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The Uncertainty of Undocumented Immigrants During Hurricane Harvey

As ICE and CBP continue operation during the hurricane, advocates worry for undocumented immigrants.

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A man in a wheelchair, who did not wish to be identified, leaves evacuation shelter from Hurricane Harvey in San Antonio Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017.
AP Photo/LM Otero

In the past five days, thousands of Texans have escaped life-threatening floods and found temporary refuge. These survivors of Hurricane Harvey have made a heartbreaking choice, leaving their home and belongings behind in exchange for safety. But undocumented immigrants face a different risk: Detention. Although authorities have stressed that evacuees would not pass through checkpoints, immigration advocates and supporters continue to express concern about the treatment and safety of undocumented immigrants.

On Friday, CBP responded to concerns about leaving their immigration checkpoints open, explaining in a series of tweets that evacuees would not encounter them: The agency would be temporarily closing two checkpoints along HWY 77 and HWY 4, and immigrants evacuating north would not pass through the checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley. When asked about checkpoints in operation during Hurricane Harvey, CBP spokesperson Rick Pauza responded in an email, reiterating the message in the tweets: “Texas evacuation routes leading the public away from areas most directly impacted by Hurricane Harvey are not affected by checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley. Checkpoints located in the Rio Grande Valley, although located along evacuation routes, are well south of the storm and affected areas. Those evacuating storm-affected areas will not travel through a U.S. Border Patrol Checkpoint. Travelers leaving the lower Rio Grande Valley to the north- if traveling along Hwy 77 or U.S. 281- may encounter checkpoints that are operational.”

The temporary closure of checkpoints along evacuation routes was not comforting to advocates. “People go to where they have shelter, sometimes with family, and that doesn’t mean they’re going to use the evacuation route, people go to different places,” Astrid Dominguez, a policy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t think we should assume people aren’t going to face checkpoints just because they’re not on the evacuation routes.” That’s especially concerning as evacuees go back to flooded areas: According to CBP’s statement, “anyone travelling through a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint would be traveling directly into storm-affected and/or evacuated areas,” so residents returning to survey the damage to their homes and properties may pass through checkpoints.

Authorities have also emphasized that undocumented immigrants will not have to provide identification at shelters. On Friday, CBP released a joint statement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, stating that “Routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks.” Local and state politicians also rushed to assure their safety. Governor Greg Abbott told MSNBC that undocumented immigrants would not have to show identification at shelters, and the city of Houston tweeted that no Houston shelters would be checking immigration status.

Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner stressed the importance that everyone feel free to access emergency resources, adding that “If someone comes and they require help and then for some reason [someone] tries to deport them, I will represent them myself.”

According to Pauza, CBP has not yet apprehended any undocumented immigrants in regions affected by Hurricane Harvey. But for those without documentation in the midst of a life-threatening storm, being apprehended by authorities isn’t the only threat.

On Friday, before the storm hit, 50 undocumented immigrants — primarily asylum seekers from Central America — were stranded at a bus stop in San Antonio by ICE. Sister Denise LaRock of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition told the Rivard Report that the asylum seekers had passed their credible fear interviews and were planning to travel to meet up with their families. However, complications from the upcoming storm caused Greyhound to cancel their bus trips. Even though Representative Lloyd Doggett had been assured earlier that day by ICE that they would not drop off the families at the bus station, they were left there. Members of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition took action and sheltered the families in their church. By Sunday, only six families who were slated to travel to Houston to meet up with their families remained. Rusnok responded to inquiries about the families with a statement:

All of the aliens who were transferred to the San Antonio Greyhound bus station by ICE on Friday morning had confirmed tickets and itineraries to their destinations. Throughout the process, ICE remained in close contact with bus officials to ensure bus availability, and all aliens had confirmed bus transportation at the time at which ICE officers departed the station. Ultimately, ICE kept two additional families in custody since their bus trip had been cancelled.

The CBP’s statements are especially concerning when compared to its responses in previous storms. On Tuesday evening, Amrit Cheng, communications strategist for the ACLU, published a post criticizing ICE and CBP for not being “sufficiently transparent about their enforcement operations during Hurricane Harvey.” The ACLU noted that for Hurricane Isaac in 2012 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, ICE and CBP released joint statements that there would be “no immigration enforcement initiatives associated with evacuations or sheltering related to [Isaac and Matthew], including the use of checkpoints for immigration enforcement purposes in impacted areas during an evacuation.” Cheng writes that by not following the same steps for Hurricane Harvey, “CBP put families in the excruciating position of choosing between safety and the possibility of being detained,” adding that the Rio Grande Valley might have been a safer route for evacuees to go as the storm’s path became clear.

As Cheng pointed out, the confusion around undocumented immigrants trying to survive Hurricane Harvey is further compounded by Senate Bill 4, the “sanctuary city” law slated to go into effect this Friday, September 1. The law would prevent local police departments from adopting any policy that “limits the enforcement of immigration laws,” such as preventing officers from asking about a person’s immigration status while they’re detained or under arrest. The joint statement by CBP and ICE made clear that “the laws will not be suspended” and that the organizations would remain “vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm.” How that vigilance may work in tandem with SB 4—and undocumented immigrants evacuated from their homes—remains to be seen.

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