The Florida Migrant Town That FEMA Forgot

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There’s a big, early-season storm blowing itself out in the Gulf of Mexico...There are over 700 known dead so far...That’s nature. Is it God? Most of the dead are the street poor who have nowhere to go and who don’t hear the warnings until it’s too late for their feet to take them to safety. Where’s safety for them anyway? Is it a sin against God to be poor?

—Octavia Butler, 1993

Climate change affects everyone, but in the immediate aftermath of “natural” disasters and extreme weather, the poorest among us suffer the most. In Splinter’s new series, Fault Lines, we explore the many ways our society’s most vulnerable people get hurt by climate-related crises—and how they become canaries in coal mines while staring down our environment’s uncertain future.

As many residents opened their shuttered doors when the rain stopped and the winds quieted, they discovered a different Florida than the one they had sequestered themselves from hours prior. Hurricane Irma whipped through the state, downing power lines in 90-degree weather, uprooting trees, and turning streets into rivers.

Prior to its landfall in the Florida Keys, the feared “mega storm” had already become one of the most powerful on record, with 185 mph winds raging for almost 40 hours straight. The entire state felt its fury from tip to toe. Viral images spread of a flooded downtown Miami, muddied Everglades City, and the St. Johns River in the far north rose to record-breaking heights. In the gulf, winds blew counterclockwise, spinning Tampa Bay dry and turning it into a beach. Irma had not left any of Florida’s paradisiacal locations unscathed.

And just 50 miles east of Naples, a city with the second-highest percentage of millionaires in the U.S., a small agrarian town of less than 25,000 called Immokalee was torn asunder. Their houses were submerged and without electricity in the scorching heat, too. But unlike the millionaires an hour’s drive away, they were forgotten.

After all, the majority of Immokalee residents are undocumented immigrants, living lost in translation and disconnected from a greater federal or state government that should be protecting them.

When we arrived two weeks after the storm hit, Immokalee town residents were still completely devastated and distressed. But amidst the debris, something stronger than sturdy homes was being rebuilt. Amid the wreckage, there was a deeper sense of America than we could have ever imagined.

Even before she came out of hiding, Sandra Guzman knew her home had been affected. She just didn’t think it would leave her homeless.

“I was terrified. I could hear the beating of the panels and the wind that just wouldn’t stop,” recalled Guzman, a five-foot-nothing woman with jet black hair and skin that’s turned crimson from nine years of daily tomato-picking. She showed Stephen, the photographer, and me around her gray, flimsy, worn-down mobile home, which was now split in two.

Sandra weathered the storm inside a house made of cinderblocks and concrete that her sister-in-law rents off the same landlord on the lot. At one point there were at least 10 people sleeping on beds and on the floor. She waited there for a few days hoping someone would glue it back together, or else replace it. Instead, when Collier County officials finally came, they simply slapped a red notice on the outside of the trailer and condemned it.

The landlord said he’d eventually get a replacement mobile home when his insurance money kicks in, but that wouldn’t be until next year. If she wanted to stay in Immokalee, she would have to find another place to live. If not, she would be obligated to head north beyond state lines, possibly to Georgia or even Ohio where she had lived some time ago before having her daughter. “But with what money?” she asked. “Todo es dinero”—everything costs money. Irma’s effect was pushing her closer to the edge than ever.

The Census Bureau estimates that about 3.3 million people live in poverty in Florida—nearly 16 percent of the state’s 20.6 million residents, Sandra Guzman among them, although it is unclear if this number includes undocumented residents. The idea of leaving Immokalee made her shudder.

“My daughter is happy at school and her cousins are here, too,” Guzman said. “This place feels like el pueblo,” referring to her hometown of Chiapas, Mexico.

The problem is that homes aren’t easy to come by. At first glance, the restaurants and local bodegas run by immigrants in Immokalee belies the fact that this is a completely underground economy operating in plain sight. But when you are undocumented, you are not only unaccounted for, but at the mercy of those willing to do business with you. People like landlords collecting rent without ever having you sign a lease, allowing for arbitrary weekly per-person rates. Guzman was paying $750 a month in rent, almost two-thirds of her earnings. Even those who are able to leave the fields and open a shop fall prey to price-gouging and have to pay for inventory with cash upfront.

