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For One Undocumented Couple In Houston, FEMA Aid Uncertainty Follows The Flooding

Stella M. Chávez
Nancy and Johny Vazquez spend their days cleaning up their Southeast Houston rental home. Their landlord says they have to be out soon.

Hurricane Harvey has been a tough slog for most Houstonians. For immigrants without papers, the barriers are even more daunting. An undocumented couple whose rental house was trashed by flooding is still waiting for help.

Nancy Vazquez goes through her little girl’s shoes: Purple sneakers, pink Minnie Mouse slippers, white sandals. Every one of them is wet. Some are moldy.

This is the mess left by Harvey inside the family’s rental home in Southeast Houston.

The night of the flood was terrifying.

“Ese día yo no dormir,” she said in Spanish. “I didn’t sleep. Around 4 in the morning, I was starting to doze off when I asked him to see what was happening. I could hear the water, and it smelled bad.”

Walking through chest-deep water

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
Shoes that 7-year-old Dayana wore were among the items ruined in the flood.

Nancy, her husband, Johny, and their 7-year-old daughter Dayana prayed. The water was already inside. A tree crashed onto the roof, and part of the ceiling cracked open.

They knew they had to escape and take their chances walking through chest-deep water.

Dad put his daughter on his back. He carried their family’s white French poodle in one arm and held onto his wife with the other.

Nancy, who doesn’t know how to swim, was scared. Johny tried to reassure her.

“La anciedad es el peor enemigo de uno. El miedo ...” he said in Spanish. “Anxiety and fear is a person’s worst enemy. I was trying to tell her that nothing bad was going to happen.”

The family eventually reached dry land and waited to be rescued along Interstate 45.

Now, they spend their days cleaning up the rental home. Their landlord says they have to be out soon.

‘We have to start over’

They’re staying with a friend from church. They worry about the future.

“No tenemos familia ...” Nancy said in Spanish. “We don’t have family here. We don’t have anywhere to go. We have to start over.”

Starting over won’t be easy. Both parents are undocumented. They say their daughter was born in the U.S., so they should qualify for FEMA help. They’ve been told by the agency, though, that they can’t be approved until Dayana’s citizenship is verified. They don’t know how long that’ll be.

In a statement, FEMA says it must be able to verify an applicant’s identity with a valid Social Security number before considering eligibility for assistance. FEMA also said that individuals must fill out a Declaration and Release form that “asks applicants to declare, under penalty of perjury, that they are of eligible status.” Parents whose children are U.S. citizens may apply for assistance on behalf of children, as long as they live together.

FEMA also says all individuals, regardless of their citizenship status, that have been impacted by presidentially declared disasters are eligible for “short-term, non-cash, in-kind emergency disaster relief programs.” That includes search and rescue, as well as medical care, shelter, food and water.

Credit Stella M. Chávez / KERA News
The Vazquez family is among countless families in the Houston area dumping out ruined belongings from Harvey.

‘My hands are tied’

The Vazquez family has another issue: Nancy and Johny have not been able to work. He works for a company that installs carpet and flooring. He drives a company van, which was damaged in the flood, too.

“No puedo. Les digo que estoy …” Johny said in Spanish.  “I’ve told them my hands are tied. They keep calling me to work but they’re not telling me they’re going to get me another car.”

Nancy was born in Mexico City. She’s a make-up artist and worked out of their home. Johny, who’s Salvadoran, has money saved up, but it’s not nearly enough.

Tears flow up every time Nancy talks about their situation.

“No hay tanto ayuda…” she said in Spanish. “There isn’t a lot of help for people like us. We’ve never asked for assistance and now that we have, there isn’t.”

So it’s back to cleaning out the house — and to waiting.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.