Update on the Border Patrol’s Callousness about Emergency Evacuations

By Nick Braune

For well over a year, the South Texas Civil Rights Project (STCRP) has been urging the Border Patrol to recognize that its job should include an elemental human concern: the safety of the population during hurricanes or other disasters. There is a simple problem. The Border Patrol, in its eagerness to enforce immigration rules, apparently wants it known that it will be checking IDs to see who is and who is not a citizen, etc., even during emergency evacuations. But if the word is out that the Border Patrol will be checking IDs, many undocumented people and others may simply risk their lives by not evacuating.

The STCRP held another press conference in the Rio Grande Valley this month: On August 7th, an article in the McAllen daily newspaper, The Monitor, covered the story:

“The U.S. Border Patrol has stated it will continue operating its checkpoints in the event of a storm, including the Sarita and Falfurrias checkpoints located on U.S. 77 and U.S. 281, respectively. (U.S. 281 is a designated hurricane evacuation route.) ‘An evacuation doesn’t preclude us from doing our job,’ said John Lopez, local spokesman for the agency. But activists fear such inspections would encourage the Rio Grande Valley’s estimated 150,000 illegal immigrants to ride out a hurricane in their homes to avoid deportation. Many live in unincorporated colonias — areas that are particularly vulnerable to heavy storms due to the lack of adequate infrastructure.”

It was only last summer when terrible damage in Galveston occurred from a hurricane, one which those of us in the Rio Grande Valley thought for a day or so was going to hit here. But if last summer’s big hurricane had hit here instead of a few hundred miles north of us, numbers of undocumented immigrants would not have evacuated. They would have stayed home, afraid of the hassle with the Patrol.

Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, an attorney with STCRP, says it is important for the Border Patrol to keep some distance from exits and shelters during an emergency. “This is about human life, not law enforcement,” she says.

The situation has become even more complicated this year since a new law goes into effect in September making it a crime not to evacuate when a general order has gone out. Spencer-Scheurich is quoted in The Monitor as saying that this is going to make an even tougher situation for the undocumented. “If they evacuate, they could be deported. And if they stay, they could be arrested and then deported.”

Spencer-Scheurich explained in a phone call with this reporter that as far as this issue is concerned there has been no major difference between the Obama administration and the Bush administration. “We got about the same form letter from the Border Patrol this year as we did during the Bush administration. Although we are working case by case, we need a national level policy and we can’t leave important decisions to be made at the last minute.” Spencer-Scheurich emphasized that in an emergency, when people are scrambling to get their bottled water and their batteries and other supplies ready, they can’t wait too long for the Border Patrol to make a decision to be humane. Not only hurricanes present this problem: there have been cases in California of immigrants driving toward dangerous wildfires instead of away from them because the Border Patrol has failed to make the proper public announcement about their enforcement stance during evacuations.

Evacuation emergencies are not the right time to force lines of people to stop and have their IDs checked. Spencer-Scheurich emphasized that everyone has to know ahead of time that an evacuation can be smooth for everyone, hassle free and fast.

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