After years of struggle and protest, immigrant families finally have something to celebrate. At least four million undocumented immigrants could receive work permits for three years under the executive action.
It’s disappointing though, that the Obama proposal includes more militarization along the border, especially when border communities are begging for more oversight of the existing military-industrial border complex, which has already gotten out of hand.
Another important thing to remember is that this is only a temporary fix. There’s no path to legal residency or citizenship. Without Congress acting to reform our broken system legislatively, we’re going to have an even crazier, more complicated patchwork of temporary visas, temporary work permits, legal resident visas, etc., etc. We’re creating an immigration caste system of people living under provisional agreements, not fully integrated into our society and living under limited legal protections. This creates a nightmare for law enforcement, the courts, and most of all for the families who are subject to the whims of Congress and the next president. What happens at the end of the three-year window?
The battle continues. But for today, let’s celebrate this small miracle. Here’s a breakdown of Obama’s immigration reform: The good, the bad and the ugly.
1) An expansion of people eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, aka DACA.
Prior to the executive action, only those who were under 31 on June 15, 2012, who had entered the U.S. before June 15, 2007 and who were under 16 when they entered the U.S. were eligible. Now all undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before the age of 16, and not just those born after June 15, 1981 can qualify for DACA. They’ve also bumped up the U.S. entry date from June 15, 2007 to January 1, 2010. The work permits and relief from being deported will last three years, instead of two.
2) Some parents of U.S. citizens and lawful residents can also get deferred action and a work permit if:
- They have been in the country for at least 5 years;
- Their child was a U.S. citizen as of November 20, 2014;
- Must complete criminal, national security background checks and pay a fee.
1) More militarization along the border.
2) Parents of DACA kids do not qualify under the executive action.
3) Nothing in the executive action affects the thousands of women and children being held right now in immigrant detention facilities in New Mexico and Texas.
The (could get) Ugly
1) A Priority Enforcement Program, aka PEP, replaces the controversial Secure Communities program—which encouraged local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law. It looks like under PEP, ICE detainers will be replaced by a notfication system among other things.
Cristina Parker, spokesperson for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which helped lead the charge in Texas against the unpopular Secure Communities program, says that her organization and others who have fought against the program for years are celebrating its demise. S-COMM was the reason that many immigrants were deported for minor misdemeanors or traffic infractions.
Parker says they are pessimistic, however, about the new program and eagerly awaiting more details on how it will be implemented. “ICE doesn’t inspire confidence in how it follows directives. It’s a rogue agency. And this really sounds very similar to the first day of S-COMM,” she says. “That’s kind of where we’re at now but we’re trying to be cautiously optimistic.”
Immigration attorney Dan Kowalski is equally pessimistic about any change in policy. “It’s going to be really tough for ICE officers on the ground and managers in the field and D.C. to execute because their whole training is to detect, detain, arrest and deport. It goes against the grain of their training,” he says.
2) The president also directed Homeland Security to revise policies regarding deportation priorities.
Here’s the new policy in brief from the memo:
“DHS is going to implement a new department-wide enforcement and removal policy that places top priority on national security threats, convicted felons, gang members, and illegal entrants apprehended at the border; the second-tier priority on those convicted of significant or multiple misdemeanors and those who are not apprehended at the border, but who entered or reentered this country unlawfully after January 1, 2014; and the third priority on those who are non-criminals but who have failed to abide by a final order of removal issued on or after January 1, 2014.
Under this revised policy, those who entered illegally prior to January 1, 2014, who never disobeyed a prior order of removal, and were never convicted of a serious offense, will not be priorities for removal. This policy also provides clear guidance on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”
Again, this will depend a lot on how ICE implements the directive. In the past, they’ve been criticized for doing their own thing and not exercising prosecutorial discretion. The new policy could get ugly if ICE continues to act on its own, and not according to the president’s directives.
Rick DeChiara can’t undo his daughter’s suicide.
