November 19, 2008

Perry demands immigration action by feds

Perry demands immigration action by feds
After a Chronicle investigation, governor urges steps to ensure criminals here illegally don't avoid deportation
By SUSAN CARROLL Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Gov. Rick Perry and members of the state's congressional delegation called on the federal government Tuesday to take steps to help state and local officials ensure that illegal immigrants who commit crimes in Texas remain in custody until they are deported.

In a strongly worded letter to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, Perry said he was outraged to learn that many convicted illegal immigrants in Texas jails were released after they completed their jail sentences instead of being deported.

In a series of stories this week, the Houston Chronicle outlined gaps in the screening of inmates in local jails that allowed scores of violent criminals, including some ordered deported decades ago, to walk away from Harris County Jail despite the inmates' admission to Harris County jailers that they were in the country illegally.

"Texas has spent the last four years investing unprecedented amounts of state resources to secure our border with Mexico," Perry said in his letter to Chertoff. "To now learn that criminal aliens who have been jailed are being released back into our communities by federal authorities who have neglected to secure our border is infuriating and unconscionable."

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and U.S. Reps. John Culberson, R-Houston, Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, and Michael McCaul, R-Austin, called on Immigration and Customs Enforcement to improve screening in the nation's jails and better coordinate efforts to identify illegal immigrants convicted of crimes while they are incarcerated. Brady asked for a meeting of the Houston-area congressional delegation to help ICE determine what resources are needed to "close the terrible gaps in detaining and deporting" illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.

The Chronicle examined arrest and immigration records for 3,500 inmates who told jailers that they were in the country illegally during a span of eight months starting in June 2007, the earliest immigration records available. In 177 cases reviewed by the Chronicle, inmates who were released from jail after admitting to being in the country illegally later were charged with additional crimes. More than half of those charges were felonies, including aggravated sexual assault of a child and capital murder.

At least 178 cases in the review involved suspects who absconded, meaning they had bail revoked for missing court dates or allegedly committing more crimes. Some 330 inmates who told jailers they were in the U.S. illegally were later sentenced to a form of probation.

This spring, ICE officials announced a plan to identify and deport the most serious offenders in the nation's prisons and jails, estimating it would cost roughly $930 million.

Agency defends work
ICE officials said they have made improvements in recent months, including providing the Harris County Sheriff's Office and six other law enforcement agencies in the U.S. access to a database that allows jailers to automatically check defendants' immigration history.

The agency also trained nine Harris County jailers in August to help file paperwork to detain illegal immigrants through its 287 g program, which allows local law enforcement to help ICE screen inmates in the nation's 3,100 jails. ICE also removed a record 107,000 convicted criminals from the U.S. in the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in September, officials said.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves," said ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel. "The number of criminal aliens in prisons and jails has more than tripled in the last few years. ... Can we do more? Absolutely. Are we committed to doing more? You bet."

U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, said the system "is breaking down in several places." Poe said he sent a letter on Tuesday to Adrian Garcia, Harris County's sheriff-elect, requesting that he "ratchet up" participation in the 287 g program. He said when illegal immigrants post bond, ICE should file a detainer and pick them up for possible deportation.

"I don't think ICE is trying to solve the problem," he added. "But if they need more money, Congress should certainly be helping to bail out ICE instead of people like General Motors."

Garcia did not return phone calls this week.

Harris County's newly elected district attorney, Pat Lykos, said ICE needs to be in the Harris County courthouse "24-7" and improve screening of illegal immigrants so prosecutors have more reliable information when making bond recommendations and considering plea agreements.

Houston Mayor Bill White said on Tuesday that he plans to call Chertoff to urge for more personnel to deport illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes and have finished serving their sentences.

"Most citizens would far prefer us to spend more money trying to get the violent criminals out of the country than trying to figure out how many years the person who's doing their landscaping has been in the country," White said.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the issue is a law enforcement problem, and added: "In a way it's kind of sad that it gets wrapped up in an immigration debate. The issue really is you've got criminals and you've got a way of getting rid of them. Do it. To me a system doesn't work if you have violent criminals who are just turned back out into society and they disappear. That's a flawed system. I don't think anybody would disagree with that."

Stewart Powell, Liz Austin Peterson, Clay Robison and Bradley Olson contributed reporting.

November 18, 2008

Special driver's license for noncitizens raises concerns

By Juan Castillo

To get to her job cleaning other people's houses, Maria depends on her car. Without it, the native of Monterrey, Nuevo León, says she would be hard-pressed to keep a job. Without the job, she would not be able to provide for her family or help pay her daughter's tuition at Austin Community College.

Maria has a Texas driver's license, which she got after coming here 16 years ago on a temporary visa. The visa expired long ago, meaning she is no longer in the country legally. Maria renewed her license anyway, because the Texas Department of Public Safety did not require that she prove her visa was still valid. (Maria — not her real name — and other unauthorized immigrants spoke to the American-Statesman on condition of anonymity.)

The DPS says it does not know how many noncitizens with expired visas renewed their licenses over the years, but it stopped the practice in May.

Now, under a regulation that took effect Oct. 1 in the name of national security, the state has tightened its license policy more by requiring foreign nationals to prove they are lawfully here before they can get an original, renewal or duplicate driver's license or ID card.

The DPS estimates that the rule could affect about 2 million Texas residents.

So what happens when Maria's license expires in 2013?

"I'll keep on driving with the license issued by God," she declared during a break from English classes she is taking at El Buen Samaritano Episcopal Mission in South Austin. "What are we supposed to do, stay at home with our arms crossed? We have to keep working and hustling if we want to get ahead."

About 20.5 million people have valid Texas driver's licenses or ID cards, according to the DPS; the new restrictions apply to about one in 10. Agency spokesman Tom Vinger emphasized that that does not mean all of their licenses are ineligible for renewal, only that the drivers will have to prove they are here legally.

For new applicants, the practical results of the policy will be less apparent. According to the National Immigration Law Center, Texas already had strict identity requirements that amounted to a de facto prohibition against illegal immigrants getting licenses. Those identity requirements are unchanged.

What is new is that noncitizens with legal permission to live in the country will now get special, vertical-shaped driver's licenses bearing temporary visitor designations. The licenses will be valid only until the person's legal status expires. Immigrants whose legal status is scheduled to expire less than six months from the time they apply cannot get a license or ID card at all.

The policy is drawing criticism from some state lawmakers as well as immigrant advocates who warn that it will drive illegal immigrants further underground and increase the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road. Critics also say that creating a different-looking license for noncitizens could lead to profiling and discrimination.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, called on the Texas Public Safety Commission, the DPS' governing body, which approved the rule, to rescind it until the Legislature meets in January.

