July 9, 2008 - 11:09AM
SAN JUAN -- Four community groups sought clarification in federal court Wednesday on whether authorities will conduct immigration checks in the event of a hurricane evacuation.
The activists filed a petition Wednesday asking a judge to order the U.S. Border Patrol to clearly outline its policy on what documents, if any, will be needed to pass through checkpoints should a storm hit the Rio Grande Valley.
"To prevent a Hurricane Katrina-type catastrophe, residents must know what is going to happen when an evacuation is called," said Juanita Valdez-Cox, Texas director of La Union del Pueblo Entero, one of the groups that filed the petition in U.S. District Court in McAllen.
"We must have answers to make sure residents of the Valley find safety."
The issue came under renewed scrutiny during a mock evacuation drill earlier this year in which agents were observed asking the fake evacuees for proof of citizenship or legal residency.
City leaders and migrant rights activists protested, fearing such tactics would deter people from fleeing in advance of a storm and would slow down the overall evacuation process.
"Border Patrol has set in motion the conditions for a perfect storm," said Eric Rodriguez, an attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represents the petitioners. "By pursuing this reckless law enforcement policy, they've created a danger for everyone."
Since then, however, Gov. Rick Perry's office reported it had received assurances that no checks would occur during an evacuation, but federal officials would not confirm that policy.
Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has only dialed down his department's original rhetoric.
"We're not going to be bogging people down with checks or doing things to delay the rapid movement of people out of the zone of danger," he said during a May news conference.
But lawyers for the community groups pointed out Wednesday that confusion lingers and could affect individual decisions on whether to stay or leave.
"It's already hurricane season," said the South Texas Civil Rights Project's Corinna Spencer-Scheurich. "This could become an issue next week - any day now."
Valdez-Cox's organization, LUPE, joined with three Cameron County community groups - Proyecto Juan Diego, Proyecto Digna and San Felipe Community Church - in filing the petition Wednesday.
Government officials have at least 20 days to respond under federal court guidelines.
Spencer-Scheurich said she hopes a judge will make a ruling within the next month.
Jeremy Roebuck covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4437.