As Florence Hits Coastline, North Carolina Residents Fear Immigration Enforcement

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As Florence Hits Coastline, North Carolina Residents Fear Immigration Enforcement

Tina Vasquez

Because of their immigration status, many undocumented residents have been afraid to approach officials with Florence evacuation questions and concerns, fearing detainment or worse, one local organizer told Rewire.News.

Hurricane Florence’s onslaught has begun. But even before the category 1 hurricane made landfall, it forced some undocumented immigrants in North Carolina, including those in relatively safe areas, to evacuate their homes.

Originally anticipated to be a category 5 hurricane, the downgraded Florence is still expected to result in “life-threatening” rainfall, flooding, and structural damage, according to the Washington Post.

Residents of North Carolina’s central Piedmont area—encompassing some of the state’s largest cities, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Durham, and Winston-Salem—are no longer expected to experience the full force of the storm, but some undocumented immigrants in the area have had to evacuate their mobile home parks. Afraid to ask for assistance because of their immigration status, many are turning to social media for help. 

Laura Garduño Garcia, a Greensboro-based organizer with the American Friends Service Committee and a member of the immigrant rights organization Siembra NC, told Rewire.News that undocumented immigrants in the city of Burlington who reside in mobile homes were abruptly issued evacuation notices and told they could not return to their homes until at least Saturday. 

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“It’s in an area with an abundance of tall trees and it’s clearly a liability issue, the mobile home park didn’t want any responsibility if something bad happened,” said Garduño Garcia, who has been fielding calls from concerned undocumented community members all week. “People are being given evacuation notices with no direction on where to go, and the information in the area that is being disseminated—at least in Alamance County—is not in Spanish.”

The organizer has been helping to direct community members to shelters. She recommends that those circulating shelter information online verify what they’re posting is accurate, either by calling or checking the website. Siembra NC has a number of “verifiers” who work within the community to verify information circulating online, usually when there is a purported Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spotting or checkpoint.

The immigrant rights organization’s Facebook is also a useful source of information, posting the most up-to-date information on disaster shelters in the area and informing community members of their rights, including the requirement that state-managed shelters provide Spanish speakers with access to information in their language. The Durham-based grassroots organization Alerta Migratoria is doing similar work, using social media to disseminate information to immigrant communities, including lists of disaster shelters in hard-hit coastal areas.

Because of their immigration status, many undocumented residents have been afraid to approach officials with Florence evacuation questions and concerns, fearing detainment or worse, Garduño Garcia said. 

Even in the Piedmont’s most “progressive” cities, officials work with ICE. As Rewire.News reported in February 2017, a driver’s license checkpoint near a public school in Durham caused panic in the community because these checkpoints can funnel undocumented immigrants into ICE custody. The Durham County Sheriff’s Office’s public information officer told Rewire.News last year that the agency participates in the Secure Communities program (replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program), which requires local law enforcement agencies to submit biometric information—including fingerprints—from anyone they arrested to a federal database. ICE would then submit detainers, which are essentially written requests, asking local law enforcement to hold those who were undocumented until they could get picked up for deportation proceedings.

At a public event held a month after the checkpoint with the goal of quelling the fears of immigrant communities in the city, a representative from the sheriff’s office denied the agency participated in Secure Communities. 

In Alamance County, which encompasses the town of Burlington, where undocumented residents were evacuated from their mobile home park due to Florence, Garduño Garcia and other organizers have been fighting the possibility of the county re-entering a 287(g) program, which essentially deputizes local law enforcement to carry out immigration enforcement. The agreement between the county and ICE is being considered by Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, who infamously referred to Mexicans as “taco-eaters.” 

Additionally, federal immigration authorities appear to have their eyes on North Carolina, as illustrated last week when the Justice Department subpoenaed boards of elections in all 44 counties in North Carolina’s federal Eastern District on behalf of ICE. News of the subpoenas came less than two weeks after a grand jury indicted 19 noncitizen residents of North Carolina on charges of illegal voting in the 2016 election. A HuffPost investigation into the indictments found that some charged with illegally voting may not have known they were ineligible and may now face deportation “without the Justice Department proving they intended to break the law.”

