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Legislators Seek to Overturn Anti-Gay Birth Certificate Law

LGBT group says the 1997 restriction hurts kids, calling it ‘the lowest form of politics’.
Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark
Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark

 

The day Andy Miller and Brian Stephens jointly adopted their son Clark in 2007 was among the happiest of their lives.

But the couple’s elation turned to disappointment when they walked out of the courtroom and down a hall to the Travis County Clerk’s Office.

That’s when Miller and Stephens realized they faced a difficult choice, because they couldn’t include both of their names on Clark’s supplemental birth certificate.

“As he got older, it became less about us and it became more about him,” Miller said this week of Clark, now 7. “This is his document that he’ll carry with him the rest of his life, and it very clearly only lists half of his family on it, and that’s when we kind of became angry and said the state is treating our son differently because of who his parents are, not because of anything he has done or hasn’t done. This needs to change because of our kids. The state is basically targeting them for unequal treatment.”

The Texas Legislature added a provision to the Health & Safety Code in 1997 requiring supplemental birth certificates issued to adoptive parents to contain the name of one female, the mother, and one male, the father.

According to the legislation’s author, former state Rep. Will Hartnett (R-Dallas), it was part of a renewed commitment to “conservative values.” But Hartnett acknowledged last year that the law should be revisited if it’s negatively impacting children.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) plans to introduce a bill for the fourth consecutive session that would remove gender requirements for adoptive parents on supplemental birth certificates. And for the first time, a companion to Anchia’s bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate later today by Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston).

Many judges in Texas routinely grant joint adoptions to same-sex couples, so the legislation wouldn’t create new parental rights. But not having accurate birth certificates causes problems when it comes to enrolling children in school, adding them to insurance policies, admitting them for medical care and obtaining passports.

Anchia, whose bill has never made it out of committee, said if it fails to do so in 2015, he plans to force a floor vote by offering it as an amendment, and he’s confident it will pass.

“I think if you asked every member of the Legislature, they would say they care about orphaned children, and if we can get them to understand that this bill is about children and not about who their parents are, then that should carry the day,” Anchia told the Observer this week. “There’s no doubt that this policy has cruel effects.”

According to Equality Texas, the birth certificate restriction is among the inequities facing the LGBT community that wouldn’t be solved by legalization of same-sex marriage—since it involves the relationship between a parent and a child, not between parents.

About 9,200 same-sex couples in Texas are raising children, according to Census estimates, but it’s unclear how many are adoptive parents.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, called the birth certificate restriction “the lowest form of politics possible—if you don’t like someone, attack their children.”

Williams said the legislation filed by Anchia and Garcia on Wednesday has bipartisan support in both chambers, but added that he didn’t know of any Republican legislators who’d be willing to publicly endorse the bills at this stage.

Two years ago, Anchia’s bill faced opposition from the anti-LGBT group Texas Values. The group’s president, Jonathan Saenz, said in media interviews it would result in the words “mother” and “father” being removed from all birth certificates. PolitiFact rated Saenz’s claims “mostly false.”

Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said Texas is one of only a handful of states that don’t issue accurate birth certificates to same-sex adoptive parents.

A few years ago, Upton challenged a similar law in Louisiana and won in district court before the decision was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Upton said he’s interested in challenging the Texas law, too—and plans to do so eventually if it isn’t overturned legislatively—but he added that “no one thinks the time is right in the 5th Circuit.”

Miller and Stephens said they remain focused on the Legislature, where they see an opportunity to change hearts and minds.

Two years ago, when Miller and Stephens lobbied on behalf of Anchia’s bill, they took Clark with them, and his gregariousness helped initiate conversations with even the most conservative legislators.

Earlier this year, Clark pulled a wagon into the attorney general’s office containing thousands of petitions calling for Attorney General Greg Abbott to stop defending Texas’ marriage bans.

Miller and Stephens, who also run a support group and website for gay dads, The Handsome Father, said they view their activism as a way of setting an example for their son.

“If he doesn’t like something and feels that something needs to change, we want him to see that he can be a part of that change,” Miller said.

CPPP chart on kinship care benefits
Center for Public Policy Priorities/Texas Department of Family and Protective Services/Kids Count Data Center

A quarter-million Texas children are living with family members other than their parents, and many aren’t getting the state and federal benefits they’re due, according to a report released Tuesday.

When the state of Texas decides a parent is no longer able to care for their child, formal procedures dictate a few options: children may be placed with foster families, or in group homes or residential treatment centers. Or children may be placed into what’s known as kinship care, living with family members through a court order or an arrangement with the state. Children and their caregivers get health and financial benefits, and often a caseworker to help them navigate the system.

