An uncharitable policy

October 05, 2005

Recent reports of police sweeps of Gulf Coast shelters housing hurricane victims who are undocumented immigrants are a troubling indication that a long-held hands-off policy toward these immigrants in times of natural disasters is no longer being honored. Even more disappointing is that affected immigrants might now face arrest and deportation.

Scared and traumatized immigrants who lost homes, jobs and personal possessions - just like their American counterparts - should not be subjected to such treatment.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) insists no one, regardless of immigration status, will be denied food, shelter or medical care by federal relief workers. Undocumented immigrants who seek hurricane assistance benefits do risk deportation, however, and now even legal immigrants eligible for federal aid whose legal documents were destroyed in the hurricane are afraid to seek benefits. Some 120,000 Hondurans lived in the affected region, many of them legal.

Even after the 9/11 attacks, the government assured immigrants who sought help that their legal status would not be shared with law enforcement agencies. The DHS, created after 9/11, has issued no such assurances this time, and a handful of undocumented immigrants evacuated from flooded areas have been taken into custody.

"We can't turn a blind eye to the law," says a DHS spokeswoman. Yet millions of undocumented immigrants, including 100,000 Mexicans in the Gulf Coast region, live and work openly in the United States.

Church groups have asked Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to halt the detentions and removals of immigrants, and Democratic senators are urging him to announce that immigrants are safe from deportation. Mr. Chertoff should comply. Surely government resources would be better spent restoring damaged regions, not going after immigrants and discouraging them from getting help.

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