As up to a million Texans flee the wind and rain of hurricane Ike, the federal government has imposed a “hurricane amnesty” for the state’s estimated 1.6 million unauthorized immigrants.
That means no ID checks at shelters, no border patrol checkpoints, no Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents scouring the highways, says Dan Martinez, spokesman for the Austin-based Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). He calls the massive evacuation a “humanitarian mission” to save lives ahead of what may become an 18-foot storm surge pushing against the vulnerable continental shelf of Texas.
As mandatory evacuations begin today, the Red Cross has begun handing out leaflets across the region, informing illegal residents of the amnesty. Harris County officials have also informed Mexican Consulate General in Houston of the amnesty to help get the message out.
Nationwide, ICE has stepped up its enforcement, making some 3,900 immigration arrests and 1,000 criminal arrests in the past 10 months. Texas has been the site of several major ICE raids, including the Swift and Company raids in 2006.
Whatever political advantage that tactic might have—so far, no comprehensive immigration reform has been passed—it’s resulted in a “chilling effect” on the willingness of illegal workers to come out in the open, says Bean. The extension of immigration control powers to local police forces is also playing into growing fear in the undocumented community.
Meanwhile, emergency officials are hammering home the point that politics and fear should not be playing into evacuation efforts for a storm that has the potential of shaping up much like the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, and killed 6,000 Americans.
“I would hope very strongly, and I suspect, that all people are more interested in their family’s safety than whether or not an ID might be checked somewhere along the line,” says Joe Stinebaker, a spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who ordered a mandatory coastal evacuation of some 60,000 people at noon on Thursday. “Nobody has any interest in using this as a law enforcement round up. This is an attempt to save lives and avoid catastrophe.”