But a new report from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Austin-based policy analysis group, estimates that many more Texas children are living with relatives or family friends without the state’s involvement, and without the benefits they’re entitled to receive.

“Kinship caregivers are raising some of Texas’ most vulnerable children in challenging circumstances, and their service saves the state millions of dollars each year,” said Rachel Cooper, the report’s lead author and a senior policy analyst with CPPP, in a statement. “Texas has the opportunity to ease the financial burden of becoming a caregiver by providing the support families need to offer stable, loving homes for children in need.”

The report, “Keeping Kids with Family: How Texas Can Better Support Kinship Care,” notes that informal kinship caregivers are more likely to be “poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed than traditional families with at least one parent present.” Yet these caregivers often face significant barriers to getting public benefits like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Caregivers may not have access to the documentation necessary to receive benefits for a child, or they may hesitate to take a “handout” from the government. The report shows a small percentage of these caregivers enroll children in Medicaid, even though almost all children qualify if they live in households other than their parents’.

Much of the problem, according to the report, is that the agencies that run support programs aren’t reaching informal caregivers, and the application process can be cumbersome and confusing.

The report estimates 253,000 children live in informal kinship arrangements in Texas, the second most in the nation after California. There are 27,000 children in state custody, either in formal kinship care or paid foster care, under the Department of Family and Protective Services. But that much smaller group receives far more attention from the state.

The Center for Public Policy Priorities says one solution is to establish a Kinship Navigator Program, where the state could partner with an existing nonprofit that would continue to educate caregivers and serve as a referral network for services. The report says the Legislature should also raise TANF payments to caregivers.

“To support families and keep children out of the state’s already overburdened foster care system,” the report states, “Texas should move quickly to ease the financial burden of becoming a kinship caregiver in Texas.”

Under the state’s formal kinship program, caregivers receive at least $400 a month. Foster families get, at minimum, just under $700 per child. But the most an informal kinship caregiver receives is $96 per month from TANF programs for one child. That is hardly enough money, says Angie Grindon with the Houston-based Relatives as Parents Program. The program helps keep kids out of state care by helping caregivers access resources and educate them about their new roles.

“We need to raise the awareness of all of the folks out there throughout our community that are doing this and raising our children,” Grindon says. “If you don’t have the kinship caregivers stepping up to take care of these children, they’re going to end up in [state custody], and that’s gonna require state money to take care of them.”

Grindon says the first two years of informal kinship placements are the most difficult, but keeping children in their family or community is often best. “When you take on an extra child, there’s extra money involved,” she says. “People do not want their children to go into the CPS system. They much prefer that they stay with a relative without having to become a ‘child of the state,’ so to speak. People really step up to keep the children in their own extended family as much as possible, but they struggle tremendously.”

Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams
Patrick Michels
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks at a Texas Charter Schools Association conference.

This was already going to be a record year for charter school closures in Texas. Before this week, state regulators had already moved to close eight charters in 2014. But on Tuesday, the Texas Education Agency announced 14 more were on the chopping block—the largest single revocation the state’s ever seen.

Sweeping new charter school legislation passed in 2013 encouraged new charters to open and made it easier to close struggling ones. But the charter growth promised in Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick’s bill—which lifted the state’s cap on charters and encouraged successful charters from out-of-state to come to Texas—hasn’t materialized so far.

The bill also required schools to give up their charters after three consecutive years of low student performance or financial accountability scores. And by that measure, the bill is showing significant results:

All but one of the 23 charter revocations this year were mandatory under the new law. (Deion Sanders’ Prime Prep Academy is the other.) Texas has moved to revoke almost as many charters in 2014 as it did in all other years combined. In just this year, Texas has begun revoking more than one-tenth of the charters in the state. (Here’s a spreadsheet with more details on the schools slated for closure, and TEA’s letters to the schools.)

David Dunn, who directs the Texas Charter Schools Association, responded to news of the revocations Tuesday by saying he supports closing schools when it’s warranted, but that “the charter revocation process must include a fair and transparent review.” (He also reminded Education Commissioner Michael Williams of his “responsibility” to grow and recruit successful charters.)

But Tuesday’s news won’t come as a surprise to many of the schools, which should have known months ago that their latest state ratings set them up for closure. If recent closure attempts are any clue, though, they won’t all go quietly. The 14 schools targeted by the state yesterday have until Jan. 12 to appeal the decision, triggering a review process that takes months.

