'We are human beings like everyone else'

Alexa, 52, and her daughter, Demaris, 11, duck under the collapsed roof of their destroyed home in Bloomington on Sept. 6. A tree cleaved the trailer home in two during Hurricane Harvey.

Alexa's hope of living a normal life in the United States with her 11-year-old daughter came crashing down with the tree that landed on her home during Hurricane Harvey.

Just two years ago, the mother and daughter moved from Mexico to Bloomington, a rural community of about 2,500 residents.

Alexa bought a trailer, her daughter started school and the two started settling into their new life in the U.S., she said.

But all that changed when Hurricane Harvey destroyed almost everything the family owned. For the past three weeks, Alexa has been trying to pick up the pieces - a difficult task because she doesn't qualify for federal assistance.

"We are starting from zero," Alexa said in Spanish. "Little by little, it will get better."

Alexa didn't want to be identified by her real name for fear of being discovered by federal immigration authorities - a fear that was amplified in the midst of Hurricane Harvey, when many undocumented immigrants were forced to seek resources and shelter provided by the federal government.

Hurricane Harvey destroyed thousands of homes from Corpus Christi to Houston - a city home to an estimated 575,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center.

Even though federal officials said undocumented residents would be protected from immigration enforcement at disaster shelters, some people were afraid to seek help.

The storm struck South Texas when undocumented communities were already on high alert. Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law that allows police to inquire about the immigration status of people they detain. The law was scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1 - just days after thousands of people lost their homes - but the law was temporarily halted.

"I do know that people are sometimes afraid to ask for assistance because they're afraid they might be reported to authorities," said Jann Tracey, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Whether undocumented immigrants seek shelter or apply for financial help to fix damaged homes, FEMA will not report their citizenship status to authorities, Tracey said.

"I think it's important for people to know that we don't report information to immigration services - nothing like that," she said.

Despite emergency officials' assurance, some families in Victoria County are still frightened.

For the past two weeks, Carl Dube has been installing tarps on damaged roofs and ripping out soaked insulation in Bloomington, where at least one-fifth of residents live in poverty, according to census estimates. So far, the volunteer has run into two undocumented families who lost their homes and were scared to ask FEMA for help, he said.

"They had been here awhile and bought property and put trailers on there," said Dube, who works with the Mennonite Disaster Service. "But that's all they had."

Even if one family member might qualify, undocumented families often lack proper paperwork needed to apply for assistance, he said. Or they're simply too afraid to ask for help in the first place.

"A lot of the time they're afraid to admit it - afraid to get their names anywhere," said Dube.

But all it takes is one person for an entire household to receive FEMA assistance, said the agency's spokeswoman. Parents and guardians can apply for assistance on behalf of a child who was born here, said Tracey.

"No information will be gathered on the adult's status," she said. "But the parent will be asked to sign a (document)."

There are also exceptions for people who have green cards, she said. Noncitizens who are given special designations such as refugee status, asylum status or are victims of domestic violence may also qualify for help.

But for those who don't qualify for financial assistance, finding resources in Victoria County is a challenge.

Despite hundreds of people losing their homes and apartments to Hurricane Harvey, there are no disaster shelters in the entire county. Most residents, like Alexa, were forced to rely on family, friends and volunteer groups for shelter and supplies.

All Alexa can do now is try to salvage belongings from what's left of her trailer. A family member is trying to apply for FEMA on her behalf, but she doesn't know whether it will work, she said.

Until then, she wishes she could find help like other Hurricane Harvey victims, she said.

"We are human beings like everyone else," said Alexa. "But there are people who just think about themselves and don't think about what others might be going through."

Advocate reporter Ismael Perez contributed to this report.

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Marina writes about housing, Hurricane Harvey recovery and local politics for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach Marina by emailing mriker@vicad.com or follow her on Twitter, @MarinaStarleaf.

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