Immigrants in Houston Face Triple Threat: Flooding, Racist Texas Law SB4 and Potentially Losing DACA

As the fallout from Hurricane Harvey continues, a potential public safety crisis has emerged affecting Houston’s nearly 600,000 undocumented immigrants. President Trump could announce as early as today that he will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which provides legal status for some 85,000 Houston residents and nearly 800,000 people nationwide. Without the status, many residents will be unable to work and rebuild after the storm. Compounding the problem for immigrants, Texas will officially outlaw sanctuary cities on Friday, threatening police chiefs and city officials with criminal sanctions and penalties if they do not help deport immigrants. The law known as SB 4 is being challenged in court, but a federal judge has yet to rule on whether it can take effect. This has prompted concern that many immigrants are not coming forward to seek help amid the flooding because they fear being detained and deported. We speak with Cesar Espinosa, the founder and executive director of FIEL, a Houston-based nonprofit that helps young undocumented members of the Latino community. Espinosa is himself a DACA recipient.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. If you want to sign up for our daily digest, our headlines every day, you can text the word “democracynow” — one word, without a space — “democracynow” to 66866. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue to look at the epic flooding in Houston, Texas, as we turn now to a potential public safety crisis facing the city’s nearly 600,000 undocumented immigrants. As Houston lies under water, some press reports are saying that President Trump could announce as early as today that he will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA, which provides legal status for some 85,000 Houston residents and nearly 800,000 people nationwide. Without the status, many residents will be unable to work and rebuild after the storm.

This comes as Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is spearheading a coalition of Republican officials in 10 states who are threatening to sue President Trump if he doesn’t act by September 5th. Meanwhile, this Friday, Texas will officially outlaw sanctuary cities, threatening local police chiefs with jail time and city officials with losing their jobs if they do not help deport immigrants. The law, known as SB4, is being challenged in court, but a federal judge has yet to rule on whether it can take effect.

AMY GOODMAN: This has prompted concern that many immigrants are not coming forward to seek help during the flooding because they fear being detained and deported. During a news conference Monday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said there is absolutely no reason why any individual shouldn’t call for help.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER: …will be the first ones to stand up with you if you need help. And if someone comes and they require help, and then for some reason, somebody tries to deport them, I will represent them myself. OK? So no. If you’re in a stressful situation, I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what your status is. I do not want you losing your life or a family member because you are concerned about SB4 or anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner echoed claims by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Border Patrol that agents will not be checking the legal status of those who seek help at evacuation sites, shelters or food banks. For more, we’re staying in Houston, Texas, and we are joined by Cesar Espinosa. He is the founder and executive director of FIEL, a Houston-based non-profit that helps young, undocumented members of the Latino community. It is a Spanish acronym for Families of Immigrants and Students in the Struggle. The group has more than 8,000 registered members.

Cesar has lived in the United States for almost three decades, but he is still undocumented and he’s a DACA recipient. He’s joining us now by Democracy Now! video stream from his mother’s house in the northwest Houston metro area, where he evacuated and is currently there. Are you flooded in right now, Cesar? And right now, for example, at the convention center, there are more than 9000 people. Can you talk about the concerns of the undocumented community, of which there are tens of thousands in Houston? People concerned if they might go to an official site, their papers could be checked, they could be detained. Even though everyone up to the governor has said that won’t be the case.

CESAR ESPINOSA: Well, number one, thank you for having me. And yes, we have evacuated. My family and I have evacuated to the northwest part of town. Unfortunately, we are flooded in, so we are unable to leave at the time. But we are monitoring the situation and trying to make sure that our community gets the utmost correct information, and that we quell people’s fears during this very uncertain time.

There has been a lot of talk and there has been unfortunately a lot of rumors, a lot of calls that we are receiving, since we are in a mobile office right now, of people with concerns of going to shelters. We find it very troubling that sometimes people call our office instead of calling 911 for help because they don’t trust the emergency services. They either hear from their families and friends that they shouldn’t trust, or they hear it on rumor on social media. Unfortunately, some cruel people have taken to social media to say, “Don’t go to shelters because you will be asked about your immigration status.”

Just yesterday, we had the Border Patrol volunteer boats to come into the Houston area, and that created a frenzy of calls, of people saying, “Are they coming for us? Should we accept the help? What should we do when Border Patrol shows up with their boats to our neighborhoods?” So obviously, there are a lot of moving parts to this. Obviously there is a lot of concern with our community.

We are doing everything we can to make sure that people stay informed through social media, through conventional media. Trying to engage the media so that they can talk about the issues that the undocumented are facing, and talk about the sad reality is that even after all of this, there may not be help for the more than 575,000 undocumented immigrants who currently live in the greater Houston area.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Cesar, what are you hearing about the identification requirements that people may have when they go into these shelters? What are they being asked to show or what information to give if they go to seek shelter or assistance for food or other necessities?

