By José A. Álvarez
As survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struggle to reconstruct their lives, Latino victims of the devastating storms, congressional Hispanic representatives say, not only have to deal with the aftermath of the disasters but also with harassment and discrimination.
According to media reports and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), on September 28, police and the United States Marshals Service, led by the Harrison County Sheriff’s Department, conducted an immigration raid at a Red Cross shelter in Long Beach, Mississippi. The incident has infuriated Latino elected officials prompting them to issue a demand to President George W. Bush and his administration to protect all victims of the hurricanes.
“This administration should focus on fixing the flawed recovery process Hurricanes Katrina and Rita exposed and devoting all available resources to helping those in need,” Robert Menendez, Representative from New Jersey and a member of the CHC, said during a press conference in Washington, D.C. last week. “It’s time for all of us to pull together and help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, not to target one segment of the population with threats and intimidation,” added Menendez.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal on October 3, 2005, officers from the three law enforcement agencies went into a hurricane shelter for refugees, blocked the parking lot and exits, and demanded identification from about 60 people; all of them Hispanic. According the daily, some people were even removed from the shower and bathrooms and residents who could not provide immediate documentation were told to leave in two days or they would be deported.
That version of the story, a Harrison County Sheriff’s Department representative said, is not true.
“There were about 60 people living on tents outside the shelter creating an unsafe atmosphere,” said Captain Tony Saurow.
The reason they went into the shelter, Saurow said, was to respond to complaints from the Red Cross about people “drinking, smoking marijuana,” and even a “child kidnapping.” Officers, Saurow said, had gone to the shelter on previous occasions and had arrested some people before, although he did not know how many. Red Cross workers told the Wall Street Journal they did not call police. The director of the Golf Coast Chapter of the Red Cross did not respond to phone calls or email messages.
“We went out there and addressed the problem. We told the people to go inside or leave,” said Saurow, upset by how his department and other law enforcement agencies in the area have been portrayed in the media. “We can’t change the fact that all of the people in the tents were Hispanic… There was nothing racially biased about it…We are not a bunch of whatever they’re painting us to be…It’s untrue.”
“We find these actions to be inexcusable”
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the CHC expressed outrage over “Hurricane-related harassment” and “racial profiling.” They also asked Gonzalez to “stop unjust enforcement actions against Hispanics.”
“We write to express our deep sorrow and anger regarding the unjust actions taken by our government against Hispanic and immigrant victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” states the letter, which is signed by the Chair of the CHC, California Representative Grace Flores Napolitano, and the Chair of the CHC’s Immigration Task Force, Illinois Representative Luis V. Gutierrez. “Given that most evacuees lost everything, including valid identification, it is appalling that these individuals were treated so disgracefully… We find these actions to be inexcusable,” they added, indicating “this is not the first report of immigrant evacuees being subjected to deportation hearings and other actions of immigrant enforcement. We have expressed our deep concern to Secretary (of Homeland Security Michael) Chertoff but unfortunately have not yet received a response, or even an acknowledgement, from him.”
The letter goes on to request an emergency meeting with Gonzalez because “upon becoming Attorney General, you met with us and pledged open communication on issues that impact our community. We see no more critical issue than protecting and assisting the victims of these hurricanes.” Gonzalez, stated the CHC’s Communications Director Imelda Aguirre, had not replied to the meeting request to clarify the government’s stance on the issue.
Protecting the victims of the hurricanes, said Saurow, has been and will continue to be the mission of the law enforcement agencies in the region. They themselves, he said, were victims of the hurricanes and now “we’re being victimized again.” Saurow wanted to make one thing clear.
“None of the people in the tents were victims of the hurricanes. They were not even checked into the shelter. These folks came here to work,” said Saurow, adding that the tents were set up on county property illegally and the Red Cross shelter had space available inside. Some of the people living in the tents, he said, went inside the shelter and others left.
Saurow was not present during the incident and said he is was not aware of people being removed from showers and bathrooms, but said he believes the officers that were there because they are “career law enforcement professionals.”
“We went to keep the peace,” said Saurow, indicating that even though they knew the people at the tents were undocumented, they specifically did not bring the border patrol along because they were being sensitive to how the incident would be perceived. “We did not go there to conduct immigration matters… Race had nothing to do with it.”