"I think that DPS officials are creating immigration policy, which is not their responsibility. That is the sole responsibility and obligation of the Texas Legislature and not a state agency," McClendon said.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, joined a number of lawmakers promising to address the policy when the Legislature reconvenes.

Allan Polunsky, the chairman of the Public Safety Commission, said he respects legislators' concerns. But, he added, "in this particular case, I feel that the commission had the authority to pass the rule," which he said was motivated by concerns about national security, not illegal immigration.

Polunsky came under criticism last week after asking Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for a ruling on the legality of setting up statewide driver's license checkpoints. In a letter, 15 lawmakers asked Abbott to ignore that request because the Legislature has not authorized a checkpoint program.

Insurance and security

In closing the loophole that allowed Maria to renew her driver's license, Texas joins a number of states that, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, have moved to restrict illegal immigrants' access to licenses, usually citing national security as the reason. Only five states — New Mexico, Washington, Utah, Maryland and Hawaii — do not require applicants to show evidence of lawful presence in the country.

Supporters of such requirements have long argued that issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants is an incentive for more illegal immigration.

"The fact is that they're already here," said Jaime Chahin, a professor of social work at Texas State University and a member of the board of directors of El Buen Samaritano, which serves working-poor Hispanic families. An estimated 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants live in Texas, and about 800,000 of them have jobs, according to a study by Waco-based economist Ray Perryman.

No one knows exactly how many illegal immigrants in Texas drive without a valid license or drive without liability insurance — which all drivers are required by law to have — but it's presumed that the vast majority do not carry insurance.

Of the hundreds of auto insurers in Texas, "there may be a small number of companies that would sell insurance to a driver who does not have a valid driver's license, but I am not familiar with any of those companies," said Jerry Johns, president of Southwestern Insurance Information Services, an insurance trade association representing companies in Texas and Oklahoma.

Johns said the association has strong concerns about the estimated 20 percent of Texas drivers who do not carry liability insurance — about 25 percent in Austin — but that it has not taken a position on whether undocumented immigrants should be able to get licenses.

Another undocumented immigrant, Javier, said he has auto insurance from a Texas carrier, though he does not have a Texas driver's license — only one from his home country of Mexico. A Mexican license is valid for up to a year after a person arrives in Texas, said Vinger, the DPS spokesman.

Javier, a 40-year-old who juggles three jobs, says buying insurance "makes sense to protect our investments in our vehicles, which we need to get to work."


Immigrant advocates say public safety would be better served if undocumented immigrants were allowed to get licenses because they would then be held responsible for their driving record and for getting insurance like everyone else.

"They've got to feed their families, and they're going to go and drive. That's all there is to it," said the Rev. Ed Gomez, pastor of El Buen Samaritano.

But survey results show that most Americans are apparently unswayed by the safety argument. Voters opposed allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses by an almost 4-1 ratio in a 2007 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

"They shouldn't be here in the first place, so we shouldn't be giving them ID documents," said Brent Munhofen of Austin, a spokesman for the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas, which opposes benefits for illegal immigrants.

Vinger said foreign nationals who can't prove they are in the country legally are not reported to immigration authorities but simply denied a license.

An exception would be if the DPS discovered that an applicant had presented fraudulent immigration documents.

The special driver's licenses themselves have drawn criticism. Maria Luisa Bautista, who heads the Austin-based nonprofit group Inmigrantes Latinos en Acción, said she fears they will make legal immigrants "marked people," potentially vulnerable to discrimination.

The licenses could lead to more scrutiny by law enforcement officers conducting routine traffic stops or landlords reviewing rental applications, said Luis Figueroa, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.; 445-3635

November 16, 2008

'Why'd they let him go?' In killing blamed on immigrant, woman's kin want answers

Tina Davila murdered by an illegal immigrant

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

On a cloudy Monday afternoon in April, Tina Davila was buried according to her wishes: dressed in her favorite Dallas Cowboys jersey, with a photo of all five of her children tucked inside her coffin. In the picture, Kaylynn, the baby girl Davila died trying to protect, looks fussy, her chubby cheeks puckered into a pout.

Billy Brewer, Kaylynn's father, watched as Davila's coffin was lowered into a grave at San Jacinto Memorial Park Cemetery in Houston.

Brewer, a long-haul trucker, had a crush on Davila since he was a teenager. He loved her wide smile and how, he said, ''she wouldn't back down from nothing for nobody." Most especially on the day Davila, 39, tried to fight off the man who cornered her in a parking lot while Kaylynn was strapped into her car seat.

Witnesses told police Davila refused to hand over her car keys and screamed as she was stabbed in the chest: "My baby! My baby!"

In the days after her death April 16, Brewer couldn't bring himself to watch the surveillance camera video of the slaying. Not yet. He had a 4-month-old baby, just learning how to roll from her back to her belly, and a house full of memories.

On the TV news, Brewer learned that Timoteo Rios, the man charged with killing Davila, was an illegal immigrant with a criminal record. Rios had admitted to local law enforcement twice before the slaying that he was in the country illegally, but he wasn't deported, according to arrest and immigration records.

"I just want to know why," Brewer said. "If they were doing their jobs right, he wouldn't have been out there. Why'd they let him go?"

First arrest
Rios, now 24, was arrested for the first time in Harris County on May 29, 2007, a Tuesday afternoon. He attracted little attention. About 370 inmates pass through the intake division of Harris County Jail daily. Rios, who was living in a southwest Houston apartment complex, was charged with failure to identify to a police officer and marijuana possession, both misdemeanors.

He was fingerprinted, photographed and asked a series of questions. His answers were entered into the jail computer system. Birth date: Oct. 6, 1984. Height: 5 feet 11 inches. Weight: 162 pounds.

The jailer eventually asked: Are you a U.S. citizen? The records show that Rios said no, he was a Mexican citizen.

The jailer then asked: Are you an illegal immigrant?

Yes, Rios replied, according to jail records.

The jailer entered Rios' name into a database of inmates, set up in September 2006, who have admitted they are in the country illegally. The data entries are shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Houston, who have unrestricted access to the county's four jails. Agents routinely question and place "holds" on inmates in Harris County Jail they suspect are eligible for deportation.

Rios' name was the 15th of 20 added that Monday to the database. ICE officials confirm that they did not file paperwork to detain him.

Rios pleaded guilty to both counts against him and was released from jail June 5, 2007.

Second arrest
Twenty-two days later, Rios was back in jail, charged with criminal mischief, a misdemeanor. Police said he argued with his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend, the mother of two of his daughters, and punched out her apartment window. Then he threw a beer bottle at his ex-girlfriend's mother.

