California's Wildfires Are Forcing Undocumented Immigrants To Choose Between Deportation & Death

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The extent of devastation inflicted by the recent wildfires in California is difficult to fathom. With 217,000 acres burned, 5,700 structures destroyed, and at least 41 people killed, the scope of destruction has been described as unprecedented. In the words of Gov. Jerry Brown, "This is truly one of the greatest, if not the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced." But for undocumented immigrants, recovering from the California wildfires will be even harder. With few legal protections, limited resources, and increasingly expensive rents in northern California, many of them may be forced to leave the area altogether.

Alegría De La Cruz, Chief Deputy County Counselor of Sonoma County, tells Bustle that undocumented immigrants have been "seeking alternative shelter." She adds that many are "headed out to the beaches to camp instead of going to shelters" because the fear of ICE officials keeps them away.

As Sonoma County is the chief service provider for its substantial undocumented population, they are well-practiced in getting information and aid to those in need. But according to De La Cruz, the harsh tone from the current administration and its strict enforcement of immigration law has had a pernicious affect on their ability to reach the most vulnerable.

"People's fears are elevated to levels we have never seen. Those fears are real," says De La Cruz. She cited one particularly ominous possibility: immigrants trained to not answer a government official at the door could have missed an evacuation order.

De La Cruz adds that the current situation is one "ripe for people trying to stay under the radar, and avoid contact with government." As she notes, a natural disaster brings a conspicuous increase of government personnel, an influx of officials sent for the explicit purpose of helping victims. That offer of help is irrelevant when people are too afraid to accept it.

Many undocumented workers are afraid to seek help in the first place due to fears of deportation. On Oct. 13, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that it would suspend non-criminal immigration enforcement at all shelters and evacuation centers set up in response to the wildfires. Local residents had raised concerns that should they check in at one of these locations, they would be subject to arrest and possible deportation.

It's a fear that appears to linger, even after ICE's promise to refrain from any non-criminal arrests. According to Miriam Jordan at The New York Times, there were "no Latinos in sight" on a recent visit to the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa, a location that has become a temporary shelter for fire evacuees.

This raises the question of not only where undocumented immigrants are staying temporarily now that wildfires have destroyed their homes, but where they will go after the disaster dies down. While rents were already high by national standards, the suddenly enormous demand for replacement housing in California's wine country has some reporting yet another increase in rental prices. De La Cruz says there is absolutely "price gouging" underway, with rents skyrocketing in Sonoma County. On top of that, they've had reports of landlords who have lost their residence to the fires now giving notice to tenets that they will need to move.

De La Cruz emphasizes that Sonoma County takes its role "very seriously" in helping its immigrant community recover. She notes that all basic services — water, food, shelter, etc. — are open to everyone, regardless of legal status. California also offers benefits that the federal government does not, which is information that De La Cruz and her team are translating and working hard to deliver to the undocumented immigrants who will still be living in fear, even after the fires have gone.