He can’t erase the memory of coming home to find 17-year-old Alex hanging from a tree in their backyard—and having to cut her down. He can’t wipe away the recollection of picking up Alex’s high school diploma a day after receiving her death certificate.
“I can’t undo what’s been done, but maybe I can prevent somebody else from taking the same path,” DeChiara told the Observer this week. “That’s what I want to do. If I can stop some other kid from doing what Alex did, then I’ll be a success.”
Six months after his daughter’s suicide, DeChiara took a major step in that direction Sunday.
Along with his wife and Alex’s younger sister, he traveled from their home in Euless, near Fort Worth, to a Transgender Day of Remembrance observance at the Cathedral of Hope, a predominantly LGBT church in Dallas.
Alex was transgender, and even though she took her own life, the annual ceremony commemorating victims of anti-trans violence was dedicated to her.
“I made a lot of new friends down there. They’re a wonderful group of people,” said DeChiara, a New Jersey native who works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and described himself as the “macho” type.
“I’m going to stay in touch with a lot of people,” he said. “It was good for all three of us.”
DeChiara, speaking publicly about his daughter’s death for the first time with the Observer, acknowledged he wasn’t always so comfortable with the idea that Alex was trans. When she began to come to terms with her gender identity in middle school, she discussed it with her mom but grew distant from him.
“What Alex didn’t realize was that, just because I don’t understand, doesn’t mean I can’t accept,” he said. “I didn’t understand. … It took me a while to come around.”
DeChiara said his relationship with his daughter had improved somewhat prior to her death, but other problems—depression, bullying and isolation—proved insurmountable.
Alex sported long blonde hair and sometimes wore a few items of women’s clothing to Euless’ Trinity High School. Although there was no physical violence, DeChiara said classmates talked behind Alex’s back, and sometimes to her face, calling her a “freak.”
“She was spending a lot of time down at the counselor’s office,” DeChiara said.
“Apparently the counselor was aware and tried to do something about it [the bullying], but I don’t know how much further it got from there. I’ve heard it was teachers that were saying stuff as well.”
Eventually, the DeChiaras agreed to transfer Alex her to an alternative school, KEYS High School. But that move cut her off from friends and something she loved—working with special needs children at Euless Trinity, where she was no longer allowed on campus.
“When she was banned from school, things spiraled out of control,” DeChiara said. “Part of the reason she loved those kids at the special ed building is because, like them, she was in a body she didn’t want to be in, and she could identify with them. That was her passion. She was going to go to school to teach autistic kids.”
Alex, who’d taken several AP courses at Euless Trinity, graduated a month early from KEYS, but being home alone only made things worse. DeChiara said he had no idea how deep his daughter’s depression had become.
On May 8, when DeChiara found Alex hanging from a tree, she’d left a note on her desk saying only that she didn’t want a funeral—a request her parents honored.
“There is no amount of sins I have ever done in this lifetime, that anybody should have to go through what I did that day,” DeChiara said. “Mom? I would have had to bury two people if she got home before me.”
After Alex’s death, one of her friends connected the DeChiaras with a Dallas LGBT group, which invited them to the Trans Day of Remembrance. DeChiara only wishes Alex had found those resources when she was alive.
Studies show roughly half of trans youth have contemplated suicide, and one in four have made an attempt.
The numbers may be even higher in Texas, which has no explicit anti-bullying protections based on gender identity and few resources for LGBT youth outside major cities.
“There definitely needs to be more,” DeChiara said. “They definitely need to have a place where they know they can go.”
DeChiara said there are suicide hotlines, bullying prevention programs and perhaps even a modicum of support for gay teens and their parents.
But he added: “As far as transgender awareness kind of stuff, that’s a different story. I don’t think that’s quite as popular, as out there in the open.”
The Transgender Day of Remembrance is today, Thursday, Nov. 20. For a list of events in Texas, go here.
