DPS Troopers Push Undocumented Immigrants Into a Deportation Pipeline

Spike in traffic stops raises concerns about racial profiling, faulty recordkeeping, and the damage done to families

Illustration by Mike Reddy

Texas Department of Public Safety troopers are rounding up undocumented immigrants on the state's highways and roads and pushing them into a pipeline for deportation – but no one knows how many people are being affected. DPS's system for counting the detainees is grossly flawed and inaccurate. A Chronicle investigation suggests that the department is undercounting, missing most handover incidents in the statistics it compiles for the public.

We've learned of an internal DPS communication which suggests that troopers are handing drivers to immigration authorities whom they used to leave alone – these people typically are guilty only of traffic infractions: speeding, for instance, failing to use a seatbelt, or driving without a license. (Undocu­mented immigrants can't get driver's licenses in Texas.) Often the immigrants are not even driving. In addition to drivers, DPS is handing over passengers.

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, earlier this year requested an enumeration of incidents from December 2015 to March 2017 in which DPS agents on roads and highways referred detained Texans to the Border Patrol. DPS sent Rod­rí­guez a county-by-county, month-by-month chart indicating fewer than 300 incidents, but the Chronicle has obtained documentation for several handover incidents unrecorded in the data given to Rodríguez. The omission suggests that the number of actual incidents is far higher than the DPS is saying. Outside of that agency, and possibly even inside, no one knows how many immigrants' lives are being damaged or ruined because of these stops and handovers, along with the lives of their families – including their children, who are typically American citizens.

These immigrants' hidden stories are waiting to be found, counted, and told. They are rife on the border – and recently, an incident near Austin showed up in the news. These stories constitute an object lesson in what could happen with Senate Bill 4. Crit­ics call SB 4 the "show me your papers" law. It authorizes local law enforcement agencies to ask people in Texas about their immigration status during detainments and arrests. It also permits, and in many cases requires, law enforcement agents to hand over undocumented people to the Border Patrol and ICE. Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 4 into law last month. It is scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1.

DPS is South Texas’ pioneer law enforcement conduit into the deportation pipeline for noncriminals.

But on the border, SB 4 already exists de facto, thanks to DPS. Take what the agency did to a middle-age Brownsville couple and their family earlier this year. The husband, named Luis in this story for his and his family's safety, was a yardman, grooming lawns for affluent homeowners. His wife, who will be called Berta, worked as a cleaning lady. They have four children who were born in Brownsville.

On a windy Sunday morning in February, Luis and Berta were rushing from mass at a Catholic church in their neighborhood. It's in a poor part of town where, Berta says, many residents are undocumented. They were headed to their weekly prayer group several blocks away. Their 6-year-old son was with them. It was just before noon, they were running late, and Luis was driving a Pontiac that he'd borrowed from his daughter. Barreling past swaying palm trees, the family had faith on their minds.

Then they were pulled over by a brown-uniformed DPS trooper – a Latina named M. Gracia. Her dash-cam turned on, and the video it produced shows what happened next.

Gracia tells Luis, in Spanish, that he was driving 71 in a 55 mph zone. She asks to see his driver's license. He gives her one from Mexico. "This license is good for nothing," she scolds. She then asks both Luis and Berta questions about their immigration status, even though Berta, a mere passenger, was not responsible for the speeding infraction. "How long have you been here?" Gracia inquires. "Are you fixing your papers?"

"We can't afford to," Luis answers. "We have a child who's ill." Officer Gracia then summons Border Patrol.

DPS records that are publicly available on the internet indicate that Gracia has been a state trooper in the Brownsville area for years. Even so, she seems puzzled and uneasy, as though handing over people like Luis and Berta to the Border Patrol is something new to her. "They've lived here three years," she tells the agent. "It's mom and dad, and they have a little kid. I don't know if you want to ...," her voice trails off.

Luis' and Berta's 16-year-old son arrives on foot and Gracia tells him: "The Border Pat­rol's gonna take your dad." The boy, a captain on his high school football team, begins to weep. "Son, don't cry," says Berta. She does not yet realize that she, too, will be taken.

Then she does. "Ayúdenos!" she pleads to Gracia. "Help us!"

"Yo estoy haciendo mi trabajo, ma'am," Gracia replies. I'm just doing my job.

A Border Patrol truck comes and an agent tries to figure out what to do with the 6-year-old, a U.S. citizen. Another family member arrives to retrieve him. Trooper Gracia still seems confused. "In the future, do you want us to call you on this stuff?" she asks the Border Patrol agent in English. "'Cause we get a lot of this stuff."

"Yeah, we'll take it," the agent says. The tape ends.

