In Texas, state troopers have become frontline enforcers of federal immigration laws. In recent years, and especially since Donald Trump was elected president, the Texas Highway Patrol, part of the state’s Department of Public Safety, or DPS, has developed a well-oiled deportation machine that scoops up drivers who’ve committed minor traffic infractions, then funnels them to the Border Patrol and sometimes Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Passengers and pedestrians who weren’t even driving are also taken into custody. Caught in the Texas deportation pipeline, immigrants’ lives are damaged or ruined, along with those of their children, many of whom were born and raised in the U.S.
It’s difficult to know exactly how often this is happening. DPS records are costly, hard to obtain, and difficult to interpret. Data on handovers was not collected until December 2015, and since then the reporting of these incidents has been haphazard. In 2017, troopers still were not consistently reporting all stops that resulted in handovers to the Border Patrol. Through public records requests, the ACLU of Texas determined that the agency’s internal documentation did not record the handovers of several individuals who the organization’s field organizers knew had been detained by the highway patrol, imprisoned, and, in some cases, removed from the country.
Subsequently, The Intercept, working with the ACLU of Texas, obtained several DPS dashcam videos that show immigrants being detained on the road for trivial violations and then carted away by the Border Patrol.
The details of these deportations were gathered initially from DPS paperwork and dashcam videos, obtained through open records requests. We then located the detainees and their families, including in Mexico. We made house visits and played the videotapes. As they watched, parents and children talked about how their lives were upended by Texas state troopers and current state and national immigration policy.
One such arrest was Ruth Mariel Ramirez, 30, who has four children, three of whom were born in the U.S. Before Ruth’s encounter with DPS a few months ago, she and her family were living comfortably in the El Paso area. Now they’re struggling in poverty-stricken, cartel violence-wracked Juárez, Mexico.
Ruth was raised just across the border in Juárez, in a violent, drug-ridden neighborhood, with a drug-abusing father who eventually died of AIDS. She says that today most of her surviving childhood friends are drug traffickers, contract murderers for the cartels, or addicts. At age 13 Ruth gave birth to a son, Brayan, and at age 15 she crossed into El Paso with Brayan to live a safer life with an aunt and uncle. She became involved with a man with whom she had three more children, but the relationship soured and the couple split up. Ruth met Jaime Ortiz, a legal immigrant who has spent many years in the U.S. and has a well-paying job that requires he travel on weekdays. Jaime became a loving father figure to Ruth’s kids, while she became active in her church, studied to finish high school, and received her GED.
The children led typical Texas lives. Thirteen-year-old Mariel Carolina, a middle-school honor student, was already planning to attend an early-college high school in El Paso to get a head start on her dream of becoming a pediatrician. Brayan, 15, played football and lifted weights. From the time he was 12, he has been an avid composer and rapper.
On a Sunday morning early last March, Ruth went shopping and then bustled to prepare for an 11 a.m. Bible class. She intended to go home, wash and iron Jaime’s clothes, and prepare food for his coming week’s travel. She had an appointment the next day with a lawyer who was processing Brayan’s DACA application — she’d already paid hundreds of dollars in legal fees and had Brayan’s fingerprints taken. She’d also scheduled a visit to the high school to begin the registration process for Mariel Carolina.
Church ended early Sunday afternoon, and Ruth and her daughter were driving home in the truck when they were pulled over by a pair of state troopers, riding together in one vehicle. Hearing their siren, Ruth couldn’t imagine what she’d done wrong. A couple of times in past years, she says, she’d been stopped by troopers for traffic infractions and was simply ticketed, and she’d promptly paid her fines. She was not perturbed when the troopers now told her she’d been stopped because her windows were tinted too dark. But she eventually realized that this stop wasn’t really about windows. It was about her immigration status. By evening, she’d been sucked into the DPS-Border Patrol deportation pipeline.
That pipeline begins with a Texas Motor Vehicles department regulation mandating that no one can get a driver’s license without showing proof they are in the U.S. legally. The rule went into effect in 2008 and the results were drastic. Many undocumented Texans are now forced to drive withkout a license, especially in areas with patchy to nonexistent public transportation.
