Checking Citizenship of Natural Disaster Evacuees? Lame-Brained
by James C. Harrington
Posted on May 16, 2008
The border patrol (now called Immigration and Customs Enforcement) recently announced, if a major catastrophe struck the Rio Grande Valley, it would screen people for citizenship or legal residency before letting them flee the Valley for shelter. ICE said it would take evacuees into custody who could not prove their legal status in the country. The press conference in Harlingen where this bizarre public statement occurred seemed like something scripted for a Franz Kafka novel.
A mental picture of the chaos and confusion that ICE immigration roadblocks would cause in a hurricane evacuation is had enough to imagine, let alone the cogency of the government’s thought process.
I’ve been through hurricanes in the Valley. When a hurricane is coming, it’s time to leave, and leave quickly. Traffic becomes clogged enough without the border patrol setting up checkpoints and further snarling the traffic and exposing families to harm and danger.
Even more to the point, many people who already know of the border patrol’s history of loose interpretation and capricious enforcement of the law may decide not flee the environmental danger. They would rather ride it because they fear having to deal with ICE agents.
What happens if everyone a family has status in the country, except perhaps for a grandparent? That family is going to stay put, rather than risk the grandparent’s arrest. That, in turn, exposes the entire family to peril.
The border patrol’s argument is that terrorists take advantage of sudden natural calamities to sneak into the country. Not a single shred of proof for that assertion. The terrorists who have struck this country are either homegrown (Oklahoma City, for example) or have come into the country through airports and then trained here through the incompetence of the federal government.
Imagine how much worse Hurricane Katrina would have been for the residents of New Orleans if ICE agents had set up immigration roadblocks when families were abandoning the city, before and after devastation. Or, in 1998, when Del Rio residents had to escape the sudden killer flood caused by Tropical Storm Charley.
This new policy is more lame-brained than the Department of Homeland Security building a wall through people’s property along the border. The feds hardly can get their act together in an emergency disaster, let alone adding a layer of immigration barricades to everything else going on.
In this country, we have not before required proof of citizenship before the police will act to investigate a crime. Nor do firefighters stand in front of someone’s burning home, waiting for proof of legal status before putting out the fire. Nor do ambulance attendants make legal status a prerequisite of emergency care. And it should not be a requirement for people fleeing a catastrophic act of nature.
Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation that promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas.
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