WILMINGTON, N.C. — A woman living in North Carolina who said she doesn't have proper documentation was afraid to flee her home as Hurricane Florence approaches because she feared immigration agents might arrest her and her family.
But Iris, who asked her last name be withheld out of fear of deportation, said she and her family would leave their Wilmington home along the North Carolina coast and go to an emergency shelter at a nearby school after officials assured immigrants they would not be arrested and deported if they went to shelters.
"My worry was when someone said, 'If you go to shelters, you have to be careful,' someone told me they weren't accepting people who were undocumented. But if they went, they would run the risk of being taken [from] there, and I didn't want to run the risk with my kids," Iris told NBC News in Spanish through a translator Wednesday.
As authorities have urged more than a million residents across the Carolinas and nearby states to head inland, immigrants living in the United States without documentation have been afraid that if they showed up at shelters, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents would arrest them and possibly separate them from their children.
"I don't even want to think if that was to happen," Iris, a mother of three, said as she started to cry.
Her anxiety comes amid the backdrop of policy clashes over immigration, and controversy over how migrant parents who enter the U.S. illegally have been separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Last summer, a sheriff in Polk County, Florida, warned that deputies would patrol hurricane emergency shelters and check IDs as a safety precaution — stoking worry among undocumented immigrants and advocacy groups that they would be targeted. The sheriff in the case, however, did not explicitly mention immigration status.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said the city only wants people to be safe, and no one should be afraid to get help because of their immigration status.
"Whatever happens in respect to if there's anybody illegal, we don't care about that," he said. "What we care about is the preservation of life."
Iris — after learning that the Wilmington police chief assured people that they would not be arrested or separated from their children if they went to shelters — said her fears have since subsided.
"It makes me feel better to know that that's not going to happen," she said. "I'm sure you are parents as well, and you can just imagine how that would feel if that was to happen."
With the hurricane inching closer to the coast, she said that her youngest daughter has a hope that any parent can relate to: that the family will be safe — together.
Iris, who eventually did go to a shelter at a local public school on Thursday, recalled: "The little one asked me, 'Mom, I am very afraid that our home is going to be destroyed, and I don't want to go to a shelter because I don't want to be separated from you. I'd rather die first than be separated from you.'"