UNITED STATES NEWS

Immigrant workers’ lives, livelihoods and documents in limbo after the Hawaii fire

Aug 20, 2023, 9:07 PM

LAHAINA, Hawaii (AP) — Freddy Tomas was working in his yard in Lahaina when the fire advanced with stunning speed right up to his fence. He rushed to save valuables from a safe inside his house but realized he didn’t have time and fled, his face blackened with soot.

Days after fleeing in his pickup truck, amid smoke so thick he could only follow the red taillights of the vehicle in front of him and pray they were going the right way, the retired hotel worker from the Philippines returned to his destroyed home with his son to look for the safe. Tomas, 65, said it had contained passports, naturalization papers, other important documents and $35,000.

After sifting through the ashes, father and son found the safe, but it had popped open in the fire, whipped by hurricane-force winds, and its contents were incinerated.

For immigrants like Tomas, Lahaina was an oasis, with nearly double the foreign-born population of the U.S. mainland. Now, those workers are trying to piece their lives back together after the Aug. 8 fire leveled the town.

Jobs had been plentiful in the town that boasted a row of restaurants and shops along Front Street, bordering the azure waters of the Pacific. Lured as well by its beautiful vistas and laid-back lifestyle, foreign workers had flocked to Lahaina from all over the world.

And they contributed significantly to the population and economy.

The presence of immigrant workers in Lahaina boosted the proportion of its foreign-born residents to 32%, which is almost double the 13.5% for the United States as a whole, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated in July 2022.

Still the labor shortage related to the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll in Hawaii, just as it did on the mainland. In February, almost three years after the start of the pandemic, employers were trying to fill 14,000 jobs in Hawaii — roughly double the number of unfilled job openings pre-pandemic, Hawaii News Now reported, citing state economists. Restaurants in Lahaina were literally hiring people off the street.

Many foreign-born workers lost everything in the inferno. Some residents perished.

The Mexican Consulate in San Francisco said two men were confirmed dead and was helping to arrange the return of their remains to their families in Mexico. A Costa Rican man was also among the 100-plus dead and many more remain missing.

The consulate said some 3,000 Mexican nationals are believed to be living on Maui, many working in pineapple fields, in hotels and restaurants, and other establishments with ties to tourism.

Mexico’s Consul General in San Francisco, Remedios Gomez Arnau, dispatched three staff members to Maui to help Mexican citizens deal with the tragedy. The Mexican government has been in contact with at least 250 of its citizens in Maui, she said, and reissued passports and birth certificates lost in the fire.

“Many of them lost everything because their homes burned down, and they lost their documents,” she said in an interview Friday.

With businesses burned down, legions of those who survived are now jobless. Many are also without a place to live after the blaze also tore through housing of many people who worked at the town’s hotels and resorts. And others are without a clear path forward.

Immigration attorney Kevin Block noted that some immigrants have permanent residency or temporary protected status, and some are in the United States illegally.

“A lot of those folks are nervous about applying for any kind of help,” he said. “When (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) rolls into town or when there’s government agencies around or even medical help, they’re very scared to get it because they’re scared of getting deported.”

A crisis counseling, legal assistance, medical care, food and shelter, and other relief services.

However, callers to the FEMA assistance hotline are told in recorded messages that they should provide a social security number and are warned that lying in an application for aid is a federal offense.

For immigrants who were brought to Maui as children, it is the only home they know.

“They are working as first responders, providing food, delivering supplies,” Block said. “They are right there with everybody else checking to see who needs help. It’s become more apparent than ever how vital they are to the community.”

Chuy Madrigal fled the blaze with nine members of his extended family, which originally is from Mexico.

They lost the home that his mom worked 30 years to save up enough money to buy and the food truck they started operating just three months ago, said Madrigal, who is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children but don’t have legal status.

Madrigal said he and others from the immigrant community have been knocking on doors to gather supplies for those in need and offering to translate. They have tried to comfort those, like him, who lost everything.

“There has been a lot of fear,” he said. “But once you talk to people and tell them, ‘When we got here, we started from zero, this is zero again, we just got to get back on it and continue’ — a lot of people have said, ‘You’re right.’”

The family is planning to rebuild their lives again on Maui.

___

Selsky reported from Salem, Oregon. Watson reported from San Diego. Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu contributed to this report.

United States News

Associated Press

Alaska election officials to recalculate signatures for ranked vote repeal measure after court order

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A state court judge on Friday disqualified numerous booklets used to gather signatures for an initiative that aims to repeal Alaska’s ranked choice voting system and gave elections officials a deadline to determine if the measure still had sufficient signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The decision by Superior Court […]

1 hour ago

A supporter cheers during the Republican National Convention Thursday, July 18, 2024, in Milwaukee....

Associated Press

Republicans emerge from their convention thrilled with Trump and talking about a blowout victory

The Republicans who packed Milwaukee for the RNC this week expressed a collective confidence at levels not seen in decades.

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Florida man arrested, accused of making threats against Trump, Vance on social media

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — A Florida man accused of making threats against former President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. JD Vance and their families on social media was arrested on Friday, police said. The Jupiter Police Department said in a news release that officers arrested Michael W. Wiseman on charges of written threats to kill. He […]

3 hours ago

President Joe Biden speaks at the 115th NAACP National Convention in Las Vegas, July 16, 2024. Bide...

Associated Press

Biden pushes party unity as he resists calls to step aside, says he’ll return to campaign next week

A growing chorus of Democrats called for Joe Biden to drop his reelection bid, despite insisting he’s ready to return to the campaign trail.

3 hours ago

FILE - Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., leaves the Capitol after being expelled from the House of Repres...

Associated Press

Judge turns down ex-Rep. George Santos’ request to nix some charges ahead of fraud trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. George Santos on Friday lost a bid to get rid of part of the criminal case against him as he heads toward trial on charges that include defrauding campaign donors. U.S. District Joanna Seybert turned down Santos’ request to dismiss charges of aggravated identity theft and theft of […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

A judge adds 11 years to the sentence for a man in a Chicago bomb plot

CHICAGO (AP) — A man convicted of plotting to blow up a Chicago bar will have to spend another 11 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly resentenced Adel Daoud to 27 years in prison on Friday, the Chicago Tribune reported. U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman originally sentenced Daoud to 16 years in […]

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s how to be worry-free when your A/C goes out in the middle of summer

PHOENIX -- As Arizona approaches another hot summer, Phoenix residents are likely to spend more time indoors.

...

DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Desert Institute for Spine Care is the place for weekend warriors to fix their back pain

Spring has sprung and nothing is better than March in Arizona. The temperatures are perfect and with the beautiful weather, Arizona has become a hotbed for hikers, runners, golfers, pickleball players and all types of weekend warriors.

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

Immigrant workers’ lives, livelihoods and documents in limbo after the Hawaii fire