Rios was booked at 4:35 p.m. Again, Rios told jailers he was in the country illegally and, for a second time, was added to the database. He filled out paperwork for the court, writing that he was from Michoacan, Mexico, and worked in construction.

He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 20 days with 11 days credit and was released July 6.

Kenneth Landgrebe, ICE's head of detention and removal for Houston, said ICE agents didn't have a chance to get to Rios.

"He was released before we had an opportunity to handle the case," he said. "We're in Harris County (Jail) every day, but we can't be in all places at the same time. I believe he was in a different part of the jail that we were working in. He was not where we were.

"We have to prioritize," he said. "Should we have been over there identifying him and letting a child molester get out? Or a pedophile or a bank robber or someone convicted of a serious drug crime? In a perfect world, if we had all the staff we needed, we could hopefully identify every alien that is unlawfully present in the U.S."

Ruth Alsobrook, Davila's grandmother, still lives in the house where Davila was raised in Galena Park, a 1950s-era neighborhood near the Port of Houston. Davila's parents died before she was 12.

"I loved that girl," said Alsobrook, 93, sitting in an armchair. ''I raised her in the church. Every time the church doors were open, we were there."

Davila attended Galena Park High School and rebelled as a teenager. She married her high school sweetheart, Eric Matt, in the spring of 1988. They had three children: Patrick, 20, Patricia, 18, and Payton, 16. Davila and Matt divorced after eight years but stayed friends. Davila later remarried and had another daughter, but that marriage also ended after a long separation.

One night about two years ago, she and Brewer ran into each other at Del's, a diner on the city's east side. Brewer asked her out for a date, and she said yes.

He said he felt lucky every day since, until April 16.

It was Brewer's 35th birthday. He had to drive a load out to Oklahoma City. He kissed Davila and Kaylynn, who was 3 months and 28 days old. It was early morning when he left for work.

At 5:02 p.m., Davila pulled into the parking lot outside the Cricket cell phone store on Uvalde Road near Wallisville Road, about a five-minute drive from her house in Houston. The next few moments were captured on the video surveillance camera outside the store.

Davila parked her white Chrysler Aspen SUV and stepped out. She started walking toward the store, leaving Kaylynn buckled into her car seat. An older model Ford Taurus pulled in behind Davila's SUV. A man jumped out and ran to block the door. He and Davila struggled over her purse and car keys.

A witness in the parking lot told detectives Davila screamed for her baby. The man stabbed Davila and ran back to his car, tossing the keys away. She stumbled inside the store, clutching her chest.

That night, Brewer tried Davila's cell phone, but it went straight to voice mail. Finally, his mother called him.

"Billy, come home," she said. "Tina's had an accident."

"How bad?" he asked.

"Just come home," she said.

Unanswered questions
Davila was taken to East Houston Regional Medical Center. She was pronounced dead minutes after arriving. By the time Brewer reached his mother's house that night, Davila's death was already on the TV news.

Days after the slaying, Harris County detectives arrested 18-year-old Kennedy Escoto, the suspected getaway car driver. Investigators said Escoto implicated Rios in Davila's death. Detectives say Rios may have fled to Mexico.

Davila's older children had questions about what happened. They saw on the news that Rios had been arrested twice before the slaying — and was in the country illegally.

"The kids just couldn't understand why he could be illegal and commit crimes and still be here. And I couldn't explain it to them," Matt said.

After Davila was killed, Brewer exchanged his long-haul job for one that keeps him closer to home. He asked his cousin to care for Kaylynn, temporarily, he said, until she gets a little bit older.

He put down a $150 deposit on a grave near Davila's and is paying $50 a month.

The more he learns about the man accused of killing Davila, the more his anger grows.

"He should have been deported after the first arrest," he said. "It's that simple. There's got to be a better way."

Brewer has started putting together a scrapbook for Kaylynn. He's saving Davila's high school jacket, a bunch of magnets he picked out for her over the years on the road, and the program from her funeral service. On the cover, there's a picture of Davila, with a warm, wide smile.


Warning: Some may find this video distrubing and upsetting.

Store Security Video
The last few seconds of this video is the footage of Tina Davila's murder, and it is preceeded by a shoplifting theft.

A system's fatal flaws

Thousands of inmates admit they're in the U.S. illegally, but even those convicted of violent crimes are often r: Criminals avoid deportationeleased right back onto Houston's streets

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 16, 2008, 7:33AM

Mayra Beltran Chronicle

Inmates are interviewed by jailers in the booking office at the Harris County Jail, where officers maintain a database of inmates who tell jailers during booking that they are in the U.S. illegally.

This three-day Houston Chronicle investigation examines how scores of illegal immigrants cycle through local jails and fall through the cracks of immigration enforcement.

Federal immigration officials allowed scores of violent criminals — some ordered deported decades ago — to walk away from Harris County Jail despite the inmates' admission to local authorities that they were in the country illegally, a Houston Chronicle investigation found.

A review of thousands of criminal and immigration records shows that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials didn't file the paperwork to detain roughly 75 percent of the more than 3,500 inmates who told jailers during the booking process that they were in the U.S. illegally.

Although most of the inmates released from custody were accused of minor crimes, hundreds of convicted felons — including child molesters, rapists and drug dealers — also managed to avoid deportation after serving time in Harris County's jails, according to the Chronicle review, which was based on documents filed over a period of eight months starting in June 2007, the earliest immigration records available.

Other key findings in the investigation include:

•In 177 cases reviewed by the Chronicle, inmates who were released from jail after admitting to being in the country illegally later were charged with additional crimes. More than half of those charges were felonies, including aggravated sexual assault of a child and capital murder.

•About 11 percent of the 3,500 inmates in the review had three or more prior convictions in Harris County. Many had repeatedly cycled through the system despite a history of violence and, in some cases, outstanding deportation orders.

The investigation found that the federal government's system to identify and deport illegal immigrants in Harris County Jail is overwhelmed and understaffed. Gaps in the system have allowed some convicted criminals to avoid detection by immigration officials despite being previously deported. The problems are national in scope, fueled by a shortage of money and manpower.

In reaction to the Chronicle's findings, U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, said ICE needs more resources to target immigrants convicted of crimes.

"There's no question about it," Poe said. "Criminals from foreign countries who get caught after committing a crime and prosecuted should go to the top of the list of people we deport."

ICE removed 107,000 convicted criminals from the U.S. in the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in September. But during the same time frame, ICE sent home more than two times as many illegal immigrants without criminal records, prompting criticism from some members of Congress.

