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.

Rachel Denny Clow/AP
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.

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.

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.

In nearby Matagorda County, emergency officials are equally unsure. "I don't know how many are here," says James Gibson, a Matagorda County commissioner.

In Brazoria County, where the coastal city of Freeport could take the brunt of the hurricane, officials have told everybody to get out but haven't done any special outreach to undocumented communities.

"We've done just about all we can do," says Marie Beth Jones, a spokeswoman for the county. "If they decide to stay, there's not a whole lot we can do about it."

The Bush administration stepped up immigration enforcement in the US interior in part to assure opponents of immigration reform that laws will be enforced, says Mr. Bean. The idea has been to win support for a political solution to how to deal with the up to 20 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, most of them from Central and South America. About 14 percent of them are believed to live in Texas.

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.

More critically, the government has also sent mixed messages about storm evacuations. While Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said in May that illegals who evacuate won't be targeted by federal authorities, a vanload of illegal workers who fled the Rio Grande Valley ahead of hurricane Dolly this summer were stopped and apprehended by the border patrol. According to the patrol, as no mandatory evacuation orders were given, checkpoints stayed open.

"There's definitely a trust issue," says emergency response expert Mr. McEntire.

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."

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