As Hurricane Harvey continues to devastate communities across Southeast Texas, many of the state's most vulnerable populations remain directly in its path, and unfortunately most at-risk of suffering from its flooding and devastation. For example, Texas immigrants in the path of Hurricane Harvey face many additional challenges as they attempt to evacuate, like fear of being discovered by immigration authorities while fleeing affected areas.
The U.S. Border patrol announced Friday that despite the impending storm, roadside immigration checkpoints in Texas, which check individuals’ documents to make sure they are legal residents of the United States, will still remain open throughout the weekend "unless there is a danger" to border patrol agents in the area.
"The Border Patrol is a law enforcement agency and we will not abandon our law enforcement duties," the agency said in a statement obtained by The Texas Tribune.
This move has since been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which stated that immigration authorities are putting public policy ahead of human safety. Many local advocates believe that keeping immigration checkpoints open despite the unprecedented rainfall could deter immigrants from finding safety and leaving flooded areas.
According to the Daily Beast, these checkpoints were closed when hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast in previous years, making undocumented immigrants feel less fearful of being deported or detained while finding shelter.
It has not yet been reported if this decision has led to the detention of any undocumented immigrants, but local officials have taken other measures to ensure that these individuals can stay safe.
In a press conference on Sunday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that people attempting to access shelters during the storm would not be asked to present their IDs before entering.
“That will not be an issue,” Abbott said during an interview on MSNBC. “What everyone is focused on right now is doing all we can to protect life.” Federal immigration authorities also announced that no "routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks."
Despite this precaution, undocumented immigrants in the region have faced a number of other challenges since the storm began. According to a Buzzfeed News report, 50 newly-arrived Texas immigrant women and children were placed directly in the path of the storm as a result of the actions of federal immigration authorities.
On Friday, just as Hurricane Harvey was about to make landfall, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials reportedly left these predominantly Central American asylum-seekers stranded at a San Antonio Greyhound bus station after bus services were cancelled because of the impending storm. This reportedly happened even though Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett told officials the day prior not to drop families off.
"Knowing that, they just dropped them off," a local community advocate told Buzzfeed. "These are women and children who have been released from family detention with no money, cell phones, and don’t speak English."
The families were given shelter by a local church until bus services resumed later that evening. ICE responded to the allegations in a statement on Sunday, stating that all of the immigrants left at the bus station "had confirmed tickets and itineraries to their destinations," and remained in "close contact" with ICE officials.
Undocumented immigrants face a number of additional challenges as they seek safety in the wake of this unprecedented natural disaster. Given that the storm has only just begun, and an estimated 25 inches of rain are expected to fall in the next few days, it's important that the safety and dignity of this vulnerable population is recognized, respected, and allowed to safely evacuate flooded areas as the storm continues.