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What are the Immigration Implications on Emergency Managers?

Emergency managers may not directly focus their energy on immigration, but the hotly contested issue indirectly affects how they plan for and respond to crises.

Attention to America’s immigration policies has intensified recently, with politicians and citizens wrangling over whether and how to control the number of foreigners entering the country. Emergency managers, however, largely don’t believe immigration is their issue. Except, in a sense, it is.

“I don’t see why or how [immigration] really relates to emergency management, which is distinct from homeland security,” said hazmat and emergency management logistics lecturer Bob Jaffin. “Why would that even come up … in a situation that is an emergency?” 

That sentiment holds true when evaluating the black-and-white definition of emergency management, but shades of gray exist in a number of areas. Immigration affects emergency managers in roundabout manners; instead of focusing on direct involvement — such as enforcement or policymaking — they attend to indirect effects, such as language barriers and population shifts. 

Emergency managers strive for holistic approaches to serving their communities rather than excluding certain portions of the population for reasons that could include immigration status. “I’ve got to understand that there are people out there who are undocumented,” said emergency management consultant and Emergency Management magazine contributor Lucien Canton. “I can’t ignore them.”

Emergency managers and first responders are hired to attend to their diverse communities, regardless of demographics. “Whether they’re here legally or illegally, they’re still people,” said Jack Brown, director of the Arlington County (Va.) Office of Emergency Management. “We want to make sure, from an emergency management perspective, that we take care of all our residents.”

Because taking care of people — all types of people — is the central mission the profession revolves around.

Although policing agencies technically do fall under the emergency services category, the enforcement part of immigration typically remains out of emergency managers’ realm. Their work more acutely entails devising preparedness campaigns and emergency responses. Immigration does impact those job aspects in that leaders must account for potential population shifts when determining the most effective disaster mitigation approaches.

Immigration is not the only force that causes demographic shifts. Another common change, for example, ensues in communities housing a significant number of aging residents. “The issues that result due to immigration are the same issues as what we’re dealing with in many of the [shifting] populations that we’re serving,” said Lanita Lloyd, president of the United States Council of the International Association of Emergency Managers.

An emergency manager is “neither a social engineer nor a politician” and therefore should not take into consideration citizens’ residency statuses, Jaffin said. They simply must craft plans that aid all members of the public. “That is the tactical view. The strategic view is population trends — whether driven by age or immigration — [are something else] you need to be aware of,” he said. 

A demographic shift can occur rapidly if, for instance, a community suddenly takes in large numbers of refugees. “If I’m [in] a sanctuary city I should be aware of it and I should consider as an emergency manager [if] that is going to shift the demographics,” Jaffin said.

Typically, U.S. immigration trends happen gradually, though, as a community experiences a slow trickle of newcomers. Over time, a moderate but steady stream can result in people from a certain country, region or culture ending up in a cluster. “Sometimes one family will settle somewhere and then [friends and relatives] start to come … and before you know it, you’ve got an influx of people where you wouldn’t have expected it,” said Canton. “Long range, that starts to shift the community.”

Properly addressing a community’s evolving needs may prompt modifications to existing emergency strategies, especially communication methods. “Population shifts … are a critical issue because an emergency manager is supposed to be able to communicate with everybody,” Jaffin said.

In the end, success in the emergency management field already requires periodically updating plans, so accommodating population shifts should come naturally and not involve scrutinizing immigrants’ legal statuses.

“We have to leave our preconceived notions at the door and deal with people as we find them,” said Canton. “It’s one thing if we’re talking about [offering] social services or voting rights. It’s another if this person’s been displaced by a disaster.”

One challenging factor facing emergency services providers is the number of immigrants who exhibit fear at the mere thought of interacting with government workers. Governments around the world — including employees such as emergency responders — function differently in how they interface with the public. Some immigrants arrive in the United States with the preconceived notion that no governmental encounters are positive and they may, in fact, be punitive. 

“A lot of times, folks are going to be skittish about talking to you if you’re ‘from the government,’” said Brown. “It is like that in many places. The government is viewed differently, especially local officials.”

Building trust with these groups can be difficult, even when emergency workers explain that they just want to help. 

“The government in general is distrusted in some countries. … [It’s] looked at with incredible suspicion,” Canton said. “How do we explain that the things we do are for a reason and it’s for their protection? For a lot of folks, this is going to be a very different concept.”

