For the past two weeks, random police checkpoints have cropped up across the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. In a statement to the Monitor, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) indicated that the checkpoints are set up as “part of a short-term multi-agency enforcement surge to crack down on unsafe driving and other criminal activity.” But immigrant advocates are reporting that the DPS is instead using checkpoints to crack down on immigrants without legal status in the country.
Many of the 1.7 million undocumented immigrants in Texas do not possess drivers’ licenses. A 2011 law forbade the Department of Public Safety from issuing driver’s licenses to Texas residents who are unable to provide proof of citizenship, a provision that effectively cuts off undocumented immigrants from legally driving. Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature shot down a bill that would strike the citizenship provision. As a result, many undocumented immigrants in Texas are still driving without driver’s licenses and auto insurance.
Immigrants are hypersensitive to checkpoints because Border Patrol officials have the legal authority to conduct searches and to inquire about legal status at checkpoints within 100 miles of the border. Edinburg, Texas is about 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border and is where DPS has initiated its “multi-agency” initiative which involves local, state, and federal agencies.
The checkpoints are so rampant in low-income areas that some undocumented parents are reportedly calling schools because they are afraid to pick up their children (one Head Start school reported a 35 percent drop in attendance) or they are too afraid to commute to work. Other individuals have taken to social media to warn immigrants about potential checkpoints that are set up at any time during the day.
Some immigrant advocacy organizations like La Union Del Pueblo Entero have received calls from immigrants who believe that Border Patrol agents are present at the checkpoints and turning people over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The DPS insists that its officers are not using the checkpoints to target undocumented immigrants, even stating that Border Patrol agents are not present at checkpoints.
But those assurances fall on deaf ears within the undocumented population especially given DPS director Steve McCraw’s heavy-handed approach to undocumented immigrants in the past. In more than one instance, McCraw was unapologetic for a sharpshooter aboard a police helicopter who killed two border crossers. The state police later revised its lethal force policy to prohibit shooting from the air unless they were fired upon first.
Some local advocates are already questioning the legality of the checkpoints. Terri Burke, Executive Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said in a statement:
When law enforcement announces a ‘crackdown,’ civil liberties violations often follow. We have already heard from residents that the checkpoints are targeting low-income neighborhoods and colonias. And we have reports that DPS is using the checkpoints to engage in the enforcement of federal immigration law. These reports are alarming, given that DPS claims the checkpoints are about traffic safety. We are investigating the situation to find out the truth.
What’s more, the Supreme Court has questioned checkpoints intended solely to crack down on general criminal activity, saying “The Court has also suggested that a similar roadblock to verify drivers’ licenses and registrations would be permissible to serve a highway safety interest. However, the Court has never approved a checkpoint program whose primary purpose was to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.”
Elsewhere, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found checkpoints to be unconstitutional. After D.C. police set up roadblocks in response to shootings in a DC-area neighborhood, Chief Judge David B. Sentelle said, “It cannot be gainsaid that citizens have a right to drive upon the public streets of the District of Columbia or any other city absent a constitutionally sound reason for limiting their access. It is apparent that appellants’ constitutional rights are violated.”