Bayou City

Man Claims Harris County Deputy Asked for Immigration Status, Threatened to Call ICE

Victor Ibarra tells his story outside City Hall
Victor Ibarra tells his story outside City Hall Screenshot/Facebook/CW39
Last week, something ironic happened to Victor Ibarra as he was driving to City Hall to protest SB 4: He says he became a victim of exactly what SB 4 is intended to do.

Ibarra got into a minor traffic accident on Veterans Memorial Drive on his way to the demonstration on Tuesday, the day before Houston City Council voted to join the lawsuit against the anti-immigrant law. When Harris County Sheriff's Office deputies arrived, Ibarra says one asked him for his driver's license, but all Ibarra had was his Mexican passport and matrícula consular, an ID card provided by the Mexican government.

Then, Ibarra says, the deputy asked him about his immigration status — the power that SB 4 gives all cops to use while detaining someone for any reason. Problem is, that's not supposed to go into effect until September.

"The officer said, 'Are you legal or illegal in the United States?'" Ibarra recalled during a press conference at City Hall. "I said, 'I don't want to answer that question. I'd rather my lawyer answer that question for me.' He kept asking, 'Are you illegal or not? If you don't answer, I'm gonna have to call ICE.'"

"I was nervous. I was scared. But I was calm. I was trying to answer all the questions, but I know my rights," Ibarra said.

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Ibarra continued to refuse to answer the question.

"It happened so fast," Ibarra said. "I was nervous. I was scared. But I was calm. I was trying to answer all the questions, but I know my rights."

The Harris County Sheriff's Office has since opened an Internal Affairs investigation into Ibarra's allegations, which will "include a thorough review of all actions taken" by the deputies at the site of the collision, spokesman Tom Gilliland said in a statement.

Asked whether current HCSO policy prohibits deputies from asking people about their immigration status on the street, spokesman Jason Spencer said the sheriff's office doesn't have a policy about this; it does have one that prohibits racial profiling, he said. But back in February, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told the Houston Press in an interview about immigration policy, "We don't delve into someone's immigration status at the field level. It's post-arrest. It's when somebody has been arrested for a crime." (ICE has access to this information once inmates are in the jail and can place immigration detainers on people suspected of being in the country illegally.)

Asked whether this statement was not reflective of a policy, Spencer responded, "It's not a written policy because it hasn't been an issue, at least not until the legislature made it one."  

Dr. David Smith of the Houston Socialist Movement, which organized the press conference, told reporters:  "When incidents like this — minor traffic accidents — turn into a pretext for questioning people about their legal status, that's a problem, and threatening to call ICE on him, that's a problem too. And all of this is before Senate Bill 4 goes into effect on September 1. This is what undocumented immigrants and immigrants in the process of normalizing their legal status go through every day, every week, every month, and it's really outrageous."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn