APOPKA, Fla. (Reuters) - With Hurricane Irma barrelling down on Central Florida, Apopka resident Carmen Nova had a decision to make.
A Mexican immigrant living in the country illegally, she knew her mobile home was at risk in the storm. But the 30-year-old mother of three also knew that seeking protection could pose its own hazards.
In a time of increasing public sentiment against illegal immigration, undocumented immigrants like Nova are nervous about reporting to authorities, even if it is to take refuge from a hurricane.
“There’s an internal storm, there’s an external storm, and there’s a political storm, and they’re all targeting this community,” said Sister Ann Kendrick, a Roman Catholic nun, community organizer and immigrant rights advocate.
“They’re getting hammered,” said Kendrick, who has worked hard in advance of the hurricane to convince undocumented immigrants that it is safer to take shelter than to remain in less-than-sturdy homes.
Like other counties in Florida, Apopka’s Orange County issued an evacuation order for people living in mobile homes, which are also known as manufactured homes and are a popular housing choice for immigrants.
Fears among immigrants in the area were heightened in recent days after the sheriff in neighbouring Polk County pledged to check criminal records of people seeking shelter.
Although the statement did not mention immigration status and officials later clarified that undocumented immigrants would not be targeted, the warning nevertheless reverberated in migrant communities.
In Apopka, a town of about 50,000 people outside Orlando, Kendrick had plenty of work to do in advance of the storm.
The area’s undocumented immigrants historically came to the area to work on farms but in more recent years have shifted to construction, landscaping and housekeeping.
Tirso Moreno, leader of the Apopka-based Farmworker Association of Florida, said the Polk County warning had an impact in Orange County.
“It scared people,” said Moreno, who also spread the word with immigrants that they must take shelter.
Moreno said he was not convinced that all the undocumented workers he spoke with would take his advice, saying some were likely to wait out the storm in their mobile homes.
“The big problem is that many of them don’t have enough information, although it’s better than it used to be now that we have more Spanish-language media,” Moreno said.
Kendrick said she fielded calls throughout the day on Friday from undocumented immigrants who wondered if it was safe to report to shelters.
About 50 people, including several undocumented families, were waiting in line outside a shelter at Apopka High School when it opened at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Kendrick said.
“They trust the schools, and they trust us, so if we tell them it’s safe, they’re coming,” Kendrick said.
Nova, who cleans houses for a $15 an hour while her husband works as a landscaper for $12 an hour, was among those who decided to seek shelter, saying she would put her fate in God’s hands.
“If they ask for papers, I don’t have them,” Nova said from her mobile home with boarded up windows as she prepared her family to move to the shelter. “The authorities will have to do what they have to do. I am not going to live in fear.”
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Sue Horton and Lisa Von Ahn