President Obama’s plans for the long-awaited executive action on immigration will finally be unveiled tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT in a televised announcement. This will be followed by a rally at a high school in Las Vegas on Friday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid where undoubtedly more details of the president’s plan will be revealed.
I asked longtime immigration attorney Dan Kowalski with The Fowler Law Firm in Austin to give Observer readers a broader idea of what Obama’s executive action might contain and how it might impact the estimated 1.7 million undocumented immigrants living in Texas. What’s certain is that whatever plan Obama unveils Thursday evening it will change millions of lives for the better.
Observer: How many people do you think the executive action will impact?
Kowalski: Anywhere from 2 million to 6 million people, but the details are a closely held secret so we won’t really know for sure until tomorrow night, although I think tomorrow night could just be a teaser. I read that Congress will be briefed tomorrow so we’ll see about that. It could be that more details will also be revealed on Friday in Las Vegas.
Observer: So which categories of immigrants do you think will be covered by the executive action?
Kowalski: I think the parents of U.S. citizen kids and maybe some parents of DACA kids (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and they may raise the DACA age and in addition there may be something for agriculture and there may be something for high tech workers. There’s rumors about that. But I think the biggest group to benefit will be the millions of parents of U.S. citizen children.
Observer: That’s a pretty large sum of people isn’t it?
Kowalski: It could be, but the limiting factors will be: No. 1, is there a time qualification? Meaning you have to have been here a certain number of years. And No. 2, what are the other eligibility requirements such as criminal record and what’s the filing fee going to be?
Observer: Typically when these types of executive actions have happened in the past there are quite a few caveats and restrictions to qualifying, correct?
Kowalski: It depends on how tightly they make it. If they make it really tight not many people will qualify. We’ll know a lot more when they release the application forms. But I think the application period won’t probably begin until two to six months down the road. USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) can’t ramp up that fast. They need to hire staff and create procedures and forms.
Observer: So it’s not something that will begin on Jan. 1?
Kowalski: I think it’s going to be March, April at the earliest.
Observer: Will there be funding there to support the huge number of people who will be filing?
Kowalski: Well, the thing about USCIS is that everything is fee-funded. They don’t get appropriations, so everything that USCIS does has to be funded through user fees. It will be a self-funding program no matter what.
Observer: What other groups of people should be included but won’t be?
Kowalski: I would like to see it be as broad as possible but that would require legislation. This action is more of a stopgap and what really needs to happen down the road is something from Congress that makes the visa rules broader and simpler to allow more people to immigrate.
Observer: How long do you think it will take people to go through the process with their paperwork? Immigration courts are already extremely backed up.
Kowalski: Well, this won’t have anything to do with the immigration courts. It will be an administrative process similar to the way that DACA is operating now. This will be much bigger than DACA of course, maybe 10 times as many people.
Observer: Will people who qualify under the executive action get legal residency permits?
Kowalski: No, they won’t get legal status, just a work permit. It will be like DACA—call it DACA-plus. I think they will probably get a work permit for two years, like DACA.
Observer: Anything else you think is important for people to know about this impending executive action on immigration?
Kowalski: A lot of people inside government and Congress and in the media are saying this action will spur Congress into finally doing something about immigration reform legislatively. I have the opposite view. There are plenty of people in Congress and in the administration that like the system broken. Fence-builders, jail-builders and the drone people and the enforcement people make a huge profit from the system as it is now. It’s good to be broken because it’s more work for them. If everything works and there are lots of visas then there’s nothing for them to enforce. Still, it’s going to be exciting to see what Obama announces tomorrow evening. Stay tuned.
It’s been hard going for moderates lately. The 2014 election cycle was the latest in a long series of culls, as hardline Republicans pushed their more conciliatory colleagues out of office and solidified their ideological hold on Congress. State governments haven’t necessarily fared any better: Texas now finds itself saddled with both national Sen. Ted Cruz (who recently derided net neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet”—a statement so cynical it transcends mere idiocy) and Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, a man publicly pushing the idea that ISIS insurgents are sneaking across the Mexican border. The inmates have been running the asylum for a while; it was only a matter of time before they went off their meds.
