Dual Storms

Fearing Trump Administration Crackdown, Immigrants May Stay in Hurricane Harvey Zone

In a break from precedent, checkpoints remain open despite the coming natural disaster.

As Hurricane Harvey bears down on the Gulf Coast, immigrants’ rights advocates fear undocumented people may be afraid of seeking refuge because of the Trump administration.

On Thursday, as the storm hurtled toward Texas and Louisiana, Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—which is part of the Department of Homeland Security—announced its border checkpoints would keep operating in the lead-up to the storm. A statement released the following day made clear that as long as the highways were open, the checkpoints would be as well.

CBP officials run checkpoints within 100 miles of the southern and northern borders, where they sometimes ask people to produce paperwork showing they have the right to be in the country. Many undocumented immigrants, for obvious reasons, avoid these checkpoints. When hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast in 2012 and 2016, CBP announced the checkpoints would be closed—which made undocumented immigrants less fearful that they could face detention or deportation when they evacuated from the storm.

This time is different. And, according to advocates, it has undocumented immigrants concerned they may risk deportation if they try to flee the storm.

“Most undocumented people would be afraid of going through the checkpoints right now,” said Cathy Potter, a Texas immigration attorney.

Spokespersons for DHS did not provide comment on why the agency broke from precedent to keep the checkpoints open.

Lisa Brodyaga, an immigration attorney who works in Texas, said the hurricane seems to have moved far enough North that people in the hundred-mile border zone may not feel the need to have to evacuate—a view Potter shared. Brodyaga also said the checkpoint news had deterred some people from evacuating who otherwise might have.

“There are a lot of people who had thought about doing so, and didn’t,” she said.

Astrid Dominguez, Immigrants’ Rights Policy Strategist for the ACLU of Texas, said these fears also impact people who are in the U.S. legally.

“There are mixed-status families—you might have one individual who might be undocumented or might be out of status and the family won’t leave that person,” she told The Daily Beast. “The whole family will stay so you’re putting everybody at risk because of the checkpoint.”

Another concern for some immigrants’ rights advocates is that people could be arrested by ICE officers at storm shelters. The CBP statement released Aug. 24 said certain enforcement efforts would be suspended. But the vagueness in its wording left advocates worried.

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

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Dominguez said the Trump administration’s expansive view of what constitutes a crime, for immigration enforcement purposes, means ICE’s promise to show restraint rings hollow. Already, in many major cities, undocumented immigrants have stopped showing up for hearings or to testify as witnesses in criminal cases because ICE officers have made arrests at courthouses. New York City attorneys told The Daily Beast that immigrants with the legal right to be in the U.S. have also been hesitant to go to court for fear of being arrested.

Such actions were extremely uncommon during the Obama administration. But they’ve become more commonplace under Trump, who has routinely highlighted increased immigration enforcement on the stump. Now, as a hurricane bears down on Texas, the fear is that the same presidential zeal for raids at courthouses will be directed at shelters.