GRAND PRAIRIE — Rosa Ortega stirred herself awake at the sound of a prison guard yelling in her dreams.
“It’s just a nightmare,” Oscar Sherman assured her as the pair rested in his low-slung apartment complex in a desolate part of town. “It’s over now.”
“My mind’s not right,” Ortega said later that afternoon. “I have nightmares. I can’t combine foods. I’m always on top of everything, but my brain hurts. It can’t stop thinking about the situation.”
The situation is that Ortega, 37, voted illegally and has become the national face of voter fraud, a crime that President Trump and other Republicans believe is an epidemic endangering the integrity of American elections, even though no evidence supports the claim.
Mexican born and Texas raised, Ortega voted in Dallas County after filling out a registration form saying she was a U.S. citizen. She did the same after she moved one county over, which led detectives to knock on her door. Ortega told them she thought she could vote because she has a green card. Isn’t that enough?
It isn’t. After successfully convicting her on voter fraud charges, Texas Assistant Attorney General Jonathan White asked the jurors to deliver a punishment they thought was fair.
Before Ortega, “fair” usually resulted in a minor penalty — community service or probation. In the 38 illegal voting cases Texas has resolved since 2005, only one defendant received more than three years in prison. And that was a public official who admitted to registering noncitizens to help her win an election.
But by February 2017, the notion of what was fair had changed.
“Eight years,” Ortega remembers hearing, as her family started to sniffle in the background. After that, she would likely be deported to Mexico.
“Why?” Ortega wondered. “Why me, God? Eight years for signing a piece of paper wrong. I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t have any criminal record. Why am I the example?”
Her defense attorney, Clark Birdsall, said he was so upset at the jury members that he could not even look at them. But he didn’t entirely blame them.
Candidate Donald Trump warned of his own election being rigged, and President Trump baselessly alleged that as many as 5 million illegal ballots cost him the popular vote. With his claims that Mexico doesn’t send the United States “its best” and his calls for mass deportation, Trump had fostered “a sense of ill-will” toward minorities, Birdsall said. And he believed that atmosphere helped to “warp the perspective of the jurors.”
The case rippled across a country divided over the scale and impact of voter fraud and the assertions of opinion over facts. Did Ortega’s harsh sentence help to deter a societal problem, or was it the consequence of some modern-day myth?
For Ortega, who spent a month in jail and is out awaiting appeal, the consequences were severe. She was a sixth-grade dropout and mother of four teenagers, worked temp jobs, prayed in church and loved hugging her Chihuahua mixes. She lived with Sherman, the children and the pets in a two-floor apartment complex with chipped paint and broken air-conditioning, surrounded by a boarded-up key-making shop, an empty lot and a convenience store.
Three of the teenagers and two of the dogs, Little Girl and Mae, crowded her on the couch one recent afternoon while she watched Halle Berry movies. Her youngest, Gracie, 12, now always clinging to her mom, braided her waist-length brown hair into a long french braid. Half-eaten slices of pizza and their boxes were stacked on a wobbly dining table.
Out of nowhere, Ortega asked: “Who is coming with me to Mexico?”
“I will go, Mommy,” Gracie said.
“I won’t go,” 14-year-old Clara said. “But I’ll come visit.”
Her eldest, 16-year-old Rene, paused and looked down. “It’s just I can’t right now,” he said. His girlfriend was recently caught in a crossfire and got shot in the leg, and he couldn’t bear to think about leaving her. “She’s hurting.”
Now it was Ortega who was looking down. Her voice began to break.
“It’s good that you’re thinking about your future,” she said.
Her future seemed to rest on a country she thought had lost its sense of compassion. After her trial, the state’s Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, proclaimed that “the outcome sends a message that violators of the state’s election law will be prosecuted to the fullest.”
To Ortega, it was more than an insult. It was betrayal.
“I voted for him,” she said.
