By Sean Collins Walsh and Brandon Mulder, American-Statesman Staff
BASTROP —At 7:23 p.m. Saturday, 27-year-old Jacqueline Benitez-Quintana was driving in western Bastrop County when she was pulled over by a sheriff’s corporal for failing to use her blinker while changing lanes. When the officer, Brandon Stark, learned she was driving without a license, he arrested her.
Nine minutes later, Eugenio Orozco, 42, was pulled over in the same area by a sheriff’s deputy for having an obscured license plate. When the deputy asked Orozco for his driver’s license, Orozco instead handed over a Mexican ID card.
Driving without a license is a misdemeanor that can land a motorist in jail. But the officer then learned that Orozco did in fact have a valid driver’s license. He arrested Orozco anyway for a different misdemeanor: failure to display a license upon the request of a peace officer.
They were among 24 people arrested Saturday night in a heavily Hispanic part of Bastrop County during a “zero tolerance” traffic enforcement operation ordered by Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook.
All but one of those arrested had Hispanic surnames. Thirteen, including Benitez-Quintana and Orozco, were picked up from the county jail by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings. At least seven had been deported by Tuesday, according to Mexico’s consul for Austin.
For Carlos González Gutiérrez, the Mexican consul, the operation was an alarming escalation in the coordination between local and federal policing on immigration enforcement.
“There was clearly a special operation on the border between Bastrop and Travis, and there was clearly a decision not to cite and release the offenders of these traffic violations in case the officer suspected that they were undocumented,” González said. “We are very concerned that this takes to a new level the collaboration between police and immigration authorities.”
For Cook, the operation was a routine law enforcement tactic — although he said he has never conducted a traffic operation of this kind since taking office in January 2017.
“This is a fairly routine operation that we do from time to time, nothing to do with targeting anybody,” said Cook, a Republican and a former head of the Texas Rangers. “Not all of them were identified as illegal immigrants.”
The issue of local-federal coordination on immigration has become a lightning rod in Texas since the Legislature last year approved a new law, Senate Bill 4, aimed at banning “sanctuary cities,” jurisdictions that decline to assist federal immigration authorities.
Critics warned that it will lead to an increase in racial profiling by police and to more people getting arrested for “driving while brown.” Proponents said it will keep Texas safer by keeping dangerous criminals out.
Local governments have reacted to the new law — and to the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration — in different ways. The Austin City Council this month declared the Texas capital a “freedom city” by passing a measure aimed at reducing arrests for minor offenses to prevent the deportation of nonviolent, unauthorized immigrants. But Cook has emphasized that neighboring Bastrop County is not a sanctuary jurisdiction and fully cooperates with federal immigration authorities.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said the operation is an example what he and other Democrats feared would happen under Senate Bill 4.
“The limited facts available suggest a clear-cut case of racial profiling and organized immigration enforcement in cooperation with federal authorities,” Rodriguez, who is policy chair for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, said in a statement. “The (sheriff’s office) may have caused long-term damage to its relationship with the community and seriously threatened public safety in a single evening.”
Life-changing traffic stops
Saturday’s operation centered on the FM 535 and FM 812 corridors in the Del Valle area of western Bastrop County, where 85 percent of schoolchildren are Hispanic, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Western Bastrop County also has seen a string violent crimes related to the drug trade in recent years.
Three deputies were assigned to work full-time on the operation Saturday night, and an additional two deputies participated part-time by staking out that part of the county when they weren’t making arrests elsewhere. That five-officer team was in addition to the usual two deputies who patrol the area.
They pulled over 63 drivers for offenses such as speeding and changing lanes without signaling. They then asked drivers whether they had a Texas license, whether they were born in the U.S. and, in at least one case, about their immigration status, according to González, whose office interviewed several of the Mexicans arrested before they were deported.
Cook said the operation was prompted by requests from civic leaders in the area who asked for a greater law enforcement presence, but the sheriff said he could not remember the names of those leaders or their group.
After the American-Statesman first reported on the operation, members of Bastrop Interfaith said it was their group that met with Cook three weeks ago to discuss policing in the area and that they intended to send a different message: “the importance of building trust between the community and law enforcement, including immigrant communities.”
“We are outraged that after our conversation with Sheriff Cook about these matters, his department blatantly targeted immigrants and Hispanics,” the group said in a statement. “Sheriff Cook, by his actions has severely damaged the relationship between law enforcement and the community.”
Of the 13 people who were arrested and then detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, three were driving while intoxicated, and the other 10 were taken in on charges related to driver’s licenses, including driving without a license, driving with an invalid license and Orozco’s arrest for refusing to display a license to an officer.
All were misdemeanor offenses carrying relatively light punishments under state law. But the real consequence for the unauthorized immigrants arrested was to be booked into the jail, where ICE can discover them through a background check network, place a detainer request with the sheriff and pick them up for deportation proceedings.
Three of the 13 picked up by ICE had previous run-ins with the law in Texas, according to Department of Public Safety criminal background searches: One was previously arrested for leaving the scene of a collision, and two had been arrested for driving while intoxicated. One of the two with a previous drunken driving case also had been previously arrested for driving with an invalid license.
Cook said deputies could not have targeted unauthorized immigrants because they generally do not ask about the immigration status of those they pull over. González, however, said that eight of the arrested immigrants his office interviewed disputed that account.
“One said clearly that he was asked about his immigration status, and the others were asked about where they were born, they were asked about whether they have a Texas driver license or any kind of official U.S.-issued photo ID,” González said.