Bill King argues that this situation is politically untenable and, more to the point, isn’t what people want. His new book, Unapologetically Moderate: My Search for a Rational Center in American Politics, collects a series of columns King wrote during an ongoing stint at the Houston Chronicle. In sections on immigration reform, health care and gun control, King hammers home a few central themes: Our nation is fundamentally centrist; our politics don’t reflect that truth; as a result, policy suffers and voters disengage.
King himself has a background in politics as a two-term mayor of Kemah, and he’s considered a possible contender in the 2015 Houston mayoral election. He’s also something of a wonk, with experience in business (he was president of Southwest Airport Services) and public policy (including a position with the task force that rewrote Houston’s hurricane evacuation plan in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in 2005).
Reasonableness seems to be King’s guiding principle, and the columns collected in Unapologetically Moderate seldom find him especially fired up on any particular topic. He seems allergic to rhetoric in general, reserving most of his few flourishes for columns on government dysfunction. In “No Place to Call Home,” originally published in 2011, King wrote, “…the great middle of America has time and again served as ballast for our ship of state, keeping her from listing too far to port or starboard. The challenge this time around will be to see if it can keep the ship from splitting apart.”
Back in July, the Observer featured the story of the Purple Zone in Alpine, a smoke shop near the Sul Ross State University campus that’s been raided repeatedly by local and federal authorities.
The cases resulting from those raids sat on the leading edge of the war on drugs—from a federal task force cracking down on narcotics near the border to a small-town prosecutor on a crusade against synthetic drugs. But there was also a major problem with the cases: Though the potpourri products seized from the Purple Zone did test positive for chemicals Texas has banned, they weren’t illegal at the time of the raids.
The trials of Purple Zone owner Ilana Lipsen and—for reasons that charging documents never made clear—her mother, who occasionally visits the shop, promised a dramatic showdown in a West Texas courtroom this fall.
That’s where our story ended, but in late September Lipsen pleaded guilty to a state charge of felony drug possession. The federal charges against Lipsen, stemming from a dramatic multi-agency raid in May, were dropped, and Lipsen’s record will remain clean if she completes 10 years’ probation. The charges against her sister and mother were dropped as well.
To other rural prosecutors trying to pursue expensive synthetic drug cases on a limited budget, this was probably a predictable end. Lipsen can move back to Houston, where she grew up, and escape the constant scrutiny of small-town law enforcement. But closing these cases also means plenty of big, strange questions will remain unanswered.
We’ll never know how Brewster County District Attorney Rod Ponton would make the case for convicting Lipsen of possessing drugs that weren’t illegal at the time. Nor will we hear a full accounting for the two wildly differing accounts of the violent federal raid at the shop in May, or for why Lipsen’s conditions of release from jail required her to publicly recant her complaints to the press.
But a few weeks ago, Lipsen’s story did get a full airing for a national audience, when the libertarian magazine Reason featured her case with a story irresistibly headlined, “Sex, Spice and Small-Town Texas Justice.”
Anthony Fisher’s story, and an accompanying 10-minute video, place the Purple Zone raid in the context of the national law enforcement build-up, tracing how a place that “evokes the Texas libertarian ethos of a quiet, safe town where you can expect to be left alone” became a stomping ground for “body armor-clad agents of the state.”
Late in the story and video (you can watch it below), Lipsen suggests Ponton’s fixation on her shop is rooted in personal jealousy, because she rebuffed him years ago after a one-night stand. In a response to Reason, Ponton called that allegation “a blatant lie.” (He issued a 10-point rebuttal to the story, to which Fisher replied here.)
