EDINBURG, RGV – The Texas Department of Public Safety has insisted that its recent random checkpoints program in the Rio Grande Valley was not designed to enforce immigration laws.

DPS’s press office says three key points need to be made about the program, which was recently ended. One, that the regulatory checkpoints were only one aspect of an overall initiative that included a number of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies; two, that the traffic regulatory checkpoints were not used to ascertain immigration status and reports that Border Patrol agents were present at these checkpoints were blatantly false, and three, that no immigration arrests were made at any of the traffic regulatory checkpoints.

DPS issued a news release to announce the initiative 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 Director Steve McCraw says he has spoken to Rio Grande Valley legislators about his department's random checkpoints program.
DPS Director Steve McCraw says he has spoken to Rio Grande Valley legislators about his department’s random checkpoints program.

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 Rio Grande Valley.

“This intensified law enforcement initiative is based on proven strategies that enhancing patrols proactively deters dangerous criminal and traffic behavior,” said DPS Director Steven McCraw.

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.”

McCraw added: “The objective of this initiative is to increase the safety and security of the people we have sworn to protect, so the public should not be alarmed if they soon see an increased law enforcement presence in the Rio Grande Valley area.”

Other agencies involved in the law enforcement initiative, the news release stated, would be Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department, Hidalgo County Constables Precincts 3 and 4, Mission Police Department, U.S. Border Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Texas National Guard, Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

A number of community groups that work in Hidalgo County’s colonias condemned DPS for the checkpoints program. Groups within the RGV Equal Voice Network said their members were calling to say friends who were stopped at a DPS checkpoint were ending up in the hands of Border Patrol. Equal Voice held a protest outside the DPS headquarters in Edinburg a week last Monday.

State Rep. Terry Canales also complained about the DPS checkpoints program. He said if DPS arrests someone at a checkpoint for not having a driver’s license or auto insurance they are booked into a Hidalgo County jail and Border Patrol are informed. He also said it is very hard for Border Patrol to instigate checkpoints because of all the red tape involved. He said it was much easier for DPS to do it and for Border Patrol to achieve its goals through DPS.

The Austin American-Statesman filed a story last week which cited Texas Department of Transportation statistics showing the Valley was not 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.

DPS’s press office wanted to dispute a number of claims made in a recent Rio Grande Guardian story about its checkpoints program. “DPS traffic regulatory checkpoints have not and will not be used to ascertain immigration status. Moreover, reports that Border Patrol agents are present at these checkpoints are blatantly false. The individuals making these allegations are doing a disservice to the public by spreading inaccurate information to their communities and unnecessarily alarming the public. Anyone making these claims is distorting the truth or outright lying,” the press office said.

Reports that “dozens have contacted Valley media outlets to tell of friends and loved ones who have been deported after being picked up at the checkpoints” are unsubstantiated claims and are simply false, the DPS press office said. “In fact, no immigration arrests have been made at any of the traffic regulatory checkpoints; however, there have been a number of citations for no driver license, no insurance, no seat belts, and no/improper vehicle registration.”

With regard to a claim by Rep. Canales, DPS’s press office said that while the department has continued to discuss and answer inquiries from lawmakers and their staff, “DPS cannot confirm that any staff member told a state representative that this effort was related to immigration enforcement.”

DPS’s press office also disputed a claim by Canales and Equal Voice that the checkpoints were being placed in the poorest parts of Hidalgo County. “Any allegations that the traffic regulatory checkpoints were set up to target the ‘poorest parts’ or to ‘harass immigrant communities’ in the Rio Grande Valley are baseless and completely inaccurate,” the press office said. “Again, the individuals making these allegations are doing a disservice to the public by spreading inaccurate information to their communities and unnecessarily alarming the public. If anything has led to rumors, panic or fear in the community, it is false statements like these – not the actions of DPS at the traffic regulatory checkpoints.”

The press office said DPS Director McCraw has “personally met with and spoken to members of the Texas Legislature about this important law enforcement initiative, including the traffic regulatory checkpoints, and he has invited lawmakers to visit the Rio Grande Valley to observe these checkpoints firsthand, especially for those who have been provided false and misleading information.”

DPS’s press office also said it has not seen any statements by Lt. Gov. Dewhurst regarding immigration enforcement related to regulatory checkpoints. “Border security is not a synonym for immigration enforcement,” the press office said.

Groups in the Equal Voice network have also stated that the main reason there has been an increase in Valley residents driving without a license or auto insurance is because the Legislature changed the law in 2011 to stop undocumented immigrants from applying for a driver’s license.

The DPS press office responded by saying law enforcement identified various criminal activities and unsafe driving behaviors in South Texas and that this led to the launch of a short-term, multi-agency law enforcement effort in the Valley. “In 2010, 2011 and 2012, a three-county area (Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy) in the Rio Grande Valley led the state in the number of citations DPS issued to drivers for ‘no driver license’ and the same area is second only to the Houston area for ‘no insurance’ citations issued by DPS during the same time period,” DPS’s press office said. “In fact, 15 percent of all DPS-issued ‘no driver license’ citations in the state occurred in the same three counties in the Rio Grande Valley in 2012. These numbers do not include citations issued by local law enforcement officers. Any Valley resident who has been involved in a traffic accident with an uninsured and/or unlicensed driver knows too well the financial hardships and physical injuries these individuals cause.”

DPS’s press office said some uninformed individuals have claimed that the department’s checkpoints are illegal. The press office said this is false. “A traffic regulatory checkpoint is, in fact, an authorized law enforcement strategy that has been held to be constitutionally permissible by the U.S. Supreme Court  (City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 2000) and by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (Lujan v. State, 331 S. W. 3d 768, 2011),” the press office said. “DPS conducts traffic regulatory checkpoints under its general authority to enforce the laws protecting public safety. These same uninformed individuals who claim that people have a right to drive without a license or insurance promote breaking the law rather than abiding by it. They also fail to note that driving is a privilege, not a right.”

The DPS press office said traffic regulatory checkpoints are used only for the purpose of determining compliance with specific regulatory traffic statutes, including failure to display a driver license, failure to maintain financial responsibility, as well as vehicle safety and registration requirements. “If a violation is found, a citation or warning is issued, and warrant checks are conducted. Other obvious criminal violations can also be addressed; for example, driving while intoxicated. The goal of enforcing traffic regulatory compliance is to make the roadways safer for all travelers,” the press office states.

The DPS press office added: “DPS appreciates those government officials and residents who support law enforcement in their efforts to ensure safe and secure roadways for all Texans, and work toward providing accurate information to the public, rather than spreading fear and misinformation.”

The DPS press office also pointed to a news story in The (McAllen) Monitor which said “state troopers taking part in controversial roadway checkpoints took down a group of teenagers allegedly behind a rash of home invasions in rural Mission, drawing praise from the Hidalgo County sheriff.” The story said two troopers — one from La Grange and one from Austin — were in the Valley as part of DPS’s checkpoint initiative.