In Texas, according to a Pew Research Center study, about 6 percent of the state’s population is undocumented — 1 in every 18 people. But in border counties, where for generations people have moved back and forth between the two countries to be with family members, traditionally no one has paid much attention to immigration status. In these communities, the number of undocumented people is substantially higher. In El Paso County, where Ruth and her family lived, about 8 percent of the population lack papers.
Ruth’s home was in San Elizario, a centuries-old former farming village about 20 miles downriver from El Paso. Sheriff’s deputies in the area have for years been forbidden from asking people about their immigration status during traffic stops.
In the past, state troopers have been a common sight in the densely populated eastern and central parts of Texas, but they’ve been seen less frequently on the more sparsely settled border with Mexico. Then the troopers came south and west, to communities where 75 to 98 percent of the population is Latino, mainly of Mexican descent.
The troopers’ “surge” into the border has its roots in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The federal Department of Homeland Security was formed in 2003, and in Texas, conservative politicians began spouting rhetoric about the dangers of narco-trafficking, human trafficking, and terrorism spilling across the U.S.-Mexico border. By 2006, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was funneling federal money to sheriff’s departments on the border and to the Department of Public Safety, the state agency that includes highway troopers and Texas Rangers. In 2008, the Texas legislature began allocating state money for “border security.” The budget for that item then skyrocketed, from $110 million for the biennium 2008 to 2009, to $800 million for 2018 and 2019. DPS gets the bulk of the funding.
Those funds have been spent on activities christened with militaristic names such as “Ranger Recon missions” and “Operation Strong Safety.” The ops and missions come with gunboats, helicopters, and drones. For several months in 2008, there was even a website run by the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition on which civilian “volunteers” could view the output of cameras hidden on the Texas border, then phone-in “sightings” of suspected undocumented crossers and criminals. Almost 25,000 people signed up to be “virtual deputies.” But by the time the program was quietly scrapped about a year later, the so-called deputies’ work had led to only 11 arrests, at a cost of $2 million.
Traffic citations and warnings in several border counties skyrocketed after the “border security” troopers arrived, and local political leaders complained that their constituents felt under siege.
In reality rather than political hyperbole, the border has a low crime rate compared to the rest of the state. No terrorist has ever been known to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. And according to the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, which advises the Texas Legislature on the efficiency and effectiveness of state agencies, DPS’s claims of crime-fighting effectiveness are not reliable because the agency does not provide quantitative measures of border security.
Traffic citations and warnings in several border counties skyrocketed after the “border security” troopers arrived, and local political leaders complained that their constituents felt under siege. One DPS official explained in an interview that troopers were making stops for petty infractions, such as improperly placed license plates, in order to check drivers and their passengers for serious crimes. These pre-textual stops became a potent way of netting undocumented immigrants.
During that period, stops for petty traffic infractions sometimes led to the trooper calling the Border Patrol. But for the most part, Border Patrol agents weren’t interested in deporting harmless DPS road product. People who had been living in the U.S. for years, with no criminal priors and U.S.-born kids, were usually held for a few hours at a Border Patrol station, fingerprinted, and sent home. “Catch and release,” the policy was popularly called under the Obama administration — immigrants as undersized fish. DPS troopers exercised discretion and often adopted the same laissez-faire practice, which is why Ruth used to only get tickets.
In November 2016, just before the election, DPS Director Steve McCraw sent an email to troopers ending the de facto “catch and release” policy. “When probable cause exists that someone illegally crossed the border,” he wrote, “we have an obligation to refer those incidents to the U.S. Border Patrol, or … Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
According to data DPS provided to Democratic state Sen. José Rodríguez in April, reported Border Patrol referrals averaged about 13 per month from December 2015 to October 2016.
Soon after McCraw’s email went out, reported handover incidents spiked. According to the statistics provided to Rodríguez, there were 40 such incidents in December 2016, compared with 24 in December 2015.
On the dashcam video memorializing Ruth Mariel Ramirez’s stop for tinted windows, Trooper Korin Hutchisson orders Ruth and Mariel Carolina to stand on the side of a dusty road near her church. He determines that Ruth has no Texas driver’s license. She shows him one from Mexico, and Hutchisson’s partner, Patrick Brookshier, holds the paper to the sky. “It’s a fake,” he says. Ruth had other forms of ID, including a Mexican voter card with her Texas address, but the troopers appear certain she is masquerading under a false name.
