Why are immigration agents in areas hit by Hurricane Florence? FEMA sent them.

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When natural disasters strike, it’s not unusual for U.S. immigration and border agents to assist with recovery efforts. Authorities from U.S. Customs and Border Protection have been in the Carolinas this week.

Pictures and videos of the agency’s vehicles in areas devastated by Hurricane Florence, like Wilmington, Kinston and Mount Olive, surfaced on social media during and after the storm, alerting people of the agency’s presence, and prompting some to worry and question why those agencies were in communities devastated by Hurricane Florence.

Another agency, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said it wouldn’t be doing immigration enforcement in areas where people had to evacuate or go to emergency shelters because of the storm, unless there was “a serious public safety threat,” according to a statement released last week by the Department of Homeland Security.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen made the same point at a press briefing in Raleigh Monday, when she was in the state to survey the flooding in Kinston. Nielsen, whose agency includes both ICE and Customs and Border Protection, said “all of DHS is focused on response and recovery.”


Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol officers work to clear the entry way for an elderly couple desperate to return to their home in Wilmington, NC after Hurricane Florence.

Ozzy Trevino U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Customs and Border Protection and ICE have different functions, but both agencies enforce immigration laws and are part of Homeland Security, which also includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In times of natural disasters and acts of terrorism, FEMA can enlist the help of ICE, border patrol and other law enforcement agencies within Homeland Security. The agencies help state or local governments that have exhausted the country’s state-to-state mutual aid system and the respective state’s National Guard resources.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives coordinates those federal law enforcement agencies in the affected area after FEMA activates them.

ATF spokesperson Michael Knight said federal law enforcement officers who were deployed to the Carolinas are not performing their regular duties. Customs officers were not looking at immigration issues, Knight said.

“These agencies are here for a specific mission, and that mission is for the safety and security of the affected area,” Knight said.

Customs and Border Protection sent more than 150 officers, aircrew members and agents to the Carolinas to help with air support missions, road clearing and security, according to a statement from the agency.

As of Wednesday afternoon, FEMA had sent more than 800 employees to help with relief efforts in North Carolina, and more were in the process of being deployed, according to a FEMA spokesperson.


Customs and Border Protection officer and Border Patrol agent working with the Leland Fire Department to clear downed trees that fell into the Hwy 74 travel lanes.

Ozzy Trevino U.S. Customs and Border Protection

In addition to Customs and Border Protection, officers from at least a dozen other federal law enforcement agencies have been in North or South Carolina as part of the Florence response, Knight said.

At least 550 federal law enforcement personnel from other states have been deployed to the Carolinas, including authorities from the National Park Service, IRS, FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration — but not ICE, Knight said. This figure doesn’t include federal authorities who already work in the Carolinas and are helping with recovery efforts.

Many of these agencies have brought their own vehicles, which may not be designed to respond to natural disasters, Knight said.

Raymona Green and her husband were alarmed to see a Customs and Border Protection truck parked in a McDonald’s parking lot in Mount Olive on Monday. They had driven from Duplin County to Wayne County to buy gas for their generator and got stuck in Mount Olive trying to find a road home.

Green was concerned to see armed customs officers in an area that is home to many migrant workers.

She was aware the New York Police Department, the National Guard, the Coast Guard and the volunteer Cajun Navy were doing rescue missions because she had seen North Carolina’s Emergency Management agency post pictures of the agencies doing rescue missions, but not Customs.

“If we don’t know you’re here, that’s weird,” Green said.

“We’ve seen everybody from Florida, Texas, Louisiana, New York. We’ve seen them all, and they’ve made their presence known. Customs didn’t do any of that.”

Some immigrants who are living in the country illegally were afraid to go to emergency shelters before the storm hit fearing they would run the risk of being deported, NBC reported. Even after the storm had left the area and despite ICE’s promise to refrain from arresting Florence evacuees, some immigrants were afraid to leave emergency shelters for fear of being arrested, The Washington Post reported.

Viridiana Martínez, director for the immigrant advocacy organization Alerta Migratoria in North Carolina, said the fear toward Homeland Security personnel is nothing new.

“In the worse case scenario in terms of relief post Florence, people will find themselves forced to trust DHS and police,” Martínez said in a statement.

“These officers should in turn protect and serve and not violate any trust that the immigrant community places on them by detaining or arresting anyone, separating families, and adding to trauma already experienced by these families.”