U.S. citizenship to be checked in event of a storm

BROWNSVILLE – Ending speculation about the fate of the Rio Grande Valley’s undocumented immigrants during a hurricane evacuation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has confirmed it will check the citizenship both of people boarding buses to leave the Valley and at inland traffic checkpoints.

Those determined to be in the country illegally will be taken to detention centers away from the hurricane’s path and later processed for deportation.

“It’s business as usual at the checkpoints,” said Dan Doty, spokesman for CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector. “We’ll still check everybody.”

Locals responded with predictions of humanitarian disaster.

“We can’t wait to see the helicopter photos of us sitting on roofs,” said the Rev. Mike Seifert, a priest and activist based in a colonia outside Brownsville. The many area families with one or more undocumented members would just refuse to evacuate, he said.

“Imagine,” Seifert said. “We’re all in an uproar, everybody’s in an enormous hurry, there’s just a narrow window of opportunity and you get to the place with the buses and the Border Patrol’s checking people. You’re not going to go.”

In the disastrous wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, officials in the Valley have pondered the politics of mass evacuation, illegal immigration and the checkpoints that filter northbound traffic every day.

After Hurricane Rita threatened the Houston area, clogging highways for miles, drying up gas pumps and creating chaos, emergency management officials set out to improve planning.

State Director of Homeland Security Steve McCraw in 2006 said the highway checkpoints should be closed if the Valley needed to evacuate. U.S. 77 parallels the coast and could be underwater once hurricane rains or flooding hit. Even if all the lanes on U.S. 281 are dedicated for northbound traffic, that’s the main route for a population that now tops a million people.

Krista Piferrer, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, said Thursday the state’s stand on the issue had not changed.

“The governor’s office prefers that the Border Patrol not use checkpoints during times of evacuation for obvious reasons,” she said. “It will slow down traffic and create problems. … During times of emergency our priority No. 1 is safety and we continue to hold on to the same belief.”

At a recent discussion with reporters, Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said he didn’t expect the Border Patrol to publicize a policy on the checkpoints for fear of inviting a free-for-all for illegal traffic.

The unofficial word, he said, was that agents recognized they’d have to be more lax amid a disaster.

But Tuesday, a reporter photographing a mock evacuation for the Rio Grande Guardian Web site saw Border Patrol agents rehearsing citizenship document checks of people boarding buses.

CBP’s Doty confirmed this was the planned procedure and said those determined to be undocumented immigrants would be taken to separate shelters, likely detention centers in Laredo or San Antonio. He said the highway checkpoints would stay open.

Document checks are not mandatory at the checkpoints; it’s up to an agent to assess travelers and determine whether to ask for papers. Doty said that even with the checks, 120,000 people could be evacuated within 80 hours.

“Our agents, they do it so often, they know what to look for,” he said.

Doty could not say what would happen if children in a vehicle were citizens but parents were not, or if everybody but an elderly grandparent had a green card.

“We try to keep families together, but I can’t put a U.S. citizen in a detention center,” he said.

Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said locals would have to work with federal directives, but said document checks would hamper an evacuation.

San Antonio Express-News

May 15, 2008, 11:34PM

Source: Houston Chronicle

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