After her daughter is sent home, Ruth sweats silently under the desert sun for almost an hour until a Border Patrol agent arrives, peers at the Mexican license, and shrugs. “It’s kind of wishy-washy,” he says of the document and the troopers’ insistence that Ruth’s identity is fake. But he packs her into a Border Patrol vehicle anyway. The troopers speculate that Ruth is a major narco-trafficker – a “high roller,” they snicker – attempting to pass for someone else, “trying not to look too important” by driving a “beat-up” truck.
At the Border Patrol office, according to Ruth, the troopers sipped convenience-store cappuccinos as she was identified, immigration court records confirm, as being exactly who she said she was, with no criminal record. She was deemed removable and sent to an immigrant detention facility.
Hutchisson and Brookshier did not respond to requests for comment, and Texas DPS did not respond to a request to make them available for interviews.
Ruth’s stop and arrest followed a DPS detention three weeks earlier, 815 miles down the Rio Grande River from El Paso in Brownsville that netted a husband and wife who have four children who were born in the U.S.
The DPS dashcam of this stop shows Trooper Mirna Gracia pulling over Luis and Berta, who asked that pseudonyms be used to protect their family from retaliation. The incident occurred on another Sunday afternoon, when the couple was late to church and rushing to get there. In the video, Gracia directs Luis to pull in to a convenience store parking area, scolds him for speeding, and asks for his license. Luis didn’t have one, so Gracia begins questioning him and Berta about their immigration status. They say they’ve been living for a few years in Brownsville and have four kids born there. They’re originally from Matamoros, the Mexican city just across the border, and used to possess crossing visas for shopping visits to Texas. Since moving to Brownsville, they haven’t had the money to fix their permanent residency papers, because they have a son who’s ill.
Gracia spots a Border Patrol agent coming out of the convenience store and beckons him over. She tells Luis and Berta that someone needs to come for the car and the couple’s young son, who’s in the front seat. Berta calls her 16-year-old son, Alan, who is the captain of his high school soccer team. In minutes Alan arrives, in shorts and flip-flops, looking stricken.
“The Border Patrol’s gonna take your dad,” Gracia tells the boy in English. He begins to weep. “Son, don’t cry,” Berta says in Spanish. Then, to the trooper: “Ayúdenos!” Help us!
“Yo estoy haciendo mi trabajo, ma’am,” Gracia replies. I’m doing my job.
With no money for immigration attorneys, Luis and Berta were deported.
A few weeks after Luis and Berta were arrested, Paco and Carlos — who asked that their real names be withheld because of fears for their families’ safety — were picked up in two separate incidents within two hours of each other at the same location, near McAllen, Texas. Both were detained by a stern trooper named Cristobal Flores, who had been deployed along the border only a week earlier and had already caught four undocumented people — a feat he was clearly proud of. One woman he arrested said she’d moved to Texas after living for 17 years in Illinois. Another had been in Texas for 15 years. Yet another had been in the state for two decades. A few weeks later, Flores caught four more people in the same area — including a couple with two babies, and another man who was in a vehicle with his father, wife, and young daughter, all U.S. citizens.
Paco, a vintage toy vendor, was stopped for speeding on a weekday morning with his van full of merchandise he’d just bought wholesale. On the dashcam, one sees and hears Flores asking Paco to explain his lack of a Texas driver’s license.
“¿Por qué?” Flores asks Paco. Why?
Paco attempts to exercise his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, but Flores is no civil libertarian. His question, harsh to begin with, ratchets up to a repetitive, menacing yell. “¿Por qué? ¿Por qué? ¿POR QUÉ? ¿POR QUÉ?”
As Paco stands mute and intimidated, Flores makes a sotto voce phone call using code: “BP unit over here. Got a UDA.” Undocumented alien.
Paco was sent to the Port Isabel Processing Center, a concertina-wired institution miles from any city, off potholed roads near the Gulf of Mexico. The detainees there hail not just from Mexico, but also Central America, South America, Haiti, and Eritrea. Not long after Paco arrived, another fresh inmate entered the cell: Carlos. He’d also been stopped by Flores for speeding, right after Paco’s arrest.
