Immigration checkpoints still in force as tens of thousands flee hurricane’s path

Motorists pass a warning sign as Hurricane Harvey approaches the Gulf Coast area Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. The slow-moving hurricane could be the fiercest such storm to hit the United States in almost a dozen years. Forecasters labeled Harvey a "life-threatening storm" that posed a "grave risk" as millions of people braced for a prolonged battering. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Tens of thousands of people are evacuating cities in southeastern Texas ahead of Hurricane Harvey, which is expected to make landfall late Friday or early Saturday morning, bringing floods, storm surge, and winds over 100 miles an hour. But there is one group of individuals who are wary of evacuating on Texas roads: undocumented immigrants.

Many undocumented immigrants living in southeastern Texas will likely opt to stay put — and in harm’s way — rather than risk going through immigration checkpoints. Ostensibly set up by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to crack down on drug smuggling, these checkpoints also allow federal agents to check immigration status, in the interest of national security. Roughly 1.7 million undocumented immigrants live in Texas, mostly concentrated in the Rio Grande Valley where severe flooding is expected to take place.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agencies issued a joint statement Friday saying it would prioritize its efforts on saving lives, but that it would not suspend checkpoints. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) additionally said evacuation centers would be open to everyone regardless of immigration status.

“Routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks,” the agencies’ statement reads in part. “The laws will not be suspended, and we will be vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm.”

The ICE agency also indicated it would temporarily move detainees from the Port Isabel Detention Center to other detention centers outside the projected path of the hurricane.

Earlier, the CBP indicated it would not close immigration checkpoints north of the Rio Grande Valley “unless there is a danger to travelers or its agents,” the Texas Tribune reported.

“Border Patrol 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 agency said in a statement sent to the publication.

“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,” CBP public affairs officer Roberto Rodriguez added.

On Friday, Abbott assured undocumented immigrants that “it will not be an issue” if they want to go to evacuation centers.

“It’s my understanding from what I saw from the Border Patrol instructions yesterday that it will not be an issue,” Abbott told MSNBC on Friday. “What everyone is focused on right now is ensuring all we can to protect life. We all have a high regard for life. We want to ensure the safety of all lives and we’re prepared to take all measures to do so.”

One of the spots that Harvey is expected to hit includes dozens of colonias in the Rio Grande Valley, “agriculturally worthless land” in unincorporated areas where many low-income families build affordable housing.

To be clear, undocumented immigrants aren’t just fearful of immigration checkpoints under the Trump administration. In 2014, one Texan told ThinkProgress that her undocumented father refused to leave past the checkpoints during Hurricane Dolly because he didn’t want to risk deportation.

But, at a time when President Donald Trump has expanded the types of crime punishable by deportation, evacuating from the Rio Grande Valley now could accrue far more consequences. Already, the administration has detained and deported DREAMers, the undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children who are considered among the most sympathetic cases for immigration reform.

“At a time of emergency, CBP must prioritize safety for everyone who lives in Texas,” Astrid Dominguez, ACLU of Texas policy strategist, said in an emailed statement. “It is unconscionable that the Border Patrol is sending a dangerous, wrong message to our community by refusing to temporarily suspend immigration enforcement during an evacuation, as they did in 2016 and 2012.  We call on CBP to put public safety first and ensure that, no matter their status, families who wish to leave the area can do so unimpeded.”

Still, immigrant critics like Ann Coulter were immune to sympathy.