With Hurricane Harvey barreling toward his house in Corpus Christi and his family waiting it out in San Antonio, the young man’s mother made a comment that will stick with him.
If there’s nothing left when we get back to Corpus Christi, she said, we’re going back to Mexico.
It caught 22-year-old Alain by surprise. He and his mother are living in the country illegally, but he is a student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and had been granted some protection from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. His family brought him to the U.S. when he was 8. His mother was joking about leaving — he thinks.
“She said it for a reason,” said Alain, who asked that his full name be withheld to avoid drawing the attention of authorities. “When someone tells you you can’t live here anymore or they want to put you in another category as a human being, it hurts.”
Even before Hurricane Harvey came ashore, bringing chaos and death, it was a tense time to be an immigrant living without papers in Texas.
Senate Bill 4 — a hotly debated new “anti-sanctuary-city” law that requires local police to comply with federal immigration requests to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally — was set to go into effect Friday.
On Wednesday night, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio temporarily halted its implementation in response to a lawsuit filed by five Texas cities, as well as several counties and sheriffs and advocacy groups, that challenged its constitutionality.
Civil rights activists in Texas said that even the rhetoric used in the debate over the bill had badly eroded trust between immigrants and law enforcement.
Some Harvey victims have been reluctant to seek shelter or other assistance because they are in the country illegally, said Amy Fischer, policy director for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, an immigrant legal advocacy group based in San Antonio.
“They’re feeling very much under attack,” Fischer said. “The level of trust between immigrants and law enforcement officials has deteriorated so severely, it remains to be seen how much of that can be brought back as people are having to seek assistance after the storm.”
Juanita Posada, who flew a Mexican flag in front of her flooded house this week in Houston’s Lakewood neighborhood, said she had friends who were worried about seeking help after the storm because of their immigration status.
“They are scared,” Posada said. “Rumors are scaring them more and more to get help because once they ask, more could happen.”
The Houston area has an estimated 575,000 immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, the largest cluster outside New York and Los Angeles, according to the Pew Research Center.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that agents are “not conducting immigration enforcement operations in the affected areas.”
In fact, ICE said it had received “disturbing reports” about people impersonating immigration agents and knocking on doors in Houston, presumably to burglarize empty homes.
Still, immigrant rights activists say authorities have conveyed mixed messages during the disaster. The Border Patrol said it closed highway checkpoints that were in Harvey’s path but did not suspend operations beyond that.
In a joint statement, ICE and the Border Patrol 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.”
But Tom Bossert, White House homeland security advisor, said that “no individual human being should worry about their immigration status unless they’ve committed a crime on top of coming here illegally, when it comes to getting food, water and shelter.”
Among immigrants, concern has spread quickly. When word got out that authorities were taking fingerprints at an evacuee shelter at the Lively Pointe Youth Center in Irving, Texas, people were afraid to come for fear of being turned over to ICE.
Officer James McLellan, a Irving Police Department spokesman, said everyone who came to the shelter had fingerprints, name and date of birth taken, and the information was run through a state criminal history database. He said that officers were following required safety protocols and that they already had identified one sex offender who was moved to another location and kept away from children.
“I can’t stress enough, we’re not the immigration police,” McLellan said. “We don’t care about immigration issues or people’s legal status. We’re here to help. There’s no ulterior motive.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat whose district includes parts of San Antonio, said that people working in evacuee shelters had reached out to his office, asking what to do if ICE agents showed up.
Doggett was attending a rally Thursday in front of the federal courthouse in San Antonio, where immigration advocates called the halting of SB 4, although temporary, a “bright spot” in an otherwise horrific week. The law, which Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed in May, would prevent municipalities from adopting their own policies to limit enforcement of immigration laws.
Kimberley Hall Seger, an attorney and director of immigration services at Catholic Charities of Corpus Christi, lamented how much people feared the potential implementation of SB 4 days after the storm.
“On top of the stress of having to evacuate, worried you’re going to drown or get separated from your family, you’re concerned about getting deported,” she said. “The concern is very real.”
Seger said anxiety was so high that even people with green cards were calling her, asking whether they would get deported. They fear being singled out for being Latino, she said.
“If I got pulled over, they wouldn’t ask me for my papers. I’m white,” she said. “There are people here that are very brown and very legal.”
Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report from Houston.
1:40 p.m.: This article was updated to report that the White House says a decision on the DACA program will be announced Tuesday.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m.