Carlos’s dashcam shows that Flores treated him politely but deceitfully.
According to DPS policy, when troopers stop a driver for a traffic infraction, they generally let the person go after he or she has signed a citation or warning ticket. (In other tapes, troopers can be heard discussing this practice.) In Carlos’s case, however, the Border Patrol is slow to arrive after Flores makes the call, and agents were still not there 15 minutes into the stop.
Flores has Carlos sign his tickets but tells him in Spanish that things aren’t finished: “I’m waiting for more information to arrive.” By “information,” he meant the tardy Border Patrol agents, who drive up moments later. They leave with Carlos. Another trooper drops by the scene, and he and colleague Flores shoot the breeze about undocumented immigrants. Flores remarks that he could use some help cleaning up the area where he is assigned: “If one of these troopers would come work with me and start citin’ these people.”
“You think traffic would thin out if I worked over here?” Flores said.
The two men chuckle.
The Texas Department of Public Safety did not respond to a request for comment on Flores’s verbally harsh behavior. Flores and Gracia also did not respond to requests for comment.
When Carlos arrived at the Port Isabel prison, he already knew from gossip at the Border Patrol office that someone had been caught right before him, in the same place by the same trooper. He called out in the cell until Paco responded that he was the guy. Like immigrants in steerage on the same ship to America a century ago, the men felt a bond. They became good friends.
Carlos remembered what it was like just across the border from McAllen in Reynosa, Mexico, before he emigrated. There, he’d worked 48 hours a week in a foreign-owned factory — a maquiladora — for the U.S. equivalent of $50 a week. It was eggs and beans every day for him and his family. Here, in the immigration prison, it was rice and beans and a tiny sandwich for lunch. In 23 days at Port Isabel, Carlos lost 10 pounds.
The crash “diet” was bearable, though. What bothered Carlos was not working — that, and not seeing his family. His wife and teenage daughters couldn’t come to the prison because they’re undocumented. Only an 18-month-old toddler and an 11-year-old boy in grade school are citizens.
Following Carlos’s arrest, no one told the 11-year-old why his dad was gone. The family was trying to spare his feelings. That attempt lasted only a few days before the child was delegated to go to the prison. A neighbor drove him over the potholed roads and past the layers of barbed wire. The neighbor parked and stayed in the car. The child walked alone through the guards and metal detectors; he and his father had their visit on either side of a pane of glass. Both were crying too hard to say much, but Carlos swore that when he got out, the two would go to Six Flags in San Antonio.
The boy never told any of his friends or teachers that his father was in a detention center. He still can’t talk about it today. When the subject comes up, he is wordless but his face quakes.
Paco’s and Carlos’s families were able to hire lawyers and get them out of Port Isabel on bond. In all, Carlos paid $10,500 to come home. Paco paid $8,500, most of it borrowed from relatives. His money had previously been earmarked to pay for his daughter’s application for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Now it was diverted, and his daughter, age 17 and an excellent student, still remains undocumented.
Both men are now in legal proceedings, with additional lawyers’ bills, to contest the government’s efforts to remove them from the country. It will take months, if not years, for their cases to be decided. Both have martialed religious faith in the hopes of good outcomes. But both know their chances of remaining in the United States are precarious. Carlos has thought of moving to Canada.
Meanwhile, they’re at least back home in Texas with their families. The same cannot be said of Luis and Berta, the couple expelled from Brownsville to Mexico.
For a week after the two were locked up, the children, including 16-year-old high school soccer star Alan, continued living in the family’s rental home in Brownsville. They quickly ran out of money, however, including for rent. They were evicted. On a Friday afternoon, the kids threw the family’s secondhand furniture into the street, packed their clothing in bags, and got a ride in a truck to Matamoros. They stayed a couple of weeks in Alan’s grandparents’ cramped house in a poor neighborhood.
The soccer team at Lopez High School missed Alan — absent his leadership as captain, the team was suffering defeats at its games. Alan and a brother, also a Lopez student, came back to Brownsville and doubled up with their aunt, uncle, and several cousins. Alan started sleeping in a tiny room with a handful of other family members on sheets spread on the floor. The neighborhood is nicknamed “Trailitas” — Little Trailers — because so many of the residences are old mobile homes. People on the streets are friendly — in contrast to packs of skinny feral dogs and cats who spar in the yards with much fatter hens and roosters.
