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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is not conducting immigration enforcement operations during rescue missions — despite rumors to the contrary — an official with the agency said Thursday.
“ICE officers and special agents are participating in disaster relief and recovery efforts in and around Houston with the intent of saving and protecting lives and lending aid to other first responders,” acting ICE press secretary Jennifer D. Elzea said in an email. “Some inaccurate reporting has suggested that we are present with the intent of conducting immigration enforcement, but that is simply not the case.
"These false reports are furthering an unhelpful narrative that could ultimately discourage people from seeking help in a dire situation,” she added.
Her message comes after last week’s joint statement by ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol that they would not conduct “routine non-criminal immigration enforcement operations” at evacuation sites, shelters or food banks but [the agencies would] be vigilant against any effort by criminals to exploit disruptions caused by the storm.”
Border Patrol also said last week that its roadside checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley would remain open during the hurricane unless doing so posed a threat to its agents. Activists said that was a change in policy from just last year, when ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection temporarily suspended enforcement measures during Hurricane Matthew.
The Houston metro area is home to about 600,000 undocumented immigrants. Since Hurricane Harvey made landfall last week, several officials, including Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, Gov. Greg Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, have sought to ease the community’s concerns that undocumented immigrants could escape a life-or-death situation only to be detained or deported.
Last week Turner, a Democrat, said he would personally defend anyone who was caught in an immigration trap after seeking shelter and acknowledged heightened concerns as a state law to ban “sanctuary cities” was set to go into effect on Friday. But late Wednesday, a federal judge blocked major provisions of the law, which provided a bit of relief to the undocumented community.
About 200 ICE agents have assisted in rescue operations, according to an agency news release, and Customs and Border Protection officials said its agents have have rescued 1,300 people so far.
Regardless of those developments, Elzea again sought to reassure people they should seek help no matter what.
“We would encourage all those in danger to avail themselves of life-saving and life-sustaining resources, regardless of immigration status. Our officers and special agents are standing side-by-side with our law enforcement brothers and sisters providing support and protection for any members of the community who are in need.”