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Hurricane Katrina Assistance For Affected Persons With Immigration Concerns

by Gregory Siskind

Hurricane Katrina, possibly the worst natural disaster to hit the United States in the last hundred years, is having an immigration impact that is, in many cases, extremely significant. We have read and seen plenty of coverage about Katrina generally, but the immigration consequences are only just starting to become apparent.

Government offices and the courts have been closed and the fate of people with applications pending there are not clear. Displaced individuals are facing potentially severe immigration consequences. More than 40 immigration lawyers in the area have been displaced.

This issue of our newsletter is devoted to piecing together everything we know about Katrina. A lot we still don’t know as government agencies are still developing policies. We expect to continue reporting on Katrina in future newsletters as we learn more. If you have questions beyond what we’ve answered in this newsletter, let us know.

In my own practice, Katrina has become front and center. I was appointed this week as the chairman of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Katrina Task Force. The Task Force is charged with assisting the dozens of lawyers affected by the storm re-establish their practices and we will be leading fundraising efforts to support that effort. Immediately after it became clear how severe the storm was, AILA kicked into action to help its members. The efforts it has gone to – finding its members housing, job offers, office space, supplies, books, and more – should serve as a model to every bar association in the country.

In my local community of Memphis, there are anywhere from 12,000 to 25,000 evacuees (no one really knows for sure how many there are). Memphis has embraced these folks and it seems everyone is doing one thing or another to be helpful. I’m chairing a job placement task force for a non-profit social services agency that I serve as its vice president.

There are many ways readers of this newsletter can help. Obviously, people can donate money and volunteer if they have any of an estimated 1.5 million evacuees in their community. For immigration lawyers, one thing that would be a big help is to volunteer to provide legal assistance to indigent immigrants dealing with consequences of the storm as well as outsourcing work on cases to Gulf Coast immigration lawyers.

And there will soon be legislation proposed in Congress to help immigrants adversely affected by the storm. We’ll publicize that legislation and readers are encouraged to be vocal in support.

Let’s hope it is a long time before we ever have to put out a newsletter like this again.

What disaster assistance is available to immigrants and other aliens affected by Hurricane Katrina?

Many different programs offer disaster assistance to qualified immigrants (usually permanent residents) including food, rental and mortgage assistance, temporary housing allowances, grants for repairs, short-term cash, small business loans and more. The Guide to Immigrant Eligibility for Federal Programs, Revised September 2005 published by the National Immigration Law Center lists the following agencies with an overview of the disaster assistance available to qualified immigrants:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides:

  • Temporary housing assistance, or rental payments for persons displaced due to Hurricane Katrina.
  • Mortgage and rental assistance for economic hardship suffered offered to Hurricane Katrina’s victims who may also face eviction or foreclosure.
  • Minimal repair money up to $10,000 for homeowners so that they may restore habitability of their homes.
Look for FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers in affected areas.

The Individual and Family Grant Program (IFGP) provides:
  • Money for repairs, replacement of household items, job essentials, medical, dental and funeral costs in the form of grants to those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
  • Money for purposes other than medical, dental and funeral for those persons affected by Katrina and not eligible for SBA loans, or for those persons who received an inadequate SBA loan.
IFGP is administered through Offices of Emergency Services or similar state agencies.

Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) provides:
  • Cash to replace income for those who are unemployed due to Hurricane Katrina.
DUA is administered through the Department of Labor through state employment agencies.

Food Programs provide:
  • Emergency food stamps and food are provided to meet emergency needs.
Food Programs are administered through state social services agencies and similar local organizations as a service provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Small Business Administration (SBA) provides:
  • Low interest loans for repairs to homeowners and renters as well as to large and small business owners.
National Immigration Legal Center (NILC) has an overview of Immigrant Eligibility for Disaster Assistance on the website at

Which immigrants qualify for these programs?