Kenneth Landgrebe, ICE's field office director for detention and removal in Houston, said officials are doing the best they can with the resources they have. ICE trained nine Harris County jailers this summer through a federal program that empowers local law enforcement to act as immigration agents.

The Houston ICE office set a record by removing 8,226 illegal immigrants with criminal records from Southeast Texas last year, an increase of about 7.5 percent from fiscal 2007.

"No agency has enough law enforcement officers to do the job the way they'd like," Landgrebe said. "If you look at law enforcement in general — at Houston or New York City or Los Angeles police — do they apprehend every criminal that commits a crime? No. Do they arrest every person that speeds in a traffic zone? No.

"We have to prioritize what we handle," Landgrebe said.

Missed opportunities
ICE officials estimated that between 300,000 and 450,000 inmates incarcerated in the U.S. are eligible for deportation each year.

Though ICE has improved screening in federal and state prisons in recent years, the agency estimates it screens inmates in only about 10 percent of the nation's jails.

This spring, ICE officials announced a plan to identify and deport the most serious offenders in the nation's prisons and jails, estimating it would cost between $930 million and $1 billion and take about 3 1/2 years.

Congress is pressuring ICE to move faster.

"The present situation is unacceptable," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., chairman of the House Homeland Security appropriations committee.

"The highest priority for ICE should be deporting people who have proven their ability and their willingness to do us harm. Immigration is a very, very contentious issue, but this seems to be one thing almost everyone agrees is a priority."

Yet, the Chronicle's review found hundreds of missed opportunities to deport convicted criminals, perpetuating a cycle of crime and violence.

•Armando De La Cruz, a Mexican national, told jailers on two occasions in 2007 that he was undocumented. Both times, he was convicted of assaulting his wife and released after serving his jail time. De La Cruz is now back in Harris County Jail, charged with raping a woman at knife point behind a southeast Houston apartment complex in July, and attempting to rape another woman less than a week later. His defense attorney, Ricardo Gonzalez, did not return phone calls.

•Pedro Alvarez, a convicted sex offender from El Salvador who was first deported in 1991, racked up eight convictions in Harris County over a span of two decades and was allowed to walk free from jail multiple times — as recently as the spring of 2007. Immigration officials finally charged him with re-entry after deportation in February. Sandra Zamora Zayas, the attorney who represented Alvarez in federal court in South Texas, did not return phone messages.
"It's just amazing how long it took them to catch up with him," the mother of a 5-year-old girl Alvarez sexually assaulted in 1988 said in an interview with the Chronicle, after learning about Alvarez's extended criminal history.

'Never lied about who I am'
Miguel Mejia Rodriguez, 36, is locked up on the fifth floor of the San Jacinto Jail downtown, accused of raping and sodomizing a second-grader.

It is the fourth time in 12 years that Rodriguez, an unemployed drifter from Zacatecas, Mexico, has landed in Harris County Jail. Over the years, Rodriguez has served time for drug possession, theft, trespassing and indecent exposure. He told jailers he was in the country illegally in December 2006, after a security guard caught him touching himself in an apartment complex parking lot, records show.

But ICE officials did not file paperwork to detain Rodriguez. He was released after serving his 25-day sentence.

"I never lied about who I am, or where I'm from. I'm 100 percent Mexican," Rodriguez said in a jail interview with the Chronicle in September, after he was accused of the rape and sodomy of a 7-year-old.

According to court records, the girl told a friend Rodriguez started abusing her after her mother died in 2005, while he was living with her family.

The girl was hospitalized and treated for syphilis, court records show. In an interview with Houston police detectives, Rodriguez admitted to contracting syphilis from a woman he met in a Houston cantina, but he denied raping the girl. He said she was a "troublemaker" who lied because he punished her when she misbehaved.

When he was arrested on the sexual assault charge in July 2007, Rodriguez again told jailers he was in the country illegally, records show. In June, nearly a year after his arrest, ICE officials filed paperwork to detain Rodriguez, who is scheduled for trial in December.

Deadly consequences
Katherine Anne Bridges, deaf and mute, was just 19 in the fall of 2004 when she told Harris County authorities that Jeremias Fuentes, her boyfriend, tried to grab their 6-month-old baby boy from her arms and kicked her in the face. He hid her emergency phone so she couldn't call for help. Fuentes was sentenced to 20 days in jail.

Nearly three years later, in August 2007, Fuentes was arrested again, suspected of interfering with case workers trying to interview Bridges about abuse allegations. Fuentes, 36, told jailers he was an illegal immigrant from El Salvador, records show. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail. He was released after ICE didn't file paperwork to detain him.

On the morning of Nov. 26, 2007, a medical examiner puzzled over the writing scrawled on Bridges' palm. It read in part: "Payback because ... help me."

The evening before, Bridges' body had been found facedown in the bedroom closet of her southwest Houston apartment complex. She had blood in her brown hair and a dozen stab wounds on her face, neck, chest and back. A knife rested on the baby crib.

Detectives questioned Fuentes, who admitted he stabbed Bridges, but he said it was self-defense. In December, immigration officials filed the paperwork to detain Fuentes, who declined a request for a jail interview. He is scheduled for trial in February.

Andy Kahan, director of the Houston Mayor Crime Victims Office, said he hoped Bridges' case could be a ''catalyst for change" and encourage local authorities to work more closely with ICE to ensure inmates with violent criminal histories are vetted before release.

"There were numerous opportunities to do the correct thing, and that's have him deported, and that didn't happen. And as a result, a woman paid dearly with her life," Kahan said.

Matthew Baker, an assistant field office director for ICE in Houston, said agents try to screen out as many violent criminals as possible to avoid preventable crimes. Many illegal immigrants are identified by ICE in the state's prison system, he added, even if they are not caught while in jail.

"No one can measure the cases where we picked up and removed someone and prevented that carjacking or that drunk driving accident that kills a family," Baker said. "There are hundreds of thousands of incidents that we prevent every year; those are not measured because they don't happen."

Facts vs. fears
While the Chronicle's review found cases involving hardened criminals who slipped through the deportation net, the investigation also revealed that 43 percent of suspects who were arrested and admitted being in the country illegally were charged with misdemeanors and had no prior criminal record in Harris County.

Immigrant advocates cautioned against stereotyping illegal immigrants based on high-profile cases. Most research has found that recent immigrants are far less likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to commit crimes and end up in prison.

In Texas, foreign nationals made up approximately 15 percent of the state's population in 2005, and about 7 percent of state prison offenders.

"Many people see it as a profound insult when someone who is here without permission commits a heinous crime," said Rebecca Bernhardt, director of policy development for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. "To be outraged at the individual who committed that crime is an appropriate response. But to be angry at everybody who is just here trying to work to support their family and comes from the same background as that defendant is a mistake."

