Losing important documents is a real problem while fear and mistrust of government agencies has inhibited some from seeking aid, experts say.

When David Olivas saw smoke and fire barrelling toward him in Lahaina on Aug. 8, he jumped on his bicycle and pedaled as fast as he could to his family’s house. 

They all escaped, but the Chihuahua, Mexico, native lost his mechanic shop, where he also lived, his truck and all of his important documents, including his passport and green card.

“The fire was coming so fast,” he said. “I went with my family to tell them, ‘It’s coming, the fire. Get out!’” 

The Mexican and Argentinian consulates offer assistance at MEO Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023, in Kahului. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
The Mexican and Argentinian consulates offered assistance in Kahului. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

For thousands of immigrants on Maui who have lost their homes, jobs, material possessions and in some cases family members, being without their documents is yet another complication they must deal with as they try to rebuild their lives.

And for many, especially in Latino communities, mistrust of authorities and fear of federal agencies inhibits their ability to seek aid that could help them get back on their feet.

“The Spanish community in particular have a reputation for being fearful of coming out and seeking assistance, especially from government officials,” said Cassi Yamashita, director of community services for Maui Economic Opportunity, a nonprofit that assists low-income people.

‘Documents Make All The Difference’

To access aid, many programs require the applicant to show some form of identification, Yamashita said. But unlike U.S. citizens, residents from other countries can’t always go to the DMV to get their documents replaced, she said.

Maui Economic Opportunity is working with consulates from around the world to help citizens of various countries get emergency replacements for their passports and birth certificates.

The Mexican consulate was one of the first to respond and has assisted at least 200 people on Maui with documents. Personnel from the Mexican and Argentinean consulates were at the nonprofit on Thursday.

Joel Montoya Morquecho who lost his business in Lahaina talks with Civil Beat Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023, in Kahului. A wildfire destroyed the historic town of Lahaina last week. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Joel Montoya Morquecho lost his orthopedic and therapeutic massage business in Lahaina. He has been volunteering to help members of the Mexican community impacted by the wildfires. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

But many more people still need to be reached, Yamashita said.

With the official death toll at 114 and hundreds still missing, Veronica Mendoza Jachowski, co-founder of Roots Reborn Lahaina, a group of immigration lawyers and community organizers, said her group was still trying to figure out how many members of Maui’s immigrant community were unaccounted for.

“One of our priorities is to find out that number,” she said. “We do have a lot of missing people still.”

On Aug. 15, the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs announced two Mexican nationals had died in the fires. The office did not identify them but said personnel with the Consulate General of Mexico in San Francisco were on the island and in touch with their families.

Barriers To Aid

Mexicans are the largest Latino group on Maui and in Lahaina, according to the census. Lahaina’s Hispanic or Latino population was 1,531 before the fires, and 1,142 of them were Mexican, according to the agency. There are around 7,766 Mexicans in Maui County.

The Hispanic population of Hawaii overall is 11.1% but is 13.6% in Lahaina, largely because of the demand for service-oriented jobs, according to Ruben Juarez, a professor of economics at the University of Hawaii.

But the Latino population is often underrepresented in official counts because many members of the community fear being on the radar of government agencies, Jachowski said.

This apprehension is also holding people back from applying for aid.

“What has been the narrative is, ‘Don’t apply for anything because then you’re flagged,'” she said. “But that’s not necessarily the case with some of these services or some of the aid that’s available.”

In order to apply for FEMA disaster assistance, someone in the household must be a U.S. citizen or be qualified non-citizen with a Social Security number, said Kevin Block, an immigration attorney on Maui. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible, including those who have taxpayer identification numbers, which means they are taxpaying residents but not full citizens.

There is other aid that’s available to people but many won’t apply even if they may be eligible because of a “chilling effect” on immigrants that has been exacerbated since the administration of President Donald Trump, he said.

“They’re suspicious about FEMA ,” he said. “FEMA is part of Homeland Security. At the shelters, they’re wearing uniforms. They look like cops.”

But even as outreach agencies try to get in touch with people to help them, many are still reluctant to come forward, Yamashita said. Many are choosing not to go to shelters and are instead staying with friends or family members.

