9/7/08 The New York Times – No Shelter From the Storm
September 7, 2008
No Shelter From the Storm
Editorial, The New York Times
When a disaster hits, saving lives comes before anything else, even when those lives don’t have the right immigration papers. That is why the Department of Homeland Security called off its agents when Hurricane Gustav bore down on New Orleans. Just days after staging the biggest workplace raid ever, not far away in Mississippi, the agency promised there would be no raids or checkpoints to slow the evacuation of the Gulf Coast.
The decision was practical and humane, but it was not enough to persuade many immigrant workers to accept help in evacuating. They feared that immigration agents would arrest them at Red Cross shelters.
Staff members at the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an organization of black and Latino laborers created after Hurricane Katrina, said they pleaded in vain for written assurances from the Red Cross that undocumented immigrants would be safe in its shelters.
The Red Cross has a long-standing policy of impartiality; it never asks evacuees about their legal status. But the workers’ center wanted something more reassuring. It asked the Red Cross to state in writing that its volunteers would be educated about the open-door policy, and that immigration agents would not be allowed to enter shelters for raids or investigations.
With the storm rolling ever closer, and the authorities ordering people to flee, no letter came. The Red Cross issued a general restatement of its impartiality policy — after the hurricane passed.
The Red Cross argues, rightly, that it cannot keep law-enforcement officials from doing their jobs if they have legal warrants. But it does have an internal policy stating that officials without warrants are not allowed into its shelters. The workers’ center says that a simple public statement of that policy would have been enough to persuade its members to get on the bus. Instead, with mere hours to spare, more than a thousand people decided they could not take the chance of being picked up. Though short on money and access to cars, they cobbled together their own evacuations.
This storm, thankfully, did far less damage than Katrina. But other storms still loom, and thousands of scattered workers are still lying low. And the federal government and the Red Cross still lack what should be an ironclad public policy: that during all phases of a disaster, from evacuation to shelter to return, victims without papers need never be afraid of accepting life-saving help.