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As Harvey Threatens Texas Coast, Immigration Checkpoints May Cost Lives

Teddy Wilson

An undocumented immigrant living in Texas told Rewire that there is a lot of fear in the community about traveling in the state.

As Hurricane Harvey gathered strength and headed toward the Texas coast on Friday, dozens of local, state, and federal agencies and organizations began preparing for the storm’s impact. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Wednesday preemptively declared a state of disaster, and evacuations have been announced for several communities along the Gulf Coast.

However, while residents of communities in the storm’s path are making the journey to safety, some populations in the state have been left vulnerable to what could be a catastrophic disaster.

The immigrant community is particularly vulnerable to the possible effects of the hurricane, which comes in the wake of Texas lawmakers passing the anti-immigration law known as SB 4. As Rewire reported, SB 4 encourages law enforcement to investigate immigration status as it conducts routine traffic stops. 

An undocumented immigrant living in Texas, who spoke to Rewire on the condition that their identity would not be disclosed, explained that there is a lot of fear in the community about traveling in the state.

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“I have noticed that when [law enforcement] stop people, at first they only care about the last name. If you have a Hispanic last name, they will be able to take you and the police will have the right, under the law, to do that. Before, you just got a ticket and you were let go. That is the main fear I have, when I am driving.”

The fear felt by undocumented immigrants is put in stark relief as Hurricane Harvey approaches the Texas coast and undocumented immigrants face the threat of being detained along evacuation routes.

The U.S. Border Patrol is not planning to close the roadside immigration checkpoints north of the Rio Grande Valley, and will not suspend normal operations unless there is a danger to the public or agency officials, reported the Texas Tribune.

“Border Patrol checkpoints will not be closed unless there is a danger to the safety of the traveling public and our agents. Border Patrol resources, including personnel and transportation, will be deployed on an as-needed basis to augment the efforts and capabilities of local-response authorities,” the agency said in a statement.

Lorella Praeli, American Civil Liberties Union director of immigration policy and campaigns, said in a statement that the decision to keep checkpoints open will place undocumented people and mixed-status families at risk of deportations.

“This is a disgusting move from the Border Patrol that breaks with past practices,” Praeli said. “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.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued a joined statement Friday afternoon stating that the “highest priorities” were the safe evacuation of people in the area affected by the storm.

“Routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks. The laws will not be suspended, and we will be vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, Abbott said on MSNBC that undocumented immigrants will not be asked to show their identification at evacuation centers. However, some undocumented immigrants believe that the threat of detention is greater than the threat of Hurricane Harvey.

“For my family, we will not go anywhere unnecessary. We will only drive when we really have to, otherwise, we will not go out. To drive, no matter where—whether it’s taking your kids to school or going to the store—is now a big risk.”

South Texas is home to dozens of colonias: unincorporated communities near the U.S.-Mexico border that often lack infrastructure and basic services and whose residents are predominately Latino and often undocumented.

The colonias in the path of Hurricane Harvey may be in serious danger if the flood waters rise.

Natural disasters can have a disproportionate impact on women and families in the affected regions.

Nancy Rosenbloom, director of legal advocacy for National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told Rewire that a natural disaster affects housing, travel, employment, and access to other resources.

“Women may be prevented from getting to health-care appointments if they are displaced or roads are impassable,” Rosenbloom said. “Health-care providers themselves, who are already operating under stressed conditions in low-income areas of our country, may be forced to close their doors temporarily.”

Studies conducted in the years following Hurricane Katrina found that the impact of these storms can be long-lasting. 

Charles Smith, executive director of Texas Health and Human Services (HHS), said in a statement that the agency is making preparations for the impact of Hurricane Harvey.

“We are working with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to make sure we’re ready to help as soon as the storm ends,” Smith said. “We are also executing our plans to keep people in state hospitals and state-supported living centers safe during the storm.”

HHS is also preparing to provide emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to Texans facing food shortages because of spoilage and difficulties in transporting food to areas affected by the storm.

Physicians and hospitals in the Houston area are making preparations for the impact of the storm, but further south in Corpus Christi several hospitals and clinics have announced closures as the storm approaches.

Tina Vasquez contributed to this report. 

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