Asking about status
The nation's system for identifying and deporting immigrants convicted of crimes is largely secretive. ICE officials refuse to disclose the names or basic immigration history of people detained and marked for deportation, citing privacy protections in federal law.

To better understand how ICE screens inmates, the Chronicle obtained a copy of a database, maintained by the Harris County Sheriff's Office, of inmates who tell jailers during booking that they are in the U.S. illegally.

The Sheriff's Office voluntarily started questioning inmates about their legal status and created the database in September 2006, after a previously deported felon killed Houston police officer Rodney Johnson. During the booking process, inmates are asked whether they are in the country illegally. If they answer 'yes,' their name and jail ID number is entered into a database that is shared with ICE agents in Houston.

The Chronicle compared the entries in the Sheriff's Office database with immigration ''holds" placed by ICE with the Sheriff's Office. An immigration hold is essentially a request by ICE agents that law enforcement notify them before releasing an inmate. ICE officials confirmed that jailers notify them before releasing immigrants who are marked for possible deportation.

The Houston Police Department, which runs the city's jails, notifies ICE only about suspects with immigration warrants and previously deported felons.

Of the more than 80,000 bookings into Harris County Jail during the review period, about 3,500 — less than 5 percent — admitted to being in the country illegally. ICE filed paperwork to detain roughly 900 of the 3,500. During the review period, the agency also filed paperwork to detain 2,500 suspects not included in the database, indicating that many immigrants who are eligible for deportation do not disclose that they are here illegally.

ICE, however, could not confirm whether the inmates marked for ''holds" actually were deported.

Landgrebe, the ICE official, also questioned the quality of the information in the Sheriff's Office database, because it was based only on inmate responses and was entered by some jailers without immigration training.

More removals
ICE officials would not answer specific questions about ICE staffing at the Harris County or city jails but said screening has improved in recent months. In October, the Sheriff's Office started testing a Homeland Security database that gives jailers access to millions of immigration records. The county's participation in the federal government's 287(g) program, which trains jailers to act as immigration agents, also is expected to help improve screening, ICE officials said.

Harris County Sheriff-elect Adrian Garcia, who defeated incumbent Tommy Thomas in the November general election, said he plans to evaluate the office's participation in the program after he takes office in January.

Thomas said he believes the program is necessary — at least until ICE has the resources to improve screening.

''In a perfect world, I'd like to see our borders secured to where we have someone we find to be here illegally, we turn them over to ICE and have them deported," Thomas said. ''But that's not something that's happening at this day and time."

Chronicle reporter Chase Davis contributed to this report.

November 15, 2008

500,000 immigrants defying deportation

'Fugitive aliens' like Obama's aunt escape notice as U.S. pursues criminals

By DENISE LAVOIE Associated Press
Nov. 14, 2008, 11:04PMShare Print Email Del.icio.usDiggTechnoratiYahoo! BuzzBOSTON — Zeituni Onyango came to the United States seeking asylum from her native Kenya but was turned down and ordered to leave the country in 2004.

Four years later, she is still here. And her nephew is about to become president of the United States.

Onyango's family connection to Barack Obama has thrown a spotlight on a phenomenon many Americans might find startling: An estimated half-million immigrants are living in the United States in defiance of deportation orders.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has stepped up efforts to catch fugitive aliens, as they are known, and now has about 100 "fugitive operations teams" around the country. In the past year, the teams have made 34,000 arrests, more than double the number two years ago. But there are still 560,000 such immigrants in the U.S.

Fugitive aliens include people who, like Obama's aunt, sought asylum in the United States but were rejected and ordered to leave the country. Others were caught entering or living in this country illegally, and failed to show at their deportation hearings.

Often, illegal immigrants who have been issued deportation notices are given a certain amount of time to get out of the country on their own. They are not forcibly put aboard a plane; these deportations essentially operate on the honor system.

Critics irked
Generally, if these immigrants stay out of trouble — if they don't get pulled over by police or swept up in a workplace raid, for example — they are in little danger of being thrown out of the country.

That galls many immigration reform advocates, who say the practice breeds disrespect for the law and emboldens immigrants to sneak in and stay.

"We are strong believers of enforcement of our immigration laws, and this is a priority area for getting the message across to this country, that if they've been convicted of committing crimes or if they have been ordered deported, that they will be apprehended if they try to hide and continue to stay in the country," said Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Government officials say that they do the best they can with the money and manpower available to them, and that they focus on the most serious cases, including those involving illegal immigrants who have committed crimes in this country.

"ICE has taken tremendous steps at closing these cases and apprehending fugitives," said spokesman Richard Rocha. "However, we prioritize our efforts on egregious violators and criminal aliens."

The Obama camp has said the candidate did not know about his aunt's status.

DPS scraps plans for driver's license checkpoints

AUSTIN -- Plans to create driver's license checkpoints on Texas highways have been scrapped in the face of strong lawmaker opposition and suspicions that the proposal targeted illegal immigrants.

Allan Polunsky, chairman of the Texas Department of Public Safety Commission, said Friday he would withdraw a request for an attorney general's opinion on whether the checkpoints would be legal.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said the opinion request was sought only for "informational purposes."

"There was never any connection to immigration issues," Vinger said. "DPS does not enforce immigration issues."

Fifteen state lawmakers asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott to ignore the opinion request made in September. Some suspected the purpose of the checkpoints was to crack down on illegal immigrants.

In August, the public safety commission issued new rules for driver's license applicants to prove they are here legally.

"A state agency is making immigration policy for the state of Texas, and that is not their job," Democratic state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon told the San Antonio Express-News.

During a commission meeting Friday, Polunsky said it was not appropriate to proceed with the proposal at this time. Commission members agreed, but postponed voting on withdrawing the request because the issue wasn't on the agenda.

The state Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in 1994 that checkpoints would have to be approved by a "politically accountable governing body at the state level." The Legislature has not passed bills outlining procedures for checkpoints.

The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund was among those who said the proposed driver's license checkpoints, coupled with the requirement for proving immigration status, could lead to profiling.

November 14, 2008

Officer's widow blames gun store in death

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- We're hearing from the widow of a slain Houston police officer who says a Pasadena gun store is to blame for her husband's murder.

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Rodney Johnson was murdered two years ago. His killer is in prison for life.

The lawsuit filed at the Harris County Civil Courthouse says even though Juan Quintero pulled the trigger, he's not the only one to blame for Officer Johnson's murder. It says a gun store should have prevented the convicted felon and illegal immigrant from getting his hands on the gun he used.

