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How Were Undocumented Families Impacted By California’s Wildfires?

The Northern California wildfires have hit the undocumented immigrant population hard, with little relief in sight.
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ORANGE, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 09: A firefighter looks up at a water dropping helicopter circling the fire at Peters Canyon Regional Park on October 9, 2017 in Orange County, California. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When the unprecedented wildfires swept through eastern Sonoma County, Napa and Mendocino counties in October they devastated hundreds of thousands of lives in mere hours. Reports rolled in over the next week of families who had made it out with minutes to spare, in only the clothes on their bodies, singed by the embers of their homes rising up around them as they dashed to safety in apocalyptic flames.

One group of people has been hit especially hard because they try to fly under the radar on the best of days—California’s undocumented immigrant population, who have been heavy targets of the Trump administration since it took office. Trump recently promised cities that report undocumented immigrants will receive tens of millions of dollars and additional law enforcement officers.

Tallies of the damage of the Northern California fires clocked in at about 5,700 houses and structures destroyed, and even more significantly damaged. Somewhere in the ballpark of 100,000 people have been displaced — whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) estimates that 38,500 undocumented children and adults called Sonoma County home. Many lost their homes and possessions in the Northern California fires, and others have lost jobs as businesses have had to shutter their doors to repair, though it’s hard to tally because many of them are skirting law enforcement and disaster relief officials.

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Many families were already living in fear since Trump began his crackdown crusade soon after his election, threatening more deportations, as well as the much contested rollback of the Dream Act (DACA), which allowed children of undocumented immigrants a chance to stay in the United States and work legally with permits they had to reapply for every two to five years. In the wake of this natural disaster, when many of those threatened by the fires were able to turn to shelters for safety, undocumented immigrants reportedly fled for other locales, fearful of what might happen to them.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins heard that many of them headed to the beaches of Bodega Bay, to camp outside rather than risk deportation. She visited the coastal town to see for herself.

“I saw dozens of families,” she told The Sacramento Bee. “There are traumatized. They lost homes. It’s cold out there. But they are afraid they will be targeted by ICE (federal immigrations officials) if they go to shelters.”

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OAK HILLS, CA – AUGUST 19: Miguel Ramos, 73, holds a single chicken that survived devastation caused by Blue Cut Fire that swept through his residence, on 6500 block of Oak Hills Road, burning guest house to grind and killing about 135 animals Oak Hills. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

While Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano tried to reassure people that nobody was checking documentation at shelters, the rumors still made their way around, allegedly keeping some people away.

The Los Angeles Times reports that ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan called Sonoma County out for “sanctuary city” policies that he claimed has “left their community vulnerable to dangerous individuals and preventable crimes.”

Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano disputed Homan’s statement, saying it was “inaccurate, inflammatory and damages the relationship we have with our community.”

In fact, Sonoma County is not an official sanctuary county, for fear of losing federal funds. However, Sonoma County and the city of Santa Rosa, where the wildfire did the most damage, did announce formally earlier in the year that they would support undocumented workers and work to protect them from targeted deportation policies.

Giordano pinned blame on ICE for sowing alarm at a time when law enforcement offices were working overtime to save lives and reassure survivors, regardless of their immigration status.

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  • Jordan Rosenfeld is author of 7 books and has published in: The Atlantic, the Daily Beast, the New York Times, Pacific Standard, Quartz, Salon, the Washington Post and many more. Her writing can be found on www.jordanrosenfeld.net, and you can follow her on Twitter @JordanRosenfeld.

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