Undocumented families in Pajaro need support: FEMA should not operate like an insurance company

Watsonville resident Takashi Mizuno clips lemons from a lemon tree
Watsonville resident Takashi Mizuno has been taking lemons from his backyard trees to neighboring Pajaro as a gesture of goodwill and way of connecting with those affected by March’s disastrous flooding.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Watsonville resident Takashi Mizuno is worried about his neighbors in Pajaro, many of whom lost everything to the storms and flooding. He doesn’t speak Spanish, but has been bringing his neighbors lemons from his tree as a gesture of goodwill and solidarity. “Lemons are my way of connecting,” he says. He also is trying to deliver an important message to undocumented Pajaro families with a child born in the U.S.: Apply for FEMA help. Apply again if you get rejected. And FEMA, he insists, is “mistreating” people by not handling applications fairly.

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I am a resident of Watsonville, a sister town to Pajaro, across the Pajaro River bridge. I was one of the evacuees in January, though our house was not damaged by the flood. I knew through helping several evacuees in Watsonville whose houses were severely damaged by the flood how hard it was to recover from such damage emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually and financially.

When I heard the news on March 11 that the town of Pajaro was flooded after the breach of the Pajaro River levee, I thought about an elderly Japanese American man in Pajaro who has lived there since 1952.

Pajaro was closed for 12 days after the flooding and opened only at 10 a.m. on March 23. I watched as almost daily, evacuees were pushing elected officials to let them return to their homes to assess the damages.

As soon as Pajaro opened, I went to see the man. He greeted me with his smile.

He said he stayed in his second-floor room and did not evacuate. He explained that all of the houses on Susan Street where he lived were not damaged because the elevation of the street is higher than that of San Juan Road. I imagined that San Juan Road must have become like a river and the water dashed into the houses and the buildings in the southern part of the town.

As soon as the bridge was opened, I started to help the Pajaro evacuees in my own ways.

One of the things which I have been doing is to hand fresh lemons from my backyard garden to evacuee families. One afternoon on April 17, I went to hand a bag of fresh lemons to whatever family I might meet in a playground in Pajaro Park. I saw several families with children playing there. I went to hand the lemons to a mother with a baby by saying “gratis,” and pointing to the lemons.

“Gracias,” she said.

“Gratis” is one of only a handful of Spanish words I could use. Lemons are my way of connecting to people who do not speak English because I understand Spanish only a little. I also learned that most people from Mexico love lemons and use them almost every day, so they always need more.

I saw a girl whose mother I had handed a box of lemons last week. The girl is a middle school student and speaks fluent English. I asked her whether her family registered to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a grant.

“No,” she said.

I asked her whether her family had a U.S. citizen.

”Yes,” she said.

I told her that meant her family was eligible to register to apply to FEMA for a grant. She smiled.

I am trying to get the message about FEMA eligibility out to as many people as possible. I hear many evacuees have been mistreated by FEMA. Moreover, undocumented people fear that registering with FEMA will put their families in danger. They are also not informed how to navigate the process to register to FEMA to apply for a grant.

I started trying to talk to people about this after Ann Lopez, the executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families, wrote to me on April 15 that she was told that FEMA did not help undocumented farmworker families. I immediately went to talk to a staff member of FEMA and a staff member of the California Department of Social Services, who were stationed in Pajaro Park. They told me that undocumented families with a U.S. citizen child can apply to FEMA for a grant and will need to present a U.S. Social Security number and birth certificate.

I shared this information with the elected officials and administrators of the City of Watsonville, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Felipe Hernandez, Monterey County Supervisor Glenn Church and a staff member of Santa Cruz County who was in charge of the shelter at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, where many evacuees had found shelter, as well as my friends and Lopez.

Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up shop in Watsonville.
Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up shop in Watsonville in the wake of March flooding in neighboring Pajaro.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I received a response from Lopez. She wrote to me that there were many undocumented families who did not have a U.S. citizen child.

“Where “she asked, “could they get help?”

I conveyed this question to Church. His staff member responded to me that the supervisor would talk to FEMA.

Let’s go back to my experience in Pajaro Park delivering lemons.

I went to talk to a couple of young women who were in their 20s the same afternoon I met the middle school student. They were together. I asked them whether they were born in the U.S.

One of them said, “Yes.” I asked if she or her family had registered to apply to FEMA for a grant.


I told all the women I would help them to talk to the staff members. They said they could do it themselves.

So I left Pajaro Park to go home. But I went back to the park a bit later because I wanted to know whether they could register or not.

I asked them whether they managed to register with FEMA for a grant. They said they did go to register, but were turned down. They were told that they should go to the California Office of Emergency Services.

The community of Pajaro in Monterey County was flooded after the Pajaro River breached its levee during an atmospheric river.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I was a bit upset because I had similar experiences when I helped several evacuees from the January flooding in Watsonville. They were mistreated by some staff members of FEMA.

I went to talk to a staff member of the California Department of Social Services. She said what the FEMA staff member had done to the women in the park was ridiculous. She talked to another staff member of FEMA and explained to her what happened. I went to talk to the women and urged them to go to register to apply to FEMA for a grant again.

One family went and could register. I urged the other family to do the same. They promised they would gather the needed documents and go the next day.

FEMA staff members should be there to help evacuees, not to turn them away, especially undocumented people who have a U.S. citizen child.

It is also better for FEMA to hire local people who understand the clients and needs so that mistreatment can be avoided. FEMA is so far the only public institution from which undocumented people who have a U.S. citizen child can get a grant, though California State Assemblymembers Freddie Rodriguez and Robert Rivas have introduced the California Individual Assistance Act (Assembly Bill 513), which would offer grants to local agencies, community-based organizations and people for specified costs related to a disaster.

I want to say, there are some very helpful members of FEMA whom I have dealt with. But, overall, the stories I hear are upsetting.

For example, one of the evacuees in Watsonville whose house was severely damaged by the flood in January told me his family applied to FEMA for a grant and their application was denied without any inspectors coming. In another case, an 86-year-old woman had an inspector come to her house, but the way the inspector did her job was not good at all. The inspector was there for only several minutes. I advised the older woman to speak to another member of FEMA, and the second time, an inspector treated her well. These are only two examples, but they speak to the problems we are facing in our community.

Watsonville resident Takashi Mizuno
Watsonville resident Takashi Mizuno.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I have also heard of small business owners who were denied the first time. They then easily give up. I want them to not give up. I want them to go again.

This feels strangely like dealing with an insurance company.

FEMA is a government organization designed to help people who need it. Staff members of the California Department of Social Services are there to help residents deal with FEMA.

I want this to work as it should.

I will keep bringing my lemons and my message. Hopefully, the people of Pajaro will benefit and not give up until FEMA treats them fairly.

Takashi Mizuno is an immigrant from Japan. He has been a U.S. citizen since 2002. He is a retired organic farmer and a community educator both in Japan and the U.S. He holds a master’s degree in horticulture from Chiba University in Japan and a master’s in language and cultural education from Rutgers University.

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