“Qualified” immigrants can apply for any of the benefits described above. They include the following groups:
  • lawful permanent residents
  • refugees, asylees and certain parolees
  • Cuban/Haitian entrants
  • battered spouses and children pursuing immigration benefits based on that status
Undocumented and non-immigrant workers in the US are eligible for non-cash, in kind emergency disaster relief such as food and shelter, search and rescue and emergency medical care.
For more information, go to .

If I accept emergency assistance, am I at risk of being considered a “public charge”?

No. Accepting assistance will not have a negative consequence on your immigration status unless you fraudulently obtain such assistance.

Will undocumented aliens expose themselves to deportation if they seek help?

Estimates suggest that about 40,000 undocumented Mexicans were living in Louisiana, the majority in New Orleans, at the time Hurricane Katrina devastated the area.

According to an Associated Press report, the Department of Homeland Security has refused to state that undocumented immigrants who seek help will not be arrested and deported (despite making such a statement after 9/11. And Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has stated that ICE officials continue to operate in the affected area (though they state their goal is to preserve law and order).

President Vincente Fox announced last Friday, September 2, 2005, that Mexican and U.S. government officials have agreed those migrants who are not documented, and are affected by Hurricane Katrina, will not be subject to any pressure or prosecution by U.S. officials. The agreement allows those victims who are undocumented to approach authorities and ask for support and aid. But we have not seen any other information about such an impending agreement.

Additionally, temporary foreign consulates will be set up near the disaster area to help Mexicans and Central Americans in need of assistance. Embassies from other countries should also be contacted for advice. Go to to find the embassy of your country.

Can employers hire an individual who has no personal documents for I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on September 6, 2005 that it will refrain from initiating employer sanction actions for the next for 45 days for violations of I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification procedures. U.S. employers are responsible for completing and retaining documents from hired individuals. Regulations require employers to verify employment eligibility and identity through original documents presented by employees.

Due to the losses caused by Hurricane Katrina, many individuals have lost documents required by this procedure. Also, many government agencies in the affected regions have suffered destruction or damage so that many individuals are unable to apply for replacement documents.

The DHS will not enforce this procedure for the next 45 days so that employers can hire individuals evacuated or displaced from affected areas, otherwise eligible for employment, but lacking personal documents. DHS will review this policy at the end of 45 days.

Note that employers are still required to complete I-9 forms for new employees as much as possible but will not be penalized if documentation is not available.

What will happen with all petitions and cases pending at the USCIS, DOL, and EOIR offices in New Orleans?

All offices in New Orleans are currently closed. As of September 9, 2005, the USCIS has reported that all files in New Orleans are intact, but it will likely be some weeks before they are accessible. In the meantime, the New Orleans operations office is located in the Memphis, Tennessee Sub-Office and all other USCIS offices will be assisting in providing services and benefits to those affected by Katrina. In addition, many questions can be answered and forms can be filed by visiting the website at

The address for the Memphis Sub Office is
842 Virginia Run Cove
Memphis, Tennessee 38134.

Other regional offices servicing USCIS customers are as follows:

USCIS office/ Mississippi
100 West Capitol Street
Jackson, Mississippi 39269

USCIS office/ Arkansas
4977 Old Greenwood Road
Fort Smith, Arkansas 72903

The USCIS established the following points of contact for those in need of assistance in Texas:

Dallas District Office
8101 North Stemmons Freeway
Dallas, Texas 75247
Located between Mockingbird Lane and Empire Central inbound side of I-35.

Houston District Office
126 Northpoint
Houston, Texas 77060
Located in north Houston in Greenspoint area, approximately five miles south of Bush International Airport.
Contact: Norma Estimbo Lacy (281) 774-5873

San Antonio District Office
8940 Fourwinds Drive
San Antonio, Texas 78239
Located in northeast San Antonio in the cloverleaf intersection of I-35 and Loop 410.
Contact: Jacque Crouse (210) 967-7141

No filings can be made at Immigration Court in New Orleans and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) has suspended work on cases that originated from New Orleans. At this time, the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR) is working on uniform policy for filings for the regional offices in affected areas and is considering issues such as aging of petitions, filings, deadlines, reconstruction of files and more as they come up.

