News Room

Critics cry foul over DPS license checkpoint plan
November 12, 2008

The state agency that imposed new rules barring illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses is requesting authority to set up statewide driver's license checkpoints, part of what several lawmakers suspect is a plan to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Written by James Pinkerton and Susan Carroll, Houston Chronicle


The state agency that imposed new rules barring illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses is requesting authority to set up statewide driver's license checkpoints, part of what several lawmakers suspect is a plan to crack down on illegal immigrants.

A number of state legislators argue the Department of Public Safety Commission overstepped its authority Aug. 25 by issuing new rules requiring applicants to prove they are here legally before they can obtain or renew a Texas driver's license. Their suspicions deepened when, two weeks later, the commission's chairman asked Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott if it was legal for the commission to set up driver's license checkpoints.

Staffed by state troopers or local police, the checkpoints would stop drivers to review their licenses, vehicle registrations and proof of insurance.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, believes the two commission actions are taking aim at policing immigration.

''A state agency is making immigration policy for the state of Texas, and that is not their job," McClendon said.

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, said when commission chairman Allan B. Polunsky asked Abbott's office about authorizing checkpoints, she figured the target was drunken drivers.

''But when I saw the driver's license regulations, I said, 'Maybe they're not after Texas' drunk drivers, but maybe they're after undocumented people and this is a mechanism to get them," Van de Putte said.

She and 14 other Texas lawmakers sent Abbott a letter asking him to ignore the commission's legal opinion request because the Legislature has not authorized a DPS checkpoint program. It's unclear when Abbott will issue his opinion.

Polunsky did not return calls for comment.

Gov. Rick Perry favors the checkpoints, said spokeswoman Allison Castle. ''Police officers and law enforcement believe this is an important technique in protecting the public, and to that end, the governor supports providing our law enforcement officers with the tools they need to ensure public safety," Castle said.

DPS spokeswoman Tela Mange said license requirements were tightened for security reasons, changes other states have made since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

''We are not enforcing the federal immigration laws," Mange said. "We are ensuring that applicants for Texas driver's licenses and ID cards have legal presence in the United States."

State Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, called checkpoints a ''tremendous asset" that could cut down on drunken driving, car theft and motorists whose licenses have been revoked.

''For the people who want to erase our borders, for people who don't care if our laws are broken, and for people who are driving illegally, and for those who think that's fine, yes, this could be a problem," Riddle said.

Random traffic stops illegal

Checkpoints have not been allowed in Texas since the state Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in 1994 they must be authorized by a ''politically accountable governing body at the state level." That case involved a sobriety checkpoint in Arlington.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that random traffic stops to check driver's licenses, where officers did not have reasonable suspicion, were unconstitutional.

However, the ruling does not prevent state ''spot checks that involve less intrusion or that do not involve the unconstrained exercise of discretion," the justices wrote. ''Questioning of all oncoming traffic at roadblock-type stops is one possible alternative."

DPS Capt. Jerome Powell, who supervises driver's license offices in Houston, said the new regulations won't stop illegal immigrants from driving.

''They have to survive and go to work," Powell said.

No official tally exists of how many of Texas' estimated 1.7 million illegal immigrants have a driver's license.

DPS officials say nearly 3 million noncitizens are among the approximately 20 million Texas residents who carry state documents. They include 1.81 million noncitizens with licenses and another 1 million immigrants who have been issued state identity cards.

One indicator of the undocumented component of Texas license holders may be the nearly 380,000 applicants who filed DPS forms since June 2003 indicating they did not have a Social Security number.

Concerns about profiling

Activists worry that the new immigrant driver's licenses, along with checkpoints, are a recipe for profiling immigrants.

''Our number one concern is the potential for profiling since it puts the immigration identifier on the license," said Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It leads to potential profiling, whether it's a police officer who is going to scrutinize someone closer, or a landlord who may not want to rent out a property."

One person who could get caught in the checkpoints is Susanne Dennis, a 40-year-old legal immigrant from Germany.

In 2005, she came to the U.S. on a fiancé visa after falling for her now-husband, Michael Dennis, a 43-year-old security technician she met on the Internet. After they married in Maryland, Susanne was granted a provisional green card and obtained a Maryland driver's license.

Then Michael was transferred to Houston, and the coupled settled in Spring.

On Oct. 29, Susanne tried to apply for a Texas driver's license at DPS office in Humble, only to discover she didn't have acceptable proof of legal status.

Susanne had been granted a one-year extension so she could work in the U.S. while awaiting a permanent green card. But the form showing her extension was not on the list of accepted documents, so DPS turned her away.

Susanne, who works in Montrose, now drives into the city each morning fearful of being stopped by police. She feels lucky to still have a valid Maryland license and car insurance through her husband.

She's upset that she can't comply with Texas law requiring a driver's license within 30 days of moving to the state.

''What if a state trooper pulls me over?" Susanne said. ''What do I show him?"

Related Stories

Fair Use Notice
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a "fair use" of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond "fair use", you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.