Bastrop County sheriff’s policy leads to jump in immigrant arrests
Sheriff Maurice Cook denies racial profiling as numbers of Hispanics jailed for minor traffic violations climb precipitously year over year
The humble life Karina Flores and her husband had created in Bastrop County crumbled on Sept. 19.
He worked installing insulation. She tended to their three children — two of whom were diagnosed with hemophilia — while taking occasional shifts in a food truck. Together, they had just bought a mobile home in western Bastrop County.
Before dawn on that September day, Flores’ husband had just pulled out of their new Del Valle neighborhood when flashing red and blue lights appeared in his rearview mirror. He had rolled through a stop sign, the Bastrop County Sheriff’s deputy told him. When the deputy asked for his driver’s license, he presented his Mexican ID instead. He was charged for driving without a driver’s license and arrested.
That was the last time Flores saw her husband.
At the jail, the sheriff’s office found he was an undocumented immigrant. He was turned over to federal custody for deportation proceedings. He broke the news to his wife over the jail phone. Instantly, she became a single mother, struggling alone to pay the mortgage while caring for severely ill children who require frequent hospital treatments.
Her eyes welled with tears when she recalled first hearing the news. “Se me cayó el mundo,” she said. My world fell.
Flores’ husband, whom she asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, is one of hundreds of people in Bastrop County who have found themselves in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody after being stopped and arrested for minor traffic violations.
An American-Statesman analysis of arrest records found that the number of immigrants the Bastrop County sheriff’s office turned over to immigration officials grew by nearly 80% in 2019 compared with the previous year. At the heart of that increase is a policy implemented by Sheriff Maurice Cook on Feb. 1, 2019, ordering the arrest of anyone found driving without insurance, without a driver’s license or with a suspended driver’s license — all Class C misdemeanors punishable by a fine only for first-time offenders.
Immigrant advocates say the directive encourages racial profiling and is a deliberate effort to target undocumented immigrants for deportation. Residents in the immigrant community say the sheriff’s measures are stoking fear in an already vulnerable population. This fear, they say, has irreversibly strained the relationship between the community and law enforcement and makes Bastrop County less safe. Seldom, now, do immigrants dial 911 to report crimes, advocates say.
Cook said the order is not racially motivated, but is aimed at improving safety on the county’s roads. In 2018, Bastrop County had the third-highest rate of traffic fatalities per capita among counties with populations of 50,000 or greater — higher than any of Texas’ major metropolitan areas, according to state data.
“Since Bastrop County is one of the leading counties in Texas for traffic fatalities, the intended purpose of this (policy) is to start with the basic premise that any driver not in compliance with our traffic laws is irresponsible and a hazard to those lawfully using our roadways,” Cook wrote in his policy memo, which the Statesman obtained under the Texas Public Information Act.
Cook’s policy launched as several Texas lawmakers have made efforts to curb arrests for fine-only traffic offenses in the wake of high-profile jail deaths, such as that of Sandra Bland, who died of suicide in a Waller County jail after being detained for failing to signal a turn.
For Flores, the pall of fear the Bastrop County sheriff’s office has cast permeates all corners of her life.
“It’s almost unbearable to be living with this fear — the fear of not knowing when they’re going to arrest me, and not knowing when I’m going to be deported, of not being able to actually enjoy a day with my kids,” Flores said in Spanish. “It’s a big fear, and it’s too much.”
That September arrest sent Flores’ husband on a journey through the belly of the U.S. immigration system that ultimately spat him out into the perilous borderlands.
From the Bastrop County Jail, he was eventually transferred to a detention facility in Pearsall where, despite his clean criminal history, he failed to obtain an immigration bond. His request for asylum was denied, too. After about two months in detention, a deportation order placed him on a bus to Nuevo Laredo. Mexico.
Like many migrants deported to the cartel-dominated Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, he was abducted, Flores said. One month she was paying her husband’s immigration attorney’s fees, and the next she was paying his ransom.
In 2019, 430 people were arrested in Bastrop County for one of the three misdemeanors covered in Cook’s policy, up from 99 in 2018. About 70% of those arrested, 306, had Hispanic surnames.
