Storm Harvey: Immigrants in Texas suffer double distress

Many fled to shelters despite worry over possibility of facing hostile immigration agents

This has been a harrowing year for the hundreds of thousands of unauthorised immigrants who have put down stakes in Houston. Stepped-up enforcement of immigration measures put many on edge over deportations, while governor Greg Abbott of Texas signed one of the nation's most punitive laws against cities who do not co-operate with federal immigration authorities.

President Donald Trump has amplified his harsh line on illegal immigration and renewed his promise to build a border wall.

Then came the chaos of Hurricane Harvey. Families among Houston's estimated 600,000 unauthorised immigrants – the largest number of any city in the United States except New York and Los Angeles, according to the Pew Research Center – fled their homes to escape the flooding despite their anxiety over being turned away at shelters or facing hostile immigration agents.

“People were telling each other that the immigration men were coming to check our papers,” said Eloy González (40), a truck driver who made it to the sprawling shelter at the George R Brown Convention Centre. All he had were the drenched clothes he was wearing when he escaped the flooding in Pasadena, a suburb of Houston where thousands of immigrants live in the shadow of oil refineries.


"The rumours are false but the fear is still there," said González, an immigrant from northern Mexico, emphasising that he was one of the "lucky ones" who is legally in the United States.

Even as political leaders in Houston sought to reassure residents that routine immigration enforcement would not be conducted at shelters and food banks, many people fleeing their homes expressed dismay over what they described as mixed signals coming from immigration authorities in the upheaval around Hurricane Harvey.


The border patrol did not suspend operations at checkpoints in Texas on Saturday even after the storm unleashed destruction in parts of the state, drawing sharp rebukes from human rights activists who said the decision put the lives of unauthorised immigrants and mixed-status families at risk.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that maintaining the checkpoints stood in contrast to the position taken just last October by the border patrol during Hurricane Matthew, when authorities explicitly said that there would be no immigration enforcement checkpoints.

Public statements from some immigration authorities added to the sense of confusion and unease. In a joint statement on Tuesday, the border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said that routine enforcement would not be conducted at evacuation sites, shelters or food banks.

But in the same statement the organisations said: “The laws will not be suspended, and we will be vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm.”

As many immigrants coped with the flooding of their homes, a sense of dread over state and federal immigration policies hung over shelters here in Houston and other parts of the state where people are hunkering down as rain continues to fall.

Houston, which emerged as one of the nation’s most diverse cities after receiving a huge influx of immigrants and refugees from around the world in recent decades, exemplifies the undercurrents of opportunity and distress. Vietnamese and Indian entrepreneurs dominate certain corridors, where they run restaurants and shops. The city is home to the largest Afghan refugee population in the United States.

But the biggest group hails from Latin America, and many of them are immigrants who crossed the border to fill jobs in restaurants, hotels and construction.

Gang violence

Houston has been the destination for thousands of Central Americans fleeing gang violence and poverty since 2014, advocates say. Typically, mothers who arrive with children are fitted with ankle monitors that track their movement while they wait for their asylum case to be adjudicated. The monitors, which are clunky, must be charged every 12 hours or so. Even in normal conditions, they cause rashes and cuts.

“Most of our clients have ankle monitors, and we don’t know how these devices will withstand being underwater,” said Miriam Camero, a caseworker in Houston for RAICES, an immigrant legal-aid group based in San Antonio.

Sowing confusion and fear among some people here, more than two dozen border patrol agents from a special operations detachment in south Texas arrived in Houston with a dozen vessels to help with the emergency relief effort.

For many immigrants in the US illegally, the sight of border patrol boats on their flooded streets was enough to frighten them. “Just physically and visually seeing the border patrol out there caused panic,” said Cesar Espinosa, executive director of FIEL Houston, an immigrant rights organisation. “They thought they were coming to get them.”

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