Enforcing border checkpoints during Hurricane Harvey could leave people in harm’s way

What does immigration enforcement have to do with natural disasters? Plenty.

As the Federal Emergency Management Agency is telling people that the window for evacuating from #HurricaneHarvey is closing, the federal government says it plans to enforce immigration laws at checkpoints near the border. If it holds, that decision may cause harm in the Gulf Coast, and it’s one reason I’ll be watching this weekend’s landfall closely.

First, a little context. Interior border checkpoints exist all along the southern United States, including on Highway 5, in Southern California, where I live. Technically, they’re for deterring and catching smugglers. Unofficially, they can mean nothing to the people who zip on through, or they can represent a delay if the agents decide to scrutinize you for being different; my Korean brother-in-law just told me about a time he was delayed for an hour near White Sands, NM, because he only had his driver’s license, not his immigration paperwork, in the car with him (he wasn’t planning to, and did not, approach or cross the border).

The press release from the U.S. Border Patrol says these 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 Texas Tribune’s Julian Aguilar tried to clarify:

When asked to elaborate on the statement, CBP public affairs officer Roberto Rodriguez said officers would prioritize public safety but keep intact the goals of the agency’s mission.

“We’re not going to impede anybody getting out of here, but at the same time we’re a law enforcement agency, so we still have to conduct our duties,” he said.

…What he got in return seems like a riddle.

At least they’re saying they’re not going to raid emergency shelters and food banks.

Whether these checkpoints are in place as evacuation orders are issued matters because people without documentation face a punishing choice as the storm comes: leave, and run into law enforcement. Stay, and risk their lives. Tom Dart reported in The Guardian last year that these checkpoints can serve as deterrents during a hurricane:

But for undocumented people fearful of being apprehended, the checkpoints represent a barrier that could become life-threatening in the event of a hurricane severe enough to prompt an evacuation order. People would face agonising choices: stay home and try to ride out the storm, leave and take the chance that checkpoints are suspended or agents do not stop them, or attempt to circumvent security on foot – a potentially life-threatening decision in any weather.

Dart spent time with people who live on the border, including those who live in colonias. For Al Jazeera, Patrick Strickland reported on these living areas too.

Owing to their location outside the city limits, these impoverished communities do not have access to much of the basic infrastructure and services available in the cities. While colonias also exist along the borderlands of New Mexico, Arizona and California, Texas has the largest number of colonia residents: more than 500,000 people, most of whom are Mexican immigrants.

Colonias are among the most poverty-stricken communities along the US’ Texas border, and South Tower Estates is in Hidalgo County, the fourth poorest county in Texas . Neighbouring Starr and Cameron Counties, also home to high concentrations of colonias, are the second and third poorest counties, respectively.

Though many homes in South Tower Estates are modest, completed residences made of stucco or brick, others are jerry-built shacks of plywood or ramshackle residences pieced together with cinderblocks, metal sheets and tarps.

And the decision to keep open the checkpoints matters in 2017 because it appears it’s being made differently than it was 2016, and 2012. According to a statement from Hurricane Matthew, last year, the federal government’s “highest priorities are to promote life-saving and life-sustaining activities, the safe evacuation of people who are leaving the impacted area, the maintenance of public order, the prevention of the loss of property to the extent possible, and the speedy recovery of the region.” The statement continues:

There will 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… The laws will not be suspended, and we will be vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm. Nevertheless, in evacuation or response, we are committed to making sure that we can assist local authorities quickly, safely, and efficiently.

During Isaac, same thing.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is encouraging people to leave, as fast they can. Their counterparts within the Department of Homeland Security may be doing the opposite. Previous efforts to harmonize government response during a disaster may be reversed.

There’s another reason I’m interested in what happens this weekend. It’s because I think it’s worth tracking whether the U.S. government under President Trump is creating more climate refugees, or worsening the fate of existing ones.

Scientific accuracy demands that we be watchful when talking about climate related to individual weather events. Still, we do know Harvey moved over warm Gulf waters, which have fueled its intensity,  and those waters are five degrees warmer than normal. Hanging out over these warm waters, Harvey has not weakened as much as once hoped. It has grown stronger.

The words “climate refugee” are controversial because there’s no single agreed-upon meaning. Around the world, governments, non-governmental organizations, scholars and advocacy groups acknowledge that migration and displacement due to climate change is real. Being forced from home due to sea level rise, or extreme weather, that offers no special refugee status. So using those words offers no clear solutions.

Even if FEMA’s new chief, Brock Long, doesn’t want to say whether he believes climate change is warming the planet,  he does say that it’s his job to help people prepare for risk, whatever the cause. And the recurring and intense impacts of extreme weather in the Gulf coast of the United States are a growing problem. With any problem, the first step toward understanding it is trying to quantify and to document it.


Photo via Flickr/Jonathan McIntosh (Creative Commons 2.0)

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