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Immigrant workers’ lives, livelihoods and documents in limbo after the Hawaii fire

by Ethan Kim
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Immigrant community

The rapid progression of the fire in Lahaina left immigrant workers like Freddy Tomas in a state of shock. As he was tending to his yard, the fire quickly approached his fence. In his attempt to salvage belongings from his home’s safe, he was forced to abandon the effort due to the urgency of the situation. Covered in soot, he managed to flee the area with his son, driving through thick smoke while following the taillights of the vehicle ahead.

Several days later, Tomas returned to his destroyed home with his son to search for the safe that had held valuable items such as passports, naturalization papers, important documents, and a substantial amount of money – a total of $35,000. Despite locating the safe, they discovered that the intense fire and powerful winds had caused it to open, leading to the incineration of its contents.

For individuals like Tomas, Lahaina had been a sanctuary, hosting a foreign-born population nearly twice as large as that of the U.S. mainland. Now, these immigrants are grappling with the aftermath of the fire that leveled the town on August 8.

The fire’s impact extended beyond property and documents, as confirmed by the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco, which reported the loss of life. Some residents, including workers from Mexico, suffered casualties, and numerous others remain unaccounted for. As Lahaina’s community comes to terms with the disaster, foreign-born workers are dealing with unemployment due to the devastation of businesses, housing, and livelihoods.

Immigration attorney Kevin Block observed that a significant portion of these immigrants are hesitant to seek assistance, fearing repercussions related to their immigration status. While government aid is available to disaster-affected individuals, some callers to the FEMA assistance hotline are instructed to provide a social security number, creating a barrier for those without such documentation.

Among those affected are immigrants who have spent their lives in Maui since childhood. They are demonstrating their resilience by stepping up as first responders, providing aid, and reaching out to assist those in need. Chuy Madrigal, a DACA recipient originally from Mexico, fled the fire with his extended family. They lost their home, which his mother had worked for decades to afford, as well as a recently established food truck business. Despite the fear that has permeated the community, Madrigal and others are uniting to gather supplies, offer translations, and provide emotional support.

In the face of adversity, these immigrants, like Madrigal’s family, are determined to rebuild their lives on Maui once again. The recovery process will be a testament to their strength and solidarity, reminding everyone of their vital contributions to the community.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Immigrant community

What happened in Lahaina due to the fire?

A fire swept through Lahaina, causing widespread devastation, destroying homes, documents, and lives of immigrant workers and residents.

How did Freddy Tomas react to the fire?

Freddy Tomas, an immigrant worker, fled as the fire rapidly approached his home. He attempted to retrieve valuables from a safe but had to escape due to the urgency of the situation.

What did the destroyed safe contain?

The safe held important documents, including passports and naturalization papers, along with a significant amount of money totaling $35,000.

How did immigrants contribute to Lahaina’s community?

Immigrant workers were a significant part of Lahaina’s population, contributing to its economy and workforce, with a foreign-born population nearly twice that of the U.S. mainland.

How did the Mexican Consulate assist?

The Mexican Consulate in San Francisco helped confirm casualties among Mexican nationals and aided in the return of their remains to their families. They also reissued lost passports and birth certificates.

What challenges do immigrant workers face after the fire?

Many immigrant workers lost their homes, livelihoods, and documents. They now confront unemployment, housing shortages, and uncertainty about their future in the aftermath of the disaster.

Are immigrant workers seeking assistance?

Some are hesitant to seek help due to fears related to their immigration status. Despite available government aid, lack of required documentation becomes a barrier for accessing assistance.

How are immigrants uniting after the fire?

Immigrants, including DACA recipients, are coming together to support their community. They are helping with supplies, translations, and emotional support for those affected by the disaster.

What’s the outlook for the immigrant community in Lahaina?

Despite the challenges, immigrants are determined to rebuild their lives on Maui, showcasing their resilience and emphasizing their essential role in the community’s recovery.

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