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Opinion: During Hurricane Harvey, Border Patrol Should Prioritize Public Safety

Opinion: The Border Patrol is not planning to close its roadside immigration checkpoints above the Rio Grande Valley unless there is a danger to travelers or its agents. That's a mistake.
Image: A woman steps over sandbags that surround her home in Houston
Lacey Williams steps over sandbags that surround her home in Houston on Aug. 24, 2017.Steve Gonzales / Houston Chronicle via AP

Deportation or death? Right now, that amounts to the choice that Border Patrol agents are giving some undocumented immigrants in southeast Texas.

As the Lone Star State braces for Hurricane Harvey, the Texas Tribune reports that the Border Patrol is not planning to close its roadside immigration checkpoints above the Rio Grande Valley unless there is a danger to travelers or its agents. “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,” said Customs and Border Protection public affairs officer Roberto Rodriguez. In a statement, the CBP noted that they “will not abandon our law enforcement duties.”

RELATED: Hurricane Harvey: Residents Warned to Leave, Stay Away

In other words: as authorities tell people to evacuate coastal areas, immigration agents are waiting to arrest undocumented people if they do.

As what is expected to be one of the most powerful storms to hit the U.S. in over a decade gains steam, these officials seem to be prioritizing immigration enforcement over public safety. Not only is this inhumane, it could have deadly consequences for undocumented immigrants in southeast Texas.

And just as Hurricane Katrina became a symbol of then-President George W. Bush’s perceived Indifference to the plight of African Americans in New Orleans, Hurricane Harvey could come to represent the Trump administration’s lack of concern for Latinos in Texas.

To be clear, these checkpoints are not along the U.S./Mexico border. The checkpoints in question are located further inland, such as one about 30 miles north of Laredo. They are designed to keep traffickers and those who illegally cross the border from reaching the interior. But as thousands of Texans obey orders to evacuate in advance of Hurricane Harvey, some undocumented and mixed status families must weigh the risks of remaining in their homes or facing possible detention and removal by government agents.

The undocumented population in the path of Harvey is not insignificant. The Houston area is estimated by the Pew Center to be home to about 575,000 undocumented people, while Corpus Christi is home to about 10,000. Most of them are Latino. It seems a ghastly policy for our government to be worrying about who is here without authorization at a time of severe weather crisis.

The decision by authorities to keep the checkpoints open has already been blasted by the American Civil Liberties Union and decried as “positively evil” and “despicable” by social media users.

For some undocumented people, remaining in their homes this weekend could prove deadly. Hurricane Harvey is expected to batter southeast Texas by early Saturday night. The storm could make landfall as a category 3 hurricane or higher, with winds of at least 111 miles per hour, according to the National Weather Service. Flooding and power outages are expected. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison was blamed for 22 deaths in the region. Why risk such loss of life again?

Hurricane Harvey will be the first major test of the Trump administration’s ability to respond to a natural disaster. All it would take is an order from the president for immigration authorities to temporarily stand down during this crisis. The decision whether all lives are worth saving is up to Trump.

There is precedent for taking such emergency action. Roadside immigration checkpoints were closed during the evacuations for Hurricane Matthew in 2016. “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,” a joint statement from Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said at the time. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put out a similar notice in advance of Hurricane Isaac in 2012. That was the right thing to do then – and it is the right thing to do now.

So far, the Border Patrol and ICE have announced that they will not be conducting immigration enforcement efforts at emergency evacuation facilities. ICE is also moving some detainees out of Harvey’s path. While that’s a start, their actions do not go far enough. Yet decisions on temporary suspensions of the checkpoints must come from Washington.

Undocumented people must be allowed to flee Hurricane Harvey without fear of being arrested. The lack of immigration status should not be a death sentence.

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