It's been six months since the Quintero went to prison for life. Still Joslyn Johnson's fight is not over.

"I would not like this to happen to any other family," she said. "I wouldn't want anyone else to have to endure their pain."
She has sued the city over its one officer per car practice, now she's suing the store that sold the gun that Quintero used to kill her husband.

Quintero fatally shot Officer Rodney Johnson during a traffic stop. The officer missed a hidden weapon on Quintero during a pat-down and Quintero managed to get to it while handcuffed, but Joslyn believes the killer never would have had the 9mm had Carter's Country, she says, followed the law.

"I would just like the gun companies to know this should not be tolerated," Johnson said. "They should be more responsible and they need to do a complete and thorough background check."

According to the lawsuit, Carter's Country was negligent because although Quintero did the shopping, the salesperson allowed his wife, Theresa, to fill out the federally mandated paperwork for the purchase of the gun as if she were the actual purchaser. They did this, it says, because Quintero's immigration status and criminal record made him ineligible to legally buy a gun. It's called a straw sale and it's illegal.

"There are federal regulations out there, other laws out there, to present this type of purchase," said Johnson's attorney Ben Dominguez.

In a videotaped confession, Dominguez says Quintero admitted to the details of the gun purchase.

Meanwhile, Carter's Country denies the allegations. In its answer to the lawsuit, attorneys for the company argue in part the shooting was out of its control. Juan Quintero and his employer, Robert Camp, now under indictment for illegally employing him, are responsible.

Beyond that its attorney told us, "we don't think it's ethical to discuss the facts of a pending case."

Joslyn Johnson doesn't want to stop talking. She's on a crusade of sorts for her husband.

"I just want people to be aware that this should not happen to anyone else if I can help it," she said.

There's no dollar amount listed in the lawsuit. Johnson's attorney says they'll let a jury decide on that. As for criminal investigation. A spokesperson said t hey could neither confirm or deny they're investigating.

(Copyright ©2008 KTRK-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

November 13, 2008

Berman Will File 9 Bills About Illegal Immigration

Berman Will File 9 Bills About Illegal Immigration
Staff Writer

State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, will file nine bills in Austin aiming to reduce the burden of illegal immigration on taxpayers by reducing benefits and protections for illegal immigrants in the state.

Berman said legislators first addressed illegal immigration during the last legislative session, but around 24 bills were killed in committee before they could be voted on by the House. He hopes legislators will consider immigration legislation during the coming session.

The first bill Berman plans to file will challenge automatic citizenship under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The bill says the state of Texas will not issue a birth certificate to children of illegal immigrants born in the state.

Berman said if the bill passes it will invite an immediate lawsuit into a federal court and possibly will require a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The 14th Amendment of the Constitution has no application to the children of illegal aliens or any other children of foreigners born in the United States," he said. "We are giving away 350,000 citizenships each year (nationally) erroneously and that's why we have to challenge it."

The second bill would put an 8 percent surcharge on money wired from Texas to Mexico, Central and South America, he said. There is about $6 billion each year sent from Texas to Mexico alone, Berman said.

The bill would require all recaptured funds, almost half-a-billion dollars, be earmarked for border security and hospitals that provide free health care.

Another bill to be filed by Berman would analyze the number of illegal alien children in the state's public school system.

"We are building new schools across the state which are costing hundreds of millions of dollars and we think that at least 20 percent are for the children of illegal aliens that pay little to no property taxes," he said.

Berman will file a bill that would make English the official language of Texas. That would mean that all state business, except for that which is mandated by the federal government, be done in English.

A bill requiring every level of government in the state to enforce all federal and state laws and constitutions under penalty of losing all state funding will also by filed by Berman.

This would require "sanctuary cities," such as Houston, Austin and Dallas, to enforce immigration laws or be held liable for nonaction.

Another bill to be filed is identical to a five-part bill passed in Oklahoma that resulted in thousands of illegal immigrants moving from Oklahoma to Texas, Berman said. He said there would be no public state benefits for illegal immigrants and authorizes law enforcement officers to take Section 287 G training with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security allowing them to deal directly with illegal immigrants.

"Right now a law enforcement officer can't do anything with (illegal aliens) unless they commit a crime," he said. "But if they take the 287 G training they can actually arrest them for being illegal in the United States."

The bill would also prohibit the transportation, concealment or housing of illegal aliens, Berman said. This would make it possible for stiffer penalties to be levied against landlords, employers or traffickers who house, employ and transport illegal immigrants within the state of Texas.

The bill would also require employers to verify citizenship of anyone they hire, he said. Berman said the means are available by the federal government to verify Social Security numbers to determine if the numbers are fraudulent or stolen.

Berman said the immigration bills he is filing may be blocked in the Senate or vetoed by the governor, but the need to address illegal immigration remains.

He said it is outrageous that he has middle income constituents that have fewer benefits than illegal immigrants.

"It is important for them to pass because we have 2 million illegal aliens in Texas that are costing my constituents, my Texas residents, $4 billion every year," he said. "We have never had a class of immigrants in the United States that require free education and free health care by U.S. citizens as the illegal aliens in our country require."

November 12, 2008

Still Smoldering

Metropolis: Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Still Smoldering
Local firefighters may have gotten burned by the pension fight they started.


In a presidential election year, especially one where the top of the ticket drew as much attention as this one, local races often fly under the radar. But in Tarrant County, you’d have had to be living under a rock in the past few months not to have noticed the campaign for the Texas Senate’s District 10.

That would be the one between challenger Wendy Davis and incumbent Kim Brimer, the one that filled local mailboxes with endless glossy campaign fliers, produced more TV ads in this area, it seemed, than the Obama and McCain organizations, and that threatens to live on via some strange legal possibilities.

And it all started, oddly enough, over pensions — not exactly the usual hot-button, sound-bite fodder of political campaigning. But in this case, the pensions involved, in part, were those of local firefighters. The bitter ruckus that followed went from city hall to the state capitol to various courtrooms, and it may not be over.

Davis, a Democrat and former Fort Worth City Council member, beat Republican Brimer, a 20-year veteran of the thenTexas House and Senate, by a slim margin last week. Despite that victory and several months of unsuccessful attempts to get Davis thrown off the ballot, there’s a chance that Brimer may try to have the tally overturned through some wrangling in Austin.

The dispute began last year when the city learned that it was behind by $411 million in fulfilling its obligations to the city employees’ pension fund. In seeking ways to reduce those mounting obligations, council members considered various remedies; one was to curtail the massive overtime hours some employees were racking up, especially the police and firefighters. Because city workers’ pensions are based on their total wages, reducing such overtime would help reduce the pension amounts the city would be on the hook for. Davis was one of the most vocal supporters of that idea.