Prime Prep opened as usual this fall despite mixed messages about whether the state would let it. Honors Academy defied the state by opening as usual this year as well, becoming what Commissioner Williams called “a de facto private school.”

Before the law changed in 2013, closing down a Texas charter school was an incredibly messy business, almost certain to entail a lengthy legal fight. The new rules are meant to create clear standards for charters, and clear consequences for those that don’t make the grade.

But there are also lots of ways to run afoul of the new law, sometimes just by a hair. Transformative Charter Academy in Killeen, one of the 14 schools put on notice yesterday, maintained solid academic performance but missed the financial cutoff by just one or two points in the last three years. Ignite Public Schools, with over 1,000 students in the Rio Grande Valley, wound up on the list after barely missing a single academic measure—the “performance gap” between its economically disadvantaged students and better-off students around the state. Lynda Plummer, founder of Bright Ideas Charter School in Wichita Falls, told lawmakers last month that her school failed its financial rating one year because its audit was one day late.

And there’s also the question of whether some charters on this list scored low because they attracted, and kept, students who typically score lower on tests. Compare the 22 schools slated for mandatory closure to the total of charter school enrollment in Texas:

Three schools fighting to keep their charters have sued over the new law, claiming their evaluations haven’t been fair. One school leader has suggested he’s being targeted because he runs a small, locally raised charter and not a powerful out-of-state network.

Lawmakers in the Capitol spoke proudly last year about the good charters that would come to Texas, and the bad charters that would be shut down, as a result of the new law. So far those new charters have been slow to arrive, and the ones slated for closure span a wide range—some look pretty bad, others maybe got a tough break.

Last year’s law, which passed with fairly broad and bipartisan support, was the most dramatic change to Texas’ charter school system since its creation 20 years ago. When lawmakers return to the Capitol next month, they may not be too happy with what they got.

With the out-of-town madness of the Austin City Limits and Fun Fun Fun festivals comfortably behind us, and the madness of South By Southwest comfortably distant, it’s set to be a comparatively quiet few months for music aficionados here in Austin. As we fall back on the rich everyday rhythm of local concerts, it’s a good time to take a step back and contemplate the musical landscape of Texas as a whole.

oxford-american-157 (1)On Dec. 9, at 6 p.m., Oxford American magazine will debut its Texas Music issue at Waterloo Records and Video on North Lamar. Several of the issue’s contributors will be there to read from their respective pieces, among them Wimberley writer and Texas historian Joe Nick Patoski, whose occasional contributions to The Texas Observer include a 2006 interview with another Oxford American-Texas Music contributor, Austin Chronicle co-owner and SXSW cofounder Louis Black. Patoski writes about Willie Nelson drummer Paul English in the issue. Black writes about Daniel Johnston.

Michelle Garcia—a new Texas Observer columnist starting in the January issue—has a long and lovely piece about Tejano music in the issue. She’ll be on hand for a read-and-mingle as well.

The magazine’s companion anthology album—always an eclectically curated highlight of the Oxford American‘s annual music issues, of which the current iteration is the first devoted solely to Texas—features a stylistic gamut encompassing Los Super 7 and Spoon, Kinky Friedman and Sarah Jarosz, Buddy Holly and Ornette Coleman, Johnny Winter and Barbara Lynn. Texas music is way too expansive a turf to wrap up in a single 25-song sampler, but as 25-song samplers go, this one is exceptional.

Both the issue and the album will be available for sale at Waterloo. There will also be an autograph session with the featured writers.

Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban
Garrett Graham
A parade in favor of Denton's fracking ban

 

The exhilaration my neighbors and I felt on election night after Denton’s referendum to ban fracking passed by an overwhelming majority lasted about 12 hours or so. But by the next morning Denton was under assault—not only from the oil and gas industry, but from Austin bureaucrats and politicians.

The city was slammed with lawsuits from the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office, now headed by George Prescott Bush. In true “Bush Doctrine” fashion, the lawsuits seek the preemption of Denton’s democratic process, attempting to halt the ban’s enforcement before it began.

This backlash from the oil and gas industry and their bought-and-paid-for legislators in Austin was more than anticipated by those of us who have struggled against fracking in Denton for more than five years. On election night, moments after the results were announced, the only words that the president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, Cathy McMullen, could muster were: “Bring it.”

We’re certainly not naïve about what it means to rebuff fracking in the shale where the technique was pioneered. But it’s the response from the Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick that seems to have struck a raw nerve here in Denton.

