Immigrant communities struggle to find shelter as Hurricane Florence nears

Activists are working to help undocumented immigrants evacuate the area, but they're running into problems.

Water rolls up the beach near the Oceana Pier at high tide as the outer edges of Hurricane Florence being to affect the coast September 13, 2018 in Atlantic Beach, United States. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Water rolls up the beach near the Oceana Pier at high tide as the outer edges of Hurricane Florence being to affect the coast September 13, 2018 in Atlantic Beach, United States. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Undocumented immigrants are facing uncertainty and precariousness as Hurricane Florence draws nearer to the southeastern United States and coastal residents evacuate inland. Area activists in states like North Carolina say they are working to help immigrants find shelters, but that the evacuation process has been weighed down by the Trump administration’s policy decisions and poor local planning.

Both North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) have ordered mandatory evacuations for a number of coastal areas as Florence nears the shore. The Category 2 storm has reduced in speed significantly from its prior Category 4 rating, but if anything Florence’s danger has only grown as it as traveled over waters made warmer by climate change, which have in turn allowed the hurricane to supercharge. Forecasters are also concerned that the storm will stall as it reaches land, allowing wind and rain to hammer the Carolinas and Virginia, potentially for days.

That scenario is sparking widespread concern in areas like Alamance County in central North Carolina, home to a number of immigrants with mixed-immigration status families. While Alamance is not under an evacuation warning, residents have been advised to stay off the road and to seek shelter if they can’t leave town. Mobile homes have been particularly impacted, with some parks declaring that residents must evacuate.

Laura Garduño Garcia, an organizer with the Greensboro office for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), told ThinkProgress that she has been working to help immigrants in mobile homes, as well as the wider area, evacuate to shelters. Citing one mobile home park where she said around 60 percent of residents are Latinx, Garduño Garcia laid out some of the problems people have faced.


“They’ve had [an] evacuation notice since earlier in the week because the area has huge trees,” she explained. “Any time the wind blows hard, branches come down. The concern is with hurricane winds and rains, trees could hit homes.”

But when they’ve tried to leave, they’ve encountered confusion.

“These families didn’t have anywhere to go for 24 hours,” Garduño Garcia said on Thursday afternoon. “School was out today so families could go to shelters, but no official Red Cross shelter opened until 10 am this morning. And some of the information [about where to go] has indicated [inactive] shelters.”

A lack of consensus about where to go isn’t the only problem. Information about the storm has also come almost exclusively in English, with few translation options.


Then there are larger concerns about the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. During Hurricane Harvey in Texas, immigration checkpoints briefly remained in force as tens of thousands of people fled inland. Many people also chose not to seek shelter for fear that they would be asked for documentation.

In a statement to the media this week, ICE said there would be no questions asked regarding citizenship at shelters and checkpoints relating to Florence, barring unusual circumstances.

“Our highest priority remains the preservation of life and safety,” the agency said. “In consideration of these circumstances, there will be no immigration enforcement initiatives associated with evacuations or sheltering related to Florence, except in the event of a serious public safety threat.”

Garduño Garcia said organizations like hers are advising people to seek shelter and prioritize escaping the storm, even if they have concerns about immigration officials.

“ICE has said in the past that they will not conduct these raids [and] we know they lie on a regular basis and are not held accountable for [those lies], we know not to trust them,” she said, while at the same time emphasizing that there is no reason to believe ICE agents will be at shelters and that fleeing Florence should take priority.

“It’s very difficult for us to discourage people from seeking shelter,” she said. “Safety first.”

Advocates like Garduño Garcia aren’t overly concerned about the unlikely presence of ICE agents. Instead, they’re eyeing what comes after the storm.


A document released by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to the press on Tuesday revealed that the Trump administration cut nearly $10 million from the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order to fund immigration detention facilities run by ICE.

That means resources that might otherwise have been spent to help communities like those seeking shelter in Alamance County could instead be used against them. Garduño Garcia said the area is already one where officials have eyed closer ties with ICE.  The arrival of Florence now places some of the county’s most vulnerable residents “at the intersection of that calamity,” she said.

Immigrant community members and others in North Carolina are already working together to plan for post-disaster relief. Many have said they will join forces to help clean up after Florence’s winds and rains die down, even if predictions prove correct and much of the region loses access to electricity. But those efforts are largely seen as filling a glaring hole left by officials, something the Trump administration’s decision to prioritize ICE over FEMA has only exacerbated.

“After this,” Garduño Garcia emphasized, “there will be less resources available for emergencies, more for incarcerating people.”