Hurricane Harvey: Immigration Disaster

Hurricane Harvey — a category four hurricane — demolished the city of Houston, Texas, dropping up to 50 inches of rainfall and causing 66 deaths in the span of just five days. While this natural disaster was devastating to many families and homes, it also united the country in the midst of a hyper-polarized political climate. While political party lines are still deeply divided, the hurricane served as a unifying agent, shown through photos of neighbors driving boats to save friends and foe alike, regardless of race, political beliefs, or economic class. Nonetheless, one factor stood in the way of many people’s safety: citizenship.

While Hurricane Harvey itself did not discriminate, not everyone in Houston was able to safely and comfortably travel to shelters. Houston — the third-largest city of undocumented immigrants in the country — is home to a population of roughly 575,000 undocumented immigrants, comprising around 8.7 percent of the Houston population. Due to the severity of Hurricane Harvey, US Customs and Border Protection stated that they would not conduct immigration enforcement at relief sites such as shelters or food banks. However, the government insisted that border control would still be enforced and non-criminal immigration enforcement would continue at various checkpoints. Although the organizations managing the shelters and food banks did not check for identification, immigrants still had to pass through various highway checkpoints checking identifications to reach these nondiscriminatory shelters. Furthermore, if law enforcement was wary of a “serious criminal alien at a relief site,” ICE was given the authority to take matters into their hands.

While these precautions may seem reasonable to many — namely, those whose election votes protested illegal immigration — this tight government involvement in a situation of urgency and fear caused immediate panic among undocumented immigrants. Many undocumented immigrants likely chose to either stay in their homes or simply avoid shelters for fear of being deported upon arrival. This distrust in the government’s promise to put safety first stems from a number of local and federal laws targeting undocumented immigrants. Texas recently passed Senate Bill 4, an anti-immigrant measure “that allows local police officers to ask about a person’s citizenship status.” This bill was temporarily halted due to the hurricane, but many undocumented immigrants see the bill as a direct attack and an attempt to make every police officer an immigration officer. In fact, many police officers have spoken out opposing the bill, because it started to create a level of distrust between law enforcement and the community.

Senate Bill 4 was passed only a few months after Trump’s executive order “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” was signed to defund and invalidate sanctuary cities. This executive order, similar to Senate Bill 4 in Texas, also empowered every police officer nationwide to carry out the duties of an ICE agent. Trump has also authorized an increase of 10,000 ICE agents, an increase of 5,000 border patrol agents, a severe rollback of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, and has promised to “build a wall” between the United States and Mexico. Trump’s campaign promise to “build a wall” may have seemed like an empty threat to some; however, he is now making tangible decisions that threaten immigrants. For example, Trump has already authorized ICE missions in churches, homeless centers, and courthouses — all traditionally safe spaces. These missions have already started to infiltrate communities around the country, with immigrant parents too afraid to even drop their kids off at school.

Many undocumented immigrants likely chose to either stay in their homes or simply avoid shelters for fear of being deported upon arrival.

This trend of undocumented immigrants’ fear and panic in the wake of natural disasters is not unfamiliar. ICE released similar statements following hurricanes Matthew and Isaac in 2012 and 2016. However, due to the severity of deportation measures and the recent increase in immigration regulations, the fear today is much more palpable. Following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, there was a similar issue regarding undocumented immigrants: While undocumented immigrants did not fear deportation directly following the storm, many were hired by federal contractors to rebuild the city post-disaster.  Latino immigrants numbering 10,000 to 14,000 traveled from different states because they were promised high wages and no threat of deportation. However, once the city was rebuilt this safeguard disappeared, and immigration agents targeted New Orleans residents, racially profiling and harassing law-abiding families.

While the situation in New Orleans displayed the government’s ability to be manipulative and coercive, Hurricane Harvey in Houston shows an even more evolved presence of fear and deportation today. As climate change and global warming increase the frequency of natural disasters, the government cannot simply continue to disregard undocumented human lives. In the wake of natural disasters, cities and towns should be made sanctuaries until they are restored and reestablished. However, unlike Hurricane Katrina, the government should not attempt to hire non-local immigrants to restore the city for cheaper wages, but employ local workers to re-establish the economy. Furthermore, after re-development, the government should not send in a “mass attack” on immigration, but rather resume its normal procedures at a standardized rate. While there is no perfect way of resuming deportation and immigration measures, it must be gradually built up, rather than immediately enforced at an increased rate. These specific methods would require an amendment to be added to bills, such as Senate Bill 4 in Texas and Trump’s executive order, that would suspend these intense immigration and deportation laws through national states of emergencies. Without these measures, undocumented immigrants’ lives will be not be valued and protected in the same way that any other life would be. Instead, they will continue to be filled with fear not only for their everyday lives, but also their safety in moments of crisis.