Craddick told The Dallas Morning News in early November that she would continue issuing drilling permits to the industry for fracking operations in our city. “I believe it’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s,” she told the Morning News. Her comment was not only a reactionary and obstinate slap in the face, but revealed the lengths to which the Railroad Commission will go to protect the interests of the very industry it regulates.

Craddick’s comments make little sense to Denton residents who’ve watched city council members use their home-rule authority to approve various drilling permits over the years. Indeed, it was the issuance of special use permits, like the one granted to Range Resources in 2009 to drill across the street from a public park and a hospital, that set off the movement against fracking in Denton.

Adding further insult to injury, the Denton Record-Chronicle published an op-ed from Craddick in November that attempted to explain how we had been manipulated into our beliefs by unnamed groups:

Since hydraulic fracturing became a widely used practice in Texas, it has been plagued by a cloud of misinformation, mainly due to groups more interested in scaring people than actually understanding the complex science of minerals extraction.

In the op-ed, she implores Denton residents to “work together” with the Railroad Commission to “find solutions” even after publicly stating she would continue to issue permits for fracking operations in Denton.

Craddick’s op-ed is not just patronizing, it is myopic, revealing how little she understands about the regulatory situation that brought Denton to this point. Since Range Resources’ McKenna Park gas well was drilled in 2009, residents and city staff have tried every single institutional avenue available to regulate fracking in Denton.

The battle over the McKenna Park gas well prompted the city to review its entire drilling ordinance in 2009, and despite an industry-stacked gas drilling task force, which vetted the proposed changes to Denton’s drilling ordinance, the community was able to pressure the City Council to approve a stronger set of new rules, including a 1,200-foot setback requirement.

But after the new rules were passed, the gas companies found a loophole, arguing that their permits to frack pre-existing gas wells were grandfathered under the old rules. This is the history that Craddick doesn’t understand; it’s what led voters in Denton to pass the frack ban in a landslide.

There’s something else that Craddick’s comments fail to address: her potential conflicts of interest. Before she was elected to the Railroad Commission, Craddick lobbied for oil and gas interests and represented oil and gas clients as an attorney. According to LittleSis, a research arm of the Public Accountability Initiative, Craddick reported $50,000 in personal royalties from the oil and gas industry in her 2012 financial disclosure form, including one royalty payment of $25,000 from Kinder Morgan, which is active in Denton County.

Craddick’s potential conflicts of interest are part of a deep-rooted problem with the Railroad Commission. Industry ties and monied influence are “business as usual” for the agency. So much so that in 2010 the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that reviews state agencies for efficiency, recommended that the Railroad Commission be abolished and replaced with a new entity, the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. Under the sunset plan, the Oil and Gas Commission would be run by a part-time five member board appointed by the governor.

The sunset commission also found that the Railroad Commission is the only Texas regulatory agency overseen by elected officials who overwhelmingly rely on campaign contributions from the industries it oversees. No wonder, then, that the Railroad Commission pursued action on enforcement in only a tiny percentage of the thousands of violations identified each year.

Denton and other home-rule cities provide a clear example of why municipalities are perfectly capable of handling many regulatory tasks on their own. Cities following Denton’s lead in confronting fracking are putting in place restrictions that the Railroad Commission either is unwilling or unable to enact.

The Railroad Commission has created many enemies, both on the right and the left, with its failure to protect citizens directly impacted by the oil and gas industry. It’s now clear that the Railroad Commission is willing to abandon and overrule the democratic decision of a community it is meant to protect. But in doing so, it’s helping to build a movement of people who can put pressure on legislators to abolish the Railroad Commission, as the sunset commission recommended. Many Dentonites are planning to make this case to our legislators in January.

Karnes County Commissioners
Melissa del Bosque

On Thursday afternoon, the Karnes County Commissioners Court, which normally meets before a handful of citizens, moved its meeting to an overflow room. The meeting was unusually well-attended because the county’s residents need to decide—and decide fast—whether their county will be home to one of the nation’s largest family detention centers.

Karnes City, an hour southeast of San Antonio, already hosts the Karnes County Residential Center, an immigrant detention facility run by the private prison corporation GEO Group, Inc., with a capacity of 532 beds. Until July, the detention center was an all-male facility, but after this summer’s influx of asylum-seeking Central American women and children at the border, it’s been converted into a detention center for families. In the next year, GEO wants to expand the facility to more than 1,100 beds.

