EVANS, Colorado (AP) — Immigrants living in the U.S. illegally returned to their mobile home parks in flood-ravaged Colorado to find that there was little left to salvage — not the water-damaged cars, not the old family pictures and not the sheds carried away by the rushing waters.
The destruction, however, was only the beginning of what's been a nightmarish two weeks. They didn't have flood insurance. And because they are not citizens or legal residents — and don't have family members who are — they won't get the federal government's help.
"They say that faith and hope die last," said Juan Partida, 40, a dairy worker who along with his wife Mari, who is pregnant, do not qualify for federal emergency aid because they are in the country illegally. "We need to have faith and hope that we'll get help."
How quickly they can rebuild their lives, relying largely on local government and nonprofit organizations, will have long-term ramifications on the industries that depend on their labor, from meatpacking plants and farms to construction and hotels.
"They're out of their homes, and a lot of them have lost their vehicles in this, they're impacted. So the economy is going to be impacted," said Lyle Achziger, mayor of Evans, a city on the northern plains whose population of 19,500 is 43 percent Latino.
Achziger said officials responding to the disaster have been learning about the immigrants' importance to the region's economy. He said the city hopes to get people help by getting them to register with the city, county and other volunteer aid organizations.
"We have told them that immigration status is not our focus. And I will repeat that again, that is not our focus. Our focus is getting people out of the cold, getting a roof over their head and getting them a warm meal," he said.
The JBS meatpacking plant employs nearly 50 immigrant workers whose families were displaced. The company has paid for hotels, delivered food, and tried to connect families with available services, company spokesman Cameron Bruett said.
"They're certainly a critical element of our team," Bruett said.
Many of the mobile park residents came from Mexico, and those in the country illegally will not get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency unless they have U.S. citizen children or a family member who is a legal resident.
For those who do qualify for FEMA aid, immigrant advocates are concerned there's a lack of Spanish-language speakers to help families navigate the system.
FEMA insists it has enough Spanish-speaking workers in the field helping immigrants. Spokesman Daniel Llargues said the agency is committed to "making sure that they're getting the information they need to recover" and that Spanish speakers have been knocking on doors and stationed at disaster assistance centers.
So far, many families have been relying on friends and relatives for housing, and volunteer organizations like the Red Cross, churches, and the Salvation Army for clothing, food and other supplies. There have also been anonymous donations. Someone paid for hotel lodging for 20 families until the end of the month.
"All of them have been amazing to the families, but it is on a temporary basis, day-by-day. Like you can sleep here for tonight, here's food for today," Milliken resident Allison MacDougall told FEMA officials at a town meeting this week.
The officials told her they wished there was another way, but that all they could do was refer them to volunteer aid organizations.
"We were flooded like everyone else. We suffered the same damage," said Norma Miramontes, 42, who along with her husband, a construction worker, is in the U.S. illegally.
They may be eligible for federal aid because her mother, who lives with them, is a legal resident, but they haven't heard back from FEMA. "We pay taxes, we work here," Miramontes said. "We're not getting something for free."