The soccer team has tried to help Alan survive the shock of suddenly being something like an orphan after always having his parents around. His coach, Amadeo Escandón, took Alan’s tearful Sunday night call right after the arrests. “I didn’t know what to say to the kid,” Escandón said. “He was broken.”
Alan has remained in Brownsville and visits his parents every weekend in Matamoros, a city that is heavily infiltrated by the Gulf Cartel. Brownsville’s police chief had urged extreme caution about visiting Matamoros after a teenage girl was shot to death in cartel crossfire at a mall there in 2016. Alan lately seems subdued and angular. He’s lost weight. He started his senior year this fall, and the coaches are working on getting him an athletic scholarship to college. He is determined to stay in the United States: “It’s my country,” he said. “I was born here.”
In Ciudad Juárez, across the international border from El Paso, Ruth Mariel Ramirez’s four children are not sure they have a country.
Ruth spent almost two months in an immigrant detention prison before agreeing to leave the United States on a “voluntary departure” — an arrangement that left open the possibility of her returning to the United States in the future. She said she accepted the deal because she was worn-out. She had spent weeks eating repulsive prison fare, including mushy lasagna with roaches in it and banana bread in which she found worms.
Far worse than the food in prison was the state of her children back home. Ruth’s sister and mother were trying to care for the kids, but they were spiraling downward, academically and emotionally.
“It was all weird,” Brayan said. “I didn’t feel good inside. I stopped eating. I started just sleeping.”
Brayan may have had it the worst. He is extremely close to his mother: “She’s the one that’s always been with me,” he said. “With her I feel super confident. Every time I’d come back from a football game, I’d tell her what I did good and what I did bad. She always asked me how did my day go. And then I didn’t have no one to tell.” With their mother suddenly gone, according to Brayan’s sister, Mariel Carolina, the house became silent, as everyone retreated into their rooms and cried privately. It seemed like someone had died, she recalled.
“It was all weird,” Brayan said. “I didn’t feel good inside. I stopped eating. I started just sleeping.” When he wasn’t sleeping, he was up at night crying. In the daytime at school, “I just put my head down and put my headphones on,” he said. Previously a good student, he stopped doing his classwork and became oppositional with his teachers, to whom he barely mentioned what had happened to his mother. Within weeks, he was suspended, then expelled. He failed ninth grade.
Brayan’s only emotional outlet was the two rap songs he composed and sang about Ruth. One, titled “Soledad” — loneliness — addresses his mother and the Lord in Spanish. I need your love. I need you here by my side. Please, God.
Brayan posted the songs on Facebook and asked everyone to “like” them. He also posted, “I want to kill myself.” Frightened family members notified Ruth. She knew she needed to get back to her son, even if that meant both of them were banished.
According to Ruth, she thought that her “voluntary departure” agreement included being returned to Mexico over a bridge connecting her local worlds, El Paso and Juárez. She was shocked to be put on a bus late at night with other inmates and driven in the dark for hours. “Excuse me, where are we going?” she asked the driver. “I don’t know,” he said. “What do you mean, you don’t know?” “They’re going to throw you back in Coahuila,” the driver retorted. “What’s Coahuila?” she asked. “It’s Mexico,” the driver said, and laughed.
“I’m frightened,” Ruth tearfully told her jailers on the bus. “I don’t know anything about this place, I don’t have my phone, I don’t have money — what am I going to do?” “That’s your problem,” she was told, and “Out!” as she was ordered off the bus onto an international bridge in the middle of the night and told to walk south. She had good reason to be scared: The State Department has released a travel warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid the Mexican state of Coahuila because of the likelihood of violence, especially near the U.S. border. Mexican authorities allowed her a free call to her partner, Jaime, who was distraught because he’d had no idea where she was. She managed to get money for a bus ticket to Juárez.
Once there, she told all her children to leave Texas and join her across the border, even though three are U.S. citizens. “I’m their mother,” Ruth explained. “They need their mother. I can’t be having them with people who really can’t care for them.”