Karnes County has a population of just 15,081 people. For decades, its residents have eked out a living with dry-land farming or work at the county’s two prisons. GEO Group acquired the Karnes facility in the late 90s. At the time, county leaders were desperate for the jobs. But now Karnes is at the center of the Eagle Ford Shale play, and a booming fracking economy that’s made millionaires of local landowners. These days, a resident can make $100,000 a year working in the oil fields. Suddenly Karnes County isn’t so desperate for jobs; that makes the Karnes facility expansion, from 532 to more than 1,100 beds, a harder sell for GEO Group.

But this isn’t GEO’s first rodeo. GEO Group is a multi-billion dollar global corporation publicly traded on the stock market. In the glossy prospectus it provides shareholders, the company refers to the inmates it houses as “clients.” At the community forum Thursday, dozens of local residents in white GEO polo shirts with GEO badges hanging from their necks filed into the overflow room. County Judge William Long, who repeatedly reminded the room he’d only been judge for two weeks, seemed flustered as the room filled to capacity. Outside the courthouse annex, Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva had stationed extra deputies. The previous meeting on the expansion had been heated, with people outside protesting against family detention.

This time, GEO made sure to fill the room with supporters. One by one they stood to testify in favor of the expansion as the judge, county commissioners, a handful of residents and outsiders and a phalanx of TV news cameras looked on. A young blond woman named Laura Guerrero strode up to the lectern to testify. “I’ve worked at the facility for 17 years as a client administrator,” she said. “I have three children in school and GEO allows me to have a career and be a mother. With the expansion there will be more jobs and it’s going to be better for our community, and so I’m for the expansion.” The room erupted in applause.

Karnes County meeting
Melissa del Bosque
Residents debate the expansion at the Thursday meeting.

An older man named Bill Carr, in a blue windbreaker with the GEO logo, testified next. “We have in excess of 100 employees in this community,” he said. “We pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the economy. And we’re going to be here 30 years from now. Eagle Ford Shale will not be here. That’s all I have to say.”

An hour into the community forum, there was little mention of the women and children locked up at Karnes until Marisa Bono, an attorney from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, stood to speak. MALDEF and other legal nonprofits are representing some of the people inside the facility— women who have alleged sexual abuse from guards, and MALDEF and others also filed a complaint with GEO Group and Immigration and Customs Enforcement claiming the facility provided inadequate food, health and mental services, and employed questionable disciplinary tactics.

“This is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. right now,” she said. “There’s only three of these family detention facilities in the country. Artesia [in New Mexico] is going to be closed because there are lawsuits against it because of complaints of abuse. … Some people will be shipped here to Karnes or to Dilley. There’s a recurring pattern,” she said. “Think about Hutto [T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center]. It was sued by a number of organizations because of alleged abuses, and the county was the defendant in those lawsuits, and they closed down the facility. Broken contracts and the county left holding the bag. … It’s important to identify what happened in the past and ensure it doesn’t happen here.”

People in the crowd were already mumbling about the outside agitators from San Antonio when Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the nonprofit RAICES, spoke up. “This is an important question for the future of your community,” he said. “Do you want people to Google ‘Karnes’ and the first thing that comes up is family detention?”

A woman sitting nearby who had been heartily clapping for the various GEO employees that testified broke into applause. She seemed perfectly happy with the idea.

In the region, GEO Group already has competition from Corrections Corporation of America, which is building another family detention facility in the South Texas town of Dilley, which will have 2,400 beds.

Before this summer there was only one immigrant family detention facility in the nation—the Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania, which holds up to 85 people. But Texas is no stranger to family detention. The T. Don Hutto jail, outside Austin, housed families for years in deplorable conditions. Children and parents wore prison uniforms and were locked in cells. A lawsuit filed in 2007 by the American Civil Liberties Union and University of Texas Law School’s Immigration Clinic finally put an end to the disturbing experiment.

But in the last year the U.S. government has detained more than 68,000 family members at the border—a 361 percent increase—and it has reacted predictably, locking them up in private prisons. Now Texas is again at the crux of some of the thorniest questions for our society: Should immigrant families be housed in jails while they await their immigration proceedings, for months or even years? Should private corporations like GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America be allowed to profit off a vulnerable and marginalized population such as women and children seeking political asylum?

After two hours, the county judge announced that it was time to move on to the next item—a new HVAC system for the county annex. Everyone filed out into the hallway, leaving just a handful of people behind for the remaining business. Afterward, the County Attorney Herb Hancock told me it would be difficult for the county to deny GEO Group the expansion. A 2006 contract with GEO left the county open to a breach of contract lawsuit if it didn’t agree to the expansion.

In a roundabout way, Hancock—who emphasized he’d only been county attorney for two years, and wasn’t involved in the 2006 negotiations—said Karnes County had been a very different place in 2006, before the Eagle Ford Shale boom, and been desperate for economic development.