The firefighters balked. They made an end run around council, and Brimer carried the ball: He got the Texas Legislature to amend state law to transfer most of the control of the pension fund from the city to the Texas Pension Review Board. Davis was livid. She and two other council members voted against endorsing Brimer’s bill — and in doing so, publicly opposed Mayor Mike Moncrief.

“It really upset me,” Davis told Fort Worth Weekly. “I saw it as our city being disrespected by one of the legislators who should have been looking out for our interests. What was done was, the taxpayers were going to have all the responsibility for that fund, but little control over it. I honestly didn’t think Republicans were against taxpayers not having their say in government.”

In May of last year, Davis was re-elected to the council. Three months later, she announced her candidacy for Brimer’s senate seat. Davis and other Democrats saw District 10 as being ripe for change for two reasons. First, a poll by their party’s Washington-based Lone Star Project found that 20 percent of District 10 voters gave Brimer an unfavorable rating and another 50 percent knew so little about him that they couldn’t even rate him.

The second factor was the change in the area’s demographics. District 10 covers the southern half of Tarrant County (with a few fingers extending into the northeast suburbs), and the Democratic leadership was interested in the increasing numbers of minority voters moving into cities like Arlington, Mansfield, and Crowley.

“While it had been a very strong Republican district in the past, we began seeing the population changes,” said Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Maxwell. “We knew if we had the right candidate we could win this.”

But before Davis could win the election, she had to fight numerous lawsuits launched by Brimer. State law prohibits an official still serving in one public office from running for another state office. But Fort Worth’s rules said a council member wasn’t allowed to resign his or her seat until a successor was sworn in. Because of a runoff, her successor, Joel Burns, wasn’t sworn in until early January. In order to stave off any legal questions, Davis then resigned her council seat and re-filed for the senate race.

That started the fun. Three Fort Worth firefighters petitioned then-county Democratic chairman Art Brender to disqualify Davis from the election. Brender declared her eligible. The firefighters then took their case to the Texas Supreme Court, which sent it to a lower state court, which rejected the firefighters’ allegations. Brimer then took up the legal gauntlet and filed his own suit challenging Davis’ eligibility. He lost that case in state district court in July, appealed the ruling, and lost again in a Dallas appellate court in October.

The connector between Brimer and the firefighters may have been a big-time local campaign consulting firm, the Eppstein Group. Bryan Eppstein’s firm had been hired by the firefighters to help pass a charter amendment allowing them to do collective bargaining with the city. Eppstein has also handled Brimer’s campaigns in the past, and he was there again this year.

Eppstein may also have been a factor in Mayor Moncrief’s very public endorsement of Brimer. The mayor — who usually counsels his colleagues to stay out of partisan races — didn’t just allow his name to be used on campaign fliers; his face spent more time on TV screens than Brimer’s did, in Brimer’s broadcast ads.

Though the local Fort Worth council elections are nonpartisan, Moncrief had been a Democrat when he served as county judge and a state senator. Many wonder where his allegiance now lies.

Neither Brimer nor Moncrief returned calls or e-mails for this story. But others did comment on the endorsement. Brender termed Moncrief’s action “pretty disloyal, but it doesn’t surprise me, [given] how he has acted in the past.”

Davis said Moncrief had always advised council members not “to get involved in partisan political races, so it did surprise me. But we will work well together to meet the needs of Fort Worth residents.”

Current Democratic chairman Maxwell was less optimistic. “I have known the mayor for a very long time and consider him to be a friend,” he said. “But I was terribly disappointed in his decision to endorse Brimer the way he did. It was unimaginable to me that he would not endorse a person he worked with for all those years. [Moncrief] has made a statement he is not one of us anymore.”

The two candidates ran very different campaigns. Davis was out and about, while Brimer, a lot of the time, was nowhere to be found. The two did appear at candidate forums in Bedford and Arlington. But Brimer refused to appear on a long-scheduled “candidate conversation” on WFAA-TV, citing his dislike of their campaign coverage. He also failed to show at a League of Women Voters forum after indicating he would participate.

The Fort Worth Fire Fighters Association decided to schedule its forum on the same night as the WFAA event. Davis said she had already committed to the TV program but would do it any other night. The firefighters wouldn’t reschedule, so for that one, Brimer showed up alone.

Davis’ campaign accused Brimer of avoiding his opponent and the voters. “He basically didn’t show up for anything,” Maxwell said. “He acted like he was entitled to that job and didn’t have to tell voters why he was.”

Brimer aired some TV attack ads against Davis, but they did little to raise state issues. Davis was portrayed as a council member who voted against a senior citizen income tax freeze and supported foreign companies for building Texas toll roads. The most-played ad featured his grandchildren saying they loved their “paw-paw.” (That was also the tone of his campaign mailings, most of which featured various people saying Kim Brimer was their friend, their relative, their “paw-paw.”)

Davis, by comparison, went for the jugular. Her TV ads never even mentioned her name out loud, but focused on Brimer’s having defaulted on loans many years ago and using campaign contributions to buy a luxury condo in Austin. He was shown in grainy photos wearing sunglasses, with a stubby cigar hanging from his mouth. One Davis mailing accused him of having “spent his career getting rich at our expense.” Another said “Sen. Kim Brimer: Living the High Life.”

Davis defended her strategy. “We knew from the start we were running against a 20-year incumbent, and you have to let people know in specific terms why he needs to lose his job,” she said. “We needed to show voters that there were self-interest motivations going on in that seat and that he was harmful to the Tarrant County citizens in that district.”

At least the nasty race is over … right? More than likely, but Brimer has left the door open to a further challenge of Davis’ eligibility.

After Brimer lost the appeal on his eligibility challenge in October, his campaign sent out a press release stating that the question of eligibility could be “determined by action taken after the election.” The release said that a ruling by the Texas secretary of state could void the election, or action by the state attorney general, or a vote by the Texas State Senate not to seat an ineligible candidate.

Renea Hicks, an Austin attorney specializing in state political rules, said any of the methods theoretically could be used by Brimer, based on the state’s constitution and its election code. But he couldn’t recall any of those options having been used in more than 20 years.

“His case ... is very weak,” Hicks said. “It has been to court so many times, and Davis has won every one of them. Those rulings are going to be insurmountable, I would think.”

Hicks also pointed out that if the election results were to be voided, that would make it necessary to hold a special election for the seat — an election in which Davis could run. “It is far-fetched to think that Republicans in Austin would put so much on the line to save Brimer’s job,” Hicks said. “She would just beat him again and make them all look bad.”

