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Hurricane Harvey is continuing to wreak damage throughout Houston and other parts of coastal Texas — and disturbing headlines are appearing as residents respond to the crisis. This coming Friday, the state’s new anti-immigrant law SB 4 is set to be implemented, and how officials treat immigrants in the state could have drastic effects on rescue and recovery efforts after Harvey passes.
In the destructive wake of the hurricane, Texas should shelve the upcoming implementation of SB 4, and ensure that no barriers stand in the way of immigrants seeking help. Below are two stories from the hurricane coverage that have concerned us, and one statement from Houston’s Mayor that Texas would be wise to follow.
As Harvey made landfall over the weekend, Customs and Border Protection initially announced that they would not be closing Border Patrol checkpoints. “We will not abandon our law enforcement duties,” said a statement, prompting advocates to point out that the decision forced undocumented immigrants living in border areas to choose between staying in the path of danger or running into immigration agents while trying to evacuate.
As Lorella Praeli of the American Civil Liberties Union said:
By keeping checkpoints open, the Border Patrol is putting undocumented people and mixed-status families at risk out of fear of deportations. The Border Patrol should never keep checkpoints open during any natural disasters in the United States. Everyone, no matter the color of their skin or background, is worth saving. This is a disgusting move from the Border Patrol that breaks with past practices.
CBP later amended their statement to say that “routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks” and that checkpoints would close as state highways closed, but families may have already made the decision to stay or go by then.
During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, CBP and ICE issued a much stronger joint statement saying that there would be “no immigration enforcement initiatives associated with evacuations or sheltering related to Matthew, including the use of checkpoints for immigration enforcement purposes in impacted areas during an evacuation.”
Last Friday, ICE left fifty women and children asylum seekers from Central America stranded at a San Antonio bus station after service was canceled due to Hurricane Harvey.
ICE routinely drops off asylum seekers who pass their credible fear interviews at bus stations so they can bus to the homes of families or sponsors while their immigration cases move through the courts. But just before the weekend, with the hurricane approaching, advocates had pleaded with immigration officials to not drop the families off where they were likely to be stranded. ICE did anyway. Eventually the women and children were picked up by advocates and taken to a nearby church, but the oversight left advocates furious.
As Sister Sharon Alterdorf, a member of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, said:
I’m very angry that despite our pleas for them not to do this… that they still dropped off these women and children to basically just be left on their own in a bus station in the middle of the storm against all human rights.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) added that:
This is all really unacceptable. We need greatly improved communication and more attention to genuine humanitarian concerns…especially during this natural disaster, all families deserve respect and safety.
ICE’s statement to Buzzfeed about the situation seemed to only state that the families had valid bus tickets at the time of their drop-off:
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.
As we mentioned, this week is the last week before Texas’ new anti-immigrant law, SB 4, is scheduled to take effect. Advocates hope the law will be blocked by courts before September 1, but if it’s not, implementing the law during the Harvey rescue and recovery efforts could harm immigrants.
SB 4 allows police to ask the immigration status of anyone who is detained. That includes people who are pulled over for traffic stops and people who call the police because they were victims of a crime. In an environment where SB 4 is in effect, immigrant families might fear seeking hurricane relief efforts if they think police will inquire about immigration status.
That’s why Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told the state of Texas to put the “law on the shelf” as Texas recovers from Harvey, so that immigrant families know unequivocally that they can safely seek help.
As the Mayor said during a press conference:
I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what your status is. I do not want you to run the risk of losing your life or [that of] a family member because you’re concerned about SB 4 or anything else.
There is absolutely no reason why anyone should not call [for help]. And I and others will be the first ones to stand up with you. If someone comes and they require help and then for some reason [someone] tries to deport them, I will represent them myself.
(Even better, of course, would be a complete block or strike-down of SB 4 in courts, similar to other recent court rulings finding Texas GOP laws being discriminatory and unconstitutional.)