National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

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Hurricanes and the Border Patrol

July 22, 2008 - Posted by Mario Moreno

At this hour, Hurricane Dolly does not appear to be a powerful storm that will cause major damage or trigger evacuations.  However, the potential path of the storm – towards the border of the Texas Gulf Coast and Mexico – underscores an issue that has been brewing for several months.  What will the Border Patrol do in event of an evacuation in Texas or elsewhere with regards to identity checkpoints? 

On May 16, the San Antonio Express-News reported that the Border Patrol would maintain identity checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley:

Ending years of speculation about the fate of the Rio Grande Valley’s unauthorized immigrants during a hurricane evacuation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has confirmed it will check the citizenship of people boarding buses to leave the Valley and arriving at inland traffic checkpoints.

Those determined to be in the country illegally will be taken to detention centers away from the hurricane’s path and later processed for deportation.

“It’s business as usual at the checkpoints,” said Dan Doty, spokesman for CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector. “We’ll still check everybody.” – “ID Still Required In Valley Disaster,” San Antonio Express-News, May 16, 2008

But the article indicates the CBP may be more lax in the event of an evacuation so as not to risk the lives of immigrants and non-immigrants alike.  However, the article also notes that the Border Patrol won’t say that they will be lax in public so that they do not appear to be soft or open to an influx of immigrants during a disaster. 

At a recent discussion with reporters, Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said he didn’t expect the Border Patrol to publicize a policy on the checkpoints for fear of inviting a free-for-all for unauthorized traffic. The unofficial word, he said, was that agents recognized they’d have to be more lax amid a disaster.

But Tuesday, a reporter photographing a mock evacuation for the Rio Grande Guardian Web site saw Border Patrol agents rehearsing citizenship document checks of people boarding buses. CBP’s Doty confirmed this was the planned procedure and said those determined to be unauthorized immigrants would be taken to separate shelters, likely detention centers in Laredo or San Antonio. He said the highway checkpoints would stay open. – “ID Still Required In Valley Disaster,” San Antonio Express-News, May 16, 2008

Just last week, the Texas Civil Rights Review published a Q&A on a lawsuit filed to force the Border Patrol to publicly articulate their policy.  First published in the Mid-Valley Town Crier of McAllen, Texas,  Nick Braune interviewed Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Corinna Spencer-Scheurich.

Nick Braune: The Monitor reported that a number of groups, including LUPE and Brownsville’s Proyecto Digna, have filed a suit to find out evacuation procedures and policies. One lawyer was quoted as saying that the Border Patrol is being “reckless” and that they would be “creating a danger for everyone” if they start asking people for identification during an evacuation. Are those comments too strong?

Corinna Spencer-Scheurich: No, I don’t think they are too strong. Border Patrol is being reckless because the most important thing in advance of a disaster is to have a plan that everyone knows. We saw what happened when Houston residents tried to evacuate before Hurricane Rita. It took more than 24 hours for people to reach Dallas. Only half of the residents ended up evacuating. Luckily the main force of Rita did not hit Houston. What is clear is that in the event of a hurricane evacuation, everyone needs to be prepared and we have to get people to safety as quickly as possible.

Can you imagine the additional hold up at the Falfurrias checkpoint if Border Patrol is checking IDs? Holiday weekends are bad enough! And some people will not evacuate, risking harm, because they know they might run out of gas because of the gridlock or because they might have other problems. People who might have trouble proving their immigration status or have family members with that problem are also not going to flee. This is a humanitarian disaster waiting to happen. – “Forcing the Border Patrol to Answer a Question,” Texas Civil Right Review, July 17, 2008

Recall that many immigrant families include a mix of “legal” and “illegal” members, so if the Border Patrol does not articulate their policy to the community, what are people to do.  Flee a natural disaster and risk my family or don’t flee a natural disaster and risk my family?  What would you do?

Dolly may not trigger such dire decision making, but as we move to some of the predicted 15 named storms this season, other storms might.

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