Dallas County jails launch new system to check prisoners' immigration status

08:14 PM CST on Wednesday, November 12, 2008
By KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas County jail system on Wednesday became one of the first in the nation to use a new federal database to identify illegal immigrants during the book-in process.

Normally, when prisoners are booked into jails, their fingerprints are run through a national database to check their criminal history. Under the new initiative, fingerprints also will be automatically run through a similar database to check the person's immigration status.

If the computer shows a prisoner is in the country illegally, he or she will be referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which will determine whether to place an immigration hold on the person. The same applies to non-U.S. citizens who have been convicted of certain crimes while in the country legally.

After the person's criminal charges are resolved through probation or prison time, they will be referred to ICE for deportation.

"Nobody wants to live next to a criminal. It's all about making the communities safer," said Pablo Campos, assistant field office director for ICE in Dallas.

Currently, prisoners' immigration status is checked in jails only if they are referred to federal immigration agents or if they are questioned by agents who are stationed in the jails. For at least 10 years, Dallas County's main jail facility has had a small office for one or two ICE agents who randomly question prisoners to try to determine their immigration status.

The agents, however, would have to rely on prisoners truthfully answering questions about their name, place of birth and other information.

Now, as prisoners are being booked into jail, their fingerprints will be run through a database containing more than 90 million records – a process that is fast and accurate, Mr. Campos said.

The new database link is a key part of ICE's "Secure Communities" plan to identify and remove illegal immigrants from local communities.

The goal is to give all local jails in the U.S. a link to the federal government's databases. By next spring, ICE plans to make the database link available to more than 50 state and local law enforcement agencies.

The database, which includes people who were already deported by ICE, was created by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.

Mr. Campos said ICE has increased its staffing to monitor computer terminals in anticipation of more referrals from local jails. The challenge, he said, will be to have enough space to hold prisoners before they're deported.

Secure Communities Program

Fact Sheet

Critics cry foul over DPS license checkpoint plan

Some lawmakers say stops would unfairly target illegal immigrants

Looks very similar to the Texas Identification Card.

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 12, 2008, 7:04AM

The state agency that imposed new rules barring illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses is requesting authority to set up statewide driver's license checkpoints, part of what several lawmakers suspect is a plan to crack down on illegal immigrants.

A number of state legislators argue the Department of Public Safety Commission overstepped its authority Aug. 25 by issuing new rules requiring applicants to prove they are here legally before they can obtain or renew a Texas driver's license. Their suspicions deepened when, two weeks later, the commission's chairman asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott if it was legal for the commission to set up driver's license checkpoints.

Staffed by state troopers or local police, the checkpoints would stop drivers to review their licenses, vehicle registrations and proof of insurance.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, believes the two commission actions are taking aim at policing immigration.

''A state agency is making immigration policy for the state of Texas, and that is not their job," McClendon said.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said when commission chairman Allan B. Polunsky asked Abbott's office about authorizing checkpoints, she figured the target was drunken drivers.

''But when I saw the driver's license regulations, I said, 'Maybe they're not after Texas' drunk drivers, but maybe they're after undocumented people and this is a mechanism to get them," Van de Putte said.

She and 14 other Texas lawmakers sent Abbott a letter asking him to ignore the commission's legal opinion request because the Legislature has not authorized a DPS checkpoint program. It's unclear when Abbott will issue his opinion.

Polunsky did not return calls for comment.

Gov. Rick Perry favors the checkpoints, said spokeswoman Allison Castle. ''Police officers and law enforcement believe this is an important technique in protecting the public, and to that end, the governor supports providing our law enforcement officers with the tools they need to ensure public safety," Castle said.

DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said license requirements were tightened for security reasons, changes other states have made since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

''We are not enforcing the federal immigration laws," Mange said. "We are ensuring that applicants for Texas driver's licenses and ID cards have legal presence in the United States."

State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, called checkpoints a ''tremendous asset" that could cut down on drunken driving, car theft and motorists whose licenses have been revoked.

''For the people who want to erase our borders, for people who don't care if our laws are broken, and for people who are driving illegally, and for those who think that's fine, yes, this could be a problem," Riddle said.

Random traffic stops illegal
Checkpoints have not been allowed in Texas since the state Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in 1994 they must be authorized by a ''politically accountable governing body at the state level." That case involved a sobriety checkpoint in Arlington.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that random traffic stops to check driver's licenses, where officers did not have reasonable suspicion, were unconstitutional.

However, the ruling does not prevent state ''spot checks that involve less intrusion or that do not involve the unconstrained exercise of discretion," the justices wrote. ''Questioning of all oncoming traffic at roadblock-type stops is one possible alternative."

DPS Capt. Jerome Powell, who supervises driver's license offices in Houston, said the new regulations won't stop illegal immigrants from driving.

''They have to survive and go to work," Powell said.

No official tally exists of how many of Texas' estimated 1.7 million illegal immigrants have a driver's license.

DPS officials say nearly 3 million noncitizens are among the approximately 20 million Texas residents who carry state documents. They include 1.81 million noncitizens with licenses and another 1 million immigrants who have been issued state identity cards.

One indicator of the undocumented component of Texas license holders may be the nearly 380,000 applicants who filed DPS forms since June 2003 indicating they did not have a Social Security number.

Concerns about profiling
Activists worry that the new immigrant driver's licenses, along with checkpoints, are a recipe for profiling immigrants.

''Our number one concern is the potential for profiling since it puts the immigration identifier on the license," said Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It leads to potential profiling, whether it's a police officer who is going to scrutinize someone closer, or a landlord who may not want to rent out a property."

One person who could get caught in the checkpoints is Susanne Dennis, a 40-year-old legal immigrant from Germany.

In 2005, she came to the U.S. on a fiancé visa after falling for her now-husband, Michael Dennis, a 43-year-old security technician she met on the Internet. After they married in Maryland, Susanne was granted a provisional green card and obtained a Maryland driver's license.

Then Michael was transferred to Houston, and the coupled settled in Spring.

On Oct. 29, Susanne tried to apply for a Texas driver's license at DPS office in Humble, only to discover she didn't have acceptable proof of legal status.

Susanne had been granted a one-year extension so she could work in the U.S. while awaiting a permanent green card. But the form showing her extension was not on the list of accepted documents, so DPS turned her away.

Susanne, who works in Montrose, now drives into the city each morning fearful of being stopped by police. She feels lucky to still have a valid Maryland license and car insurance through her husband.

She's upset that she can't comply with Texas law requiring a driver's license within 30 days of moving to the state.

''What if a state trooper pulls me over?" Susanne said. ''What do I show him?"

Should the Texas State Legislature pass immigration enforcement laws in 2009?