The Department of State (DOS) will give priority appointments to Family and Next of Kin of hurricane victims. All DOS posts will give humanitarian consideration to applicants and accommodate emergency cases as quickly as possible. This special consideration will be limited to family and next of kin. DOS officers will refer applicants looking for loved ones to the website compiled by FEMA at Click on Finding Friends and Information.

Are the records lost from USCIS in New Orleans?

The USCIS has announced that their office in New Orleans was not damaged and that it’s records are intact. We have been informed that it will still be several weeks before they can access the records.

How will the Immigration Court in New Orleans be Affected?

The court is closed until further notice. We have been informed that no action will be taken on any case arising out of hurricane-affected areas until proper procedures are set up.

We do not yet know the state of records at the Immigration Court and the court has said very little except that its personnel are safe.

Have naturalization services been cancelled for USCIS customers from the New Orleans district?

Yes, naturalization services in the affected areas have been cancelled until further notice. Those who have pending naturalization and adjustment of status interviews will be contacted as soon as information becomes available.

How can affected USCIS customers replace lost immigration documents?

All USCIS offices will assist those affected by Katrina in replacing immigration documents. The USCIS offices will verify identity and immigration status through electronic file data before re-issuing immigration related documents.

What should J-1 exchange visitors do if their programs have been disrupted by the hurricane?

The DOS advises all J-1 exchange visitors to contact their program sponsors. We do not expect J-1 visa holders will be penalized in any way for the disruption, but have not received further information yet.

What should F-1 or M Foreign Students do if they are currently studying at a school affected by the disaster?

Foreign students should attempt to contact the designated school official if available. If not, contact the SEVIS office at 202-305-2346 or email and include date of birth, SEVIS ID# and school information. Foreign students should let the SEVIS officer know if they plan to delay entry until the school is operational, or transfer to another educational institution. New F or M students who were unable to contact their designated school will receive a new report date and new I-20 if the school is operational. Students who transfer to a new school should contact the school directly for the new I-20. This particular transfer will not be subject to a new SEVIS fee. Still, students may need to obtain a new visa that indicates the new school. Students will also not have to pay a new MRV fee.

The Department of State asks that inquiries about foreign students be directed to SEVIS to which has detailed information for students affected by Hurricane Katrina concerning the following issues:
  • Transfers
  • Transcripts
  • Status concerns
  • Residence and money problems
  • Lost documentation
  • Address changes
  • OPT issues
  • Fall enrollment problems
  • Contact information
What happened to passport applications processed through the New Orleans Passport office?

The DOS announced on September 7, 2005 that all materials in the New Orleans Passport Agency have been collected and transported to another location. These materials include personal documents and applications from individuals applying for passports.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs is in the process of mailing postcards to applicants notifying them of the disruptions and possible delays caused by Hurricane Katrina. Anyone with pending passport applications at the New Orleans Passport Office planning to travel in the next six weeks should contact the National Passport Information Center at 1-877-487-2778.

What if I have family impacted by Hurricane Katrina and need to travel to the US as quickly as possible?

The Department of State has announced that consular posts are instructed to expedite visa appointments for immediate family members and next of kin of Hurricane victims and are requested to extend “humanitarian considerations.

What if I lost my job as a result of the hurricane and I am on a non-immigrant work visa specific to that job?

Technically, one must be employed by the sponsoring employer in the typical non-immigrant work visa scenario in order to remain in legal status.

If one is still on the payroll of an employer, then arguably there is no status violation. The worker could argue that the leave was involuntary and applies across the board to all workers so there is no “benching.” And USCIS is expected to take a liberal approach when it comes to people affected by Katrina.

As for terminated workers, we still have no instructions from USCIS. We believe it will accommodating in forgiving status violations caused by the storm and allow late filed change of status applications as workers locate new employment. Regulations permit late filing when there are extraordinary circumstances and this would certainly be the case here.

A possible strategy would be to file to change status to that of a visitor and request a waiver of the requirement to timely file for such a change. Then when a new job is found, apply to change back.
We will advise readers as we learn more.

What if the hurricane causes me to be late in meeting a filing deadline or miss an interview?

