McALLEN, Texas – Federal border agents say they will search for illegal immigrants at inland Texas checkpoints even during a hurricane evacuation, a plan state and local officials say could lead to disastrous delays and discourage some people from getting out.
Texas and federal officials have argued about the checkpoints roughly 75 miles from the border for years, but emergency managers only recently learned that the Border Patrol also plans to check the immigration status of people boarding buses at evacuation hubs in the Rio Grande Valley.
State and local officials are concerned not only about delays, but that the checkpoints could deter illegal immigrants from fleeing dangerous conditions.
"That puts me in a dilemma because those people will stay behind in a potential surge zone," said Johnny Cavazos, emergency management coordinator for Cameron County, a coastal county on the U.S.-Mexico border.
"These people live in the most fragile of homes. I'm going to have a search and rescue problem to deal with," he said, adding that federal and local officials need to "come up with a much better plan."
The screenings at evacuation hubs are intended to prevent bottlenecks at the inland checkpoints, said Dan Doty, a Rio Grande Valley spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol.
"Our local policy is checkpoints will not close, we will check for immigration status," Doty said. "We have to do our jobs."
Gov. Rick Perry wants the Border Patrol to share the state's priority of putting public safety first during an emergency, said spokeswoman Krista Piferrer.
"If there is any significant delay in having people move from harm's way, then that could run the risk of endangering lives," she said.
Closer to the Louisiana line, most of the more than 100 deaths from 2005's Hurricane Rita were related to the disastrous evacuation where cars were jammed for days on highways leading from the Gulf Coast, perishing from heat exposure or accidents. Only a dozen died in the actual storm.
More than 1 million people live in Cameron County and its inland neighbor Hidalgo County. Hurricane Allen, a Category 3 storm, struck just north of the coastal city of Brownsville in 1980 with sustained winds of 115 mph.
"We, emergency management, are in essence shepherding the people to safety -- that is what we're telling them," Cavazos said. "My job is to save lives, not to ask for documentation."