Responding to Hurricane Harvey and Other Natural Disasters

J. Rachel Reyes
Center for Migration Studies

Editorial Credit: michelmond /

Responding to Hurricane Harvey and Other Natural Disasters

Hurricane Harvey has caused catastrophic flooding in Texas, forcing thousands from their homes. Many of its survivors are desperate for shelter, food, and other forms of assistance. Among the most vulnerable are the hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the affected areas. USA Today reports that as many as 50 Texas counties saw more than 20 inches of rain within 24 hours, with Houston and its surrounding areas receiving the brunt of the impact. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2015, a total of 4.7 million foreign-born persons lived in Texas, meaning about 1 in 6 people were foreign-born. In Houston, about 1 in 3 residents (a total of approximately 700,000 people) were foreign-born.

In light of the hurricane, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) released a joint statement stating that their highest immediate priorities were “to promote life-saving and life-sustaining activities, the safe evacuation of people who are leaving the impacted area, the maintenance of public order, the prevention of the loss of property to the extent possible, and the speedy recovery of the region.” As such, the agencies would not conduct routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations at evacuation sites or assistance centers. The policy seems to be part of a welcome change since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not suspend immigration enforcement. ICE and CBP also announced that they would also temporarily transfer those held in the Port Isabel Detention Center to other detention facilities outside the hurricane’s path. Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner have also sought to reassure immigrants by promising that officials would not ask for immigration status or papers from persons at shelters or who are otherwise seeking help.

However, there is still concern that immigrant communities will not seek the protection they need for fear of revealing their immigration status and exposing themselves to detention and deportation. Texas’s undocumented population was already bracing itself for the implementation of the state’s Senate Bill 4 (SB4) which outlaws “sanctuary cities” by “requiring local police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and allowing police to inquire about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain.” Moreover, the law requires jail administrators to honor all ICE requests to hold an inmate for possible deportation. Although set to go into effect on Friday, September 1st, a federal judge temporarily barred the implementation of SB4 on Wednesday, August 29th. Governor Abbott has promised to appeal the ruling. Meanwhile, Texas officials are also leading a coalition of 10 states threatening to sue the Trump administration if it does not rescind by September 5th the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children with work authorization and temporary relief from deportation.

Recent Center for Migration Studies (CMS) work provides important context on the immigrant communities affected by Hurricane Harvey. In June 2017, CMS co-hosted a conference entitled, “Mobilizing Coherent Community Responses to Changing Immigration Policies,” which examined “whole of community” responses from the many institutions working to protect, empower and meet the needs of immigrants and refugees in Houston and nationwide. The event included a panel by members of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative on engaging various stakeholders to serve and defend immigrants, as well as a presentation by Rice University Professor Stephen Klineberg on the immigrant populations that make Houston one of the most diverse and dynamic cities in the United States.

Around the world, governments, scholars and civil society are increasingly acknowledging the connection between environmental change and mobility and are ramping up prevention and protection efforts. For example, following recent natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and hurricane Sandy in the United States, the United Nations (UN) launched the Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative (MICIC) to “improve the protection of migrants when the countries in which they live, work, study, transit, or travel experience a conflict or natural disaster.” The initiative offers “concrete and practical” guidelines to local, national, regional, and international stakeholders “on how to prepare for and respond to crises in ways that protect and empower migrants, leverage their capacities, and help migrants and communities recover from crises.” The UN is also in the midst of developing a Global Compact on Migration and a Global Compact on Refugees – both of which are expected to address natural disasters and other gaps in current international protection schemes, using the MICIC and the Nansen Initiative as guidance.

CMS publications also provide research and analysis on the impact of natural disasters on migrant populations and recommendations to improve response. A 2015 Journal on Migration and Human Security article titled, “On the Margins: Noncitizens Caught in Countries Experiencing Violence, Conflict and Disaster” by Sanjula Weerasinghe and Abbie Taylor explores ways to mitigate vulnerabilities and meet the assistance and protection needs of noncitizens caught in crises. Focused primarily on the vulnerabilities experienced during crises, the paper also acknowledges the importance of preventative action and that assistance and protection needs often warrant ongoing intervention, even after an emergency.

In a speech titled, “Climate Change, Migration, and the Incredibly Complicated Task of Influencing Policy,” Elizabeth Ferris discusses the challenges and opportunities of using research to influence policies related to climate change and migration. In order for scholarship to impact public policy, Ferris challenges academics to confront four dilemmas: (1) There are difficulties in understanding migration in the context of climate change; (2) Policies related to climate change and migration are discussed in different arenas; (3) Different approaches and strategies have been developed for influencing policies; and (4) Clarity is needed on what academics want policymakers to do.

The large immigrant population affected by Hurricane Harvey is deeply rooted in Texas and personally invested in the state’s recovery. Therefore, as the floodwaters recede and the long process of recovery and reconstruction begins, Texas and the federal government should craft and implement humane solutions that take into account the needs of immigrants and the assistance and services they can offer. Governor Abbott should let the injunction against SB4 stand or delay an appeal to further encourage immigrants to seek safety and access resources available to them without fear. DHS should also continue to maintain the policy of refraining from non-criminal immigration enforcement until the region is fully recovered. In addition, there will undoubtedly be high demand for labor in the hurricane’s aftermath. Measures that allow undocumented workers to maintain or to “earn” legal status will enable them to fully participate in cleanup and reconstruction efforts. Furthermore, the US government should re-designate temporary protected status (TPS) to affected TPS beneficiaries so they can also contribute to the restoration process. Finally, Texas should abandon its threat to sue the federal government to end the DACA program. Instead of focusing time, resources, and effort on deporting young immigrants, Texas should focus on helping its residents recover from this horrific storm. Support for Texas’s immigrant community will not only help lead to a safe and speedy recovery, but also to a better rebuild of a state all Texans call home.

To lend your support, please consider donating to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston which provides food, clothing, shelter and support services to those affected by Hurricane Harvey:

August 31, 2017