LIFE IN LIMBO. An aerial view shows the aftermath of the devastating
wildfire in Lahaina, Hawai‘i, on August 22, 2023. Many foreign-born
workers in Lahaina lost everything in the inferno. Some residents
perished. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
From The Asian Reporter, V33, #9 (September 4, 2023), pages 10 & 17.
Immigrant workers’ lives, livelihoods, and documents
in limbo after the Hawai‘i fire
By Bobby Caina Calvan, Julie Watson & Andrew Selsky
The Associated Press
LAHAINA, Hawai‘i — 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 August 8 fire
levelled the town.
Jobs had been plentiful in the town that boasted a row of restaurants
and shops along Lahaina’s 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
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%, compared with 13.5% for the United
States as a whole, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated in July 2022.
The labor shortage related to the COVID-19 pandemic created more
opportunity for job seekers. In February, employers were trying to fill
14,000 jobs in Hawai‘i — roughly double the number of unfilled job
openings that existed before the pandemic, Hawai‘i 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
The Mexican Consulate in San Francisco said two men were confirmed
dead and it 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 others 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.
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, also
known as FEMA) 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 document provided by FEMA says anyone affected by a major disaster
may be eligible for disaster assistance, including noncitizens whose
deportation status is being withheld for at least one year, as well as
noncitizens granted asylum. That assistance can include crisis
counselling, legal assistance, medical care, food and shelter, and other
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
"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, and Watson reported from San
Diego. Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu contributed.
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