The (in)visible victims of disaster: Understanding the vulnerability of undocumented Latino/a and indigenous immigrants

Geoforum. 2020 Nov;116:50-62. doi: 10.1016/j.geoforum.2020.07.007. Epub 2020 Aug 7.


As climate change advances, communities across the United States are adapting to the increased threat of wildfires, drought, heatwaves, and infectious diseases. Such disasters are expected to become more frequent and severe. Now more than ever, it is crucial to understand how these events amplify existing inequalities, and how to lessen the resulting harms. Differences in human vulnerability to disaster stem from a range of social, economic, historical, and political factors. We argue that given their social status, undocumented Latino/a and Indigenous immigrants are particularly vulnerable to disasters and require special consideration in disaster planning. They are disproportionately affected by racial discrimination, exploitation, economic hardships, less English and Spanish proficiency, and fear of deportation in their everyday lives- their pre-disaster marginalized status. In the case of the Thomas Fire in California's Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, we show that emergency response and recovery efforts ignored their needs. Resources were directed toward privileged individuals, leaving local immigrant rights and environmental justice groups to provide essential services such as language access to emergency information in Spanish and Indigenous tongues; labor protections for farmworkers endangered in the fields; and a private disaster relief fund for undocumented immigrants ineligible for federal aid. The article concludes with preliminary participant observations from the COVID-19 pandemic response in the region, indicating how lessons from the fire have informed official actions. As governments grapple with the increasing severity of disasters, understanding the differential impacts on undocumented immigrants can help improve disaster planning to protect the most vulnerable and stigmatized populations.

Keywords: COVID-19 pandemic; California wildfire; Climate change; Environmental justice; Slow violence; Undocumented immigrants.