This also means evacuating wasn’t an option for Guzman, who lacked transportation to get to a shelter, and couldn’t afford gas to drive north or to rent a hotel room. She can’t even rely on a car-sharing service app like Uber to get around Immokalee when she is tired because to do so, she would need to link it to a debit or credit card. Guzman thus depends on raiteros, drivers who transport Latino workers. Except these drivers price-hike, too. When she showed me the route from the grocery store to the mobile home lot, I opened up my app to see how much an Uber drive would cost for the two-mile ride. My phone said $6. Guzman said the raiteros charge her $20 to cover the same distance.

It became evident that facing the biggest storm to hit in Florida’s history was far worse when you’re an undocumented migrant. Their reality is a modern Grapes of Wrath. The world becomes smaller. People are reduced to being “pain covered with skin.”

In the days when Irma was approaching Florida, an estimated 6.3 million people were directed through mandatory or voluntary evacuations to find shelter inland or further away. The state has not estimated how many people took to the road in advance of the storm, but Veronica Padilla was among them.

The 27-year-old waitress originally from Queretaro, Mexico, packed up her kids and mom in her brand new Chevy Tahoe and drove up to Mississippi to stay with a friend, who grew up in Immokalee with her. Her husband stayed behind to finish storm-prepping their house in Lehigh Acres, located 20 miles north of Immokalee. They also expected that his family’s remodeling company would have a lot of work around the area after the storm.

But unlike other families she knew from growing up in The Village, a mobile home park in Immokalee where first- and second-generation immigrants still live today, she had made it out. Together she and her husband had saved up and purchased their own home.

“That house is definitely my pride and joy,” Padilla said. “It was us four kids. My dad died in Mexico when I was young, leaving my mom no choice. And it’s a hard life on the fields. She did the best she could, but I wanted more.”

Growing up, the lot kids would look after one another. Padilla said they’d have to go straight home after school and lock themselves inside. Nobody’s parents could pay a babysitter. Together they relied solely on a security guard who would circle the premises to let any parent know if they had gone outside. There was only one exception to the rule—and it wasn’t emergencies.

“When the ice cream man came, we would all run outside,” she explained with a soft smile. All of the kids would buy something. The ice cream man would compile a tab for each kid. Padilla said her mom and the other parents would pay it on Fridays after collecting their weekly paycheck.

Unlike her mother, Padilla’s story more closely resembles the journey of many young immigrants who were brought to the country at an early age without documentation and assimilated easily into U.S. culture. Many of them are DACA recipients. But in an unexpected turn of events, Padilla’s mom was able to file for legal status and extended it to her because she was underage at the time.

Padilla later became a U.S. citizen, which allowed her husband, whom she has been with since she was 19 years old, to adjust his legal status. Papers gave her visibility, and with visibility came options. Although she didn’t go on to college because she had her first child at 19, she secured a job at the nearby casino on the reservation run by the Seminole Tribe. This opened the door to a steady salary, savings, home ownership, and the possibility to pack up and go. There was a sense of certainty in knowing everything she worked for couldn’t be blown away.

As she faced the threat of Hurricane Irma, she had a choice, because she pays $2,000 in flood insurance in her house in LeHigh: She could evacuate.

“I knew that no matter what, we’d be covered.”

Like much of Central and South Florida history, Immokalee has always been the site of developers’ last-ditch efforts to create a profitable economic center for the rest of the nation. Edward R. Murrow immortalized this town in his 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame,” where he showed the brutal exploitation of migrant field workers. But even before then, after the turn of the 20th century, developers began to realize Florida’s potential for expansion if they could finally conquer the land explorers had described as “abominable.” If California was the frontier out west, then by God, Florida would be the South’s.