“That’s no longer an issue for Karnes County, thank God,” Hancock said. But GEO will be an issue for the county for a long time to come. “We are bound to the agreement. But that’s just my opinion in my short 50 years in practice.”

Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster
Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster

In October, Mark Lamster, architecture critic at The Dallas Morning News, issued an unusual call: Dallas, he said, should begin converting its many abandoned jails into hotels, schools and other facilities for reshaping the city.

In his stirring column, Lamster wrote of “healing the broken relationship between the built city and its promise of justice”—a process that he says will “take years, if not decades, to accomplish.”

“A just city provides its citizens with adequate facilities for education and economic opportunity, mobility and play—not just incarceration.”

Also a professor at UT-Arlington, Lamster frequently writes about urban planning and preservation with a humane touch. He wrote in his first Morning News column, in April 2013, that although “genius architecture is [not] bad—a city needs its defining monuments … you can’t live in a museum or a concert hall. You need places to live, work, shop, learn, eat and play.”

In reimagining Dallas, Lamster takes aim at Dallas’ highly visible penal institutions. The massive Lew Sterrett Justice Center, Dallas County’s main jail facility located in downtown, serves as “the unholy gateway to our city,” he’s written.

“What does it say about our values that we have allowed these buildings to achieve, along with the bail bondsmen, package stores and payday lenders that are their sad detritus, such symbolic prominence as the gateway to our city?”

The Observer recently talked to Lamster about his call to action.

 

Texas Observer: How feasible will it be, converting jails in a state that historically has favored imprisonment?

Mark Lamster: I think it’s feasible. First of all, one of those prisons, the Dawson State Jail, is empty. Bureaucratic inertia regarding what to do with that site is the only thing slowing us.

Also, we are a law-and-order state, but we are also definitely a state that does not like to spend money: fiscally conservative. Prisons are an unbelievably expensive and inefficient way of dealing with criminal justice. It makes no sense to spend the amount of money that we do on prisons, when there are more efficient ways to tackle criminal-justice problems than prisons.

Dawson State Jail
Patrick Michels
Tall and imposing, the now-shuttered Dawson State Jail offers an ominous greeting into downtown Dallas.

[Dallas Police Chief David Brown] will tell you that you can’t incarcerate your way into crime prevention. It doesn’t work in terms of space; you can’t build enough space for the prisoners. It’s counter-productive and overly expensive.

So, yes, we can solve this problem. Dallas is littered with abandoned jails. They’re all over the city. It’s kind of ironic: We have a habit of building jails and then leaving them.

 

TO: Assuming you had full economic freedom to do so, what next steps would you take to provide Dallas with adequate facilities for education and economic opportunity? Are there buildings that you would re-purpose next?

ML: There is a lot of vacant criminal justice infrastructure in Dallas, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it. But things are definitely happening already. The old Dallas Municipal Building—one of the city’s most notorious jails [and] where Jack Ruby shot Oswald—is being transformed into a law school for the University of Texas at Dallas.

Preservationists are working to restore the former Dallas County Criminal Courts Building, which is also downtown, like the Dallas Municipal Building.

The most important case right now is the site of the Cabana Hotel. It was a 1960s motor hotel. The Beatles stayed there; Doris Day owned it for a time. It’s an incredibly important, historic hotel. The Cabana was converted to a detention center, but is now vacant. The city has just taken bids for restoration. There were numerous bids to turn it into a hotel. But it appears—not clear yet—that the winning bid was to demolish it.

The Cabana is another bit of “prison” legacy—it didn’t start as criminal justice architecture, but it became that and has been decommissioned. Many of us in Dallas are trying to figure out what to do with all of that.

 

TO: What are the obstacles to achieving your vision?

ML: Dawson State Prison, which is now vacant and a mar on the cityscape, is in bureaucratic limbo between the city and state. The city needs to figure out what it wants to do with that space, then decide on some kind of deal with the state to make it happen. As I mentioned, the Cabana Hotel should be preserved as a hotel, given its history, but right now it looks like it might be slated for demolition.

Meanwhile, the historic Dallas Criminal Courts Building is moldering on a prime block in the city’s historic center. Preservationists and developers should be able to find some way to restore this building, down the line.

As for the dun-colored Sterrett Justice Center, I fear getting rid of that is a very long-term project. But it surely could use some rethinking to create a more restorative, rather than punitive, environment for the city.

