What They Lost in the Fire

burnt care maui fire state farm

The Legal Clinic—our ILJ affiliate in Honolulu—provides invaluable assistance to Maui’s immigrant community.

In the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in Hawai’i’s history and the worst U.S. wildfire in more than a century, state and federal governments, organizations, and volunteers mobilized to provide emergency assistance to survivors.

People needed medical care. People needed food, shelter, clothing, and supplies. So many had lost everything—their homes, possessions, community—and some had even lost beloved family members.

Up to 30 percent of the estimated 6,000 displaced Lahaina residents are immigrants.  For them, losing everything in the fire included important documents critical to their ability to prove their lawful status, to work legally, and to be eligible for certain forms of disaster relief.

TLC board member, immigration attorney, and Maui resident Kevin Block was on the ground providing legal assistance to his immigrant neighbors. He—along with the Legal Aid Society of Hawai’i—requested assistance from TLC senior attorney Omar Vaquerano to help with the USCIS applications for replacement documents.

Omar and TLC staff members assist a Maui resident replace immigration documents. Omar—a native Spanish speaker—and several staff members traveled to Maui for a series of clinics in late August and early September.

They assisted nationals of Tonga, Mexico, El Salvador, and the Philippines—as well as naturalized U.S. citizens—with the process of replacing their lost immigration documents. 

TLC also developed an online registration form and resource page for prospective clients and volunteers.

A Blessing for the Community

In response to the emergency crisis in Maui, Oprah Winfrey and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson donated $10 million to the People’s Fund of Maui to provide financial assistance to those living in the impacted zone. The money was desperately needed. However, they needed volunteers to help residents navigate the application forms.  

TLC Executive Director Bettina Mok and Engagement Coordinator Madeline Svengsouk were among the volunteers who came to Lahaina to help.  

Madeline helps unhoused immigrant women wearing a dress donated by the Salvation Army. Her dress was donated by the Salvation Army, the woman explained, and it was so big she had to secure the shoulder straps with hair ties.

 As an unhoused individual, the woman was living in her car at the time of the fire and had lost everything she owned.  

Unable to prove her residence in the affected area due to her lack of a permanent address, she is ineligible for federal assistance from organizations such as FEMA and the Red Cross.

“What makes the People’s Fund of Maui unique is that they allow community advocates to verify the situations of individuals facing similar difficulties,” explains Madeline. “Otherwise, unhoused people are unable to access federal assistance programs.”

Immigrants also face hurdles when applying for emergency aid. 

“We wanted to ensure that language interpretation was offered and that undocumented immigrants received reassurance that their information would be protected,” says Bettina.

Many of Lahaina’s immigrant families have members with mixed immigration status and are reluctant to apply for assistance because of fears of deportation.  

“The fund is a true blessing for the community,” Bettina continues, “but more can be done to ensure it is accessible to all immigrant workers— especially those with limited English skills or those ineligible for government support due to immigration status—who have lost loved ones, homes, jobs, vehicles, cash savings, and all their worldly possessions.” 

In the aftermath of the fire, we’ve seen so many stories of ordinary people stepping up in extraordinary ways to help their neighbors. Even from our perch thousands of miles away, we can see that everyone who calls Hawai’i home has been profoundly affected by the magnitude of the loss and the swiftness and totality of a beautiful town’s destruction.

We know the road to recovery will be long and difficult. We’re so grateful for the staff and volunteers of The Legal Clinic who continue to steadfastly serve the immigrant communities of their island home.

For further reading:

TLC Board Member—and Maui resident—Kevin Block is featured in this NBC News article:

Maui’s Latino community contends with destruction, grief, and immigration fears after fires.

 You can also read more about Maui’s immigrant community here:

Immigrant workers’ lives, livelihoods in limbo after Maui fire

 Filipino nationals are the state’s largest undocumented population, and a disproportionate segment of them work in the tourism industry.

Filipinos in Lahaina say they’ve been overlooked in wildfire response.


Photo credit of a burnt car on Maui by State Farm. In the Public Domain.  


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