Ortega checks so many boxes that conservatives covet: Young. Female. Hispanic. She wasn’t much for politics before she met Sherman, but his father loved to watch Fox News and before long she found that she did, too.
“I always liked the idea of people doing things for themselves and being for business,” she said, explaining why she was a Republican. “And I’m religious.”
She first voted in Dallas County in 2004, records show. On a form, the county asked whether she was a U.S. citizen. The question was trickier to her than it seemed.
From the time she was in diapers, Ortega had bounced from one side of the border to the other with her mother. She settled in Dallas when she was about 13 after she received a green card, although she insists no one told her what that meant. She spoke English with a small twang and loved barbecue, and always viewed herself as “more than just an immigrant.” If the county was asking her to choose, she had little doubt which best represented her: citizen.
In 2006, two years after she first registered to vote, then-Attorney General Greg Abbott began a campaign to root out the “epidemic of voter fraud.”
Initially, some Texas Democrats agreed that mandatory photo IDs might be a good idea. State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said he had been open to the efforts, but he then “started to see cracks in the narrative. I started asking myself what is this about? It was clear this was about suppressing the vote of black and brown people.”
Support dissipated further after a PowerPoint by Abbott. Slide 25 showed a queue of citizens lining up to vote illegally — and they were all black. Slide 61 used a stamp encouraging testing for sickle cell anemia — a disease commonly found in blacks — as an example of an “unusual stamp” that should trigger concerns about foul play.
Democrats and Republicans agree that there is a problem with voter apathy in Texas — only West Virginia, Tennessee and Hawaii had lower participation rates in 2016.
Democrats say this is because of the state’s history of intimidating minority voters. Advocates have taken the state to court every time lawmakers have tried to redraw districts since 1970, arguing that they were attempting to dilute the voting power of growing black and Hispanic populations. Each time, the state lost.
Republicans say low turnout stems from an entrenched belief that the system is rigged.
“One thing in Texas is there’s one side that wins, and the other side thinks they cheat,” said state Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton, a lawmaker from the southeastern part of Texas. “That’s probably why more people don’t get off their taters and vote.”
Democrats beat back efforts to install a voter ID law until the swell in popularity of the tea party movement and, in 2011, Gov. Rick Perry fast-tracked the passage of the measure in an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature. After five years of legal battles, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled the law discriminatory in July and struck it down.
This year, Republicans in the legislature are pushing another voter ID law, although no agency has been able to identify widespread voter fraud — the Abbott investigation only yielded 38 cases of illegal voting out of more than 20 million votes. Lawmakers now say the law is needed not simply because they think there is a problem, but because they have created the perception of one.
“I don’t know if voter fraud exists, but people need to have faith in our system,” said state Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia. “Our Constitution rests on the right to have a reliable voting system. It shouldn’t be ignored or left unaddressed.”
Among the people who agree with this perspective is Rosa Ortega. She knows lots of people who distrust the voting process. She was in love with one of them.
Oscar Sherman, 27, a balding, red-haired trucker who prides himself on being such a Texas conservative that he is one of the “few people who didn’t turn his back on W.” — referring to George W. Bush. Still, he doesn’t vote. He said he thinks the system is too corrupt.
“Voter fraud happens every day,” Sherman said. “And it ain’t just Mexicans cheating. . . . I don’t even need to prove it, I know there are dead people voting and people who aren’t supposed to vote voting.”
During Ortega’s trial, prosecutors asked Sherman whether he suspected he was dating one of them. His response, he recalled, was, “that’s a stupid-ass question.”
“When you meet someone,” Sherman said, “you stare into her eyes, you ask her what she likes to do. You don’t ask what her citizenship status is.”
He first stared into her eyes at the Metro Diner in Dallas in 2008, where he was a morning regular who ribbed the new waitress for bringing his sweet tea in a glass and not in a to-go cup.
They went on a few dates and began to hit it off: two talkative Texans who loved watching movies. She developed a love for the country, riding with him through all 48 lower states. He taught her to shoot her first hog. After two years, they were engaged.