 

TO: Are you impressed by the directions some cities have taken, back-burnering prison installations and instead focusing on education and recreation?

ML: Big cities are figuring out that they need to move from a kind of retributive justice to a more rehabilitative justice. They are integrating mental health care, job training, vocational training into a single structural system.

Otherwise you take people in and spit them out into the same position they were in. Then they cycle in and out, and so on. That’s not only terrible for them; it’s horribly expensive for communities.

Around the country, we’re starting to see prison populations decline—so there’s less need for prisons.

We had a punitive system of justice in the 1980s with three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws. But people who go to jail come back to our communities, then we have to pay for the jails. It’s one thing to talk about law and order, but we have to think a bit more holistically.

 

TO: How should we think more holistically about how Texas cities present prisons and jails and how they present economic opportunity and education?

ML: When you talk about making changes, you have to have a pretty big table: community leaders, criminal justice officers, advocates for prisoners, people who’ve been to prison and can talk about it and have been successful in re-integrating to society on how they’ve done it, victims’ groups, public health professionals, people who work in prisons, architects.

We need to look at the conditions for workers too. If Texas has some prisons without air-conditioning, it’s hard for prisoners, but it’s also hard for the workers. Bad conditions lead to bad behavior and more confrontation between prisoners and guards. You want to build spaces that are humane.

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by Molly Kaplan, courtesy of the ACLU
After being attacked by a gang in Mexico, Nydia returned to the United States, where she had asylum status. Immigration officers ordered her deported anyway.

More than two million people have been deported since President Obama took office in 2008. Among this massive number of deportations, an increasing number of people with valid legal claims to remain in the U.S.—even U.S. citizens—are mistakenly deported, according to a report released by the ACLU today. Once returned to their “home” countries, many have suffered catastrophic consequences, including kidnapping and murder. Produced by Sarah Mehta, an ACLU attorney,“American Exile: Rapid Deportations That Bypass the Courtroom” is the first comprehensive study of deportations ordered by immigration agents instead of immigration judges.

Mehta, who was raised in Arlington, Texas, and now lives in New York, spent a year studying deportation cases and found that an astounding 83 percent of people deported in 2013 were removed without a hearing or a chance to see an immigration judge.

Many of the people Mehta interviewed were deported through a process called expedited removal, whereby an immigration enforcement officer can determine someone’s fate in a matter of minutes. In many cases, the officer’s decision can literally mean life or death for the immigrant. For example, Mehta interviewed a transgender woman from Mexico named Nydia R. who was deported under expedited removal despite having obtained political asylum in the United States. Back in Mexico, Nydia R. was raped and tortured by members of Los Zetas and barely escaped with her life. Mehta also documented other cases of people wrongfully deported who were kidnapped, tortured or even killed after being returned to their home countries. The Observer spoke with Mehta about the ACLU’s new report and how our immigration system, which Mehta calls “deeply corrupted,” has largely become a vehicle for mass deportations without legal due process.

 

Observer: Why did the ACLU decide to spend a year studying deportation numbers?

Mehta: Overwhelmingly, most people now are not going through immigration court and they’re not getting hearings. The bulk of our work to date had been making those hearings fair but increasingly it’s rare for someone to go to immigration court at all. There has been such a dearth of information about who is being deported that we wanted to do a real investigation into who actually is getting deported. When expedited removal was first introduced in 1996 and then expanded in 2005 there was a lot of concern even from congressional representatives that the wrong people—meaning people who had claims and rights—would be swept up and deported. In view of the very cursory nature of expedited removal it’s not really a surprise that mistakes are made nonetheless. We didn’t have any information as to how often it happens, what it looks like and to what extent people who have verifiable claims are still being deported.

Observer: Can you explain what expedited removal is?

Mehta: Expedited removal is where someone is ordered deported not by a judge, not by a lawyer, but by an immigration enforcement officer. It applies predominantly at the border and it allows the officer to order someone deported for five years, 10 years or even for life. It has the same consequences as a deportation order by a judge but without a hearing with evidence and rights to a lawyer. You would think a deportation order issued by an enforcement officer who is not a lawyer or an expert in law would be subject to more oversight and review but it actually gets less review. And it’s almost impossible to get a deportation order reviewed or rescinded once an enforcement officer has issued the order.

Observer: So, who exactly is getting deported?

Mehta: The problem is Border Patrol officers who are doing these deportations are not even asking basic questions. Some people said they were only asked their name and nothing more than that. So it’s not surprising that we have very little information about who gets deported because officers themselves aren’t asking any questions before they order someone deported. One group we looked at is asylum seekers—people who come here fleeing violence. This is one group of people that right now U.S. Customs and Border Protection is supposed to be screening for. They are supposed to ask people who are fleeing violence if they are afraid to go back to their country. The people we interviewed said they were never asked this question before they were deported.