Minutes later, Luis and Berta were ordered into a Border Patrol truck. Within a few hours, Berta was sent to Matamoros, Mexico, Brownsville's border town. Luis was also sent to Matamoros a few weeks later. Their American-born children were left to fend for themselves and try to stay in school, with no money for food or rent. They lasted a week inside their home, until the landlord evicted them. They abandoned the family's used furniture, asked a friend with a truck for a ride, and self-deported to Matamoros. Matamoros is a war zone for the murderous Los Zetas and Gulf cartels, and is a frighteningly dangerous place, especially for a 16-year-old boy. The cartel recruits adolescents. Those who refuse recruitment sometimes are shot to death before their bodies are immolated in oil drums. So much for a strapping young American male, who, thanks to DPS, is no longer captain of his American high school's football team. (And that is why the parents need pseudonyms. It's common for cartels to learn about, then kidnap, people who've been deported from the U.S., and hold them for ransom. It's assumed they made wads of money in America, even when they didn't.)

Ranger Recon Missions

DPS is South Texas' pioneer law enforcement conduit into the deportation pipeline for noncriminals. The agency dominates the flow running from local cops (including city police, sheriff's deputies, constables, and troopers) to the federal Border Patrol and ICE. DPS set itself up for this role beginning in 2005, when Gov. Rick Perry turned Texas communities near the Rio Grande into political footballs by declaring border security a state priority. Perry began refashioning the image of the DPS then, from Lone Star traffic policing to homeland security.

In 2009 Steve McCraw, a retired FBI agent and Governor Perry's homeland security adviser, was appointed DPS director. He soon turned DPS into a highly militarized police force, obsessed with crime on the border and dedicating vast funds to interdict drugs along the international line. Even media coverage of the agency's vocabulary morphed. "Traffic stop" and "DUI" were eclipsed by references to DPS border operations like "surges" and "Ranger Recon missions." Money has surged, too. From 2008 to the end of this year, DPS will have received $1.6 billion to secure the border. The two-year budget for 2018-19 has been approved at $694 million.

Much of that funding is dedicated to sending hundreds of troopers to the border. Today, the parking lots of hotels in South Texas are clotted with DPS's signature black cars, their doors decaled with little gold maps of Texas. South Texans in communities near the Rio Grande complain about being constantly pulled over for trivial infractions. Eloy Vera is one – he spoke publicly in 2015 about stop after stop because his truck's license plate supposedly was in the wrong place. Vera is no impoverished recent immigrant. He is the county judge of Starr, just west of McAllen. He said his constituents tell him about similar stops they've suffered. In Starr County after the DPS influx began, DPS traffic tickets shot up 238%, soaring to levels much higher than in interior counties of Texas.

The border has a low crime rate compared to the rest of the state. No terrorist has ever crossed into the United States over the Rio Grande (or, for that matter, anywhere over the southern border). And, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, which advises the Texas Legislature on the efficiency and effectiveness of state agencies, DPS does not provide quantitative measures of border security. Instead, the board reported in 2015, DPS produces output statistics – measures of the resources it's expending – rather than measures of outcome, or how all the money and staff are affecting the border.

Despite a lack of evidence that it's keeping the state safer by militarizing the border, DPS in the past several months appears to be working according to the same logic about unauthorized immigrants as the Trump administration. During his campaign, Trump promised something akin to the New Testament rapture: the deportation of all of this country's 11 million undocumented immigrants – 3% of the population, or 1 in every 34 people. Upon assuming office, he issued an executive order mandating that immigrants be put into deportation proceedings if they were picked up not only for crimes but also for mere traffic infractions.

In the first 100 days after Trump took office, according to ICE, arrests of undocumented immigrants were up 38% from the same period a year earlier. The biggest jump involved people with no criminal record. Their arrest rate rose 156%. From the end of January to the end of April, ICE arrested almost 11,000 people whose only mark on their record was an immigration violation (those are administrative matters, not crimes). The noncriminals constituted a quarter of all immigrants detained. That percentage was three times higher than the rate of immigrants detained during the last year of the Obama administration – 8% – who had no criminal records.

In Texas, DPS handover rates of undocumented immigrants also appear to have jumped. According to data the organization gave in April to Sen. Rodríguez, detentions ending in referrals to the Border Patrol averaged about 13 per month from December 2015 to October 2016. Then, that November, handovers suddenly shot up to 71. November also marked Trump's election as president.

The Chronicle spent 11 days this month asking DPS why this huge increase occurred before quickly abating. Agency spokesperson Tom Vinger at first said he would research the question. Five days later, while the Chronicle awaited a response, an anonymous tipster called, claiming to be employed by DPS. The tipster said that on Nov. 4, DPS director McCraw had sent an email to the entire agency stressing that troopers had an obligation to refer people whom they suspect are undocumented to the Border Patrol. The tipster said that this November instruction upended DPS's tradition of ignoring people's immigration status if they'd only violated a traffic law. Questioned about the email, Vinger acknowledged its existence. But he wrote that it simply "restated the DPS practice on responding to suspected illegal immigrants during a lawful encounter." (He also told the Chronicle he was not going to do any further research into why handovers went up in November, and has not yet produced the email.)