They only had one pesky problem: water. The peninsula was a covered swamp and getting it to dry out was like mining for gold. The Seminoles seemed to be the only ones adept at inhabiting the swamp, setting up temporary camps on high prairie land. Many swindled pioneers promising that once Florida was dry, it would become the “Empire of the Everglades,” an idyllic winter garden that would feed the country, if not the world.

Of course, in typical Florida fashion, the politics of swamp-drainage were shady. People were swindled to purchase“water-free homes” in towns with loopy names like Utopia and Hope City that still flooded in rainy season. By then it was the roaring ‘20s, a bonanza of American progressivism. In 1921, the Atlantic Coast Line Railway extended its service south and opened a direct overland route to Immokalee. Migrant workers flocked to the burgeoning farm and cattle scene. People became accustomed to the seasonal flooding.

And like everything in Florida, we only got serious about draining the swamp when catastrophe struck. In 1928 a Category 4 storm blasted Lake Okeechobee through a dike, killing 2,500 people. It was the second-largest natural disaster in U.S. history, “putting an abrupt end to the Everglades boom,” explained Michael Grunwald, author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise. “Florida is still recovering from the legacy of that hurricane.”

Only after the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, said Grunwald, did we send in the Army Corps of Engineers to build the most elaborate water management system of its time. Once dry, the whole area, including Immokalee, became part of Florida’s 9.45 million farm acres, now ranked second in vegetable food production in the country by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

But one look at Immokalee in the wake of Irma, and it’s clear just how much that success was built on shaky ground.

For 10 days after the storm hit, Guzman attempted to navigate a system that seemed to have left her and other Immokalee residents alone. When we met them, many said they felt abandoned. Delays in restoring power meant that families lost the majority of food they had stocked to prepare for the hurricane. Many could not work—farming jobs were suspended and people were busy arranging shelter—so this meant laborers fell short of their average weekly paycheck of $350.

“We still don’t know what will happen with rent payments,” said Wilson Perez, a Mam indigenous Guatemalan whose trailer flooded. He spent the hurricane at a local shelter. “Usually, landlords never credit any weeks. Who knows if the hurricane will be the exception?”

The total number of people homeless as a result of the hurricane in Immokalee is still unknown, but the American Red Cross Disaster Services reported they had at least 100 cases looking for shelter. For many residents, power returned only late last week.

Around the city, convoys of SUVs drove to churches to distribute food, water, and sanitary items to those most affected. While visiting Guzman’s trailer, a U-Haul and two pickup trucks arrived. Three volunteer couples had been driving back and forth from their homes in Central Florida to Immokalee. They were already on their third trip.

“Sure, other parts of the state were affected,” said Maria Vivas, a Ruskin resident who drove in one of the vehicles. “But people here are migrants who don’t have cars. We can go search for food and water, they’re stuck.” Guzman waited in line patiently next to the pickup trucks as children raced to get chips and cookies. She asked for a pair of shoes and some cookies for her daughter.

This makeshift aid station only heightened questions about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s whereabouts. The relief agency had already visited affluent areas to register people with damaged mobile homes, the same day President Donald Trump visited the region to give a speech about relief efforts.

We asked Pastor Louicesse Dorsaint of the Haitian United Evangelical Mission if he’d heard from FEMA.

“No. Who could be interested in Immokalee?” Dorsaint replied. “And yet no one could have ever imagined Jesus would be born in a place like Nazareth.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Immokalee’s district, vowed to The Naples Daily News that he would investigate why it had taken FEMA so long to get into the poorest areas of his district. The Congressman “has reached out to every relevant federal agency…He has also worked with outside organizations, including but not limited to NGOs, community churches, and local non-profits, to find assistance to aid all those impacted by the storm,” said Katrina Bishop, Communications Director for Diaz-Balart, in an email statement to Splinter.

According to Mary Hudak, a FEMA spokesperson, the agency would provide assistance to families that live in the same household as long as at least one child is a “U.S. citizen, non-citizen national, or a qualified alien.” In response to Splinter’s inquiry, she said “FEMA will not proactively provide information gathered through these applications with ICE of CBP for immigration enforcement purposes.”

