How Harvey brought new threats, and hope, to the undocumented in Houston
As Hurricane Harvey began pounding Houston last Saturday, another storm had already been battering our city during the past several months. My client Maria has been calling me often to ask whether she will be deported, even though she has work authorization and legal immigration status based on being a victim of human trafficking. Another client, Ana, phoned in tears after her husband was arrested. Someone falsely accused him of a hit-and-run as he was picking up their 14-year-old from a youth group at their parish. Though a judge quickly dismissed the criminal case against him, ICE took custody of Ana’s husband and transferred him to an immigration detention center. That was three weeks ago, and Ana and her daughter have not seen him since.
My clients—many of whom have lived and worked in Houston for years, who worship at my church, whose kids play tag with my own at our neighborhood park, who have built lives and families here just as I have—now live in fear. I have worked as an immigration lawyer in Houston for almost a decade, first with Catholic Charities and now at a law school clinic that serves survivors of human trafficking and others fleeing persecution, and I have never seen such palpable terror.
I have worked as an immigration lawyer in Houston for almost a decade, and I have never seen such palpable terror.
Immigrants face more and more inhumane enforcement actions, prejudice and discrimination, and unimaginable difficulties. They face new hate-filled laws like Texas’ S.B. 4, which takes aim at so-called sanctuary cities and threatens city and county officials and law enforcement with stiff penalties if they refuse to help deport immigrants. Happily, a federal court has temporarily stopped the law from taking effect after several Texas cities and counties sued the state.
In the midst of this storm of fear, Hurricane Harvey began battering our city, and an already vulnerable population faced new threats. The U.S. Border Patrol initially announced that they would keep roadside immigration checkpoints in Texas open even as people fled the storm. (Authorities have suspended immigration enforcement checkpoints in previous hurricanes.) Rumors abounded that the city’s emergency shelters would not be safe harbors, as government officials would be present there and intended to check immigration papers. As if the dangers of a Category 4 hurricane were not enough, many immigrants now feared the storm would become an instrument used to deport them.
But as it has happened in the face of many storms before, our humanity was finally revealed. Black and white, brown and yellow, people of all nationalities, religions and ethnic backgrounds walked into the storm, against self-interest and in service of compassion, to help one another. Pictures abound of my city’s residents—neighbors, friends and strangers—working together to ensure our collective safety and well-being. During this storm, no one’s children were someone else’s. Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, took to the airwaves to plead with immigrants to seek help. “If you’re in a stressful situation, I don’t care who you are, what your status is, I do not want you to run the risk of losing your life or a family member because you are concerned about S.B. 4,” he said, adding that if anyone were to face deportation after calling for help, “I and others will be the first ones to stand up with you. I will represent them myself.”
First responders, law enforcement and volunteers of all races and religions continue to work tirelessly to rescue people across the Houston area, not concerned about immigration status but only about the welfare of the struggling person before them. Churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, community centers and individuals have opened their doors to house the stranger, feed the hungry and give rest to the weary. We have witnessed countless heroic demonstrations of people helping their brothers and sisters in need.
Amid the aftermath of a violent storm, I have begun to find hope. I have been reminded that in times of trial, the reflexive human response is toward unity and generosity, kindness and concern, compassion and empathy. Toward love and not hate.
If S.B. 4 ultimately takes effect, our city’s estimated 600,000 undocumented immigrants will face new fears and difficulties even as they try to begin the arduous process of rebuilding their lives after Harvey’s destruction. But the storm has shown Houstonians that we are capable of taking a courageous stand together against the forces of destruction. I am hopeful that, regardless of what happens with S.B. 4, we will remain standing together in support of our neighbors, coworkers and friends, including those who happen to be without legal status.