Undocumented and on Patrol in Texas
FORT WORTH, Texas — Jaime Carrillo emerges from his faded pink house wearing blue jeans, boots, and a black cowboy hat. After a long day at work laying cement for city streets, he is ready for a second shift — this time as a volunteer for the Fort Worth Police Department. He straps a walkie-talkie to his collar, slaps a “Citizens on Patrol” sticker on the side of his blue Nissan Sentra, and settles in the driver’s seat, hands gripping the steering wheel decorated with his daughter’s Hello Kitty decals.
“Tigre, Tigre,” Carrillo calls into the radio, addressing his partner. His own code name is “Meneaito,” the title of a popular salsa song. “I like to dance,” he explains in Spanish, shimmying his shoulders.
As he weaves his way around the roughly four miles of his regular patrol route through Polytechnic Heights — a low-income, largely immigrant neighborhood of Fort Worth known as “Poly” by locals — Carrillo, 40, never stops scanning his surroundings. He checks on the paleteros (popsicle sellers) who have been robbed repeatedly, the unsupervised children playing in the street, and the people loitering by the dismal-looking car wash. When he sees something amiss — front yards with mounds of trash (a violation of city code) or possible drug houses (identified by the suspicious number of cars parked out front, night after night) — he uses the radio to call his boss at the police department.
“We are doing what the police do,” Carrillo says. “We check to see that everything is tranquilo.”
In 1991, after a decade of explosive crime rates that gave Fort Worth the ominous nickname “Murder Worth,” the city’s police force launched a department overhaul, which included community policing initiatives like the Citizens on Patrol program that Carrillo joined seven years ago. It now boasts more than 730 volunteers, who each spend five to 14 hours a week monitoring their neighborhoods, and is credited with lowering the city’s rate of homicides, assaults, and auto thefts, as well as helping police keep gang activity in check.
For Carrillo, this volunteer job is a calling. If he could have become a police officer, he says, “I would have been one.”
A big obstacle has kept him from achieving that dream: Carrillo is not a U.S. citizen. Originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, Carrillo crossed the U.S.-Mexico border when he was 19. And though he has lived in Fort Worth for more than 20 years, has car insurance, steady job opportunities, and two American-born children, he has never been able to obtain a driver’s license or a Social Security number.
An estimated 1.6 million undocumented immigrants call Texas home, and many of them, like Carrillo, were drawn to fill low-skilled jobs in the state’s booming economy. Most have eked out industrious existences for years in full view of the government, sending their children to school and working for restaurants, gas stations, and construction companies.
When a police car drives by, Carrillo waves. “Maybe I know him, or maybe he knows me,” he says.
Police are aware that Carrillo, like many Citizens on Patrol participants, is not a citizen. But Fort Worth’s approach to law enforcement treats the city’s undocumented community as an asset — not a target. The police force’s general orders explicitly forbid officers from asking people about their immigration status for minor infractions. “If you’ve been stopped for traffic violations or for loitering somewhere by a police officer, it’s not going to escalate to getting your documents,” says Officer Daniel Segura, the Hispanic community liaison for the police department.
Besides working with the undocumented community through the Citizens on Patrol program, the police also host Spanish-language workshops at the department headquarters, where anyone can learn about police protocol, personal safety, and even how to shoot a gun.
Critics of this approach argue that not strictly enforcing immigration laws creates a government-protected class of rule breakers, and ultimately acts as a magnet, drawing increasing waves of migrants who feel no need to respect U.S. immigration laws. “We should not be encouraging this behavior,” says Ira Mehlman, the media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a think tank encouraging the U.S. government to clamp down on immigration. “There’s nothing that says illegal aliens shouldn’t worry that there might be some consequences for violating our laws.”
But representatives of the Fort Worth Police Department argue that they are following commonsense tactics employed by many other large, diverse cities, like Dallas and Houston. It keeps police focused on responding to criminal activity and ensures that all residents feel safe to report crimes. Volunteers are “our eyes and ears,” Segura explains. “If you are a person [who] is working hard and taking care of your community and involved in our city, then we don’t care about your legal status.” Years ago, he was also living illegally in Fort Worth. But thanks to President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration reform bill that allowed nearly 2.7 million people to legalize their status, Segura became a citizen and eventually a police officer.
In the current political climate, there is little hope for a similar reprieve for the estimated 11.3 million people living illegally in the United States. President Donald Trump has promised to implement a deportation force, build a wall on the southern border, and cut legal immigration in half. If anything, Texas is leading the crackdown. This month, a new state law is scheduled to go into effect: Senate Bill 4, which will allow police officers to ask anyone they’ve detained for their documents — for any reason. It could potentially upend Fort Worth’s policing strategy of working closely with immigrant communities to combat crime. “Who are they going to trust?” Segura asks.
The mood in Poly has darkened in recent months. Shoppers at a local market say they’ve made plans for their children to live with relatives if they are deported. Some tell stories of neighbors who, emboldened since the election of Trump, repeatedly call the police on them, apparently hoping they will be rounded up.
But Carrillo isn’t too concerned that his work for the department will be affected — yet. And he doesn’t like to dwell on the possibility of being sent back to Mexico. He listened to Trump’s notorious speech calling Mexicans “rapists” and heard Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s promises to “bring the hammer down” on sanctuary cities. But to Carrillo, Fort Worth is home, and the police officers he works with have assured him that they respect and value his contribution.
Three years ago, Carrillo won the first-place award for his work with the Citizens on Patrol program — an honor that included a special ceremony. “I said, ‘Golly! Me?’” He beams, relishing the memory of hearing his name called. It was a surprise to be recognized in such a setting, with the mayor and police chief in attendance. “I felt very” — he searches for the word, finally settling on English — “happy.”
As dusk falls, he heads home for the evening. “I would like to become more than this. To be a police officer,” he says wistfully. “I wish they would make laws to allow that. Ojalá.” God willing.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of FP magazine.