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During a Hurricane, Could Immigration Enforcement Cost Lives?

May 31, 2011

SAN JUAN, Texas - The beginning of June marks the start of hurricane season, which is expected to be more active than normal this year, according to the National Weather Service. Advocates for border communities say lives will be needlessly lost in south Texas if authorities don't send a clear signal that immigration enforcement will be suspended inside the state during weather emergencies.

Amin Alehashem, an attorney with the South Texas Civil Rights Project, says such a signal is needed.

"When there's not a clear message from the government about what's going to happen, the chaos and confusion can lead to a lot of devastating consequences. And that's what we're trying to avoid."

He says Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, continues to sow fear and distrust by sending mixed signals, stating it will neither "impede safe and orderly evacuations" nor "abandon its law-enforcement mission." CBP representatives have also publicized the captures of undocumented immigrants during Hurricane Dolly evacuations.

According to some estimates, undocumented immigrants comprise a third of the population in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Alehashem fears many of them won't follow evacuation procedures if they fear being targeted for arrest and deportation.

"We don't want them to worry about what's going to happen at checkpoints and then coming to the conclusion that riding out the storm is probably the best idea, because that's generally not a good idea."

In other states, he says, immigration enforcement during weather emergencies is routinely suspended, with Homeland Security diverting its resources to disaster relief. Alehashem says keeping permanent checkpoints open on evacuation routes in south Texas, such as one in Sarita on U.S. Route 77, and another in Falfurrias on U.S. Route 281, will lead to long lines for everyone trying to escape a hurricane.

The lawyer says enforcement of drug and human trafficking should continue if possible, and he acknowledges that some people may take advantage of emergencies to commit crimes, but he says that's a price worth paying when everyone's safety is at stake.

"At a certain point when you have a storm coming, and thousands of lives in danger, you know, some things may have to slip through the cracks for the greater good."

Rio Grande Valley advocates say they've already received numerous calls from residents expressing concern over evacuation procedures because of their immigration status.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX