By Sean Collins Walsh – American-Statesman Staff
After his June 23 “zero tolerance” traffic enforcement operation netted 28 arrests and landed 16 people in deportation proceedings, Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook said he was “shocked” that so many motorists in the heavily Hispanic area he had targeted were driving without valid licenses.
“I’m surprised,” Cook said shortly after the operation in Del Valle, remarking on the number of drivers who were pulled over for minor traffic violations, arrested for not having licenses and then picked up at the county jail by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “That certainly wasn’t the intent.”
A sheriff’s office planning memo, however, shows that the operation prioritized license and insurance violations — infractions more common among unauthorized immigrants because of their lack of legal status — and was expected to result in a large number of arrests. Cook did not respond to an interview request Thursday but has said previously that Bastrop County deputies usually don’t arrest people for paperwork violations but were instructed to as part of the zero tolerance operation.
The memo’s first listed priority for zero tolerance enforcement was driving without insurance, which motorists usually cannot obtain if they do not have licenses. The second priority was driving without a license or with an invalid one. Texas requires people to prove they are U.S. citizens or have legal status to get licenses. The memo also encouraged “strict enforcement” for people driving with fictitious buyer or dealer temporary tags and noted that those “are more often seen in the targeted areas.”
The only other violations mentioned in the memo are drug offenses and drunken driving – crimes that, unlike license and insurance violations, are likely to land someone in jail at any time they are discovered, not just during a zero tolerance operation.
The memo does not mention any moving violations, such as speeding or running stop signs.
Written by the office’s Highway Enforcement And Traffic Unit, or HEAT, the memo also planned for the operation to produce a significant number of arrests: A transport van was planned to carry motorists to the jail in shifts so the deputies could stay on the roadside.
The American-Statesman obtained the memo through a public records request under the Texas Public Information Act.
Cook’s zero tolerance operation was separate from the Trump administration’s policy of the same name, unveiled a month earlier, in which federal prosecutors were instructed to criminally charge every person caught crossing the border illegally, rather than funnel them through the administrative immigration court system.
Since news of the Bastrop operation broke, Cook has faced criticism from a local faith group, a state lawmaker and the Mexican consul for the Austin area. Now the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is investigating the operation, ACLU staff attorney Kali Cohn said.
Cook’s critics have said the operation appears to have been an attempt by local law enforcement to crack down on illegal immigration, which is under federal jurisdiction. Bastrop County is majority Anglo, but the area targeted in the operation is overwhelmingly Latino.
Opponents of Senate Bill 4, the new state law aimed at banning so-called sanctuary cities that decline to assist federal immigration enforcement, said the operation was a predictable consequence of a law they believed would encourage local police to racially profile Latino drivers.
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said the memo’s focus on license and insurance violations indicates the operation was “particularly targeted toward the immigrant community.”
“It seems pretty clear based on the memo that their goal was to try to arrest as many people as possible,” said Rodriguez, policy chair for the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. “That’s obviously targeting a group of people.”
Updated arrest totals
Updated arrest totalsThe sheriff’s office this week released new jail records showing that 28 people were arrested in the operation, not 24 as it had been previously reported. Immigration and Customs Enforcement placed detainer requests on 16 of the inmates, not 14 as previously announced.
All but one of the 28 people arrested in the operation had Hispanic surnames, and 21 of the 28 were arrested on license-related charges alone. Three people arrested in the operation face drug possession charges and another a harassment charge, but none of those four were identified by ICE as suspected unauthorized immigrants.
Of the 16 people who are subject to immigration proceedings, 13 were arrested on license-related violations, and three were taken in on drunken driving charges, jail records show. A handful have been deported already, while others are in immigrant detention centers or were released with appointments to appear before ICE officers or immigration courts, said Carlos González Gutiérrez, the Mexican consul for Austin.
Eighteen of those arrested were born in Mexico, one in Honduras, seven in Austin and one in Illinois.
Cook has said he ordered the operation in response to a request from a local faith group for increased police presence in the area. Bastrop Interfaith has since identified itself as the group that met with Cook before the operation but criticized the sheriff for his handling of it, saying they asked for speeding enforcement, not an immigration crackdown.
The group met with Cook and suggested ways to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the immigrant community. Interfaith organizer Edie Clark said Thursday that the group is requesting a new meeting after the memo’s release.
“The memo … makes it clear that the purpose of the operation was not to target the more serious offenders, such as drunk drivers, but rather to arrest people who did not have a driver’s license or auto insurance,” Clark said in a statement. “Because undocumented immigrants cannot obtain a driver’s license in Texas, and because the operation was done in a community where many residents are undocumented, the effect was to arrest people who were potentially undocumented who could then be put into deportation proceedings.”
González Gutiérrez also has met with Cook and was surprised by the memo.
“During our meeting … Sheriff Maurice Cook said he was surprised by the number of undocumented persons arrested during the zero tolerance traffic operation,” the consul said. “However, Sheriff Cook’s planning memo shows that the special operation was a deliberate action, with the specific intention to arrest undocumented drivers.”
He is calling for Cook to join other Central Texas law enforcement agencies and allowing Bastrop deputies to be trained in recognizing government-issued IDs from Mexico.
Not all the reaction has been bad for Cook. Despite insisting that the operation had nothing to do with immigration, he has won applause from some who favor stricter immigration enforcement.
“I saw you on TV today and I want to THANK YOU for a job well done,” Smithville resident Glenn Jacobson wrote in a letter to Cook obtained through a records request. “You are right, and the stupid liberals are always wrong! It is amazing how they do not realize that an undocumented, illegal alien is a criminal in the U.S.”