As Sergio and Rosa drove to their cleaning jobs in the pre-dawn darkness of Feb. 11, they were pulled over by an unmarked vehicle. The couple looked at each other in confusion. Neither had a criminal record. It hadn’t been more than three minutes since they left their Northeast Austin home, and officers wouldn’t explain why they had been stopped.
The confrontation would soon rip their family of four apart and separate them by international borders.
Sergio was arrested that morning by federal agents. The couple had entered the country legally, Rosa said, but overstayed their visa. Her husband decided to accept voluntary departure because the family couldn’t afford a lawyer. And in a matter of hours after the arrest, Sergio arrived in Nuevo Laredo, which is more than 300 miles away from his family in Torreón, Coahuila, without money or extra clothes.
“We came here to work,” said Rosa, who was not arrested at the time and spoke with the American-Statesman on the condition that their last name not be used because she fears reprisals from immigration authorities. “We always respected the rules here.”
The couple were among those targeted by federal immigration officials in an operation that spanned several days in mid-February, leading to the arrest of 51 people suspected of being in the country illegally and plunging much of Austin’s immigrant community into shock, sadness and fear. In the past, deportation proceedings in Travis County have largely been prompted by an arrest that led to immigration checks. This time, ICE officials were out in the community, pulling people over and taking them in.
Officials at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency have declined to identify people who were swept up in Operation Cross Check, which also affected other areas of the country, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Atlanta.
But a team of reporters from the American-Statesman spent the past three weeks working to confirm their names and any criminal history through court records, family members and lawyers representing them. That effort yielded a fragmented picture of the immigrants, 23 of whom have criminal records in this country and 28 of whom had built quiet lives and stayed out of trouble.
Of the 51 people arrested, the newspaper identified 23. They include one convicted of homicide and several found guilty of assault — the types of suspects ICE officials have said they primarily targeted. They include a man convicted of stabbing a friend during an argument and another convicted of groping the breasts of a teenage girl.
But others were taken away by immigration agents because of some connection to a targeted person in what federal officials have labeled “collateral arrests.”
They worked in construction. They cleaned houses. They did odd jobs. They had families and children.
Federal officials confirmed that more than half of those arrested — 28 of the 51 — had no criminal history.
As many remain locked up, deportation proceedings have already happened for some and are in progress for others. Family members are struggling to learn how their lives were turned upside down so fast.
And officials from Austin to Washington are asking ICE about its efforts going forward, whether Austin can expect similar raids in the future, who ICE is targeting and why.
Wake up call
On the morning of Feb. 10, Claudia, who spoke to the Statesman on the condition that only her first name be used because she fears reprisals from immigration authorities, was getting ready in the bathroom of her Pflugerville home when she heard the familiar sounds of her fiance, Julio, opening the garage door and starting his pickup. What wasn’t normal was the frantic way the couple’s dogs began to bark, or the quick, shrill sound of a police siren coming from outside, or the sudden, loud banging on their door.
Startled, wondering if for some reason Julio was the one knocking, Claudia walked to the door and took a look through the peephole. She saw an agent holding a piece of paper and wearing a black jacket with “ICE” inscribed in white letters on the left side of his chest.
“When I saw that I got really nervous. My heart wanted to pop out,” she said.
She knew immigration agents were arresting people in Austin. Rumors of the operation had been circulating in the city for several days, and two painters she knew had been detained the day before near St. Johns Avenue in Northeast Austin. But she also knew Julio didn’t have a criminal history and hadn’t had any run-ins with law enforcement.
When the dogs stopped barking, she walked slowly back to the front door and looked through the blinds. She saw a black vehicle blocking Julio’s pickup. When the black vehicle left, Claudia said, she called a friend and told her, “They just took Julio.”
Claudia was looking for attorneys when Julio called her about 11 a.m., two hours after he had been detained.
“He told me ICE had taken him,” Claudia said. “I told him I was going to do everything possible to get him out of there.”
Julio, who works as a handyman in Austin, came to the U.S. 17 years ago as a teen; Claudia, a secretary, came with her parents 29 years ago when she was a girl. Both are from Mexico and met through friends. They are not legally married but introduce themselves as husband and wife. After 13 years of being together, Claudia and Julio were planning to make it official this year.
“We started preparing for the wedding in January,” she said.
In the days after Julio’s detention, as he was moved from a holding facility in Austin to the Burnet County Jail and finally to a federal detention center in Pearsall, Claudia raced to find an attorney. She couldn’t schedule an appointment with anyone; it seemed immigration attorneys in Austin were in high demand and short supply for days after ICE’s operation in Central Texas, she said.
