March 7, 2008

Commentary:

The October Wildfires – Equal Protection for All?

By Bob Filner and Kevin Keenan

Earlier this week, the County and City of San Diego issued separate reports that evaluate the region’s response to the October wildfires and recommend areas for improvement. While we welcome this effort to take an honest and straightforward look at what went right and what went wrong in order to plan for the next disaster, we are deeply troubled that some of the most egregious shortcomings in our fire response related to the protection of immigrants, non-English speakers and other vulnerable populations were not addressed.

The county report, for example, rightly celebrates the success of the reverse 911 calls in alerting residents to imminent danger, but it does not identify as an area for improvement the need to communicate out emergency information in other languages. Disasters affect everyone regardless of language ability, and as a matter of public safety and humanitarian concern, we must be able to reach out to non-English speakers. Just as the federal voting laws require that voter information be issued in languages where the population warrants it, so should disaster alerts be issued in at least those same languages.

The city report is of particular concern. Despite numerous accounts to the contrary, the city report states that “No person was denied access or services and few questions were asked of the people coming to seek shelter.” During the fires, the media and civil rights organizations such as the ACLU reported on scores of incidents in which evacuees were asked to show identity documents and, in certain instances, proof of their lawful immigration status in order to access emergency services at Qualcomm stadium. Some were denied entry into the stadium.

The city report further states, “The safety and security of the people who seek the City’s protection is our Number One priority. This is for all people seeking protection irrespective of unknown or questionable residential, immigration or other status.” Nonetheless, the ACLU and other civil rights organizations reported that while the fires were still burning, city police woke up evacuees in the middle of the night at Qualcomm stadium to ask for proof of identity and proof of residence from an evacuated area and then forcibly ejected those who could not provide the requested proof.

Despite the city’s assertion that “everyone had the opportunity to be safe,” the media reported that dozens of evacuee families left Qualcomm and hundreds more never came to the evacuation center out of fear that they would be questioned and asked to provide documents that they did not have.

Unfortunately, the city’s report is not as honest and straightforward as it should have been and the county’s report is blind to the needs of a significant portion of the population. If the city and county are serious about preparing for the next disaster then they must recognize the lapse in emergency services to some of the most vulnerable in our region. I urge the city and county to recognize the shortcomings in their emergency response and plan accordingly to ensure that all victims of disasters are provided adequate warning and protection when the next disaster strikes.

Congressman Bob Filner
51st Congressional District
U.S. House of Representatives

Kevin Keenan
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego

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