Mariel Carolina, Alexander, and Oscar can all return to El Paso when they’re older. Brayan does not have that choice. Though culturally American, he is a Mexican national with no immigration papers allowing him to be in the U.S. Ruth knew that Brayan going to Juárez meant not only that he would give up his chance for DACA, but he also might never again be able to enter the United States.
When Brayan crossed from El Paso into Juárez “he was crying and crying,” Ruth recalled. He had no memories of his birth city, nor any familiarity with its visible, stark poverty. “He saw the streets,” Ruth said, “and grabbed his head.” But he didn’t kill himself.
Ruth herself is undergoing a new experience: treatment for depression and anxiety as a result of her experience. The children are also struggling — “We feel like we’re not living, we’re surviving,” Ruth said. One of the kids’ problems is frustration about their nationality and how they will deal with their citizenship when they become adults.
“My daughter told me that she doesn’t want to be in the U.S.,” said Ruth, “because if it doesn’t want me, it doesn’t want them.”
It definitely doesn’t want Brayan, and the family worries about him.
Now 16, he’s having a hard time in high school in Juárez, especially because he can’t write in Spanish. He talks about dropping out. Ruth tells him that if he gets his diploma, she’ll allow him to continue pursuing rap. “That’s what I’m planning on doing for my whole future,” Brayan says. He is full of desperate bravado. By next year, he says, he will be famous.
But Brayan’s dreams, so possible and benign in Texas, are fraught and dark in Mexico. In El Paso, he had a friend with whom he was about to start recording songs professionally. Now, in Juárez, he has connected with someone who has a studio. But the studio is “close to the house of my grandma,” he said, and “in the hood where my grandma lives, it’s a lot of drugs and prostitutes.” Brayan never had any problems with drugs in Texas. Now, his sister says, in the dangerous and confusing environment of Juárez, “he could change really quick.”
Still, the family feels happy to be back together. Ruth says she harbors no bitterness toward the country that kicked her out. “I love the U.S. very much. It’s where my children were born. It’s where I studied. It taught me many things.” She blames the DPS troopers for ruining her family’s lives, especially when she watches the dashcam video of her stop, in which troopers Patrick Brookshier and Korin Hutchisson, sounding like pest control workers, joke about all the “illegal aliens” they’re catching. Brookshier: “They’re just coming out of the woodwork now.” Hutchisson: “That’s what I’m telling you, dude. I attract this crowd!”
Ruth believes the two troopers played cruelly with her, for fun, like canines mauling a chew toy. America, she says, “is not to blame for having dogs like them.”
America as a whole may or may not be to blame, but the state of Texas certainly is. The state’s highway troopers are mandated by their agency’s updated manual to call the Border Patrol if they suspect that someone they’ve stopped for a traffic infraction is in the country without authorization. The manual says nothing about questioning passengers. It specifically forbids independently enforcing immigration laws; troopers are instructed not to detain anyone based solely on their suspected immigrations status. Yet The Intercept obtained a dashcam video of a trooper stopping pedestrians, then calling the Border Patrol.
DPS says it does not know when pedestrians were stopped, who the trooper was, why he made the stop, or even where it happened — though The Intercept was able to identify the area as a street near Laredo. Molly Cost, of DPS’s open records department, said her office does not know who sent the video to The Intercept. DPS’s complete puzzlement about the dashcam suggests that the agency does not know how many stops and Border Patrol handovers its agents are actually carrying out, or whether they are even constitutional.
Earlier this year, Texas passed Senate Bill 4 — often called SB4, the “show me your papers” law — though parts of the law have been tied up in federal court. SB4 encourages practically every law enforcement agency in the state, from city cops to sheriffs’ deputies to constables, to question people about their immigration status during stops for other matters and call immigration agents. Many officers will choose not to ask such questions. Others, like DPS Trooper Mirna Gracia in Brownsville, will just “do their job.” An unknown number, like troopers Cristobal Flores in the Rio Grande Valley and Hutchisson and Brookshier in El Paso, will relish the job, pushing more Texans into a deportation pipeline that grows ever larger and more destructive.
This project was supported by the journalism non-profit the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.