“I didn’t think I would fall in love with a guy like him,” Ortega said. “But he was kind and funny.”
In a matter of months, she and her children from a previous marriage moved into his house in Dallas and he took pride in being the provider for the family. “She makes me feel great, and makes me feel like a man,” he said.
They moved in 2014 from Dallas to Tarrant County — blue county to red county — so Ortega’s children could go to better schools. On Oct. 21 of that year, records show Ortega filled out a county voter registration form. This time she checked the box that said she was not a U.S. citizen.
That was accurate. But it also was a “mistake,” her attorney maintained. Ortega thought she was a citizen and had checked the wrong box.
White, who prosecuted her, thought “she probably forgot” that she needed to indicate she was a citizen to vote.
Ortega went to the polls eager to vote for Abbott, the attorney general behind the effort to eradicate voter fraud, to become the next governor of Texas. When she was denied, according to both lawyers, she called the county’s election department to explain the situation.
The supervisor told her either she was a citizen and could vote or she checked the wrong box, Birdsall said. Ortega asked for another form. This time, both lawyers agree, she checked U.S. citizen.
Nearly a year later, about 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2015, Ortega answered her door. There were two detectives with dogs who asked her to step outside, where they secretly recorded their conversation.
“Looks like you applied to register to vote,” Sgt. Boone Caldwell said to Ortega, according to the transcript.
“Mmhmm,” Ortega responded.
“So are you a citizen?” Caldwell asked.
“A U.S. citizen?”
“No, not U.S. citizen.”
“Okay, so did you know you can’t vote as a non-U.S. citizen?” Caldwell asked.
“I didn’t know that because Dallas never had, you know what I’m saying, like, a problem with that.”
The detectives showed her the voter registration forms.
“I mean they say you are a U.S. citizen and you signed it,” Caldwell said, “but you’re not . . . So yeah, don’t vote, don’t vote again until you get your citizenship.”
“I’m telling you I got that one,” Ortega said. “You know what I’m sayin’? I ain’t sending it no more.”
The interview was completed at 9:54 a.m. Ortega immediately called Sherman, who was delivering lettuce in New York.
“I think I’m going to jail,” she told him.
“That’s ridiculous,” he responded.
A month later, she was arrested.
Rene, Ortega’s oldest child, yelled at her for snitching on herself to the police, and then wondered whether his mom was being punished because he was a bad son. Sherman tried to keep her mind off things, planning a special trip to a casino in Oklahoma, where he said he splurged for a “corner room in a nice motel.”
By early 2016, Ortega was pregnant, soon to miscarry, she believes from the stress. “What if I go to jail and I’m pregnant,” she recalled feeling.
Sherman said he felt there was little to fret over. “Me, as the O.J. Simpson expert, watching the show, I wasn’t worried,” he said. “I knew all you need is a short, Mexican woman from the grocery store and you get a hung jury.”
The jury was composed of two men and 10 women, one of whom had a Hispanic surname and another who was African American. Transcripts from the trial are not yet available, but the lead attorneys, Ortega and Sherman all agreed on the details.
Birdsall said he felt confident that there was no way a jury with 10 women would lock up a mom. He painted Ortega as an ignorant woman who grew up with an abusive father and a criminal mother, trying to be better than her past. Even though she dropped out of school, she went to job corps and found work and wanted to participate in the democratic process.
She was not impersonating someone else or trying to rig an election. She just didn’t know the difference between a permanent resident and a citizen.
Ortega asserted that no one ever told her the difference, and suggested Tarrant County had tried to set her up. Instead of giving her another form, officials could have just stopped her from voting. Both attorneys agreed she did not present herself well. She came across as defiant and self-righteous, White said, with no sense of contrition.
“They tried to beat me on the stand, but they didn’t beat me,” Ortega said. “Because I got up there and told them the truth. But the problem was no one wanted to listen to me. It was like I was looking in [a] den of lions.”
