When Texas state troopers announced last month they were setting up checkpoints on roads heading in and out of the poorest areas of the Rio Grande Valley, the community felt targeted-and terrorized. Officers were asking for identification. There was talk about deportations. The police presence was enough to disrupt daily life.
But within days, the community did something extraordinary: they organized themselves. And they did it using tools few knew they had.
The experience offered well-established activist groups a lesson in what moves their constituency—and how social media can play an unexpected role. Within days, 53,000 people had signed on to “like” a Spanish-language Facebook page set up to provide up-to-the-minute information on checkpoint locations. And a community was on fire.
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“It was quite an experience, and quite an awakening for all of us,” said Marta Sanchez, of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE.) “Hopefully we can learn from it and use it in a way to mobilize people.”
The Texas state patrol, known as the Department of Public Safety (DPS), announced the checkpoints on Sept. 13 as part of a larger law enforcement initiative. They said the initiative would be short-term, in targeted areas where there was higher rates of “unsafe driving behaviors,” like driving without a license or insurance, than other communities. There was also a concern over “various criminal activities.”
Weeks of tensions ensued. Residents of the targeted areas, communities known as colonias and that are predominantly Latino, were convinced the effort was about catching undocumented immigrants. DPS says otherwise. “Regulatory checkpoints have not and will not be used to ascertain immigration status,” press secretary Tom Vinger wrote in an email to Equal Voice News. He added that reports about the Border Patrol being stationed alongside DPS were “blatantly false.”
Still, the agency was sending mixed messages. A press release named the Border Patrol as part of the broader initiative. And the lieutenant governor announced that DPS was showing the U.S. government “how to secure the border” by coordinating the work of federal, state and local agencies.
Police concluded their initiative on Saturday, but the Border Patrol’s involvement remains murky. There are photos on social media showing federal agents side-by-side with local law enforcement, but community groups had not documented any cases where the two agencies were manning a checkpoint together.
Equal Voice News contacted Texas-based spokespeople for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection for comment but received automatic email responses from two of them, saying they were out of the office “due to the lapse of appropriations and the emergency furlough.”
In any case, residents knew that if they didn’t’ have their papers, they had better watch out. People were afraid to go to work; they skipped shopping trips and Sunday mass. Some parents were even afraid to bring their kids to school.
“The community is terrorized,” Hector Guzman Lopez of the South Texas Civil Rights Project, said in the midst of the initiative.
When the checkpoints popped up, the issue wasn’t even on LUPE’s radar. Yet hundreds of calls were pouring in. Callers were adamant LUPE had to do something. But what? Ultimately, they took steps like organizing protests.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas became involved, asking DPS to document its reasoning and provide statistics showing the results. That request is pending.
“They set these things up in the poorest neighbors in the Valley…where they’re more likely to ensnare folks who are undocumented,” said executive director Terri Burke. “It seems racially targeted. You might even call it profiling.”
But there was still the immediate problem that people were scared to leave their homes. For that, community members took matters into their own hands. They texted friends, alerting them to checkpoints in their neighborhoods. They offered to run errands for people who were reluctant to venture out.
But some people hit on a broader strategy: social media.
Three Facebook pages were set up where residents could post alerts - “check point on East Ave. Brownsville” – and share their thoughts. A Spanish language page quickly amassed 53,000 “likes,” and two English-language pages totaled nearly 40,000 between them. Some of the comments, particularly on the English-language pages, applaud the DPS efforts, but the majority are anti-checkpoint.
“OMG whoever put this page up THANK YOU SO MUCH,” one person wrote.
To LUPE, the outpouring was eye-opening. They had long assumed their constituency wasn’t on social media. They were wrong.
“We never had that many hits on any other issue,” Sanchez said, adding, “I think it was motivated by fear.”
They also learned they had unlikely allies. Sanchez realized that even conservative talk radio was uncomfortable with the checkpoints, which felt to some like a loss of liberty.
“Checkpoints aren’t just for undocumented people,” she noted. “All of us have to go through.” As Congress considers beefing up border security, “this is what they’re talking about. We really got a taste of what it is to be increasingly militarized.”
With tens of thousands of people up in arms about the checkpoints, there is momentum for reform. LUPE hopes to capitalize on that to change laws, especially one that prevents undocumented immigrants from getting drivers licenses in Texas.
Will the checkpoint brouhaha lead to lasting community involvement? “We really don’t know,” she said. “But at least we know what issues they’re passionate about.”