'Zero tolerance' arrests put 13 in ICE custody, 'had nothing to do with immigration,' Texas sheriff says

Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook
Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook

"Zero tolerance" seems to be the hot-button issue of the moment.

The Trump administration recently responded to criticism by amending its "zero tolerance" policy at the U.S.-Mexico border by stopping the practice of separating families whose members are detained for alleged immigration violations.

Now a local sheriff in Texas is defending his recent "zero tolerance" operation that netted 24 arrests, 23 of whom were defendants with Hispanic surnames, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Thirteen of those 23 were subsequently seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation hearings, KVUE reported.

The operation in question took place June 23 in the immigrant-heavy Stoney Point neighborhood in the town of Del Valle, just east of Austin. Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook called it "routine" in a news release posted on Facebook, saying that "zero tolerance" in this case only meant that if a traffic law was broken some sort of enforcement action would be taken by deputies conducting traffic stops in the area.

"The initiative had nothing to do with immigration," Cook wrote in the release. "In the field, the deputies do not have access to the database needed to inquire about or verify citizenship. It is simply not a factor for the deputies who patrol Bastrop County."

Cook, a Republican, is the former head of the Texas Rangers.

But one local faith group, along with Mexico's consul for Austin and state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, disagree.

That 23 of the 24 arrested were Hispanic, and that 13 of them were detained by ICE, smacks of law enforcement targeting the immigrant community, a group called Bastrop Interfaith said in a statement.

"By this action, which appears to have been against immigrants, the sheriff has not increased people's confidence in law enforcement, which is what we had sought and strived to obtain in our prior dialogue with the sheriff," the Bastrop Interfaith statement read.

The Statesman reported that the June 23 "zero tolerance" operation had come in response to a request for more law enforcement visibility in that area. However, Cook's release states that the faith group made demands that his office pledge not to arrest people for driving without a license or ask about citizenship status.

"Even if I was inclined to do so as demanded (which I am not) in order to meet this group's demands, I and the deputies who work for the Sheriff's Office would have to violate the solemn, enforceable oaths we took to enforce laws," Cook said in the release.

Two of those arrested were taken into custody on suspicion of DUI, according to the release. Another was arrested on suspicion of cocaine possession. But others, according to the Statesman, were arrested for offenses such as failure to use a blinker while changing lanes or for having an obscured license plate.

Cook disputed that report, saying in his release that no arrests were made "for minor equipment violations or minor moving violations."

"There was clearly a special operation on the border between Bastrop and Travis [counties], and there was clearly a decision not to cite and release the offenders of these traffic violations in case the officer suspected that they were undocumented," Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, the Mexico consul, told the newspaper. "We are very concerned that this takes to a new level the collaboration between police and the immigration authorities."

Rep. Rodriguez, D-Austin, tweeted a statement, which read in part: "The limited facts available suggest a clear-cut case of racial profiling and organized immigration enforcement in cooperation with federal authorities. The sheriff's office may have caused long-term damage to its relationship with the community and seriously threatened public safety in a single evening."

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