In response to reports of a nationwide immigration raid that was scheduled to target approximately 8,400 undocumented immigrants later this month, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a statement last Thursday saying that there are no nationwide enforcement actions planned at this time, as all upcoming operations have been reviewed and “adjusted accordingly” given the impact of the recent hurricanes in Texas and Florida. In this statement, ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez stated there is no nationwide operation planned at this time because “the priority in the affected areas should remain focused on life-saving and life-sustaining activities.” While the statement released by ICE officials was an attempt to encourage undocumented immigrants in the affected areas to seek help, many undocumented foreign nationals still fear that the devastating effects of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey will still not stop immigration officials from enforcing policies.
The statement released by ICE officials came after NBC News reported that the agency had been internally planning a nationwide raid, known as “Operation Mega”, since mid-August. According to three law enforcement officials, a memo had been circulated throughout the agency that described the raid as “the largest operation of its kind in the history of ICE.” The operation was set to begin on September 17th with raids scheduled over a five day period. Officers were instructed to target undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes or were deemed gang members. However, officials were informed that other undocumented immigrants may be detained during these raids as “collateral”, according one of these three law enforcement officials. As news of this national raid surfaced, ICE released their statement to inform the public that “operational plans are subject to change based on a variety of factors.” According to the agency, these factors included Hurricane Irma’s potential effect on the Florida region, as well as the ongoing relief efforts taking place in Texas after Hurricane Harvey.
While Hurricane Irma fortunately weakened significantly before it hit Florida this past weekend, millions were still left with severe damage to their homes and no power as a result of high winds and flooding. At least four people were reported dead in Florida because of Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Harvey, on the other hand, affected more than thirteen million people when it struck Texas in late August and left approximately seventy people dead. Hurricane Harvey forced families to flee their homes and seek shelter elsewhere, including Houston’s large immigrant community despite fears of facing immigration agents or being turned away from shelters for lack of documentation.
Houston is currently one of the nation’s most diverse cities as a result of a recent influx of immigrants and refugees. It is home to the largest Afghan refugee population in the US and, according to the Pew Research Center, has an estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants. A large number of these undocumented immigrants migrated from Latin America by crossing the border illegally. Houston has also been a destination for thousands seeking asylum from gang violence and poverty in Central America since 2014. Even as these undocumented immigrants dealt with their homes and possessions being destroyed, the fear of being asked about their legal status by law enforcement officials struck a deeper panic throughout this immigrant community largely because of Texas’s recently proposed immigration enforcement law, Senate Bill 4 (S.B. 4).
S.B. 4, aimed at outlawing “sanctuary” jurisdictions, would have prohibited police personnel from preventing immigration officers from inquiring about a person’s immigration status during an arrest. It would have also required jail administrators to honor requests from ICE to hold inmates facing possible deportation. If passed, S.B. 4 would have been the harshest anti-illegal immigration law enforced in this country in years. However, a federal judge in Texas placed a temporary block on key provisions of the bill. US District Judge Orlando Garcia blocked the portions of the bill that would have forced law enforcement officials to comply with requests to hold immigrants in custody. Judge Garcia also blocked the provision that would have stopped local law enforcement departments from implementing policies that would “materially limit” the enforcement of immigration laws, Dallas News reported.
In response to heightened anxieties within the immigrant community over S.B.4, Houston’s Mayor Sylvester Turner held a press conference after Hurricane Harvey passed to reassure immigrants that the law would not interfere with rescue efforts. “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 said. Turner, who is also an attorney, went on to further state that all individuals affected by the hurricane should utilize the services provided to them for relief and should any immigrants face threats of deportation, he would be there to assist them personally. Still, many undocumented immigrants remained confused and fearful of immigration enforcement still being conducted because of what they described as mixed signals from immigration authorities.
After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, dozens of Border Patrol officers stepped in to assist with relief efforts. Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the immigrant rights organization FIEL Houston, told the New York Times that just the mere sight of Border Patrol officials in boats caused severe anxiety for undocumented immigrants. “Just physically and visually seeing the Border Patrol out there caused panic. They thought they were coming to get them,” Espinosa said. Although Border Patrol officials offered their resources towards relief efforts, undocumented immigrants still remained fearful because they did not suspend operations at several checkpoints in Texas. Border Patrol officials tried to ease fears by explaining that these checkpoints sit south of the areas directly affected by the hurricane, but immigrant advocate groups pointed out that these checkpoints sit in locations where many people will try to pass through to seek refuge or reunite with family members and will thus continue to put the lives of undocumented immigrants at risk.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also deployed approximately 200 agents to Texas after Hurricane Harvey hit to provide generators, fuel trucks, food, water, and mobile communication in an effort to assist in rescue operations, but a lack of trust remained within the immigrant community. In a joint statement with Border Patrol officials made after Hurricane Harvey, ICE agents explained that immigration enforcement operations were not being conducted at evacuation sites, shelters, or food banks. However, in the same statement, the agency said that the current laws would not be suspended and ICE would continue to remain vigilant against any efforts made by criminals to exploit disruptions resulting from the storm. In response to these statements, Barbie Hurtado, a community organizer for the San Antonio legal services group RAICES stated, “The history is ICE says one thing and does another. The fear is out there. People don’t want to come out and say who they are and seek help.”
The statements made by ICE officials after Hurricane Harvey seem to closely resemble the statement made by ICE last Thursday. While explaining that the agency’s top priority continues to be saving lives, the statement did not provide much assurance that nationwide immigration raids such as “Operation Mega” would not resume after hurricane relief efforts subside. The statement even concluded by explaining that for safety and security purposes, “ICE fugitive operations teams will continue to target and arrest criminal aliens and other individuals who are in violation of our nation’s immigration laws, in non-affected areas of the country, as part of routine operations.”
While thousands of immigrants try to cope with fleeing their homes, scramble to save any possessions they may have, sleep on cots in convention centers, and try to feed their families in the wake of the destruction left behind by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey, a dreadful sense of fear continues to loom over the areas affected by these storms. Undocumented immigrants are afraid to fully identify themselves, even to those trying to help because of anxieties over lacking legal documentation and potential immigration enforcement operations, much like “Operation Mega”. It is this very fear that had a forty-three-year old employee of a Houston catering company named Jorge decline to give his last name to the New York Times when explaining that he, together with his wife and three daughters, had to seek shelter after their home in Texas was flooded. However, Jorge described what many other undocumented immigrants must be feeling when he went on to tell the New York Times, “This is where we are right now, at the mercy of the elements. We are already so scared. It would be a disgrace if they come after us now.”