A Traffic Stop, Your Honor

Polo is another of DPS's recent victims. Before he got caught, he spent years in Texas managing the cooks and kitchen at a well-known national chain restaurant near Harlingen. He has two preschool-age children and a 9-year-old stepson whom he has parented so lovingly that few people, least of all the stepson, could tell that Polo was not the natural father. Polo brought home $500 a week and lived with his family in a colonia, in a double-wide trailer with plywood floors and a bathroom with holes in the wood by the toilet, through which he can see the land he was diligently purchasing in monthly installments. He was a regular churchgoer and a volunteer at his stepson's grade school, showing up on his free time to help the teachers photocopy lessons and cut out pictures for the students to use in class.

Then, at dawn one day in March while on his way to the restaurant where he works, Polo was stopped for traffic violations. One was using a paper license plate for his car that his wife says he bought on Facebook. That violation is very common on the border, where public transportation is virtually nonexistent, and where undocumented Texans who buy cars cannot register them, or get license plates, since they are not allowed to have the driver's licenses required to engage in these transactions.

Polo, of course, didn't have a driver's license, and he was summarily locked up in an immigration detention center surrounded by barbed wire, where detainees are dressed in prison garb. At a court hearing that we attended for his case, the judge threatened to deport Polo in five days if he did not get a lawyer. The judge also asked the prosecuting attorney trying to deport Polo why he was detained. "A traffic stop, your honor," the lawyer replied. He added that Polo had no criminal record.

As weeks passed during Polo's detention, the young stepson, previously a happy, well-behaved boy, began acting bizarrely. He cursed his school principal and even his fourth grade teacher, who was shocked at how odd he seemed to be behaving. A school counselor called Polo's wife in for a meeting. The wife explained that Polo had been detained under threat of deportation. The child had told no one about this at school.

Polo did get a lawyer, for $5,000, who convinced the judge to set a bond of $12,000. That's over $17,000 that the family is now scrambling to pay in installments. His family bonded Polo out of the detention center last month. He remains in deportation proceedings but is back with his family while he waits for his case to be decided (which could take months or years). His wife has struggled without his income. She scrapes together about $160 each week selling tamales, donuts, and makeup, and by hosting bingo games. The neighbors pay $20 apiece to play, ostensibly for the chance to win lipsticks, but actually to help a neighbor and her children survive what many know could just as well happen to them.

Polo's DPS handover occurred in Cam­eron County – where Brownsville is located – in March. The Chronicle learned about it only because his wife contacted a community organizer who works for the ACLU of Texas in Brownsville. Yet according to the data DPS gave to Sen. Rodríguez, there were zero handovers in March in Cameron County.

Not Just a Valley Issue

The Chronicle learned about the handover of Luis, the Brownsville yardman, and his wife through a priest. Their handover incident was not included, either, in the count given to Rodríguez.

Such is how this often goes in Starr County, where people complain about being stopped by DPS every quarter mile and where the hotels are full of troopers. The data DPS gave Rodríguez for last September lists three handover incidents in Starr. But when the Chronicle asked for every traffic ticket or warning issued to people in the area in which someone was handed over to the Border Patrol, DPS sent records for four incidents involving a total of eight people. Incidentally, the Chronicle already knew through independent sources about an additional occurrence involving a housewife put into deportation proceedings after she was stopped for an expired license plate. In all, the Chronicle uncovered two additional handover incidents, for a total of five, not three. They involved nine people. Only one was accused of crimes – of being a fugitive and driving while intoxicated. The rest were detained for speeding, having tinted glass on their windows, driving on the shoulder, not using seatbelts, and for expired plates.

Illustration by Mike Reddy
“It’s a litany of horror stories, just terrible. People are getting hurt. Real lives are being snuffed.”

Subsequently, many of these people, as well as Luis, Berta, and Polo, disappeared from DPS's count of people it has helped put into deportation proceedings.

These omissions were uncovered haphazardly, only because of touch-and-go tips to a reporter from South Texas activists who know her. (I am the ACLU's investigative journalist, based in Brownsville.) My scattershot findings suggest that hundreds more traffic-infraction handover incidents may exist, involving hundreds, even thousands of Texans who are undocumented.

When DPS was asked for a phone interview about the omission, Vinger declined the request. He instead wrote via email that DPS has no statutory requirement to track and report data about handovers to immigration authorities. He added that DPS did not start keeping records of what he called "illegal alien detections and referrals" until the end of 2015. He referenced a DPS website advising that recent reporting of data about DPS cooperation with the Border Patrol to apprehend undocumented immigrants "may be lower than the actual amount due to a transition in the method of capturing the data."