Of those, 152 were transferred to ICE custody — a 700% increase from the previous year, when 19 people arrested for one of those three misdemeanors ended up in the hands of ICE.
In 2017, Texas lawmakers adopted a statewide ban on so-called sanctuary cities, requiring local law enforcement to cooperate with immigration officials. ICE detainees from the Bastrop County sheriff’s office have grown from 105 in 2017 to 343 in 2019, according to jail records.
Court records also show that drivers with Hispanic surnames were more than twice as likely to be stopped and arrested or ticketed for one of the three charges. Of the 3,217 people who were pulled over in 2019 and either arrested or ticketed for one of the three charges, two-thirds, or 2,202 people, had Hispanic surnames.
Austin-area advocates and immigration attorneys started seeing an unexpected increase in calls from Bastrop County shortly after the policy took effect. They say the sheriff’s office is unfairly targeting the county’s Hispanic populations. While 71% of those arrested for one of the three charges in 2019 had Hispanic surnames, only about 36% of the county’s population is Hispanic or Latino, according to census estimates.
The stories they heard from clients were uncannily similar: A Hispanic driver stopped for a minor violation, like failing to signal a lane change, leading to an arrest for driving without a license or insurance, resulting in immigration proceedings.
“It’s a very conscious and deliberate attempt to target and deport people from Bastrop,” immigration attorney Jose ‘Chito’ Vela III said.
To Vela, the policy smacks of the same racial profiling that immigrant activist groups say was behind a “zero tolerance” traffic enforcement operation in 2018 that targeted heavily Hispanic neighborhoods in Bastrop County.
It’s a very conscious and deliberate attempt to target and deport people from Bastrop.
That daylong operation was detailed in a memo in which deputies were instructed to arrest for driver’s license and insurance violations around the heavily Hispanic Del Valle and Stony Point neighborhoods. The result was 28 arrests and 16 ICE detainers.
Cook said in 2018 he was shocked by the number of people who were arrested for not having a driver’s license and then picked up by ICE. “That certainly wasn’t the intent,” he said at the time.
Cook said his 2019 policy is not intended to target Hispanic neighborhoods and does not encourage racial profiling. Deputies, he said, can use some amount of discretion when deciding whom to arrest. He said the policy was a response to an incident in which a deputy stopped a woman who was driving without an ID.
He said she gave false identification using the name and address of someone for whom she worked as a house cleaner. A deputy issued a ticket under the false name and, after the ticket went unpaid, the woman named on the ticket received notification in the mail that a warrant would be issued for her arrest. Upset and confused, she paid a visit to the sheriff’s office, and the sheriff’s office dismissed the charge.
I’m not going to apologize for enforcing the laws that the citizens of Bastrop County expect me to enforce. My goal is to make Bastrop a safer place to live and raise our families and work.
Arresting drivers without licenses, he said, will prevent that kind of mix-up.
“I’m not going to apologize for enforcing the laws that the citizens of Bastrop County expect me to enforce,” Cook said. “My goal is to make Bastrop a safer place to live and raise our families and work.”
The data indicate, however, that the policy did little to curb fatalities on Bastrop County highways. In 2018, the year the county ranked third statewide in per capita traffic fatalities, 32 people were killed on Bastrop County roads, according to state data. In 2019, that number climbed to 33, and the county ranked first in per capita fatalities among counties with populations of 50,000 or more. Thirty of those deaths occurred after Cook’s policy was adopted.
Miriam Jaimes’ husband, Miguel, was pulling into his Stony Point neighborhood in December when a deputy stopped him just blocks from his home. His vehicle’s window tint didn’t meet the legal limit, the deputy said. The deputy asked Miguel for his driver’s license which, as an undocumented immigrant, he didn’t have.
Miguel’s bad luck was compounded when the deputy discovered he had a warrant for an outstanding traffic ticket for driving without a license in 2017. The 30-year-old father and construction worker was arrested and placed under an ICE hold.
