Published November 20, 2012
| Fox News Latino
Staten Island, N.Y. – On a tour of storm-ravaged Staten Island, President Barack Obama assured residents of one of the worst-hit areas in the New York region that they were not alone.
"During difficult times like this, we're reminded that we're bound together and we have to look out for each other," Obama said from a Staten Island street where so much had been demolished by Superstorm Sandy.
As he had done before his visit, Obama vowed to lend federal help to victims of the storm.
Hours later, Emma Bedals, an undocumented immigrant, was at Staten Island's center for immigrants, handing out lettuce heads, chicken, orange juice, and cereals to more than 200 people waiting in line.
For Bedals and many of her Mexican compatriots at the center that night, the president's words rang hollow, and did nothing to alleviate the despair and desperation that Sandy heaped upon them. The Mexican consulate in Manhattan has estimated that some 380 of its citizens in New York and New Jersey have suffered losses because of Sandy.
Bedals, like so many immigrants affected by Superstorm Sandy in Staten Island and across the northeast, is undocumented and unnoticed -- even in the glare of international media coverage that it generated.
"For us, whether the president comes to visit or not we are stuck with the same - no Social Security number -- no nothing -- he can promise anything he wants but for undocumented immigrants there is no help for us," the mother of eight told Fox News Latino.
Bedals and many of her fellow immigrants feel abandoned and forgotten since the storm. With no insurance and no Social Security number, undocumented immigrants are choosing to rebuild on their own -- rather than risk deportation -- because they believe the federal government can't help them.
"I have friends who have gone to FEMA and were told if they don't have a Social Security number they can't get help," said Bedals, who has volunteered at the immigrant center for 15 years.
The devastation of homes and apartments in the borough has put a halt to the work that legal and U.S.-born residents long have relied on Bedals and other immigrants to do. Bedals, who cleans homes and whose husband cuts grass, has been without work for over a week. Their jobs depend on the neighborhood.
FEMA denies that it is turning immigrants away.
According to a FEMA spokesperson, undocumented immigrants do not need a Social Security number to apply for aid. The agency also assures it will not report them to immigration officials.
In fact, undocumented immigrant families are eligible for short-term non-cash disaster aid like food, shelter, and clothing.
But they are not eligible for cash assistance that includes their "Individuals and Households Program Assistance." The families maybe eligible for full FEMA assistance, however, if they have a U.S.-born child.
But interviews by Fox News Latino with immigrants in the borough revealed that the majority of them are unaware that they are eligible for FEMA help despite not having a Social Security number.
Indeed, FEMA signs posted throughout Staten Island advise residents in both English and Spanish to bring their Social Security numbers to receive help.
The Mexican population on Staten Island, both legal and undocumented, has more than doubled -- growing by 140 percent -- since 2000, contributing to a changing social and economic diaspora in the community.
According to the 2010 Census, which attempts to count all residents regardless of immigration status, more than 81,000 Hispanic residents live on Staten Island (up 51.4 percent from 2000) and the majority live in Port Richmond.
Most Latinos in the borough are Puerto Rican, but a majority of the immigrants are from Mexico.
More and more Staten Island businesses are owned by Latinos, as well. In 2007, 15 percent of all businesses on the island were owned by Latinos, up from 9 percent in 2002.
Rogelio Dominguez has been the owner of a Mexican bodega and restaurant called La Canasta for the last 10 years.
His business, which is about a quarter mile away from the shore, was inundated with more than four feet of water. He is an undocumented immigrant, does not have a Social Security number, but has a Taxpayer Identification Number -- issued by the Internal Revenue Service -- which allows undocumented immigrants to do such things as file tax returns, open bank accounts and open up their own businesses.
"Just because I don't have a Social Security number, FEMA told me I don't qualify for disaster help," Said Dominguez, who has lived in this country for 20 years. "But I pay taxes, I hire employees and in this case they ignore us."
Dominguez says he feels deceived and let down by the government, but cannot afford to hope or wait for help any longer.
"We are going to try to pick ourselves up the best we can," Dominguez said. "My employees have kids and families. They cannot afford for me to stay closed."
His cook for the last seven years, Sergio Maldonado, is the only provider for his son, who suffers from a rare form of brain cancer in Mexico. He works up to 12 to 14 hour days making tamales, burritos and more at La Canasta in order to afford his son's $400 medicine and more expensive surgical operations.
"I am his only hope, I have to keep sending the money, sending the money, sending the money, I have no choice so that's why we are working to get back up quickly," he told Fox News Latino.
Raul Luna Rodriguez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, his two kids, and his wife have lost everything.
Their clothes, their furniture, their kids' toys are destroyed inside his home -- a basement -- less than a quarter mile away from the shore.
"My wife says if we had tried to stay we wouldn't have made it alive," Rodriguez said, as he picked up and examined some of his belongings washed away by a 10-foot storm surge into his backyard.
The Rodriguez family has taken up shelter in a relative's home. Meanwhile, Raul has gone to FEMA and has received some food for his family, but he said he's not going to take free things that others may need more.
"As long as we have a place to eat and shower -- that's enough to start over again," he said.
After all, Rodriguez said, he and other immigrants have been through this before.
"We arrive here with nothing in our hands," Rodriguez said. "And slowly but surely we lift ourselves up."
Follow Reporter Bryan Llenas on Twitter @Bryan_Llenas .