The seemingly quiet little town of Balcones Heights is consumed entirely by the city for which it was once a suburb on the hill. Its location at the intersection of IH-10 and Loop 410 has become less important as the city expands north and south, and any residual cachet it once held was long ago usurped by Alamo Heights and Terrell Hills. The former Crossroads Mall is now a “convention center” short on shop tenants, sustained by the adjacent Super Target, one of the official website’s bragging points. Balcones Heights’ 3,000 residents occupy less than one square mile, but the small town has cast a long shadow in 2009.
The Brown Berets organized a protest of more than 40 people in front of Balcones Heights City Hall on February 9 to call attention to charges that the town’s police department was using racial profiling. The Berets’ Carlos de Leon said people were reporting that officers were staking out a spot at I-10 and Crossroads Boulevard and stopping drivers who looked Mexican or South American. Some of those stops reportedly escalated into immigration checks.
“When they go into asking for immigration papers, even if you have a valid license and insurance, that’s a violation of civil liberties,” said de Leon.
Antonio Diaz of the Texas Indigenous Council said he had received approximately 20 similar complaints in the two months prior to the protest. Diaz said some traffic stops for lack of insurance had escalated into arrests and even two
The protest led to meetings with Mayor Suzanne de Leon (no relation to the Brown Beret activist) and City Attorney Frank Garza. The protestors were encouraged when Garza announced a few weeks later that the city would no longer be referring traffic violators without proper ID to immigration authorities. City officials stressed, however, that no one had come forward to lodge a formal complaint.
Balcones Heights has a history of using traffic enforcement to help pay its bills. From the infamous speed traps of the 1950s recorded by city biographer Lewis F. Fisher in Balcones Heights, a Crossroads of San Antonio to the red-light cameras installed in 2007, the city has meant trouble for San Antonio drivers. The town apparently seized another opportunity to net more moving violations last year when a new Department of Public Safety computer system came online that enables police officers to check for auto insurance by running license-plate numbers.
After the February protest at City Hall, Chief Stannard denied that his department had participated in any racial profiling, and attributed an increase in traffic stops to DPS’s new auto-insurance system.
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said the system is not intended for generating probable causes for traffic stops, although he noted that DPS’s opinion is not legally binding on other law-enforcement agencies.
“Our interpretation is this is designed for use after you’ve pulled a vehicle over,” said Vinger.
Stannard at first told the Current that he tells his officers to “try to have another violation” to pull people over “for a better probable cause.” He later left a message saying he “insists” no stops be made solely for insurance violations. But this is exactly what happened on December 18, when part-time officer Alan Langford pulled over a pickup truck in the 3300 block of Hillcrest because “a computer check showed the vehicle was not insured.”
Langford’s police report says driver Jaustino Martinez and passenger Sandra Bear failed to identify themselves, so the police referred them to ICE for further investigation. Martinez was subsequently deported. While Balcones Heights is not part of the “287(g)” program that allows participating law enforcement agencies to partner with ICE on immigration enforcement, the agency’s Criminal Alien Program does allow police officers to refer individuals they’ve detained who don’t have proper ID to ICE as suspected aliens.
“We want no part of 287(g) … because I don’t have time for it,” said Stannard in February. Only three Texas police departments are affiliated with the program.
“We do not act as ICE agents… the problem with it is we’ve got so many instances from accidents where `drivers` don’t have insurance … that has spiked the amount of people we’ve picked up,” said Stannard. “What’s happening here is most of them … have documentation which is false, or none at all… so then what we do is try to identify them.”
The public mistrust generated by news of the arrests and deportations escalated into fear in late February when undocumented workers came forward to allege that a rogue law-enforcement officer, or someone posing as one, was extorting money from them. The victims say the perpetrator offered to help them gain legal status in exchange for financial payment. Afraid of what “the officer” might do with their personal information if they refused his “help,” the workers said they felt they had little choice but to go along and hope that the offer was legitimate.