Miriam Jaimes and their three children — ages 2, 6 and 8 and all born in the United States — haven’t seen Miguel since that day.
Making ends meet without the household’s primary breadwinner has been a struggle, Miriam Jaimes said. She leans on her family to pay legal fees and holds bake sales to help pay bills. Miguel makes and mails from the detention facility keychains that she sells. Her church helps her pay for groceries.
In Jaimes’ Stony Point neighborhood, several families are missing their loved ones after they were arrested by Bastrop County deputies. The tension has changed their lives. Rarely does anyone dial 911 to report criminal activity for fear that inviting deputies into the neighborhood might lead to a deportation, she said.
“Whenever there’s something going on and the cops should be called, we’d rather not,” she said. “No one wants to be taken away from their family.”
The fear Jaimes and her neighbors feel is precisely the danger critics of the 2017 sanctuary cities ban predicted during a rancorous debate in the Legislature that led to near fisticuffs under the Capitol dome. The law requires local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration officials
Whenever there’s something going on and the cops should be called, we’d rather not. No one wants to be taken away from their family.
Police chiefs and sheriffs from the state’s metro areas opposed the bill, worried it would erode trust their officers had built within immigrant communities and push would-be witnesses and crime victims into the shadows.
Immigration attorneys and activists groups, like Grassroots Leadership in East Austin, say Cook’s policy is taking the ban’s authority too far.
Attorney Jeff Peek, whose office has seen a spike in demand from people needing legal aid after being arrested in Bastrop County, said the policy’s stated intent of curbing traffic fatalities is misdirection. Its clear purpose, he said, is to target undocumented immigrants.
“My concern, as an American, is this whole idea of ‘papers please,’” Peek said.
Cook said his department’s policy is only designed to target lawbreakers and is not aimed at any particular ethnic group.
“Where do we draw the line?” Cook said. “If you got a class of citizens that are violating the law more than others, then do we draw the line and say we can only go 30% on them?
Miguel’s arrest that December day sent him down a similar path through the immigration system that Flores’ husband took. Jaimes paid an immigration attorney to represent Miguel during a bond hearing, which he lost. A DWI arrest the year before may have sealed his fate. Miguel had the option to win bond on appeal, but the effort would cost his family an additional $5,000 in legal fees and likely would fail.
“It was either give my money to this lawyer and try (to appeal) or pay my rent and my bills and necessities that we have at home,” Miriam Jaimes said.
Now, as his wife struggles to house and feed their children, Miguel faces potential deportation to a country he hasn’t lived in since he was 14 years old.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, said a traffic stop for a violation as minor as the shade of a person’s window tint should not put them on a path to deportation.
“This is the type of conduct that we have cautioned people about,” Moody said. “Because you’re talking about setting someone up for deportation because they failed to signal a lane change.”
Since Bland’s high-profile death in 2015, Moody and other lawmakers have tried to limit officers’ ability to arrest for such minor offenses.
Moody proposed a measure in 2019 that would allow judges to dismiss a person’s Class C charges if police officers don’t provide an explanation demonstrating why they made an arrest for a fine-only charge. Rep. James White, R-Hillister, authored a bill that would have prohibited police from arresting people for offenses punishable by fine only, including many traffic offenses.
Both bills died after vigorous opposition from police unions, said Moody, vowing to resurrect the effort during the next legislative session.
For her part, Jaimes says she’s looking to move across the Bastrop County line closer to Austin. She worries about the fate of her children if she, too, inadvertently falls into the hands of Bastrop County law enforcement. The Facebook group her neighbors created to warn one another of nearby police presence is not enough to provide comfort. She’s been in the United States for 18 years and, with no remaining family across the border, she’s reluctant to return to Mexico.
Flores said she wishes she could return to Mexico, even after living in the U.S. for 12 years. But her hemophiliac children need reliable access to medical care that her home country can’t provide.
“I know that if I was to go back to Mexico, I would be condemning my child to his death,” she said.
“It feels like there is no humanity left.”
American-Statesman data reporter Dan Keemahill contributed to this report.
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