Still, some Immokalee residents worry they won’t qualify if no one in their home had a social security number. Or worse, that if they apply, they’d be putting themselves at risk.

By Friday, Guzman had relocated with her family to a smaller trailer in a different lot.

“It’s too small, we barely have any room and there’s no air conditioning in part of the unit,” she explained. “Plus this other landlord wants a deposit and rent is $850.”

Earlier that afternoon, Stephen and I accompanied her to the local La Fiesta grocery store to replace everything that had spoiled. While there were some items you’d expect to see at U.S. supermarkets, I had only encountered the majority these of brands when I lived in Central America. By the cash registers, there was a money transfer kiosk decorated with colorful posters from regional banks like Banrural, which is the biggest remittance servicer in Guatemala.

Guzman was visibly disheartened. The heat was also an exhausting factor due to a complication from her diabetes, which causes a water imbalance in the body and intense thirst that can lead to kidney infections or seizures. Her medical treatment costs $500 a month.

Still, she is certain that she would not trade Immokalee for any other city in the U.S. That’s because she feels working conditions are better here in many fields than other places she had worked across the country. Guzman is also active in a women’s group from the Coalition for Immokalee Workers that works to improve conditions for laborers. “We don’t have to endure abuses. We have rights,” Guzman said.

But everyone has a breaking point, and she seemed to be nearing hers. We spoke of Mexico. Just three days before Irma, a powerful earthquake killed 36 people in the southern part of the country. It damaged her parents’ home in Chiapas, destroying the kitchen and half of the house. Sometimes she wants to return; she has an older daughter in Mexico who is almost 18 years old, but she doesn’t want to come to the U.S. Guzman’s husband, on the other hand, believes they should stay, especially because of their youngest daughter Maria, who is six years old.

“It’s really hard for me. My heart is split in two,” she said.

When asked if it’s her faith that keeps her going, she said some days she wakes up with it and others she doesn’t. “Pero siempre me levanto con familia”—but she always wakes up with family.

If it weren’t for her family, Padilla said she would be living in Kansas City by now. But her husband hasn’t been able to convince her to move away. That’s because, much like Guzman, there is a greater sense that Immokalee is home.

“Everyone is here—my mom, my siblings, cousins. I went to Immokalee High. This is home,” Padilla explained.

Every person we encountered—whether a migrant worker, clergyman, or student —echoed a similar sentiment. Most migrant towns are by definition transient, and Immokalee residents have every reason to flee after a devastating hurricane. But the spirit of camaraderie and solidarity displayed all over town was palpable. No one was going anywhere. Beyond the dozens of fields connected by a haphazard Main Street, something other than tomatoes had been planted.

When you are invisible to the state, your sense of community is greater, explains Paul Ortiz, history professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Immokalee is situated within Collier County, but is unincorporated and has no municipal government. “Immokalee has become this resilient transnational community because of organizers that have been there since the 1990s,” Ortiz said. “Our people have learned wherever we’re at, we have to learn to take care of one another.”

Immokalee provided a glimpse of the resiliency possible despite the trauma of the immigrant experience. It was a message of hope even for Stephen and me; we, too, belong to immigrant families who dreamed of a better future. I realized Immokalee was one of the most American towns I’d ever seen.

“What we’re seeing here is an example for us,” says Anita Isaacs, professor of Political Science at Haverford College. “We have forgotten empathy and social solidarity.” Communities like Immokalee, she told me, “are part of the essence of American life.”

As we took off back to Miami on state route 29, I noticed the “Welcome to Immokalee” sign at a distance. A painting of a woven basket filled with colorful vegetables and a red sunrise was displayed above. Underneath was the English translation of the word Immokalee from the Seminole language.

It means, “my home.”

Romina Ruiz-Goiriena is a senior reporter, producer and digital media entrepreneur who has worked in Paris, Cuba, and Israel for France24, El Mundo, and Haaretz. Most recently, she worked for CNN out of Guatemala and The Associated Press, where she reported on key regional issues such as migration and drug trafficking.