Immigrants Seeking Shelter After Hurricane Florence Fear Deportation as FEMA Shifts Funds to ICE

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While the worst of Hurricane Florence is over, officials say the most dangerous flooding is yet to come for residents of the Carolinas and Virginia, as thousands have been ordered to evacuate their homes and hundreds more have sought rescue from rising floodwaters. But undocumented immigrants have expressed concern they will encounter immigration enforcement if they seek help. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has reallocated nearly $10 million from FEMA’s budget to ICE to pay for detention space and deportations. We speak with Laura Garduño García, a DACA recipient and Greensboro-based organizer with Siembra NC and the American Friends Service Committee, and with Mary Small, policy director for Detention Watch Network.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the death toll from Hurricane Florence has reached 32 as rivers in the Carolinas continue to rise from the record-breaking storm. While the worst of the hurricane is over, officials say the most dangerous flooding is yet to come for residents of the Carolinas and Virginia, where around half a million homes remain without power. Thousands of residents have been ordered to evacuate their homes, and hundreds more have sought rescue from rising floodwaters.

This includes undocumented immigrants in the region who have expressed concern they will encounter immigration enforcement if they seek help. A mother in the coastal city of Wilmington, North Carolina, which is cut off from the rest of the state by floodwaters, told NBC News she feared being separated from her children by ICE if they evacuated to a shelter.

IMMIGRANT MOTHER: [translated] My smallest daughter, the little one, asked me, “Mom, I’m very afraid that our home is going to be destroyed, and I don’t want to go to a shelter because I don’t want to be separated from you. I would rather die first than be separated from you.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Immigration authorities say they have suspended enforcement actions in areas affected by Hurricane Florence, but tensions remain high. North Carolina is one of the states that pioneered police collaboration with ICE in so-called 287(g) programs, which allow state and local authorities to partner with immigration officials. Federal prosecutors have also demanded millions of the state’s voter records be turned over to immigration authorities by the end of the month, and have charged 19 foreign nationals of voting without citizenship in the 2016 election.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as newly released budget documents show the Trump administration reallocated nearly $10 million from FEMA’s budget to ICE to pay for detention space and deportations. FEMA has said it faced staffing shortages and other logistical challenges after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where nearly 3,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath—even though President Trump has denied these figures.

For more, we go to North Carolina, where we’re joined in Durham by Laura Garduño García, an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, a member of Mijente and the immigrant rights organization Siembra North Carolina. She is also a DACA recipient who has lived in North Carolina for the last 20 years.

Also with us in D.C. is Mary Small, policy director for Detention Watch Network. She helped expose how the Trump administration diverted the nearly $10 million from FEMA to ICE. She is from North Carolina herself.

Let’s turn first to Laura. Talk about the impact of the storm in North Carolina, and particularly its effect on the immigrant community.

LAURA GARDUÑO GARCÍA: Yes. Good morning. So, right now, immigrant community members in North Carolina are seeing clear skies, but we know that the dangers of floodwaters are still there in many parts of the state. And most alarming is the fact that 44 counties that have been the hardest struck by Hurricane Florence are also in the district of U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon, who is basically Jeff Sessions’ henchman here in North Carolina.

As you stated already, these are the counties where officials are acting hand in hand with ICE to prosecute individuals who are undocumented for illegal re-entry, where that is not happening anywhere else in the state. Also, this is the same place where, in the state of North Carolina, we have now a task force to detect fraud—immigration fraud and document fraud—in which the U.S. district attorney is working hand in hand with ICE.

And in the moment where we are looking at the devastation caused by the hurricane, immigrant families are not able to trust in federal agencies looking out for their well-being, and are not able to seek the support from FEMA because of their undocumented status. So, right now, we know that individuals who are in the community are facing fear, are facing distrust of federal agencies and are in imminent need of resources and support to come out from the hurricane and the storm. So, I think that that is just very difficult for community members to have to deal with.

And so, anyone who is watching at this moment, who is looking at images of North Carolina, parts of North Carolina under water, we know that FEMA is not going to get to all the individuals that need this help the most. So this is the moment when donations are very important, so that community members have the resources and the help that they need to come out of this storm. And we can do so by donating to tiny.cc/Florence.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Laura, I wanted to ask you, the ICE officials have said that they won’t be doing any active enforcement actions during evacuations or in the shelters as a result of Hurricane Florence, but what’s your sense of what is going on? Because we’ve seen in the past, as you mentioned, with FEMA, whether it was in Texas or in Florida, that once the issue of rebuilding occurs, those folks who are undocumented then deal with the reality that the federal government, especially FEMA, is not going to be responsive to claims among the undocumented.

LAURA GARDUÑO GARCÍA: Right. So I think the first part of the question is what are community members feeling, right? If we are told Immigration and Customs Enforcement is saying, “We’re not going to conduct enforcement operations at this time in the communities that have been affected by Florence,” we have reason to distrust any statement that that agency puts out, because in the past they haven’t abided by the statements that they have made.