The prosecutor asked the jury to think about the sanctity of American democracy. He noted that some people say voter fraud doesn’t exist, but wondered how they could really know if, like Ortega, they could just falsely check “U.S. citizen” on a piece of paper.
“It’s not just about one vote,” White said he told the jury. It was about safeguarding the entire American system.
White thought she might get five years in prison, the same sentence as the convicted council woman. But the jury thought otherwise. “They wanted to send a message and, quite frankly, it was heard,” White said.
Ortega hugged Sherman on her way out of the courtroom and tried to be strong. Sherman said he felt his heart drop.
“Me and Rosa had plans. The whole family had plans,” he said. “We’d have a house in the country, and just be that Brady Bunch kind of family. Dogs and cats and a yard and everything.”
Ortega wondered whether the jury considered the consequences on her life. “They did this like it was one big game,” Ortega recalled. “But they didn’t realize they were playing with my life. And then I thought, oh no, I’m not going to see my kids no more.”
Rene stopped going to school. Little Girl, the Chihuahua-dachshund mix, refused to budge from a pile of Ortega’s dirty clothes. Sherman struggled to pay the bills because Ortega used to do that. He planned to get a trucking job on the border, crisscrossing like Ortega did back when she was a child.
Ortega wished they would just send her back to Mexico instead of prison. “Why keep me in the country?” she wondered. “Trump doesn’t want me anyway.”
After a month in jail, she was released on $11,111 bond. Sherman rented the movie “22 Jump Street” and bought pork chops to make for dinner. But her stomach was so upset she could barely touch Sherman’s meal. Only sour foods, like pickles, suited her.
Her life became a race — one day trying to secure passports for her kids, the next trying to figure out if she could still be eligible for U.S. citizenship. She resumed her fledgling career as a model, under the moniker “Fame,” and earned some money as an extra in music videos.
She told Sherman, whose name was tattooed on the back of her neck, to find someone else. Their engagement was over. “Move on with your life,” she said one evening. “What are you going to do in Mexico? Do you know what they say they do to white people there? I can’t put you in danger.”
“We’re just lost in the neighborhood right now — we don’t have a GPS or a map or nothing,” Sherman said. “She can move on and meet Jose or Jesus in Mexico, but she knows she is the only woman I will ever love, and I think she still loves me.”
Every day was a struggle to get back on the map.
“This is just like normal, hey Ma?” Sherman asked on a recent Saturday as Ortega watched a movie while he played a college football video game.
“Yeah, Dad,” she said — a term of affection. Rene and Clara hung out on the couch, while the youngest unbraided her hair to braid it again. A moment without stress. Until it was pierced by the case looming over all of them.
“You all should still vote,” Ortega said to her children.
“No!” they shouted in unison.
“I won’t vote because I’m scared after your experience,” Gracie said. “But you all are citizens,” Ortega told them. “It’s different.”
Rene said he learned in prelaw class that citizens have a right to vote — but that doesn’t mean they have to. “And I don’t want to in this country anymore,” he said. “I think, with Trump in, the country’s kinda racist now.”
“Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the 1960s,” Sherman said. “But instead of it being the blacks, it’s now the Mexicans.”
“It is true,” Ortega said. “I don’t think it would have been as bad if I weren’t Mexican. People are into looking at color again in this country.”
Ortega said she hoped, at least, that her plight might have been a lesson to others. But in her home it was doing no good: Sherman felt no better about the sanctity of the electoral system and her children planned to never step into a voting booth.
Her family in Mexico had told her she shouldn’t fear returning to Monterrey. There were new houses and hotels. It was no longer a place of dusty roads and feral chickens. “It’s not the same country anymore,” they told her.
Sitting with her despondent children, now pessimistic about the American promise, she shook her head. This country, too, she thought, was no longer the same.
Texas Tribune staff writer Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.