Vinger noted that recordkeeping for statistical purposes is done by counting what DPS calls "Illegal Alien Referral Reports." These are forms that state troopers are supposed to fill out anytime they do a handover. The DPS sent the Chronicle documentation for 13 arrested individuals. They represented eight separate handover incidents. Of those eight, only three had Illegal Alien Referral Report forms filled out. This suggests that many troopers aren't using the form. If that's so, their failure to use the form is causing massive undercounting of harmless Texans who are having their lives, and those of their American-born families, ground up in a deportation mill whose hopper is presided over by DPS.

Vinger wrote that Illegal Alien Referral Report forms would be retroactively filled out for the incidents identified by the Chron­icle. Doing so, he again stated, "is not required by state statute," nor do troopers have to write on a ticket or warning that they turned people over to immigration agents.

Without the form, it's uncertain if the public will know about DPS handovers moving northward, away from the border. Take the case of Everardo and Juan Luis Conejo. They are brothers, and this winter were Austin residents working as laborers in the area. On Feb. 11, Everardo was driving his boss' van, with Juan Luis as a passenger, on I-35 when they were pulled over in Round Rock by a DPS agent named Gonzalez. The dash-cam video of the stop shows Gonzalez using a speaker to command Everardo, in Spanish, to pull over.

Gonzalez tells Everardo that one of his rear brake lights isn't working, and he asks to see his driver's license. When Everardo says he only has a Mexican license, Gonzalez acts exactly like a Border Patrol agent, asking Everardo where he crossed from Mexico into the United States, how long ago he did so, where in Mexico he's from, and if he's ever been caught before by Immigration. He asks similar questions of Juan Luis. He tries to find something criminal about the men. Searching for gang affiliations, he orders Everardo to pull up his shirt and show his tattoos. Gonzalez apparently sees nothing more interesting than a Playboy logo with bunny ears. "El Playboy?" the agent chuckles. Everardo patiently explains: His last name, Conejo, is Spanish for rabbit.

The dash-cam video ends with the Conejo brothers sitting by the side of I-35 in handcuffs, telling DPS trooper Gonzalez about the threat to their lives in Mexico from cartels. A man shows up, with lettering on his jacket that reads "Police/ICE." The Conejos were removed to Mexico the next day.

Texas Observer reporter Gus Bova learned of the incident from immigration rights activists, and published an article about it in March. The news shocked the activists. None had heard of DPS rounding up immigrants in traffic stops so far from the border, or of the agency calling ICE instead of the Border Patrol. The suspicion was that this new, interior enforcement was related to Trump. The Observer contacted DPS. Spokes­person Vinger defended the hand­over as consistent with his agency's mission.

In April, the Chronicle asked DPS for the number of people in Williamson County who were turned over to the Border Patrol or ICE in February, the month the Conejo brothers were caught. Wil­liam­son County is where Round Rock is. "The Depart­ment has conducted a good faith search ... and has not been able to locate any responsive records," DPS wrote back. "No one was stopped and turned over to ICE in Williamson County in February 2017." The Conejo brothers had not only been caught, they'd been statistically disappeared.

The Chronicle notified Sen. Rodríguez's office that the numbers on the chart DPS gave him appear to gravely undercount DPS handovers. Rodríguez said he wasn't surprised. "This isn't the first time we've asked them for border security information where there's been information missing," he said. "It seems irresponsible in terms of accountability, when senators and representatives are asking for the data and this is what we get. We're the ones being asked to support funding and additional officers for DPS. The Legislature grew this agency into the largest bureaucracy in the state, very quickly, with $800 million to $1 billion in funding. Yet we haven't been able to get any accountability measures in place. Taxpayers don't know how it's operating. This very conservative Legislature can be very demanding when it comes to cost accountability for Medicaid. But not for DPS." When told of the stories the Chronicle unearthed, no thanks to DPS, Rodríguez, who has close kin in South Texas, sighed.

"It's a litany of horror stories, just terrible," he said. "People are getting hurt. Real lives are being snuffed."

On May 7, the day Gov. Abbott signed SB 4 into law, he was interviewed by the Spanish-language television station Univision about Texas Latinos' concerns that they could be racially profiled under the new law. Abbott demurred (in English): "If you are Hispanic, you are not going to be stopped ... and required to show your papers unless you are suspected of having committed some serious crime."

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar called Abbott's claim "blatantly untrue," giv­en that SB 4 will allow police to ask anyone they stop about their immigration status, whether or not a crime is suspected. That's what DPS already does. And if that agency's behavior is a preview to SB 4, then the governor's vow is as shaky – and cruel – as the state troopers' jerry-rigged numbers.

Debbie Nathan freelanced this piece and is also an investigative reporter with ACLU of Texas.

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Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, Greg Abbott, 85th Lege, Tom Vinger, Department of Public Safety, José Rodríguez, Greg Casar

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