We find that even lawful visitors and people who work lawfully in the U.S. from Canada or Mexico or elsewhere are being deported by expedited removal. The immigration officers assume they are not lawfully in the U.S. even when their claims can be verified, or they make assumptions that they are misusing their visas even when it can’t be verified and there’s no opportunity for them to contest it. Again this is without having to provide any evidence or an opportunity for the person to prove it’s not true.

Observer: Geographically, are there certain areas where there are more expedited removals?

Mehta: One thing I found very surprising is the consistent regularity of problems across the southern border. Along the southern border it didn’t matter where you were. There were consistent problems with Border Patrol officers failing to inform people of their rights and giving them forms often in a language that they didn’t know and ordering them deported in a matter of minutes.

Observer: What were some other surprising things you discovered?

Mehta: One thing that surprised me is the people who get deported who have verifiable claims, people who already have rights to stay in the U.S. It’s not surprising that Border Patrol officers will make mistakes about people who have complicated claims because they’re not lawyers and they’re not trained to give people these very complicated legal determinations but, again, people like Nydia who had asylum—these are things that could have been determined before they were deported. Deportation comes with very specific consequences. It’s very hard to put right even honest mistakes, but in many cases it seemed that Border Patrol officers weren’t even taking the time to do a very basic check to verify a person’s status, to give a person time to collect evidence or to call their attorney or call their family to bring the evidence to prove their claims.

Observer: And why do you think this is?

Mehta: I think in part there’s a general assumption along the southern border in particular that people who are apprehended there don’t have rights or claims to be there and that it isn’t worth the time to verify those claims. And part of the problem is that the Department of Homeland Security interprets the border not as a line but as a 100-mile zone so there are people who are living within 100 miles of the border who are treated as if their lives and rights are disposable. Even if law enforcement officers try to do a good job and have the best intentions they often just don’t have the expertise and sometimes the time to verify a person’s claims and ask the necessary questions that would elicit the information that they need.

Observer: And in fact you even found U.S. citizens during the course of your study who had been deported?

Mehta: Yes, and it’s predictable because it’s a deeply corrupted system that is designed to fail people with their rights. Based on the assumption that anyone arrested in the 100-mile border zone isn’t going to have a right. I think there are mistaken assumptions based on a way a person looks, or his language abilities that lead officers to assume that they aren’t citizens and they unfortunately don’t give them the opportunity to prove that before deporting them. Deportation can come with very catastrophic consequence for some people. Some of the individuals in the report were attacked, kidnapped and raped or sometimes all three. One person was murdered after being deported and they had told the officers about the danger before they were deported.

Observer: So how do we fix the system? We always hear about spending more money on border security but are we spending enough on our immigration court system? What about providing attorneys to immigrants who need them?

Mehta: We have deeply underfunded the court system and all of the mechanisms and safeguards that provide justice and protect people’s rights. While there has been an expansion of funding for the militarization of the border there hasn’t been comparable funding going to the courts. The courts are severely overburdened as it is. We hope that with Obama’s executive action that there will be some reprieve on the courts and they will free up to adjudicate people who were left out in the executive action.

There also need to be attorneys and an opportunity for people to read the deportation order in a language they understand before they sign it and an opportunity for them to know about the rights and the consequences of taking a deportation order or accepting voluntary return. Right now border officers have the discretion to refer people for a hearing but it doesn’t appear they are using that discretion because [in 2013] 83 percent of the deportations were from officers and not through the court system. Border Patrol officers should screen for people who might have claims to be in the U.S. and children in particular. These individuals should get a hearing with all of the protections that go with it.

Observer: I often hear from commenters online who say, “Why should we be so concerned about providing legal representation to people who are not U.S. citizens?

Mehta: For one thing we don’t know if they’re citizens or not in some of these cases. There are a lot of people who are U.S. citizens who were not born in the United States and there are people who were arrested and deported who it turned out are U.S. citizens. Verifying their claims sometimes requires legal assistance. This can be a quick and easy thing but other times it can get complicated and does require a lawyer’s assistance. But beyond the people who are U.S. citizens there are a lot of people with strong ties and rooted lives here who are parents or relatives of U.S. citizens, who are a part of our community and their rights matter. It’s important to have lawyers, it’s important to have justice because the entire integrity of the immigration system depends upon it.

 

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