Border Patrol Policy Could Hinder Evacuations

The U.S. Border Patrol says it will check the immigration status of people trying to ride evacuation buses near the Texas-Mexico border in future hurricane emergencies. Those evacuees thought to be in the U.S. illegally will be sent to detention facilities. Human rights advocates protest that people with illegal aliens in their families will not evacuate because they will not want to leave relatives behind.

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Hurricane season starts June 1. In south Texas, residents have wondered for years what such an emergency would mean for the area's undocumented immigrants. This past week they found out. It turns out that the Border Patrol plans to conduct immigration checks as part of any evacuation. That's prompted an outcry from advocacy groups.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: During a mock evacuation last week, a local newspaper reporter snapped photos of border agents checking participants' identification. He says at first he was told to stop and leave but then the Border Patrol confirmed this was part of the plan. Agency spokesman Dan Doty says people would be checked before boarding evacuation buses. Those found to be in the U.S. illegally would be taken to detention centers built to withstand hurricane-level winds then after the crisis, deported. Doty says the policy is not new and not a problem.

Mr. DAN DOTY (Spokesman, Border Patrol): Our daily duties, we switched from enforcement to rescue many times every day all across the southern border. And an emergency situation, especially concerning evacuations, we can still do it and it doesn't slow us down.

Mr. CELESTINO GALLEGOS (Texas Rio-Grande Legal Aid): I thought it was completely ridiculous.

LUDDEN: Celestino Gallegos is with Texas Rio-Grande Legal Aid. He says the plan doesn't seem the best way to conduct an evacuation.

Mr. GALLEGOS: It's reminiscent of Katrina. If FEMA couldn't do it for New Orleans, how will they be able to do it in a situation where you have to screen every single person before you're going to allow them either, one, to get on a bus, or number two, to get past the highway checkpoints on the evacuation route out of the Rio-Grande Valley?

LUDDEN: In fact, Texas state officials have long said they prefer the Border Patrol suspend its checks during an emergency. Catholic priest Michael Seaford is an activist in the border town of Brownsville where he says his home is just eight feet above sea level. He thinks the revelation of this Border Patrol policy could cause tens of thousands of people to ignore evacuation orders, including plenty of legal residents or citizens who have undocumented family members.

Mr. MICHAEL SEAFORD (Priest): You know, you're getting on the bus with your kids and your grandma and they suddenly don't like the papers of the grandmother and they take her off the bus. And what are you going to do? I'm not going to go. If the Border Patrol is going to stay there and check papers, I can't leave this pastor of my parish because I know there's going to be people who don't trust them.

LUDDEN: Not everyone's worried. The emergency management coordinator for Hidalgo County says evacuations happen 72 hours before a hurricane's first winds are felt, plenty of time to process folks and get them to safety. And, as one of his colleagues noted, if illegal immigrants are really anxious, there are to be no checkpoints heading south to Mexico.

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HANSEN: This is NPR News.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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