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Groups stepping in to help undocumented fire survivors

In reference to aid for victims of the Almeda and South Obenchain fires, John Vial, Jackson County parks and roads director, recently stated that “Red Cross is providing housing. They’re not restricted as a nonprofit the way some that some government organizations are, so they are housing undocumented. But as that runs out and that direct housing mission takes over, those undocumented folks are going to have an issue.”

The county doesn’t know how many people are ineligible for FEMA housing assistance, said Vial, but it’s “a pretty good number.”

FEMA, according to Vial, refuses to aid these people because they are “undocumented.”

Before the fires, they were paying rent or house payments, working and contributing to our community in many other ways, yet they are now told they can’t get benefits other displaced persons are eligible to receive. They are not “us,” as in “US.” They are “them,” as in “those people.” They don’t have the right documentation to be considered our equals and, therefore, worthy of aid.

Is this FEMA policy something that has been in effect for several years or is it something President Trump added to the rules? Is some other governmental or nonprofit agency — Jackson County for example — going to step in and help?

— Tom, Ashland

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rule that undocumented immigrants aren’t eligible for certain types of disaster aid was in place before President Donald Trump took office, according to a 2020 fact check article by the Reuters news organization.

Undocumented immigrants have long been ineligible for many federal benefits.

When it comes to FEMA, they can’t get cash assistance through programs like the Individuals and Households Program or Disaster Unemployment Assistance, according to FEMA.

Some categories of immigrants who are in the country legally also can’t get FEMA cash aid, including foreign students and temporary work visa holders.

U.S. citizens, noncitizen nationals and qualified aliens can get help.

Alternately, a household may be eligible for FEMA aid if it had at least one person in the household with qualifying immigration status during the disaster, including a child.

The disastrous September fires that destroyed thousands of homes in Jackson County displaced hundreds of people who don’t have the immigration status needed to qualify for FEMA aid, local officials estimate.

A variety of organizations have been helping or are poised to help all fire survivors, regardless of immigration status.

“These people have lost their homes,” said John Vial, director of both the Jackson County Roads and Parks Department and the Emergency Operations Center.

The organizations include the Jackson County government, the American Red Cross, United Way of Jackson County, the Unete Center for Farmworker Advocacy, Rogue Food Unites, the Salvation Army, faith-based groups and more, Vial said.

The Red Cross has a contract with the state of Oregon to shelter fire survivors in local hotels. That contract ends Dec. 31, but the state has promised another entity will carry on that mission, Vial said.

“They won’t be left high and dry,” Vial said of the fire survivors still living in hotels.

Eventually that state help will end, and the local community will have to step up more than ever to assist vulnerable people, he said.

Many organizations, businesses and individuals are preparing to help with medium- and long-term assistance as the community rebuilds from the fires, according to county officials and others helping with recovery efforts.

Vial said not everyone’s needs can be met completely, but the combined efforts will at least help the fire survivors.

Anyone can call 2-1-1, a clearinghouse for information on a variety of resources.

Jackson County also created a website at roguevalley.recovers.org where people can find information about how to get help, how to give and how to volunteer.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; or by email to youasked@rosebudmedia.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.