Updated at 5:06 p.m.
As Hurricane Harvey bears down on the Gulf Coast, the U.S. Border Patrol says it plans to keep its immigration checkpoints in Texas open in spite of the storm. That’s prompting concern that immigrants living in the country illegally will ignore instructions to evacuate for fear that they’ll be caught and deported.
“Border Patrol checkpoints will not be closed unless there is a danger to the safety of the traveling public and our agents,” according to a statement from Customs and Border Protection that was first reported Thursday by the Texas Tribune.
“The Border Patrol is a law enforcement agency and we will not abandon our law enforcement duties,” the statement said.
Border Patrol checkpoints up to 100 miles north of the border are a fact of life for thousands of undocumented immigrants and their families in the Rio Grande Valley. These people can’t travel north for fear of being caught at the checkpoints. But they don’t want to return to Mexico, either.
The valley is considered a major corridor for drug smugglers and human traffickers, and the interior checkpoints are central to the Border Patrol’s enforcement efforts.
But those checkpoints also pose a problem for undocumented immigrants who live in the path of Hurricane Harvey. The storm is expected to make landfall near Refugio, Texas, late Friday or early Saturday morning.
“By keeping checkpoints open, the Border Patrol is putting undocumented people and mixed-status families at risk out of fear of deportations,” said Lorella Praeli of the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement.
“The Border Patrol should never keep checkpoints open during any natural disasters in the United States. Everyone, no matter the color of their skin or background, is worth saving,” Praeli said. “This is a disgusting move from the Border Patrol that breaks with past practices.”
During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a joint statement announcing that there would “no immigration enforcement initiatives associated with evacuations or sheltering related to Matthew, including the use of checkpoints for immigration enforcement purposes in impacted areas during an evacuation.”
CBP and ICE released a similar joint statement about Hurricane Harvey on Friday. But the language was more ambiguous than last year’s guidance.
In the new statement, ICE and CBP urged everyone in the path of the storm to follow evacuation instructions from local authorities. And the agencies offered assurances that “routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations will not be conducted at evacuation sites, or assistance centers such as shelters or food banks.”
But the statement also included this warning: “The laws will not be suspended, and we will be vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm.”
UPDATE: Friday afternoon, CBP released another statement indicating that “Border Patrol checkpoints in the path of Hurricane Harvey in Texas will close as state highways close. These closures will occur in a manner that ensures the safety of the traveling public and our agents.”