Immigration Law Throws Humanitarian Concerns to the (Hurricane-force) Wind

As illegal immigration grows in both scope and strain on our nation's infrastructure, local and federal lawmakers struggle to find solutions amenable to all. Last week, local authorities, emergency officials, and humanitarians alike expressed deep alarm at the federal government's latest trick in their arsenal against illegal immigration, and rightfully so. Their idea -- to check proof of citizenship during hurricane evacuations in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas -- is terrifyingly irresponsible, impractical, and inhumane.

My objection to this idea by no means makes me a supporter of illegal immigration. People sneaking into this country make me angry (though not as angry as Lou Dobbs makes me, and despite his best efforts, I do not fear Mexicans with suitcase bombs or blame the collapse of our health care and education systems on illegals). Yet the idea of vacuum-sealing our borders makes me angry as well; I see a desperate need for more legal paths into this country. I freely admit that I have no idea how to accomplish that, which is why I haven't run for office. But what I do know is that hurricane evacuations and immigration enforcement do not mix, and if this federal law stands, it will one day lead to the kind of Katrina-like disaster we've already seen far too many of since BushCo began rewarding cronyism over competence when making federal appointments.

To make clear what I mean by that, let me lay out a hypothetical scenario for you. You live in Brownsville, or maybe McAllen, just north of the border and the first border checkpoints. You are one of a little over a million people in the Valley. An evacuation warning goes out and you know that the Border Patrol will check your papers before you get on the evacuation bus, and maybe again at an inland border checkpoint, and maybe again at the evacuation site itself. What to do? You've heard evac warnings before, after all, and most turn out not to be necessary. Your children are legal but perhaps you are not, or maybe you are but your elderly parents are not. You cannot risk it; you decide to stay. Twenty-four hours later, you and your children and elderly parents are huddled on your roof, watching the floodwaters rise. Or if you're especially unlucky, you're all dead in your home, hit by a flash flood or a fallen tree or tornado-strength winds.

Illegal immigration may be, well, illegal, but nobody deserves to end up like that.

All drama aside, there are some other very serious problems with this law. For one, it smells like good old-fashioned racism to me, or racial profiling at best--the Rio Grande Valley is over 80% Hispanic. Nobody would ever dare to ask the citizens of Maine, another border state but 96.7% white, to show their papers. And speaking of papers, who even carries those, especially during the panic of an evacuation? If I were stopped on the street today and asked to prove my citizenship, I'd be unable to. And if I were evacuating in the face of an oncoming category 5 hurricane, I'd grab my cat and my laptop and leave before the one road out of town became a parking lot. In my haste, I don't think it would occur to me to find my birth certificate or social security card, tucked away in a fireproof safe. And what if the evac order comes when people are at work? What if they have no time to go back to the house and pack at all? How will they get their papers then? Inevitably, if this law is allowed to stand, innocent U.S. citizens will end up in detention camps and illegal immigrants will end up dead.

Another very serious issue with this law is that illegals will simply choose not to evacuate. Then we go back to our hypothetical situation, back to the debacle that was Hurricane Katrina, with thousands of people huddled on roofs or dead in their homes. And yes, so maybe they are illegals, or maybe they are only children of illegals, but I can't even conceive of the kind of heartless cruelty and hatred that would make you think such a fate is acceptable for someone whose only crime was crossing our border without a green card. (Yet such people do exist; check out the comments on this newspaper article. Warning: wait at least 30 minutes after eating.)

Then there is also the issue of evacuation speed. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which intends to enforce this law, says that they can evacuate 120,000 people in 80 hours, even while inland border checkpoints are in use. Perhaps that looks lovely to them on paper, but I see two glaring problems: first, there are nearly ten times that number of people in the Rio Grande Valley who will need to evacuate ahead of a Gulf Coast storm, and second, when's the last time anyone had 80 hours' notice? The call to evacuate will come in perhaps 48 hours ahead of the storm, and people will take it seriously perhaps 24 hours ahead at the best of times. Even assuming that the area actually has the full 3.3 days' notice the CBP plans to work with, about a million people--most of them legal citizens--will be stuck, waiting behind an immigration checkpoint bottleneck. It's incredibly foolish and dangerous to implement any plan that will slow an evacuation process down without making it commensurately safer or more orderly, and it's downright reprehensible to use a natural disaster as a chance to go illegal immigrant sniping.

What struck me as particularly odd--for all the passion and vitriol surrounding this issue, for as big a deal as republicans have tried to make of illegal immigration, for as passionate and angry as the inept federal responses to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made this nation--was that only two local newspapers and zero broadcast outlets picked up this AP story (at least as far as I could find through RedLasso or Lexis/Nexis--if you've seen it elsewhere, please let me know in the comments). Why is nobody talking about this? Why is nobody expressing their outrage over yet another federal-response nightmare-in-waiting? Especially during National Hurricane Preparedness Week--the perfect time to make the nation aware of just how poorly the Bush administration has prepared for future storms. Even the Texas governor's office thinks that this law holds the potential for disaster. They are fighting it. You can too; contact your congressmen and encourage them to put an end to this travesty, and in November, be sure to vote for an administration who will value competence over cronyism when appointing the new leaders of our nation.