McALLEN, October 16 - State Sen. Juan Hinojosa says that if DPS could turn back time it would not instigate its controversial checkpoints program in the Rio Grande Valley.
Hinojosa has spoken of his concerns with the checkpoint program in private conversations with DPS Director Steven McCraw. Throughout the operation, which ended recently, DPS repeatedly said its troopers were not checking the immigration status of drivers pulled over. However, thousands of Valley residents did not believe DPS and stayed home for the duration.
“Unfortunately, the checkpoints did create a lot of anxiety here in the community,” Hinojosa told the Guardian. “The surges themselves by DPS are very much needed in terms of trying to interdict drug smugglers, human trafficking, and the flow of drugs and cash back and forth. DPS had no intent of enforcing immigration laws but, of course, even though that was their stated position the checkpoints still alarmed many in our community.”
Hinojosa said he knows from his many years in the Legislature how unpopular checkpoints are with state lawmakers. He said if DPS had asked for his opinion in advance he would have told the department not to set them up.
“If DPS were to do this again I do not think they would set up checkpoints. And, I do not think they are going to do it again. Checkpoints are very unpopular, statewide. It does not matter if you set them up here in the Valley or in Houston or in Dallas, they are not liked. And, the Legislature has expressed its opposition to checkpoints by defeating legislation ever since the 1970s to set up sobriety checkpoints.”
Notice of the checkpoint program was first given in the Valley via a DPS news release on Sept. 13 titled “Multi-Agency Initiative to Increase Law Enforcement Presence in Rio Grande Valley.” In the news release, the agency said it was launching a multi-agency law enforcement initiative, beginning Sept. 15, to “temporarily increase the patrol presence in the Rio Grande Valley area of Texas to address several public safety issues.”
DPS said law enforcement had identified “various criminal activities and unsafe driving behaviors” in South Texas that had led to the launch of a “short-term enforcement effort” in the Valley. “This intensified law enforcement initiative is based on proven strategies that enhance patrols proactively deters dangerous criminal and traffic behavior,” McCraw said.
The “significant criminal activity” occurring in South Texas, DPS said, included “human smuggling and trafficking, drug smuggling, stash house operations and home invasions.” Furthermore, it said, law enforcement is “concerned about the number of vehicle crashes as well as the increase of commercial vehicles operating on the roadways.”
During the initiative, local, state and federal law enforcement agencies would increase river, air and road patrols, DPS stated, and DPS would “enforce motor carrier regulations, and establish regulatory checkpoints to ensure compliance with state driver license, insurance, vehicle safety and registration requirements.”
A report in the Austin American-Statesman contradicted DPS’s claims. The story cited Texas Department of Transportation statistics that showed the Valley was no worse than other metropolitan areas of Texas for motor accidents and that based on crashes per vehicle mile traveled, a statistic commonly used to calculate safety rates, the Valley trails far behind cities like Lubbock, Laredo, Houston and Midland. The Statesman also cited Texas Department of Insurance statistics which showed Dallas, San Antonio and Houston all having significantly higher numbers of uninsured drivers than Hidalgo and Cameron counties.
Asked what he thought about the Austin American-Statesman story, Hinojosa said: “We are not any worse than the city of Houston or Dallas. The problem is, quite frankly, that auto insurance is too high. It is not affordable to many working families.”
Another problem, very prevalent in the Valley, Hinojosa said, is that undocumented immigrants are prevented from getting a driver’s license. This never used to be the case Up until 2011 they could get a driver’s license but that year the Legislature passed a bill stopping undocumented immigrants from obtaining one.
“The reality is we have a lot of people in our state who are undocumented yet they work, they work in our restaurants, they work in our hotels, the work in our building industry, in construction and in our mechanic’s shops,” Hinojosa said.
“These people need a way to get to work and many do not have a driver’s license because we prohibit them. This last session we had legislation to try to provide for people without the proper documentation a driver permit. You will see a strong push for legislation to provide a driver’s permit. Not a driver’s license but a driver’s permit.”
Hinojosa confirmed he will be filing legislation to pass such a bill, one that would allow undocumented immigrants the chance to get a driver’s permit. “I will introduce legislation on the Senate side. There is a strong push by the business community that needs that labor. American people are not interested in working in the so-called ‘hard labor’ jobs, out in the fields, agriculture, ranching. We need to deal with this issue. Checkpoints only highlight the problems we have in dealing with this very important but controversial issue.”
Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said DPS’ decision to stop the checkpoints program was clearly the right one.
“I applaud DPS for shutting down this initiative after receiving our open records request, which questioned the agency for targeting low-income communities and for inappropriately operating alongside Border Patrol,” Burke said.
“While they take time to respond and our investigation continues, I hope Director McCraw considers a temporary shutdown of all DPS checkpoints, which consistently serve as sites of questionable activity between state and federal officials. In this particular instance, DPS's tactic of using phantom checkpoints had an immediate and devastating impact on the local economy and community, further eroding public trust and engendering fear of the very same officials we entrust to protect and serve.”
Daniel Diaz, a community organizer for La Unión del Pueblo Entero in Mercedes, said public confidence in DPS has plummeted among the people his organization represents. He said LUPE is going to make the driver’s license issue its No. 1 agenda item for the next legislative session. “Just as the new Valley UT University was the No. 1 issue this past session, and we supported it, next time around it has to be driver’s licenses for the undocumented. It is so important for our region.”
Diaz added that while LUPE appreciates state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, for his efforts to pass a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license, he wants to see the Valley legislative delegation take the lead next session. “DPS keeps targeting our area because we have a lot of folks who cannot get licenses. We need our legislators to step up to the plate. We appreciate the fact that state Rep. Terry Canales of Edinburg so has done so. We applaud his efforts to highlight the injustice of the checkpoints.”