NEW YORK — Superstorm Sandy plunged some immigrants living illegally in the U.S. into darkness and even deeper into the shadows.
Some of those who need help to get temporary housing and food are afraid to come forward because they risk deportation. And many have returned to damaged, powerless, moldy homes because they have no other place to stay.
"My son has asthma and now he is worse. The house has this smell of humidity and sea water," Mexican immigrant Miguel Alarcon Morales said while holding his 2-year-old son, Josias. "It is not safe to live there. I am starting to feel sick, too."
Advocates are stepping up their efforts to get help to immigrants in hard-hit areas, in some cases going to door to door.
"If you are here illegally and you are at your home and see the National Guard and people in military uniform, going up and down, sure, you are going to be afraid," said Gonzalo Mercado, executive director of El Centro del Inmigrante, a nonprofit that helps day laborers and their families in Staten Island.
"To not be informed means to be afraid. That is why we are here, to inform immigrants of resources available to them," Mercado added.
The New York City area is home to more than 2.3 million Hispanics, according to census numbers, and some places hardest hit by the storm are known as landing spots for Mexican immigrants. Nonprofits that work in the area calculate at least 20,000 Mexicans in hard-hit Staten Island.
Officials from the Mexican government have visited shelters in New York and New Jersey looking for immigrants to help, informing them on how to obtain food stamps, financial assistance from FEMA or the Mexican government.
More than 735 people have signed up to receive economic help from the government of President Felipe Calderon, but there is only $180,000 so far to distribute, said the Mexican consul in New York, Carlos Sada. As of this week, 66 checks had been written to victims of the hurricane, totaling $110,000.
More than three weeks after Superstorm Sandy, the five members of the Morales family still live at their rental home in Staten Island, where floodwaters reached the second floor. Although the home has power now, there is no heat. The family uses only an electric heater.
Because Morales' children were born in the United States, he can apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency help, but he has been hesitant to do so.
"When one has no legal documents, that person will always think that there can be repercussions," said Morales, who lost his job at an ice cream store in New Jersey that closed after the storm. He now works part-time at a bakery.
Asked whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement had conducted immigration enforcement in the area in the aftermath of the storm, Luis Martinez, ICE's spokesman in New York, said the agency has been conducting "limited street enforcement operations." ICE director John Morton and deputy director Daniel Ragsdale visited New York and New Jersey at the beginning of the month "to survey efforts."
The agency will be "resuming normal enforcement activity, with continued emphasis on at-large criminal aliens, in the near future," an ICE statement to The Associated Press said.
Emilio Hector Gloria Fuentes, a 49-year-old immigrant from Morelos, said he is staying with some relatives in the home of a priest because they can't return to the basement where they lived in Staten Island.
Fuentes, who works in a pizzeria, is not eligible for FEMA help because of his immigration status.
"I had my savings, in cash, in that basement. I lost them all," he said. "A disaster like this is much worse for an undocumented person than for a United States citizen or someone with some money."
As Maria Lucero dealt with construction workers ripping down the walls of her living room, she lamented that her landlord said it will be at least a month before her family can return to their Staten Island home. Her family is fortunate to be able to stay with friends, Lucero said, but "I'm not comfortable without having my home."
Because they get paid in cash, immigrant workers lost money for the days they did not work after the storm. Without access to credit, their main hope now is to join reconstruction efforts as day laborers.
Mexican day laborer Eberto Silva didn't have to look far for such a job — his landlord hired him at $14 an hour to do cleaning and demolition work at an apartment complex in Coney Island.
"There is going to be more work for immigrants like me now," he said. "We may see that in the next few weeks."
Groups that are part of the National Day Labor Organizing Network have also brought day laborers to do volunteer cleanup activities on weekends. El Centro del Inmigrante is trying to become a hiring center for day laborers, making sure that they work in safe and secure conditions.
"A center like that is urgently needed," Mercado said. "We feel that now, after Sandy, this is the right moment to do it."