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Everyone Has the Right to Seek Help in an Emergency

Created: 06 November, 2009
Updated: 26 July, 2022
3 min read

 During the Southern California wildfires of October 2007, six undocumented immigrants fled from their homes, only to find themselves being deported back to Mexico.

 Two couples, one with three children, were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium after a report that they were stealing food and water. After the incident, more than 25 other families left the evacuation site out of fear that they would be apprehended and deported.

 The deportation confirmed people’s worst fears. Rumors that evacuees were being asked for their papers scared people into staying where they were, sometimes in dangerous areas. Many agricultural workers who lived in makeshift settlements in the canyons of San Diego County decided to stay and work in the fields despite the dangers – simply because they were too afraid to seek help.

 Fears from the incident haven’t subsided. When the next disaster strikes — an earthquake, fire or flood — the most vulnerable people will be afraid to seek help.

 That’s why the California legislature approved a law that affirms that everyone in this state – whether documented or undocumented — has the right to get help during a disaster, no questions asked.

 The Effective Disaster Assistance Act is a civil rights victory. The law, proposed by Assembly Member Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger late last year, was a direct response to concerns that victims of the San Diego wildfires were denied aid because they could not prove their citizenship. In fact, victims often lose access to their personal documents and identification during disasters like fires or floods, and can have trouble replacing these documents. This is especially true for seniors, people with disabilities, low-income people and immigrants.

 The new law requires that groups providing disaster-related services strive to provide all victims with the assistance they need and for which they are eligible. The law prohibits public employees assisting in disaster-related services from asking people for any information or documents that are not strictly necessary to determine their eligibility.

 “This bill would help ensure that families receive emergency aid, during one of the most terrifying experiences any of us could face,” said Assemblymember Anna Caballero who introduced the Effective Disaster Assistance Act. “It’s equally important that when a disaster or emergency situation arises, we get the resources and assistance to the victims as quickly as possible-and this legislation will help make that happen.”

 This law has established a basic human right – the right of all victims of a disaster to have equal access to emergency assistance.

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 Yet many people may still be afraid to seek help. Before the next disaster strikes, it is our duty to speak out — to tell our friends, our families and our communities — about these rights so that no one is ever afraid to seek help during an emergency again.

 For more information, visit

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