CESAR ESPINOSA: As of right now, what we’re hearing is that if you have an ID, you can present one, but if you don’t, they’re not going to deny you a shelter or a thing. But number one, that is an issue to begin with. Because if people go in with the notion that they must provide ID, they may not want to seek help.

What we’re telling folks on our website — we have launched a page specifically for the disaster relief efforts, which we’re putting what documents people should carry with them. We always encourage people to carry some sort of photo ID whether it be a passport or whatever it is, and hoping that when they show up to one of these shelters, that will suffice, or they will not be asked for anything.

One of the things that we’re also happy about right now is that it seems that the Houston community is coming together. After the mayor of Houston made the comment yesterday that people should not worry about status, we received a lot of support from the community and saying that yes, at this time we are all Houstonians and immigration status should not matter. But we’re yet to see what this looks like in a long-term basis.

Earlier last year, there was a flood in an area called Greenspoint which is a heavy low-income area. Unfortunately, a lot of the people that we talked to that were undocumented were not eligible for any type of help. So that is something that we’re looking forward to, to figure out in the next couple of months and the next couple of years.

But at this time, we are encouraging people that if they need help, regardless of their status, that they should come forward and should not be afraid. So that’s something that we’re doing. But unfortunately, the rumors on social media, people taking social media to spread rumors, do not help at all.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And also this comes just a few days before SB4 is set to take effect in Texas — we mentioned that in the lead — basically outlawing sanctuary cities throughout the state of Texas. I’m wondering your take on what this could mean in view of this calamity as well that you are facing in Houston?

CESAR ESPINOSA: Well, it seems like a lot of storms are coming together, both physically and metaphorically speaking, in the sense that we have this natural disaster which we are living through, and the political disaster which — the political storm which we’re dealing with. Not only with the potential rescinding of DACA, but with all of the undocumented people who currently live here in Texas, who currently live here in Houston, and who just like everybody else, besides them having to worry about their status, now they’re going to have to worry about rebuilding and looking for help, which they may not be eligible for.
So there is the concern with SB4.

Once again, there has been rumors online that after Friday, people are going to be starting to ask for papers when people seek shelter and things like that. Once again, we have been trying to combat those myths. We’ve been trying to get out on social media and do as much as we can, so that people can know that it is safe for them to go. But it does not help at all. We fear that undocumented people will just go into hiding and not want to come forward to report any damages or to help rebuild in the sense that they don’t know that they may be eligible for things, or they may fear that if they do seek help, then they’re going to be persecuted.

So this puts — this could lead to a health and safety issue for our community. This could lead to a safety issue for a lot of these folks. And this is no way for a person to live. We are very concerned about this. So as an organization, we are going out — as soon as we’re able to hit the ground, my team and I are ready to go out and engage the undocumented community and to once again show that we are unafraid and that we should be unafraid when facing all of these storms that we have going on at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Cesar, if people were to lose DACA — you’re talking some 85,000 people in Houston — what does it mean for them in this devastated, ravaged city? What does it mean for you? You are DACA.

CESAR ESPINOSA: For me, it means that the fight continues. I have been in this movement for the last 16 years, and we’re going to continue to advocate not only for dreamers, but for our families. For a lot of people, though, it’s a piece of devastating news. They’re relying on their deferred action, on their ability to work, so that they can rebuild. They can go back to work and help their families rebuild their lives.

Unfortunately, if DACA goes get rescinded in the next couple of days, these young men and women are going to be left with nothing. The rug is going to be swept from under their feet. And who knows how long it will take them to rebuild. Not to say that they will not rebuild, because our community is strong and resilient, but it may take us a bit longer, or a lot longer, in order to rebuild.

Once again, it comes at a very sad time, since we are facing many things here in the state of Texas. Number one is the hurricane that we just went through. Number two, the enactment of SB4, which we believe the governor could stop it, or a judge could stop it at any moment. So we are asking them to take action immediately so our communities are safe.

And then by the third token, the rescinding of DACA could deal a devastating blow to more than 85,000 eligible youth who currently reside in the Greater Houston area. So we are hoping that it does not happen. We are right now, even though there is a storm happening, from our homes, we are calling our congresspeople. We are calling all of our elected officials to step forward and to say — to call on the White House to not rescind this very important program.

AMY GOODMAN: Cesar Espinosa, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Executive Director of FIEL, a Houston-based non-profit that helps young, undocumented members of the Latino community, joining us from Houston, from his mother’s house in Cypress, where he has relocated to, their whole family now currently flooded in. This is Democracy Now!.

You take the number of people who are believed to have died so far in the greater Houston area, multiply it by 100, and that is the number you get for what is happening now in Southeast Asia over the last few weeks in Nepal and India and Bangladesh. Bangladesh — a third of the country is under water. Stay with us.