At a private meeting held by the Brown Berets at the Cesar Chavez Education Center on February 27, two undocumented immigrants testified that they lost several thousand dollars each in the scheme. Because they are living and working in the states illegally, they had been afraid to report the extortion to the police, fearful that either the authorities, or their blackmailer, would have them deported.
Speaking through interpreter Gabriel Quintero Velasquez of the Metaform Collaborative, construction worker José (not his real name) relayed a story of ongoing intimidation and extortion.
On December 23, a pickup truck pulled up beside José’s car in the parking lot of his Balcones Heights workplace. The driver asked José for his social-security card. When José asked who he was, the driver flashed a badge and later identified himself as an undercover Balcones Heights narcotics officer. The man then asked for José’s driver’s license. José told the man he’s had a Texas license for 10 years and showed it to him.
“Tell me you have a social-security card. If you don’t have it, this will go bad for you,” said the man.
José said the man then pulled out a warrant that he claimed was for two unpaid tickets from the red-light camera system. When José protested that he’d received only one ticket, which he’d paid four months ago, the man insisted José show proof, and followed him to his home.
“My impression is the cop wants to get my whole family,” José said. “He said, ‘No, I’m not going to do anything to your family, just you.’ I went inside and said, ‘They got me,’ and my wife got scared.”
The man followed José inside, José said, and intimidated his wife and children, saying, “You better move from here because ICE is going to be coming.”
But then the man suddenly changed demeanor, offering to assist José and his family.
“I can tell you’re not a bad guy; I’m going to do you a favor,” the man told José. “I’m going to take you and pay the fines, because if you go in, you’re not coming out.”
The man escorted José to “the Centro,” the San Antonio Police station downtown on Frio Street. José needed to stay outside, he warned again, “or you won’t come back out.” José remained in the truck while the man went inside with José’s license and $340.
“There’s no way for me to even know if this guy is a cop or not,” José said in exasperation.
On the drive back to José’s house, the man put in the fix. “How come you don’t have your papers? Then you won’t have problems,” he said. He had a friend at ICE who could help, he told José. The man called his friend while José waited, then told José he would need a sponsor. Thinking this sounded logical, José referred the man to his boss. The man requested copies of Jose’s taxes and his family’s social-security numbers. José and his wife are undocumented workers, but their two children are “anchor babies,” born into U.S. citizenship on U.S. soil.
After a week or so passed, the man called José and said his “lady friend” at ICE could help José for $1,400. Another “policeman” showed up to collect. After José made the payment, his wife worried that they were being robbed. “I said, I know, but what are we going to do? How do we investigate it?” José said.
Soon, the man called to say something had happened and the ICE friend couldn’t get the papers yet. Another $450 was needed. José paid the man. This cycle continued until José was out $3,000 and still had no papers.
The blackmailers soon moved on to José’s boss, offering to get papers for four more workers if the man would give the ICE contact a good deal on a new house. José’s wife soon learned that another coworker had been offered a deal similar to José’s, but discrepancies in the payments requested by the go-between lead the wives to suspect they were being scammed.
The suspect approached José again, asking for another $1,500, but José finally refused.
“When I realized they took $3,000 for nothing, I said no, I will not pay another $1,500,” José told the intepreter.
He said he was afraid to come forward and speak to the media for fear that the perpetrator would retaliate by reporting him to ICE, and he and his wife would be separated from their children. José felt trapped in Balcones Heights, he said, because he was out of money, and he didn’t want the story to become public until he could move his family to another address.
“The families are more interested in highlighting what they feel is the original source and not the consequence,” said Velasquez. “They feel that if the law fosters a fear environment for immigrants, it opens the way to the lowest
The law does offer potential legal protection to undocumented immigrants who are victims of crimes by way of a relatively new legal tool known as the U-visa. But a law-enforcement agency must certify that they are conducting an investigation for a victim to be eligible.
“You’re really relying on the discretion of the enforcer, so it really is the fox guarding the henhouse,” says Jonathan D. Ryan, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
The U-visa has technically existed since the turn of the 21st century, when Congress created it as part of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. But Ryan says that the Department of Homeland Security only released regulations a little more than a year ago to implement it. He says RAICES has helped some individuals apply for U-visas, mostly female victims of domestic abuse. The U-visa grants recipients up to four years of legal status, and allows the recipients to apply for permanent residency after three years, along with dependent family members.
