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Immigration Crackdown Stalls Many Harvey Victims From Seeking Help


And I'm David Greene here in Houston, Texas, where we are watching Tropical Storm Harvey very closely. It's back over the Gulf of Mexico now but still pulling moisture and dropping endless rain over the city of Houston.

And for one group here, there is this additional layer of worry. Undocumented immigrants have to deal with flooded neighborhoods like everyone else in the city, but under President Trump's immigration crackdown, many of them fear coming out of the shadows to look for help. Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The rain came down in sheets. An older Mexican man wearing a plastic sack for a poncho watched us warily from the front porch of a house in need of paint, near the rising waters of Buffalo Bayou. We approached. He gave his name as Arnulfo and did not offer a surname. He said he works construction, and he's here illegally.

ARNULFO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Arnulfo says he's afraid - afraid of going to the store for supplies, afraid of calling for rescue if the water inches up his porch, afraid of getting arrested and deported back to San Luis Potosi, Mexico. He's part of the huge undocumented population in Houston, estimated by the Pew Research Center at 575,000 - the third-largest in the nation.

The storm strikes at a particularly precarious time for people in the country illegally. Federal agents are aggressively arresting any undocumented immigrant they encounter. And in only three days, the state of Texas institutes a new law that permits any peace officer to check the immigration status of any person they detain. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, speaking to reporters yesterday, was adamant that no one who lives in his city should be afraid to call 911 during this record-breaking inundation.


SYLVESTER TURNER: 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 to run the risk of losing your life or a family member. Call. Don't hesitate to call. We will respond.

BURNETT: In fact, the mayor, who is a lawyer, tweeted - if someone wants to deport them, I will represent them myself. Perhaps in response to the mayor's concerns, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement released a joint statement yesterday afternoon from Washington. They said they would not be enforcing noncriminal immigration laws at evacuation sites, shelters or food banks.

The agencies said their top priorities were lifesaving and life-sustaining activities. One local immigrant advocate commented, if there is ever a time when Houston needs its undocumented population, which is heavily represented in the construction trades, it will be when the city starts to rebuild after Harvey. John Burnett, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.

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