Officials have promised that undocumented people are safe at shelters. But fear is keeping some of Houston's most vulnerable residents away.
A Houston resident walking through water on August 29. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
As the floodwaters rose, trapping Luis and his family in their Houston home and threatening to burst through the door, his anxiety mounted. His one-week-old granddaughter was short on formula; within two days, he'll have to swim to a store. "We can't leave… but I'm going to have to leave to look for food for her," Luis, a 50-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant who requested I not publish his last name, told me on the phone.
His family is avoiding shelters or government aid because they're petrified of deportation, particularly since Texas's anti-sanctuary cities bill, allowing police to ask individuals their immigration status, takes effect Friday.
"The only thing we can do is try to get help from family members," Luis, who works in the kitchen at a Houston golf course, said. The anti-sanctuary cities bill, along with the Trump administration's recent deportations of undocumented immigrants who have committed no crimes, had eroded his trust in the government. "We see people being deported for no reason—family who have been stopped on their way to work. How is the government going to help people without papers?"
Amid one of the worst natural disasters in US history, local, state, and federal officials have pledged to aid all residents and to refrain from immigration enforcement in shelters and emergency missions. That's an important decision given the estimated 575,000 undocumented immigrants in Houston. But Luis and his family are among the many too afraid to seek such support.
"People have taken to social media saying, 'Don't go to shelters,' spreading rumors of immigration raids," said Cesar Espinosa, director of the immigrant support organization FIEL Houston, who is trying to spread the word that undocumented residents are safe to go to such shelters.
"Yesterday a lady with three kids called me and told me four feet of water had come into her apartment, and she asked if it was safe to go to the shelter because she heard rumors shelters would be checking papers," Espinosa told me. "We told her immediately, 'Yes, it's safe, go!'"
In the continuing chaos of Harvey, it remains unclear how many undocumented residents have refrained from seeking help, said Espinosa. He has been unable to leave his house in the Houston suburb of Cypress, but is trying to do whatever he can to dispel myths, including flagging tweets that immigration agents lurk in shelters.
Another Houston immigrant organizer, Oscar Hernandez, of the organization United We Dream, told me he instructs each family to decide for themselves whether to go to a shelter, since he still feels unsure what might happen.
"I don't want to tell families not to go if they're desperate… and if they're deported, we'll make it into a scandal, if they were discriminated against for this reason," said Hernandez, 29, a Houston homeowner who has deportation relief under DACA since he immigrated to the US as a child.
"Friday it could get even worse than it is now," he continued, referring to the implementation of what critics call Texas's "show me your papers" law.
Houston officials, however, are emphatically communicating that immigrants are welcome and safe in shelters, regardless of the law. Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday there is "absolutely no reason why anyone should not call" for help, and that the anti-sanctuary bill SB4 should be put "on the shelf" during rescue efforts.
"If someone comes and they require help and then for some reason [someone] tries to deport them, I will represent them myself," said Turner, who is an attorney. "I don't care who you are. I don't care what your status is. I do not want you to run the risk of losing your life or [that of] a family member because you're concerned about SB 4 or anything else." Turner has also repeatedly shared the city of Houston's tweet stating that "we will not ask for immigration status or papers from anyone at any shelter."
"This is an emergency response—anybody is welcome to the shelters no matter who they are," the Houston Police Department's public information officer, Porfirio Villarreal, told me.
The Department of Homeland Security has vowed in a press release that "routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks," and Texas governor Greg Abbott confirmed the plan in an interview with MSNBC.
"What everyone is focused on right now is doing all we can to protect life," Abbott told MSNBC Friday, claiming that legal status would "not be an issue."
Abbott's press office did not immediately return requests for comment on SB4's effects on undocumented Harvey victims. But in the past the governor has maintained that the law serves to ensure public safety "by keeping dangerous criminals off our streets." President Donald Trump has also said his illegal immigration crackdown is necessary to protect the lives and jobs of US citizens.
Kate Vickery, executive director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, a network of legal service providers serving low-income immigrants, encouraged the undocumented population to believe the government's messages to preserve their lives.
"It's so important that we fan the flame of people's anxiety," Vickery told me. "People need to seek shelter and not be afraid of immigration enforcement."
But assuaging the undocumented community's anxiety is particularly difficult given the Trump administration's rhetoric and enforcement record, said John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and former acting general counsel of the DHS.
"Everything the current administration is doing is eroding what little trust there was," Sandweg, who served under Barack Obama, told me.
Homeland Security's Harvey press release did seem to mirror the previous administration's statements during natural disasters, sending "the general message that they don't want to be a deterrent for anyone to flee an area," said Sandweg. But he noted the Obama administration would likely have closed Border Patrol checkpoints, whereas Trump's DHS kept them open during Harvey, possibly jeopardizing evacuation routes.
Sandweg also said that during such public disasters, DHS typically rerouted ICE criminal investigators to conduct first-responder duties instead.
"Hopefully they're 100 percent dedicated to helping the state emergency management," said Sandweg.
A DHS press officer would not respond to further questions about the agency's enforcement or aid during Harvey, but instead directed me to their press release.
Texas's impending anti-sanctuary cities bill also has the effect of making undocumented immigrants more scared of law enforcement—and cops commonly serve as security at emergency shelters, noted Houston immigration attorney Mana Yegani. "Any interaction with law enforcement has created a fear in the community, even though law enforcement is there to help," she told me.
Now, just two days before SB4 takes effect, immigration advocates cling to the hope that the law might be at least delayed. A federal judge is currently hearing a lawsuit against the state to block the law.
"I'm hoping the court will consider this storm and execute a stay temporarily," Democratic Texas state representative Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, an outspoken opponent of the law, told me. "No one could have foreseen how devastating this storm could have ended up being… These are not normal circumstances."
Even if Houston's undocumented residents access short-term emergency relief, the months—even years—ahead are likely to be a struggle. Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for FEMA assistance, and legal aid organizations by law cannot serve the population since the organizations receive federal funds. And beyond these days of crisis, the Texas police will—barring a judge's orders—be charged with conducting immigration enforcement.
"It's going to be real now. If people get trapped underwater and a cop comes, are they going to be asked for their documentation?" posed Espinosa. "People have been asking those questions."
The storm's aftermath, combined with the new law, is certain to drive even more immigrants from a state that has already begun to lose those employees, Elmer, an undocumented construction worker in Houston, told me.
"I have colleagues who lost everything, homes, cars… We work in construction, we build schools, and the city is going to need us to rebuild after the storm," said Elmer, 32, who has been in Houston for eight years. He said his cousins and friends have already left for other states, and his colleagues, now homeless and threatened with deportation, have lost any reason to stay.
"This is a mistake," he said. "It's going to hurt the state."
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