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Posted: September 11, 2017

Hurricane Irma: For undocumented immigrants, this isn’t the worst storm of their lives


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Hurricane Irma: For undocumented immigrants, this isn’t the worst storm of their lives
Undocumented immigrants take shelter from Hurricane Irma at Forest Hill High School on Friday, September 8, 2017. Because of their immigration status, they would talk but didn't want their faces to be photographed. (Julio Poletti/The Palm Beach Post)

By Julio Poletti and Liz Balmaseda, Palm Beach Post

LAKE WORTH, Fla. —

There are storms of the earth and storms of the heart. Walter Villa Toro knows this too well. 

This is why the 30-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala packed up his young family, boarded up their rental apartment in Lake Worth and sought shelter at Forest Hill High as Hurricane Irma loomed. 

>> Hurricane Irma: Live updates

Villa Toro says he doesn't want to lose a family again. He left his hometown, Santa Cruz Barillas, and moved to Florida 12 years ago, with dreams of becoming a musician.

“I haven’t seen my parents or four siblings ever since I moved from Guatemala,” says Villa Toro, who mows lawns for a living. “My mom tells me to come back, to have the family together again, but I have goals in America.” 

>> PHOTOS: Hurricane Irma makes landfall in Florida, leaves damage behind

Hurricane Irma may be the unifying force for Villa Toro and the many who sought refuge at the storm shelter. But like other immigrants at this facility, with the cramped corridors and stinky bathrooms, it is American goals that thread their stories together. 

For Maria Resendiz, a 45-year-old mother from Hidalgo, Mexico, the goals are not about possessions, but security. 

>> More Hurricane Irma coverage from the Palm Beach Post

“I’m not afraid to lose material things," says Resendiz, who arrived at the shelter with her husband and three children Friday morning. “I pray everyday for the safety of my family.” 

There's another prayer as well. It is evident at lunchtime, when Resendiz intently reads from a book titled “Ciudadania Americana" (American Citizenship) between bites of applesauce and meat patty. 

>> Hurricane Irma: Florida woman delivers own baby at home as storm rages

Resendiz, who has worked for 10 years at a local cosmetics factory, is studying for her U.S. citizenship exam, which could be scheduled at any time now. She says she already knows most of the answers, though she's concerned about her accent and English pronunciations. 

She must focus on such details because a critical matter depends on her passing the test. Her mother is dying of complications from diabetes in Mexico. Resendiz can't travel there without citizenship. If she does, she may not be able to return. 

Other stories you may like from the Palm Beach Post:

>> Hurricane Irma: Live from the Palm Beach Central shelter 

>> Scenes of sadness, sharing in a Boca Raton shelter

>> Fleeing Hurricane Irma: A special needs family, and a survivor of Katrina and Harvey

For fellow immigrant Noe Aguilar, the concerns are less about homeland and more about here and now. The 32-year-old Guatemalan man came to the shelter with his wife and four kids, whom he supports by doing lawn work. 

On his mind as he chats with a Lake Worth neighbor outside the shelter: What to do with all this unexpected down time. 

>> Hurricane Irma: Georgia sheriff's office's snarky, viral post warns residents to avoid 'stupid factor'

"I wish I brought my soccer ball to kill time. I’m not used not doing anything an entire day.”

Meantime, Villa Toro uses the downtime to allow himself a glance back in time. He remembers a Guatemalan childhood so poor he would have to make his own swimming goggles with a piece of glass to fish underwater. He couldn’t afford fishing gear, much less fresh fish from the market.

>> Hurricane Irma: Florida deputy, corrections sergeant die in head-on crash during storm

“I still remember the taste of fresh fish from the river,” he says. 

That fish would be delicious now with tortillas and rice, he joked as he munched on a storm-shelter granola bar. 

Truth be told, he says, he's worked hard here to scrape together the little that he has. If he loses everything due to Irma, it would take him a long time to get back on his feet and support his family here.

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Still, he hangs on tightly to his dreams.

Villa Toro says he is saving to buy a piano. He hopes to return to Guatemala one day and play music for his mother.


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