We are awaiting information from USCIS, DOS, EOIR and DOL on late filings, but expect each agency to be accommodating. One key deadline is for Diversity Visa applicants who must complete processing by September 30th. AILA is working with each agency on establishing a policy to ensure applicants are not penalized because of the storm.

Do I need to file an AR-11 form if I have been displaced?

All immigrants and non-immigrants are required to submit an AR-11 form each time they move to a new location. USCIS has not commented yet on what to do with respect to AR-11 forms, but the easiest thing to do is just to download the form at and mail it in. If that is not possible, we expect USCIS to be forgiving as long as the requirement is met as soon as possible.

What will happen with cases pending in the United States Fifth Circuit Court?

The U.S. Fifth Circuit is closed and will remain closed until September 13, 2005. No filings can be made at this time. Therefore, all filing deadlines on or after August 24, 2005 through September 30, 2005 have been automatically extended until October 3, 2005 and may be extended further. Please check filing procedures after Hurricane Katrina posted on the website at before filing.

True emergency matters, e.g. deportation cases with imminent and confirmed deportation dates, may be filed by fax at 713-250-5050 or mailed or delivered to the following address:

Chambers of Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King
Room 11020
515 Rusk Street
Houston, Texas 77002

The Fifth Circuit anticipates opening the clerk’s office on September 14, 2005 to handle a broader range of matters. Please consult the website frequently to receive updated information.

Can immigration lawyers displaced by Hurricane Katrina practice law in other states without a license?

Immigration lawyers have always had greater flexibility to practice in other states than where they took the bar examination because immigration law is strictly federal in nature. However, beyond this, state bars in states bordering those directly affected by the hurricane have issued memoranda in recent days making it clear that they will be flexible. A good place to go for more information on this topic is

Texas is a good example of a state that has quickly moved to make things easier. The Texas Supreme Court ordered that displaced lawyers from regions affected by Hurricane Katrina will be permitted temporarily to practice law in Texas.

The Texas Supreme Court also instructed the State Bar to withhold for 30 days suspensions due to nonpayment of fees for Texas licenses for those lawyers from affected regions with Texas licenses. Additionally, late fees will be waived for those applicants from Katrina-affected regions who are planning to take the next Texas bar exam, but did not meet the August 30 deadline.

Will Congress acy to help immigrants facing adverse immigration consequences as a result of the hurricane?

A legislative package is in the works that will address many issues immigrants are facing as a result of the storm. The bill may resemble a similar law passed after 9/11. There are some in Congress who have already expressed hostility and want to ensure that no one is better off from an immigration point of view after the storm than before it. We will report on this as we learn more.

I have had difficulty reaching my lawyer? What should I do? First, as chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s Katrina Task Force, I have been in contact with most of the immigration lawyers affected by Katrina. Only a few have not been in communication with me. The American Immigration Lawyers Association is working with all affected lawyers to get their phones working and we expect this to be accomplished within the next few days. While they are scattered across many cities, they still will be able to represent you. In most cases, it is not necessary to use a local immigration lawyer. And where a local lawyer is needed, AILA members are working with Gulf Coast lawyers to appear on their behalf.

In the mean time, you can contact AILA at and they should be able to get you in contact with your lawyer if you have not already had success.

Most affected lawyers, by the way, still have email working and still have web sites running. So consider using those means of communicating.

What will happen to correspondence from government agencies being sent to addresses in affected areas?

The American Immigration Lawyers Association is working with USCIS right now on a policy that will minimize problems associated with correspondence going awry due to the storm. We will report as we learn more about the policy that will be taken.

About The Author

Gregory Siskind is a partner in Siskind Susser's Memphis, Tennessee, office. After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, he received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Chicago. Mr. Siskind is a member of AILA, a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and a member of the ABA, where he serves on the LPM Publishing Board as Marketing Vice Chairman. He is the author of several books, including the J Visa Guidebook and The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. Mr. Siskind practices all areas of immigration law, specializing in immigration matters of the health care and technology industries. He can be reached by email at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.