Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff clarified that federal border agents would not impede a hurricane evacuation from south Texas by checking fleeing residents' documents, diverging from plans confirmed by Border Patrol officials in the state only days earlier.
Speaking at a hurricane preparedness gathering Tuesday at Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington, Chertoff said he wanted to "drive a stake through the heart of a misapprehension which is out there."
"In the event of an emergency, and the need for an evacuation, priority No. 1 by a country mile is the safe evacuation of people who are leaving the danger zone," Chertoff said. "Instructions to the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection are clear. They are to do nothing to impede a safe and speedy evacuation of a danger zone."
Texas officials reacted with concern when patrol officials along the Texas-Mexico line said last week that checkpoints 75 miles north of the border would remain in operation during a hurricane evacuation. Officials also had said agents would make checks at evacuation hubs where fleeing residents lacking transportation would board buses.
Fears of bottlenecks
Local emergency management officials feared the checkpoints could become bottlenecks for traffic fleeing the coast and the low-lying Rio Grande Valley, and could dissuade illegal immigrants and legal residents with undocumented family members from heading to safety.
"Now, obviously the laws don't get suspended, but it does mean that our priorities are to make sure we can move traffic along quickly," Chertoff said. "We're not going to be bogging people down with checks or doing things to delay the rapid movement of people out of the zone of danger."
The policy clarification continued locally Wednesday when Ronald Vitiello, chief of the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley Sector, released a letter echoing Chertoff's remarks.
"Our primary role in such events will be the safeguarding of life," the letter said. "No enforcement role will be undertaken that will in any way impede the safe and orderly evacuation of any member of the south Texas population."
Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, termed the idea of operating the checkpoints in a hurricane "nonsensical" and said the state was pleased to be back on the same page with the federal government.
"Gov. Perry spoke with officials with the U.S. Border Patrol and received assurances that, while patrolmen will always have a presence to ensure criminals do not try to take exploit an emergency situation, they will not stop people fleeing from harm's way," Piferrer said.