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When fires rage, some unauthorized immigrants can't easily evacuate

by Stephanie Manuzak, Yale Climate Connections |

When wildfire swept through Northern California in 2017, more than 100,000 people evacuated. But many unauthorized immigrants stayed behind.

Some could not afford to leave. And many did not know about evacuation orders or air-quality warnings because little information was available in Spanish.

“Let alone any Indigenous Mexican or Central American languages,” says Michael Méndez of the University of California at Irvine.

He says many employers did not inform their workers of the risks, so a lot of farmhands continued working in smoky fields.

And if they got sick or lost their jobs, their status as unauthorized immigrants prevented them from accessing unemployment benefits and many forms of emergency relief.

“And if they are eligible, many are afraid to access those resources for fear of deportation, that they might end up on lists, and … the immigration and customs services may eventually deport them or their family members,” Méndez says.

So he says it’s critical that people receive emergency information in their own language. And he advocates for a relief fund for unauthorized migrants so they too can recover after a disaster.