This Monday, three representatives from LUPE and one from ARISE traveled to the state capital to give testimony in a hearing for the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Flooding & Evacuations. The Subcommittee held the hearing to study and make recommendations relating to cost effective options to either retrofit or require new building structures to be built as shelters for use during future evacuations.
While the main thrust of the hearing was to investigate hurricane-safe engineering as it pertains to public buildings that would be used for shelters during evacuations, as part of the discussion, the Subcommittee also considered testimony on evacuation patterns throughout the State of Texas during a time of natural disaster. More specifically, they received testimony on the fact that many Rio Grande Valley families tend to not evacuate because of what may occur at checkpoints along 281 or 77.
Representing LUPE was Don Francisco Martinez, volunteer and long time leader from the Alton area, Claudia Garcia, staff member out of the Alton office, and myself. Representing ARISE was Eva Soto, long time member and leader from the Las Milpas area.
Both Claudia and Eva had never given public comment/testimony before but both had powerful stories to tell. With many years experience in the United Farm Workers and LUPE, Don Francisco is a veteran at giving public testimony and helped Claudia and Eva refine their comments.
The ask that we prepared for them was to call on Customs and Border Protections to close the check points and not patrol shelters during an evacuation. Each one of us worked all or part of the ask into our testimony. When we arrived to the Capitol Building, we took a few minutes before we entered to record our testimonies as another way of practicing them.
We were the only four public testimonies regarding RGV families deciding not to evacuate, so the subcommittee called us up as a panel. After each one of us testified, members of the Subcommittee responded to our comments. I went first and spoke generally about how much of an injustice it is when families are forced to choose between family separation if evacuating and facing disaster if staying.
Senator Chuy Hinojosa responded that the Subcommittee fully agreed with me and that they make a recommendation every year to CBP to close the check points, but that CBP has been very unclear about whether they will do it or not.
Claudia followed talking about how her family would never consider evacuating because it would mean leaving her family behind. She thanked the subcommittee for making their yearly recommendation to CBP.
Eva added that the CBP needs to also state strongly that they will not patrol shelters and that there is a need for safe shelters, but they will only be safe for undocumented residents and their families if those operating the shelters do not check people’s papers.
Don Francisco continued by thanking the Subcommittee for their yearly recommendation and said that his daughter and grandchildren are undocumented and would not be able to evacuate for fear of being separated from their family.
The Subcommittee thanked us for our comments and reaffirmed their support for shutting down the check points during evacuations.
In light of the response of the Subcommittee, we decided that the Subcommittee has the responsibility to do more than just make a recommendation to CBP if they are truly concerned with the safety of all Texas residents. In follow up written testimony, we ask them that in addition to making their yearly recommendation that they work with the County Judges of Kennedy, Brooks (where the checkpoints are), Hidalgo and Cameron Counties to figure out a way to close the checkpoints, and write a letter to our Congressional and Senate delegations calling on them to work towards shutting down the checkpoints during an evacuation.
See Don Francisco, Eva and Claudia’s testimony on the LUPE YouTube page.