AUSTIN — Federal immigration officials confirmed to a Texas congressman on Friday that they are conducting a specialized operation in the Austin area and beyond to capture unauthorized immigrants with criminal records.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, confirmed that targeted operations are taking place in Central and South Texas in a program that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are calling Operation Cross Check.
Castro, in a news release, said he learned of the operation from ICE’s San Antonio office. The operation appears to be targeting unauthorized immigrants with criminal records, according to the Mexican consul general in Austin and a Washington Post report that said such operations are occurring in six states.
Carlos González Gutiérrez, Mexico’s consul general in Austin, said his office has seen a “clearly visible uptick” in detentions of Mexican immigrants by federal immigration officials across Central Texas in recent days.
The consulate is notified every time a Mexican immigrant is detained in the Austin metro area. In recent years, that has meant about four or five people a day. On Thursday, they were notified of 14 immigrants in federal custody. On Friday, they learned of 30 more detentions, González Gutiérrez said.
The operation appears to have been underway since Thursday. On Friday, agents in Northwest Austin arrested at least one person suspected of having entered the country illegally during an incident in which an ICE agent was injured, according to authorities.
According to friends of the detained person, Hugo Baltazar-Ramirez, ICE agents pulled him over about 6 a.m. near U.S. 183 and Anderson Mill Road while he was driving to work.
The incident was the first solid indication of an ICE operation in Austin after swirling rumors of raids had grown for days among the immigrant community and local activists. Many of them thought that Travis County had become a ripe target for increased immigration enforcement since Sheriff Sally Hernandez ended blanket cooperation with ICE agents on Feb. 1.
Armed with proof that ICE was conducting a new operation in Austin, some city leaders Friday promised swift action to aid unauthorized immigrants. The aid will take the form of an emergency appropriation for legal assistance for people who might be targeted by immigration authorities.
City Council Member Greg Casar announced at a press conference in North Austin that the proposed legal aid would be on the council’s agenda next week.
Casar called ICE’s actions “reprehensible” acts of “retribution” from Gov. Greg Abbott, President Donald Trump “and their ilk” as part of their efforts to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities.
“These ICE actions are politically motivated and morally bankrupt,” he said.
Some Austin school district teachers Friday passed out fliers about immigrant rights and about how to react if ICE agents come knocking on their doors.
ICE officials were forced to acknowledge the enforcement action in Austin in part because one of their agents was injured during the Friday morning detention. Officials described the injuries as minor. The agent was treated and released.
Two women were also arrested in the incident on warrants, Austin police said.
Austin police were called to the scene, but by the time they got there, the situation appeared to be under control and the ICE agent had already detained Baltazar-Ramirez, officials said.
It appears Austin police have been kept in the dark about ICE operations in the city. Interim Police Chief Brian Manley said ICE didn’t notify police of any new operation in Austin.
“We were not aware that there was an operation going on,” Manley said.
He flatly denied comments circulating on social media that Austin police were assisting ICE agents, who have been spotted making arrests across Austin.
Baltazar-Ramirez, who is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, was able to contact his girlfriend, Angel Velazquez, and her sister Teresa Rodriguez to tell them that he was about to be arrested. Velazquez and her sister-in-law Jazmin Zarate drove to the scene. Rodriguez and her mother, Teresa Velazquez, later arrived as well.
“They giggled in our face and we told them, ‘You know, he has a right to know why he is being arrested, why y’all pulled him over,’” Rodriguez said. “They could not tell us why.”
Angel Velazquez and Zarate were eventually arrested for outstanding warrants. Velazquez was released Friday afternoon. They were unsure where Baltazar-Ramirez was.
The incident has stoked fears in Austin’s immigrant community, leading Teresa Velazquez to keep four of her grandchildren home from school Friday and her family locked inside their home.
She told her husband to lock the door to their home and stay inside because “we have immigration sitting there, deporting anyone who wants to come over to my home,” Teresa Velasquez said.
Council Member Delia Garza said ICE’s actions have created a “ripple effect” in the immigrant community.
“The ripple effects are families are in fear, children are in fear, it has invited fear into this community, and that is not Austin, and it is not American either,” Garza said.
Ahora Sí reporter Perla Arellano and Statesman reporters James Barragan, Katie Hall and Mark D. Wilson contributed to this report.