But on Monday, she found an attorney in San Antonio, and he went to visit Julio at Pearsall. News was good: Her attorney told her Julio “had several good points in his favor. He’s been in the country for more than 10 years, he doesn’t have a criminal record,” and his bail bond co-signer, a friend of theirs, is a U.S. citizen.
Julio went before a judge, who set his bail at $6,000. After 18 days in detention, Julio returned to Austin this week.
Another immigrant — also with no criminal history — had bail set by an immigration judge Wednesday and was trying to work his way back to Austin.
Juan Pablo Covarrubias is being considered a collateral arrest by his attorney, Stephen O’Connor, who said his client worked as a painter and was detained near Lamar and Airport boulevards nearly three weeks ago.
O’Connor said Covarrubias is eligible to be released once relatives post $8,000 bail, which they are working to cobble together from family and friends.
“He wants to stay here and continue living a productive, healthy life without the fear of violence in Mexico,” O’Connor said. “He thinks he has more resources here.”
He said Covarrubias, 38, has been in the country for about 18 years and has no immediate family in Austin but is involved in the lives of his nieces and nephews, who live in Travis County.
He also has an uncle in Austin, whom he called when he first spotted ICE agents moving in to arrest him.
“He doesn’t drink; he doesn’t smoke,” Jose Paz-Llamas said in an interview. “He only works. He works for his family. He’s an honest person. I know the people who provide work for him are very proud of him.”
Mario Garcia-Castro wasn’t so lucky.
He was removed from the United States the day of his arrest, Feb. 11, even though he had no criminal record or previous immigration violations, said David Peterson, a public defender in Austin’s federal court.
He was with his brother, David Garcia-Castro, heading to their construction jobs when ICE officers stopped them outside their apartment building in Southeast Austin. The officers said they were looking for someone else but asked about the immigration status of the three men.
David Garcia-Castro, 27, who was deported eight years ago after a misdemeanor DWI conviction in Nacogdoches, was charged with felony illegal re-entry and is in the Bastrop County Jail, Peterson said. If convicted, he would probably be deported upon finishing his sentence.
Some had criminal records
The 23 detained immigrants with criminal records include nine people whose most serious charge was driving while intoxicated. Some of the more serious charges were assault, drug trafficking, a sex offense against a child and homicide.
The Statesman was unable to confirm the identity of one immigrant listed as having a conviction for homicide.
Felipe DeLeon, 63, is among the most violent offenders ICE detained. The native of Tamaulipas, Mexico, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in 2014 for stabbing his friend over $150.
According to an arrest affidavit filed by Austin police, DeLeon drove his friend to his home in Northeast Austin after a night of drinking. Before getting out, the man asked DeLeon for money he said he owed him for work he had done and repayment of a loan. The document says DeLeon became angry and got out of the truck.
He walked to the passenger’s side and told his friend, “I’m going to give you something to remember me by — your life.” He stabbed the man twice in the stomach and left. A detective noted in the report that the victim’s nose was also cut in half.
DeLeon was sentenced to five years in prison for the second-degree felony, serving part of the time under community supervision. Last August, the Travis County’s district attorney’s office filed a motion to revoke community supervision because DeLeon had failed to meet the conditions by failing to change his residence and not paying fees.
Rafael Juarez-Martin, 43, was sentenced to 60 days behind bars after police found five pieces of crack cocaine in a sock in a nightstand drawer in his bedroom. The affidavit said police — presumably undercover — had previously bought crack cocaine from his North Austin apartment.
Pedro Edgardo Morales-Guzman was one of several people arrested by ICE and taken to the Burnet County Jail at the time of the ICE sweep. The jail often serves as a temporary point of incarceration for ICE before inmates are transferred to detention centers.
Morales-Guzman, 37, has a felony assault conviction on his record from a 2007 incident in which he pleaded guilty to assaulting a 39-year-old woman, Texas Department of Public Safety records showed. Morales-Guzman was sentenced to probation; however, it was revoked after he violated the terms in 2011, according to Hays County records.
Julio Reynoso-Villeda, 54, was charged with indecency with a child by sexual contact in 1999 after Waco police alleged that he rubbed the breasts of a girl under 17 years old, according to McLennan County court records. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and was given two years of probation, Texas DPS records showed.
This story was written by American-Statesman staff writer Tony Plohetski, with additional reporting by the Statesman’s Perla Arellano, Ryan Autullo, Alejando Martinez-Cabrera, Nancy Flores, Taylor Goldenstein, Philip Jankowski, Claire Osborn and Sean Collins Walsh.