“Most of the folks that we have seen so far have been reporting 20, 30 people in a two-bedroom house trying to huddle up and wait it out until they know more,” she said.

At a recent press conference, Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said that everyone, regardless of immigration status, should feel comfortable coming forward to administer DNA swabs, which are helping authorities identify human remains.

“None of the information you’re providing to FEMA or to us will be used for any immigration enforcement,” Bissen said. “I know folks are concerned about that.”

But with so many homes and businesses reduced to rubble and an unclear path forward, many immigrants are leaving for other states, said Joel Montoya Morquecho, who has been volunteering with Maui’s Mexican community.

Morquecho lost his business where he practiced orthopedic, therapeutic massage when it burned down with all of his professional licenses and certificates inside.

“We see a difficult, complicated situation here in the next few months,” Morquecho, who is from Nayarit, Mexico, said in Spanish. “Living in Maui is expensive.” 

But Yamashita said many people also want to stay. 

“For a lot of them, they’ve been here 20, 30 years, so this is really their home,” she said. 

A Peaceful Life, Then Tragedy

Yesenia Mendoza, 35, moved to Maui three years ago from Chiapas, Mexico, and loves the island for its peace and tranquility.

“The weather is beautiful, everything is so beautiful,” she said in Spanish. “Here, I can leave my car and nothing will happen to it. We leave the door to our house unlocked and nothing happens to it. It’s very peaceful here.”

But then, deadly wildfires upended her community.

Yesenia and Merin Mendoza say they haven’t heard from two of their friends since the wildfires. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

“What hurts us most right now is that we can’t find two of our friends,” her husband, Merin Mendoza, 43, said.

Yesenia pulled up a Facebook post on her phone with pictures of the the two missing men, Juan De Leon, 45, and Eddy Castillo, 35.

“They’re really good people,” she said.

De Leon played music in a church group with Merin’s brothers, he said. And Castillo has two young daughters and a son.

Merin said he knows De Leon’s wife well and feels so sad for her.

Juan De Leon and Eddy Castillo are two members of Maui’s Mexican community who have been missing since the wildfires. Family and friends are searching for them. (Madeleine List/Civil Beat/2023)

“She doesn’t have anybody, she doesn’t have anything,” he said. “Even though we say, ‘I’ll help you with your pain, I feel your pain,’ it’s not true. A husband, a wife, no one can help them with their pain.”

Tears welled in his eyes as he spoke about going to Lahaina the day after the fires to search for missing loved ones and belongings. He showed videos on his phone of destroyed homes, burned cars and human remains in the street.

“Look, one day after, the bodies,” he said, his voice catching in his throat. “There’s a woman, a man and a child in the middle, all charred.”

Relatives of the missing men are asking anyone who may see them to get in touch, Merin said. Meanwhile, family members are traveling from Mexico to present DNA to authorities to help with the search.

“They need to know if they’re going to keep searching or if they found what they’re looking for,” Yesenia said. “While there’s no answer, there’s no peace.”

Alfonso Perez, 51, who is from Mexico but has lived in Lahaina for 20 years, was at a shelter with 20 of his cousins on Aug. 10. He said he didn’t know exactly what his future held but he was considering moving to California. 

Perez, who worked as a cook for Lahaina Cruise Co., ran from his apartment with nothing but the clothes he was wearing as the fire descended on him.

“Everybody’s sad,” he said. “All my cousins, they cannot believe it because it’s too bad.” 

Immigrants make up 33% of workers in Hawaii’s tourism, entertainment and hospitality industries and 68% of housekeeping workers, according to a 2021 report from the New American Economy Research Fund.

With Lahaina destroyed and tourists discouraged from traveling to parts of Maui for the time being, many foreign workers have lost their hospitality jobs and are wondering if and how they’ll be able to afford living on the island.

Mendoza said he and his wife plan to stay on Maui. He runs a gardening business with his brothers, but he worries about work for his wife, who is a housekeeper in multiple hotels on the island.

Jobs, though, will always be available, he said.

“But the sadness from what happened,” he said, “that will last.”

Civil Beat reporter Jack Truesdale contributed to this story.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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