An equally different concept is that of bribing government workers, either out of fear or as an expectation. It’s not unheard of for U.S. emergency services employees to approach immigrants and “in some cases, they try to hand you money,” Brown said. Immigrants don’t necessarily view that practice as unethical because “in other countries that’s just the way business is done,” Canton said. “They actually think ‘if I’m getting a service from the government, I need to pay somebody.’”  

During emergencies, immigrants also might be frightened by the belief that their citizenship status could come into question through an interaction with a government employee. Each U.S. municipality handles that situation a bit differently, which can add to confusion and fear for incoming residents. Those concerns can lead to immigrants refusing to ask for — or accept — life-saving assistance. 

“We don’t want anybody to be bashful about asking for help. If you need help … call 911, and you’re going to get the same services we send anybody,” Brown said. “We’re very aware these folks are out there and want them to know we’re there to help them, and that our services are there for everybody.”

Immigrants’ lack of adherence to common American emergency procedures frequently isn’t a matter of fear, but rather a classic case of culture shock and lack of knowledge about standard practices. 

Cultural differences, like population shifts, don’t pertain only to immigrants. An introduction of any new group into an existing population could cause a shock of sorts, such as what happened following Hurricane Katrina. After that disaster, “We moved people out of New Orleans to all over the country,” Canton said. “In many ways, there were some interesting cultural situations taking place there.”

An obvious immigration-related cultural consideration is that people arriving from outside the U.S. often speak primary languages other than English. Heeding calls to action proves challenging when citizens can’t understand the messages, both before and after an emergency. “You have to find out who they are and the languages they’re using,” Canton said. “If they can’t understand my warning messages ... it gets very difficult to keep them safe.”

Analyzing demographics regularly and incorporating services in other languages as necessary can benefit the community. “I recruit people to work in my 911 center that speak Spanish and other languages,” Brown said.

Connecting with and preparing immigrants requires trust-building. Engaging advocates from within the designated community — especially those who speak the foreign language in question — instead of solely relying on emergency managers to bridge the gap can be useful. “When putting together plans, have [advocates] at the table to help identify challenges and establish processes that will help to protect and better prepare everyone in the community,” Lloyd said. 

Other ideas are to provide “secondary resources, such as handouts, in other languages … and have trainers that can teach about disaster preparedness in those languages,” Lloyd said. She also recommends including advocates and language resources during simulation exercises so emergency managers and first responders know exactly how to handle various demographics when an emergency situation arises. 

Even when confronted with language obstacles, emergency managers need not directly focus on the immigration issue, only on the community service piece. “I don’t ask who they are, [only] how do I communicate with them,” Jaffin said. “Can they speak English, or do I need an interpreter? It really shouldn’t go beyond that.”

Besides language barriers, newcomers also may not be aware of the overall concept of preparedness. Long-term American citizens know from years of listening to messaging the importance of creating personal emergency plans or stockpiling supplies, but that’s a foreign concept to many immigrants. 

“One of the things we push in the United States is this independence, that people need to prepare on their own,” Canton said. “That’s culturally what we do, but it’s not necessarily what people have been taught in other countries.”  

That discrepancy demonstrates the need for targeted outreach to all the diverse subsets within a community. Outreach can occur in many ways such as attending civic association meetings and community town halls, passing out business cards and talking to people. “A lot of it is plain old networking,” Brown said, “and developing that relationship.”

Emergency managers’ fundamental responsibility lies in preparing for all crises at all times. But by nature, they might develop a hyper-focus on their own communities and not recognize wide-reaching external events. Identifying those situations and anticipating potential repercussions that could eventually be felt locally can lessen a sudden impact to a community. Immigration could be one of those external events.

“We don’t always pay attention to world events, so we’re often surprised by, say, a large influx of refugees because we just weren’t expecting it,” Canton said. “Emergency managers need to at least be cognizant of things … even though those things may be far away.”

In a planning-intensive field like emergency management, the value of formulating procedures and contingency plans ahead of time is well understood. That holds true even for an unlikely event, which “may be low probability [and] may be the last thing I cover in writing a plan, but it needs to be there,” Jaffin said.

Essentially, emergency managers should exhibit the same resilience and adaptability when examining immigration that they employ when addressing other topics.

“As emergency managers, we have to be flexible,” Canton said. “I’m dealing with human misery … people that are affected by crisis. We solve that first and other folks can deal with the immigration issue later.”