More than a million residents of the Carolinas and Virginia are scrambling to evacuate their homes as Category 4 Hurricane Florence barrels toward the southeastern coastline. But for undocumented people in those areas, Florence carries a twofold threat.
On one hand, the National Hurricane Center is warning of “life-threatening, catastrophic flash flooding,” “life-threatening storm surge,” and “damaging hurricane-force winds.” On the other, evacuating carries a strong likelihood of coming into contact with law enforcement. And in the Trump era, that can often translate into a one-way ticket to ICE custody.
None of the areas under evacuation order in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia have “sanctuary” policies shielding undocumented residents from federal immigration enforcement. But ICE says that shouldn't stop people from evacuating to safety.
In a statement to VICE News, communications director for ICE’s southern region said that people in the Carolinas and Virginia, which are under federal states of emergency, shouldn’t forgo evacuations for fear of getting picked up by ICE.
“Our highest priority remains the preservation of life and safety,” Bryan Cox said in a statement. “In consideration of these circumstances, there will be no immigration enforcement initiatives associated with evacuations or sheltering related to Florence, except in the event of a serious public safety threat.” A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection provided an identical statement.
In a phone call, Cox doubled down on that message.
“Bottom line is that we’re not doing enforcement in that area given the seriousness of the storm. There is no caveat to that statement. We’re even evacuating ICE personnel,” Cox said. “No person should hesitate to evacuate the area for fear of enforcement or thinking that there will be some sort of presence at evacuation centers.”
ICE and CBP made similar promises last year ahead of both Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida, and Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas. But a report by BuzzFeed found that, in reality, little changed in immigration enforcement's day-to-day operations. In fact, immigration enforcement actions and arrests continued for four days after the agencies released their statement, and the sheriff of at least one Florida county warned that anyone seeking shelter from Hurricane Irma would have to undergo an ID check by sworn law enforcement officers.
So despite the assurances from immigration enforcement, disaster preparedness organizations have been taking no chances. Hurricane training sessions for county employees in Miami-Dade, for example, included drills for how to handle ICE agents showing up at shelters to check people’s papers, the Miami Herald reported. (In the drill scenario, an ICE agent shows up at a shelter and asks to check evacuees’ papers and employees are instructed to say “no.”)
“The Red Cross will not ask people to show any form of identification in order to stay in our shelters,” a spokesperson for Red Cross told VICE News in a statement. “We do ask people staying in our shelters for their names and pre-disaster addresses so that we can track who is using our services.”
The organization added that in order to receive some Red Cross services, like meeting with a caseworker to facilitate disaster recovery, they’d need to verify someone’s pre-disaster address. “For people who don’t have government-issued identification, we can usually do this through alternative means, such as a copy of a utility bill.”
If someone reveals their identity as a non-citizen, Red Cross says that information will remain confidential.
While immigration officials say Homeland Security is prioritizing safety during the hurricane over enforcement activities, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley says an internal budget report suggests otherwise. Merkley released the report during an MSNBC appearance Tuesday night, and says it shows that earlier this year, before hurricane season, the Trump administration opted to redirect $10 million in funding from the already cash-strapped FEMA to bolster ICE enforcement operations. This revelation sparked a public outcry overnight: Last year’s busy hurricane season wreaked devastation across Florida and Texas, and left 4,000 people dead in Puerto Rico.
DHS officials are denying that the transfer occurred. “Under no circumstances was any disaster-relief funding transferred from [FEMA] to immigration enforcement efforts,” Homeland Security spokesperson Tyler Q. Houlton tweeted. “This is a sorry attempt to push a false agenda at a time when the administration is focused on assisting millions on the East Coast facing a catastrophic disaster.”
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with FEMA Administrator Brock Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in the Oval Office September 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump and Long warned coastal residents of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia to adhere to evacuation orders as Hurricane Florence approaches the east coast of the United States. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)