The anti-immigrant atmosphere in the state makes it challenging for immigrant communities to know who they can turn to in times of need, Garduño Garcia told Rewire.News. As a result, many rely on their personal networks and social media for information and other resources. While this can be helpful, it can also lead to the spread of inaccurate information. In the days leading up to Hurricane Florence, some community members were circulating lists of shelters that included facilities that no longer existed. 

“I got a call from one woman [this week] who spent the day driving to different shelters that were on a list, and none of them were there anymore,” the organizer said. “Another woman had her three children in the car with her when they got turned away from a shelter she read she could go to because [the shelter wasn’t] accepting people yet, it was too early into the storm.”

According to advocates, another concern among North Carolina’s undocumented residents is whether they will be asked for identification upon seeking shelter during Florence. Noncitizens in most states, including North Carolina, are unable to legally obtain driver’s licenses and state IDs because of their lack of a social security number. Rewire.News found that many local shelters in the state that are not affiliated with large organizations appear to require a government-issued ID in order to enter. This is the case at the Durham Rescue Mission, for example, but a representative from the mission told Rewire.News that in the case of a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence, many shelters would not be checking IDs.

“It is vital that our community members in low-income housing who are being evacuated have a safe place to stay during the hurricane. They deserve to be safe with their families too,” Garduño Garcia said. “We have not heard of anyone being turned away [from a shelter] because of their immigration status, but we’re remaining vigilant and will be monitoring the situation.” 

Individual cities and counties are getting shelter support from the state, according to Drew Pearson, the director of Dare County Emergency Management. Dare County, located on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, is expected to be hit hardest by Hurricane Florence. A spokesperson for the Salvation Army also told Rewire.News that “under the State emergency plan, disaster shelters are opened and operated by county departments of social services and the Red Cross.” 

A representative from the Red Cross told Rewire.News that the organization “does not ask for government-issued ID” and that it will “assist anyone who needs assistance.” The spokesperson said no one within the organization would turn someone away for being undocumented because shelters do not ask about citizenship status “and wouldn’t know if someone was undocumented.” If someone is turned away from a Red Cross disaster shelter because of their immigration status, the spokesperson urged that people contact the Red Cross so they can address the issue since it would be a violation of its policy.

The Salvation Army operates homeless shelters in North Carolina and will have additional cots as a result of Hurricane Florence, but they are intended for community members who were homeless pre-hurricane. In a statement to Rewire.News, the spokesperson from the organization said that Salvation Army services “are provided without regard to immigration status” and that “United States citizenship is not a requirement to receive service.” However, the spokesperson also said that “routinely, for shelter or other social services assistance,” some form of identification is required, but it can include a school ID, an employee ID, a passport, a U.S. military ID card, or a matrícula consular ID card.

As residents of the Carolinas and Virginia brace for the full effects of Hurricane Florence, including its aftermath, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) made public on Tuesday that President Donald Trump diverted nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response and recovery budget to ICE for the purpose of immigration enforcement.

Before the transfer of funds, ICE was already poised for a major funding increase. As Rewire.News reported, the Trump administration’s budget for fiscal year 2019 is seeking $8.3 billion in discretionary funding for ICE, as well as $525.6 million in budget authority to cover mandatory fees, equaling around $8.8 billion. This represents an increase of $967 million compared to ICE’s 2018 budget

“People in our state are facing life-threatening conditions because of this hurricane and it’s truly appalling that the Trump administration would choose hurricane season to transfer nearly $10 million to ICE for immigration enforcement, especially after seeing the effects of Hurricane Maria and knowing that because of climate change, we’re going to see more severe weather,” Garduño Garcia said. “Of course members of our community feel unsafe reaching out for help. In a situation like this, ICE is being given more money to terrorize our families and detain children indefinitely. It’s abhorrent.”