And furthermore, part of the emergency response agents that are coming to the state are in Customs and Border Patrol vehicles and uniforms. That in no way cements trust between community members and the federal agencies, when we know what Customs and Border Patrol are meant to do. And it is just appalling, the total disregard to community members who are facing the devastation following the storm to then come out looking for help or looking for supplies to take back to their homes and then find everywhere in the eastern part of the state Customs and Border Patrol vehicles. It is totally unacceptable, and FEMA should not be engaging in these tactics.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Mary Small into this discussion. She’s executive director of Detention Watch Network. You helped expose the $10 million taken from FEMA and given, diverted to ICE. Can you explain what you learned?

MARY SMALL: So, the documents that were released just recently are actually sort of the culmination of a multiyear tracking process. So, over the last three years, ICE has really perfected this scheme where they’ve ratcheted up the funding that they use for detention and deportation twice per year. So, they get an increase from Congress—and so Congress is in on this, too—and then they overspend their money and make up the difference by grabbing money from other parts of the agency. And then they get a bump, and then they overspend, and then they grab more money. And by repeating this three times, they have moved a billion additional dollars into the account that they use for detention and deportation.

The documents that were released very recently show the most recent of these grabbing money from other accounts. And it’s actually $200 million that they pulled from different parts of the agency. So the $10 million that they took from FEMA is one part of this kind of bigger story of financial manipulation by this agency to drive more and more resources into building and expanding the detention and deportation machine that’s reflected in what Laura is talking about on the ground in North Carolina.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you—my understanding is that ICE alone is spending about $3.6 billion on detention and transportation of the undocumented. Could you talk about this explosion of the amount of money spent on detaining and transporting, which could also mean deporting, the undocumented immigrants?

MARY SMALL: Yeah, I think that that outrage is really well placed, that this massive sum of money is going to open up new detention facilities, including really big detention facilities that are operated by private prison companies, and, as you say, transporting people for deportation, so really putting into practice some of the worst and most harmful policies for communities.

And I think that while I’m really glad that the fact that money was taken from FEMA to be moved into this detention and deportation account is really coming to light in a major way, I think we also have to zoom out even further to understand that it’s not just FEMA that money is coming from. Right? These precious taxpayer dollars could be going to housing or education or healthcare or any number of other things that actually help communities thrive together and be whole and intact, rather than so violently and aggressively separating them.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, FEMA agency spokesperson Tyler Houlton said, “Under no circumstances was any disaster relief funding transferred from @fema to immigration enforcement efforts. This is a sorry attempt to push a false agenda at a time when the administration is focused on assisting millions on the East Coast facing a catastrophic disaster.” Mary, your response to this?

MARY SMALL: I think that’s really just parsing words. I mean, the transfer and reprogramming request that we were able to get a hold of and share with congressional offices shows precisely that, that money can be moved around between accounts. And so, to say the money that was taken was maybe slated for something other than emergency response isn’t responsive to the fact that it could have been used for that. And at a time where Puerto Rico is so desperately still in need of assistance, where FEMA is talking about staffing shortages, the money could have been shifted into those functions rather than into detention and deportation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about now in the rebuilding? As I raised before, in the rebuilding process after the storm, what’s the legal situation for those who may be undocumented in terms of being able to get any kind of disaster assistance?

MARY SMALL: I’m not the best person to speak to that.

LAURA GARDUÑO GARCÍA: —know that individuals who are—

MARY SMALL: Oh, go ahead, Laura.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Oh, Laura, you want to talk about that?

LAURA GARDUÑO GARCÍA: —not able to access—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Laura, go ahead.

LAURA GARDUÑO GARCÍA: Yes. We know that individuals who are undocumented are not able to access the support or resources from FEMA. So, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of people in the past who have been left out by the federal agency. And we expect that that will happen again in the state of North Carolina, which is why we call to action by making donations to grassroots organizations who understand that not only immigrant communities have been left behind, but, historically, black communities have been left in the dark after hurricanes in the past, like we saw in Katrina, for months, if not years at a time. So, grassroots organizations are mobilizing right now, and individuals who are able to should be looking at making donations directly to these grassroots organizations at tiny.cc/Florence.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Laura Garduño García, immigrant organizer in North Carolina, and Mary Small, Detention Watch Network. And as we go out, Laura, what is your message to immigrants, especially undocumented people, in the midst of this storm, even as the floodwaters rise?

LAURA GARDUÑO GARCÍA: My message to the people in my community here in the state where I call home is that you should find support in local organizations who will look to you—who will look to you to find what they are able to provide to you and also are willing to put forward their best effort to fill the gaps that the federal agency will leave behind, no question. But we must come forward with our requests, with our needs, and we should find local groups or create our own to support one another in these times, because not only are we facing the devastation of Hurricane Florence, but we know that we will continue facing attacks on our immigrant community, and together we are stronger.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it’s the 10th anniversary of the economic collapse, of Lehman Brothers collapsing, also the seventh anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. We’ll speak with Occupy activist Nathan Schneider. His new book, Everything for Everyone. Stay with us.

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