Undocumented Immigrants Were Afraid To Use California Wildfire Shelters, So They Slept On Beaches

After President Trump pledged disaster relief and National Guard troops swarmed the region, "people got more afraid," one shelter operator said.

BODEGA BAY, California — As the massive wildfire swept through Santa Rosa in Northern California early Monday, Armando and his brother-in-law, Nicolas, crammed their wives, six children, and other family members into their cars and fled for their lives.

Unsure of where to go, they ended up spending two nights in their cars on the side of the road and camping on beaches as the state's deadliest week of wildfires in history tore through the region. Then they heard of some makeshift community shelters taking in evacuees in nearby Bodega Bay.

"There was just people everywhere — on the sides of roads, beaches. I saw about 40 cars," said Denise Tarver, a director with Waves of Compassion, a nonprofit running one of the shelters.

It was there that the families might have gone on to the official shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, but there was issue: Nicolas and Armando are undocumented immigrants. And after President Trump declared the region a disaster zone, National Guard troops and federal resources had swarmed the area, stoking fears among the undocumented immigrants in Bodega Bay — many of them employed by the region's vineyards, hotels, and farms — that interactions with emergency officials would put them at risk of deportation given Trump's crackdown.

So many decided to hunker down and stay mostly in a local church and the Bodega Bay Grange, a community service hall, as volunteers funneled donations from local residents and businesses.

"It was tight," said Nicolas, who like his brother-in-law, declined to give their last name due to their legal status. "But it was better than nothing."

For two nights, Tarver said about four volunteers helped house, feed, and care for about 400 people using local donations. Restaurants made about 600 free meals a day. One organization showed up with portable showers, another with volunteer doctors.

On Thursday, about a dozen people sorted and sifted through blankets, baby clothes, and boxes of toothpaste, tampons, and medicine.

"We served about 1,500 people with what we had because when Trump made the announcement this was a federal disaster and the National Guard will be coming, people got more afraid," Tarver said. "We've been urging them to go to official centers because we don't have the federal help and resources, like FEMA relief applications."

Sonoma County, which has taken the brunt of the firestorm's deadly destruction, is home to about 20,000 undocumented immigrants, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Despite multiple assurances that no shelter would ask a person for any proof of legal citizenship, clusters of undocumented immigrants still remain tucked into local churches, schools, and campgrounds. People have also been gathering and dispatching supplies via word-of-mouth and social media.

As people start trickling back into area deemed safe again, for the unlucky, having to start over will be especially difficult for undocumented immigrants since they will likely not be eligible for federal emergency funding.

"We thought we had lost everything and I would have nowhere to go back to with my kids and we didn't know if we could get the help," Nicolas said. "I was thinking I would buy a trailer for the back of my car and my wife was crying."

But on Thursday, Armando and Nicolas said they got good news: their apartments were undamaged in the blaze.

With that, the families folded up their cots and bedding, and cleaned the basement of the church they'd been staying in for the past few days.

"I taught my kids never complain," Nicolas said, "you have to deal with whatever comes your way."

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