A 52-year-old man’s deportation Friday after being arrested on a traffic violation in Dickinson thrust Galveston County into the center of an immigration debate that’s intensified under a new administration’s calls for tighter restrictions.
The deportation stemming from a driving-without-a-license charge could be one of the first in the area associated with a traffic violation, a local immigration attorney said.
But attorneys said it could become more common, particularly after memos drafted by Department of Homeland Security head John Kelly, which are awaiting White House approval, appeared to broaden the definition of “illegal alien.”
An attorney representing the man accused local law enforcement of “playing cowboys” and overstepping their authority by arresting a person for what would otherwise be a citation. Federal immigration officials were pre-emptively acting on Trump administration proposals, the attorney said.
The arresting agency, Dickinson Police Department, did not respond to requests for comment. But the county’s sheriff defended the arresting officer and said county jail booking officers followed longtime procedures. Local law enforcement was not attempting to inject themselves in an immigration matter, he said.
A federal immigration enforcement agency spokesman said his agency was following the law.
The situation brought home the immigration debate, with some arguing federal law enforcement had focused its efforts on punishing the wrong people instead of focusing on deporting criminals and urged elected officials to reconsider policies for people who have long histories in the United States.
“If a person has a criminal history, do whatever is necessary,” said Joe Compian, a community activist in La Marque. “But why should a traffic violation be a basis for disrupting a family’s life?”
Gerardo Morales-Martinez, of Alvin, was pulled over for a broken taillight by a Dickinson Police officer March 9, officials said.
The officer found Martinez had an expired, invalid driver’s license. Martinez was taken to the Galveston County jail at the police officer’s discretion and booked on charges of driving with an invalid license, authorities said.
After interviewing Martinez, the county jail’s booking department contacted officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sheriff Henry Trochesset said. Federal immigration officials determined Martinez was in the country illegally and placed him under a detainer March 10, documents show.
Martinez, who relatives say has lived in the country for 21 years after leaving Mexico, was deported once before in 2004, according to immigration records. He returned after that deportation to be reunited with his wife and three children, his advocates said. It was unclear whether he overstayed a visa or came into the country illegally.
Monica Martinez, Martinez’s wife, had posted a $1,500 bond, but officials told her that her husband could not be released because he was being held on an immigration detainer, said Sarah Syed of the Deportation Defense Network in Houston.
Martinez was transferred to federal custody Monday and held in a Houston detention center, officials said. His wife and three daughters quickly launched an effort to keep him in the country, hiring Houston-based immigration attorney Raed Gonzalez to fight the deportation.
But late Friday afternoon, his family received a call from him from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where he had been deported, Gonzalez said.
No hearing needed
Immigration authority spokesman Gregory Palmore said the earlier deportation and corresponding order from a judge gave his agency the authority to deport Martinez without a hearing before the judge. He didn’t have details about the previous deportation.
The agency did not weigh the charges brought against Martinez into its consideration, Palmore said. The agency had placed the detainer after being contacted about Martinez and doing an interview, he said.
“I don’t know what happened at the local level before he got to the jail,” Palmore said.
“At the point he entered the Galveston County jail we placed a detainer order. The charge … we don’t go into that level of detail. We’re not trying to try the case.”
Gonzalez said the deportation stemmed from local law enforcement’s aggressive policing by booking Martinez into jail on a traffic violation, which he said was done because the officer suspected Martinez of being undocumented.
Gonzalez accused the arresting officer of profiling his client and attempting to act as an immigration official. Martinez had an ID, albeit expired, he said. But law enforcement would likely not have arrested someone for an expired ID if they didn’t suspect the person of being in the country illegally, Gonzalez said.
“They’re playing cowboys like: ‘Yee-haw, we found an immigrant,’” Gonzalez said.
Dickinson’s police chief did not return a call Friday. But Trochesset said it was not that unusual for a patrol officer to bring someone to jail on an invalid license.
“What is he going to do, let someone keep driving without a license?” Trochesset said. “I think it was proper.”
‘Not about immigration’
The county jail followed its long-standing booking procedures by answering a series of questions to determine who an inmate is, Trochesset said. Martinez identified himself as being from Mexico, which prompted them to contact immigration and customs, he said.
“Sometimes immigration picks them up, and sometimes they don’t,” Trochesset said. “This one they picked up.”
Palmore, the ICE spokesman, didn’t expand on the agency’s policy. Immigration attorneys, though, said it was unusual for a person to be detained following a low-level charge.
“We’ve never heard of someone being placed in ICE custody just for driving while a license is invalid in Galveston County,” said Gregory Guarino, a Galveston immigration attorney.
Gonzalez, who tries many immigration cases in the Houston area, said it’s not unheard of for people to be deported on a traffic violation. The number is increasing of late, which Gonzalez attributed to changes in immigration policy. Under the Obama administration there was a priority list for deportations depending on the charges, he said.
Galveston County Daily News Reporter Matt deGrood contributed to this report.