Criminalizing Immigrants Puts Them At Risk During Hurricanes And Other Disasters

09/18/2017 01:33 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2017
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By Thomas Kennedy

In the midst of the tragedy that befell the people of Texas during Hurricane Harvey, I wrote an article detailing the hardships endured by the undocumented immigrant community of Houston in the aftermath of the storm and the subsequent flooding that devastated the state.

The anti-immigrant hysteria unleashed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and legislators after signing Senate Bill 4, which would allow police officers to ask residents about their immigration status and would grant authority to suspend or remove elected officials from office for non-compliance, has led to the erosion of trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement agencies.

There were reports that people avoided shelters and did not seek needed help due to the presence of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) vehicles during relief efforts. These are the consequences of scapegoating communities for political gain. It makes the job of rescue and law enforcement agencies harder because people are justifiably afraid to seek help if they think that they will be targeted for deportation if they do so.

Unfortunately, the same story is repeating itself as Florida deals with Hurricane Irma and the destruction that the storm has left in its wake. In Polk County, Sheriff Grady Judd is facing a lawsuit after vowing to check IDs at shelters, in an effort to catch people with outstanding warrants who were seeking refuge from an approaching category 5 hurricane.

“If you go to a shelter for #Irma, be advised: sworn LEOs will be at every shelter, checking IDs. Sex offenders/predators will not be allowed,” Judd said in a tweet.

The prospect of evacuation shelters being turned into the equivalent of pedestrian checkpoints scared residents from neighboring counties like Apopka, who often live in trailer homes that are especially susceptible to hurricane winds, into putting themselves at risk by not seeking refuge from the storm.

In Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, residents were asked for proof of residence in the aftermath of the storm before they could access areas which were hit hard, like the Florida Keys or Miami Beach. This effectively left folks who do not have ID unable to reach their homes until these checkpoints were lifted, sometimes leaving them stranded or unable to access important items such as needed medication.

The Florida Immigrant Coalition sent Governor Rick Scott a letter urging him to release an official statement clarifying that immigrants seeking refuge would not be targeted for their immigration status or country of birth. It’s time that elected officials in Florida go beyond that and grant a driver’s license to undocumented immigrants or at the very least, municipal ID’s as a form of protection against the harsh anti-immigrant policies stemming from the federal government.

Just like the people of Texas, Florida now needs to focus on rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. The healing process will only be hampered by the criminalization and persecution of immigrant communities. These times of crisis highlight the need for Florida’s elected leaders to step up and take concrete steps to protect immigrants living in the state.

Thomas Kennedy is a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change.

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