have anyone in their families who are citizens and eligible for aid. Many are turning to private charities like hers and churches. But money is tight. Almost everywhere you look around hard-hit towns like Evans, there's a lot of need.

In one neighborhood along the Platte River, half of the road is still gone. Mud and trash is strewn everywhere. There' a van with an elderly couple in it. They've been living in it for a month. Two-thirds of Evans' wastewater treatment system is still broken down.

MAYOR LYLE ACHZIGER: See the water line in there?

SIEGLER: At one of the decimated mobile home parks, the mayor of Evans, Lyle Achziger, points out what's left of a girl's English as a Second Language certificate. A layer of raw sewage and mud and chemicals covers what used to be the family's living room.

ACHZIGER: Who knows what was in that water. It was all coming across here, you know, eight, nine feet high in here.

SIEGLER: While the floods hit this city of 19,000 hard, Achziger says the town's immigrant community, who inhabits most of its east side, took the brunt of the storms. Evans is about 45 percent Latino. Achziger, a conservative Republican, says their immigration status has not been an issue during the recovery.

ACHZIGER: That's not our focus. We had people that were living in here, and they were in a desperate situation. Some of these people barely got out of here with their lives. Our focus was to find them shelter and food and see that they were taken care of.

SIEGLER: Achziger says the city is making sure bilingual staff are on hand at shelters and meetings to answer questions and point people toward help. FEMA seems to be doing the same. But the agency says one reason more people may not be getting help they need is trust. Some people are afraid to come forward, due to fears of deportation. But that's a fear that FEMA's William Lindsey says is unfounded.

WILLIAM LINDSEY: Our first and foremost mission is to make sure that each individual has a safe, healthy environment in which to continue their journey.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

SIEGLER: Back at the hotel, some good news for Claudia's journey. A man in a navy blue FEMA jacket has just walked into the lobby. He's a native Spanish speaker, and he's helping her check on the status of her application. No word yet.

CLAUDIA: (Spanish spoken)

SIEGLER: She says she's starting from zero, but she's determined to make it through, one way or another. This is home, she says. Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.