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Ike evacuation: 'Hurricane amnesty' to help Gulf's illegal immigrants

But increased raids this past year mean that many undocumented may choose to stay in the storm zone.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2008

In Corpus Christi, Tex., city employees got help with the registration system for evacuees from hurricane Ike from EWA Governmental Systems Inc. employee Tom Bock (c.), as they registered individuals.

Rachel Denny Clow/AP



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.

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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.

Such assurances would normally be enough to convince the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in seven coastal counties to get their families out of harm's way, says Frank Bean, director of the Center for Research on Immigration, Population and Public Policy at the University of California in Irvine.

But with the intensification of crackdowns and raids in recent years, evacuation may prove a tough sell to some Hispanics in the storm's path.

"There's a contradiction here – the government is between a rock and a hard spot," says David McEntire, an emergency response expert at the University of North Texas in Denton. "They want to enforce immigration laws, and another priority is to protect people and save lives. It's not going to be an easy task to reconcile them."

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.

But in some areas, local emergency officials have not targeted the Hispanic community specifically. For one, authorities say they don't have a good handle on the exact number of undocumented workers living in the storm zone. "We know there's a significant number," says Marco Bracamontes, a Harris County spokesman.