The Conejo brothers were construction workers in Austin with clean criminal records when a broken tail light and a patrolman’s decision landed them back in Mexico.
On February 11, Everardo Conejo-Barbosa and his brother, Juan Luis, were driving home from work on Interstate 35 when they saw a state trooper’s lights in the rearview. With Trump in the White House, and immigration agents all over town, they wondered if their time had come. It had.
The brothers, unauthorized Mexican immigrants with clean criminal records, had lived in Austin for several years, working construction jobs to support their families in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Two days before, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had launched a series of Austin-area raids that netted at least 51 arrests of mostly non-criminals.
According to a ticket obtained by the Observer, State Trooper Daniel Gonzalez Jr. pulled the brothers over near the Williamson County line for a broken tail light at around 1 p.m. After the brothers provided Mexican ID cards, Gonzalez contacted ICE and put the brothers in handcuffs. About 15 minutes later, ICE agents loaded the pair into a van and took them to the federal building downtown. Within 30 hours, they’d been deported to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Such collaboration with immigration agents is common near the Mexican border, but rare in the rest of the state. “I have not heard of this happening in our backyard,” said Nina Pruneda, ICE spokesperson for Central and South Texas.
Neither she nor a DPS spokesperson could provide statistics about their cooperation.
“I haven’t heard of this happening as far north as Austin,” said Astrid Dominguez, policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas. “But I think everyone’s fear is that it will start happening a lot more.”
San Antonio attorney Andres Perez told the Observer he has multiple clients who were detained by local officers for ICE since Trump’s election, adding such reports were exceedingly rare under Obama’s program to prioritize criminals. He said he expects to see more and more cases like the Conejo brothers’.
Advocates have long argued such cooperation crosses constitutional lines. DPS has the power to “refer” someone to immigration authorities but has no jurisdiction to enforce immigration law.
Detaining someone solely so ICE can arrive crosses the line, according to Edgar Saldivar of the ACLU of Texas. Saldivar said the Supreme Court, in the 2015 ruling Rodriguez v. United States, confirmed extending detention by as little as eight minutes can violate the Fourth Amendment.
DPS spokesperson Tom Vinger said departmental policy justifies the trooper’s actions. He said Gonzalez had “reasonable suspicion” that the brothers were undocumented, which justified the call to ICE. And from that point, he was acting “at the request, approval or instruction of a federal officer” in accordance with policy.
Vinger added the trooper had “concerns of possible gang affiliation.” A public record search revealed no criminal history for either brother, and DPS offered no specific grounds for the suspicion.
Juan Luis told the Observer his brother, who was driving, was profiled because of his numerous tattoos, including a butterfly and the face of Jesus Christ. “They’re just a hobby,” Juan Luis said. “He’s not a gangster.”
On the evening of February 12, the brothers were dropped off at the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Still 600 miles from home, they spent their last few dollars on bus fare.
Juan Luis said he’s now living with his wife and two young children, while Everardo lives with their mother. Juan said he’s working for $7 a day, and the family’s burning through their savings on diapers and clothes. “I’m thankful to the U.S. for everything it gave me,” he said. “If God allows me, I’ll return.”
Everardo was charged for driving without a license. He had a Williamson County court date on March 13th.