Deadly wildfires across the western United States have driven many people from their homes as they seek shelter from the blaze. But for some, the decision might not be an easy one: immigration advocates are concerned that undocumented residents threatened by the fires in states like Colorado may not seek shelter over fear of government agents.
Record-breaking heat around the country and dry conditions on the West Coast have sparked a dramatic beginning to wildfire season, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate. California, New Mexico, and Utah are battling fires alongside Colorado, with Oregon also eyeing a similar situation. Thousands of acres have burned so far, with no end in sight.
In the Centennial state, which currently has the highest number of wildfires in the country, the situation is stark. One blaze, in the counties of Costilla and Huerfano, is on course to become the second largest in state history. Almost a third of the nearly 50 wildfires currently burning in the United States are in Colorado and numerous evacuation notices have been issued for impacted areas.
But many immigrants in the state would rather deal with the fire than the possibility of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. The fires are breaking out in the midst of an increasingly hardline immigration crackdown by the Trump administration. While undocumented immigrants have always faced hurdles during natural disasters — including last year, when Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast — the current political environment is looming large as many are forced to make heart-wrenching decisions.
Ashley Harrington, an attorney with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMIAN), told ThinkProgress on Tuesday that fear of immigration authorities is growing in several areas currently grappling with severe wildfires.
“Particularly in the mountain communities where we’re having these fires, where there are huge Latino communities, everyone knows someone who is undocumented, someone who has been deported,” she said. “I do think that people are very afraid to come forward and ask for any help from the government.”
That fear has been exacerbated by swirling rumors. Advocates told ThinkProgress that many community members have heard from peers that ICE agents are present at shelters, leading them to opt out of seeking help. Those claims are unproven and several attorneys said Tuesday they did not believe them to be true, but they’ve proven effective: a number of undocumented people are choosing not to utilize shelters, even when they may need them.
Local law enforcement officials are well aware of the problem. On July 5, Eagle County Sheriff James Van Beek publicly sought to reassure community members that there would be “no immigrant officials” present at any shelters set up and encouraged those in need of a space to go. A Twitter account for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s office seconded Van Beek’s comments later in the day.
“If you are displaced by this fire, please go to a shelter if you need a bed, a meal and a safe place to stay,” the account wrote. “We are all in this together.”
We echo Sheriff van Beek’s comments. If you are displaced by this fire, please go to a shelter if you need a bed, a meal and a safe place to stay. We are all in this together. #onecommunity #LakeChristineFire https://t.co/BZ3xC6rHtw
— Pitkin Co. Sheriff (@PitkinSheriff) July 6, 2018
It’s unclear whether such public reassurances have done much good.
“Members of the community are on high alert. Some of our members have even told us they avoid going anywhere beyond just getting their mail if they can avoid it because of fear of being detained by immigration [officials],” wrote Ana Rodriguez, an organizer with the Colorado People’s Alliance, in an email to ThinkProgress.
An ongoing mass immigration crackdown by the Trump administration — which has included family separations at the border in addition to mass-raids on homes and workplaces — is “likely to deter immigrant and mixed status families from accessing vital emergency services,” she said.
Jennifer Smith, an immigration attorney based in western Colorado, said that Red Cross volunteers and other officials reached out to her during one local fire to ask for her help in quelling rumors that ICE or other immigration officials might be present at shelters.
“One of the things that I was consistently asked to do along with other leaders in the community that work with immigrants is to keep repeating that ICE was not at the shelters,” she told ThinkProgress. Smith noted that relief officials have gone so far as to post on Facebook pledging that even if immigration officials arrive, they will not be permitted to enter shelters.
Moreover, Harrington, the RMIAN attorney, emphasized that any undocumented residents who may come into contact with immigration officials at the shelters are not without legal protections in that space.
“They have the same rights that a U.S. citizen does: to remain silent and to refuse to answer questions,” she said. “They can refuse to open a [closed] door unless ICE shows a judicial warrant.”
Some would rather not take any chances. A staff member with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC), who declined to be named for this story, said that undocumented members of her community are still reeling from a recent raid in Ouray, located in the southwestern part of the state. The incident left people afraid, prompting many to stay with relatives in other towns rather than seek shelter from the fire, with some going so far as to sleep in their cars.
ICE agents aren’t the only concern facing immigrants who may seek shelter.
“Another issue that came up was that when people wanted to return to their homes [after a local fire], they had to show an ID,” said Smith, the immigration attorney. That request, she said, posed “another barrier” for many people — while she knew of no instances of anyone being detained, the reality of ID requests will likely further discourage anyone without such an item from seeking shelter.
As the fires continue to burn, advocates are emphasizing the need for community members to come together in an effort to support their neighbors. With more than a dozen fires still active as of Wednesday morning, the threat posed to residents remains serious and unpredictable. That means undocumented immigrants in impacted areas may need to seek shelter at any time — something Smith said they should be able to do, but may not be willing to.
“Everything and anything is possible,” she said. “We have to take a lot more affirmative steps to help people feel welcome and safe.”