Democratic lawmakers will introduce Wednesday a bill to require federal immigration authorities to suspend their enforcement duties in areas affected by major natural disasters.
One of the bill's main sponsors, Rep. Nannette Barragán (D-Calif.), said the legislation is "a response to what we saw happen in Texas," where many immigrants — documented and undocumented — reported being fearful of following evacuation instructions in August during Hurricane Harvey because they might encounter immigration officials.
"We want people to listen to authorities" during natural disasters, Barragán said.
Under the bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenLofgren: Many Jan. 6 panel witnesses are former Trump officials One congressional committee is rejecting partisanship to protect state votes Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — China's president to video in for climate confab MORE (D-Calif.), immigration enforcement activities would be suspended in areas where the president has declared a major disaster or emergency under the Stafford Act.
That would force agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to suspend immigration enforcement operations and initiatives.
The bill would also prevent state law enforcement agencies, when tasked with immigration enforcement, from performing those duties in those circumstances.
Barragán said people in Texas received a "mixed message" during Harvey, as federal authorities refused to suspend immigration enforcement or temporarily shut down immigration checkpoints, but pledged not to conduct routine noncriminal immigration enforcement at shelters and evacuation sites.
ICE and CBP officers assisted in life-saving measures, but the agencies did not suspend their standing directives to process any undocumented immigrant encountered in the function of their duties.
Some Hispanic residents of affected areas reportedly refused to move north during the disaster, fearing they would be stopped at checkpoints.
The confusion led to fear and even reports of third parties imitating ICE officers in disaster areas to burglarize homes.
The bill currently has 10 Democratic co-sponsors, and Barragán said she had seen "initial interest" from some Republicans.