League of United Latin American Citizens President Rosa Rosales stopped in at the Chavez Center during José’s meeting, accompanied by LULAC National Treasurer and longtime local activist Jaime Martinez. Rosales said it’s good that these stories are coming out, and added that she was going to recommend the issue as a formal cause with the Department of Justice “because this is a national problem.”
“Human rights and civil rights should be respected, but this is the gray area — who has human rights? Do you have to be a citizen?” said Rosales.
Rosales cites racially charged issues in Irving, Texas, and in small towns near Chicago, where there are large populations of immigrants. Irving Mayor Herbert Gears has come under some fire for his decision to run immigration checks on everyone arrested in the city. Rosales sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at the end of April, requesting an investigation into the Irving Police Department for its application of the Criminal Alien Program. Rosales noted immigrants are now being deported for minor traffic violations and that accusations of racial profiling have arisen.
“What is needed is a moratorium on turning over suspected illegal immigrants to federal officials until immigration laws are reformed nationally,” wrote Rosales.
Velasquez says the nebulous nature of current immigration law enabled the predator who acted in Balcones Heights.
“The environment that exists is because of a lack of clear laws,” says Velasquez.
After the Balcones Heights Police Department announced that it would no longer refer individuals without proper ID to ICE, José and Rafael decided they felt safe enough to meet with City Attorney Garza to discuss their allegations, but their testimony has resulted in no local investigation, and no arrests.
“They said they were here to talk about a guy impersonating an undercover narcotics officer,” said Garza in early April, adding that Balcones Heights doesn’t have undercover narcotics officers. Garza later said that he had heard of a similar suspect impersonating a Bexar County Sheriff’s deputy in St. Hedwig. Garza said he thinks it is unlikely the Balcones Heights perpetrator was working with someone inside the police department, because the blackmailer only mentioned red-light camera tickets, which officers don’t have access to because they’re considered civil violations, not criminal. Garza says the warrant was part of the scam because the city doesn’t issue warrants for unpaid red-light tickets, which he likened to parking citations. If there was an inside connection, Garza says it would have to have been with a civil servant, who could look up records in the system by license-plate number.
Garza says he doesn’t have jurisdiction in a case like that since he doesn’t believe it’s connected with a Balcones Heights officer or employee. But he passed the allegations on to Police Chief Bill Stannard. Stannard says he referred the case to the FBI, to avoid any potential conflict of interest investigating his own department.
Local FBI spokesman Eric Vasys recently confirmed that the FBI is conducting “a preliminary inquiry to see if further investigation is necessary.” Garza confirmed last week that the FBI had called to ask questions a couple of weeks earlier.
Stannard says Balcones Heights received no formal officer complaints in 2008 or 2009. A query with the Texas Department of Public Safety for complaints about Balcones Heights indicated that DPS had received two, although they were excepted from release under open-records law since they pertain to an ongoing Texas Rangers investigation. But DPS spokeswoman Lisa Block said that those complaints are related to a domestic shooting case and that there is no Texas Rangers investigation of the Balcones Heights department involving impersonation of an officer or racial profiling.
Any local extortion investigation would be difficult now, says Stannard, because José and his co-worker have apparently disappeared.
“We cannot find them,” said Stannard last week.
The Brown Berets say they’ve been pleased to hear local feedback that the traffic stops are down. But Carlos de Leon says the group will remain vigilant. “We’re still going to keep an eye on the area, and if there are any more allegations, we’re ready to protest again,” said de Leon.
As for José and his fellow undocumented worker, one can hardly blame them for taking their families and vanishing, if that is in fact what happened. The police and City Attorney seem disinclined to investigate the allegations themselves, and the FBI is famously tight-lipped and slow. In the meantime, undocumented workers remain exposed, ripe for exploitation and abuse by criminals on both sides of the law.