Fisher’s story also includes a telling segment with Scot Erin Briggs, former managing editor at the Alpine Avalanche, describing just how toxic this story became around Alpine shortly after the federal raid, including an unhappy visit from the DA, then pressure from her bosses to give extra credence to the feds’ version of what happened in the raid.
According to Briggs, Ponton visited her at the Avalanche‘s office saying “I’m not here to threaten you.” He added that local law enforcement did not appreciate the article and “we don’t consider [the Lipsens] a credible source.” He also scolded her for not grasping how bad “spice” is. Briggs offered to have Ponton write a letter to the editor, which she promised to publish. Ponton declined and told her that he had contacted the paper’s owner.
Shortly thereafter, Briggs says the paper’s owner told her that while her facts were sound, “her tone was all wrong.”
But as Briggs goes on to explain, “The job of a local paper is to get at the truth the best we can, not be the voice of those in power.”
On most mornings for the past 12 years, I’ve come to work at The Texas Observer’s dusty little office in downtown Austin, walking through our creaky front door on thousands of days. This morning I did it for the last time as an employee of this wonderful magazine.
Next week I will start an exciting new job up the street at Texas Monthly. But today, on my last day at the Observer after nearly 12 years, including the last three and a half as editor, I’m feeling a little wistful and nostalgic.
I’m amazed at how much the Observer has changed. When I started as a temporary reporter in 2003, we had enough money to keep the doors open only another three months. Somehow the Observer kept going, as it always had. There were three editorial staffers. Our print magazine, which looked, as one staffer put it, like a ’60s newsletter, was read by a few thousand people. If we had a really big story, we’d have to wait a few weeks for a New York Times reporter to show up, re-do the Observer’s reporting and make it national news.
Now the Observer’s budget is stable, secure for years into the future. Our editorial staff has quadrupled and we’re getting ready to hire another reporter. In fact, the Observer will soon need to leave this cramped office for larger digs. Our work is now read by hundreds of thousands of people online every month.
In 2003, the Observer was a nearly bankrupt little outlet that produced great journalism. We still do great work, at least in my subjective opinion, but we’re now a growing, modern news organization with occasional national impact. I certainly don’t claim credit for any of this, but it was fun to be part of.
I will miss this place, with its familiar routine and sense of mission. But mostly I’ll miss the people. I like to brag on our staff, and, in my opinion, with good reason. The Observer has a remarkably dedicated, smart and talented group of people working here. It’s been a great joy watching them produce some of the best journalism the Observer has ever published.
Since 2011 Observer stories have won or were a finalist for some of the most prestigious journalism awards in the country: twice nominated for a National Magazine Award in reporting, twice a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and winner of a Sigma Delta Chi award for magazine writing from the Society of Professional Journalists.
I know for most people that recitation of awards doesn’t mean much. Just think of it this way: It means Observer stories were recognized alongside the best work from the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, GQ, Rolling Stone and all the other giants of the magazine world. It means this little staff produces some of the best journalism in the country. Again, I certainly don’t take credit for that. But I’m proud to have been part of it.
And I’m proud of the impact our stories had on people’s lives—people like Josh Gravens, whose life changed after he was featured in the Observer. Today I’m also thinking about the people we didn’t quite help enough. Namely, Alfredo Guardiola and Curtis Severns, two men I believe were wrongly convicted of arson, who remain in prison at this very moment.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a few thanks, especially to the former Observer editors I worked with—Nate Blakeslee, Jake Bernstein and Bob Moser—and from whom I learned so much.
I also want to thank everyone who has read and supported this magazine and especially the many of you who have shared your stories with us during my tenure. I ask only that you keep reading and keep supporting the Observer. There are few publications like it—beholden to no one, willing to tell important stories in Texas that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a rare place where smart young writers have the freedom to follow their passions. For 60 years, the Observer has produced great journalism. The names and faces may change, but the mission remains the same.
In case you missed our post-election, pre-Lege session discussion in Austin last night, we’re posting the audio from the event. You’ll hear the voices of moderator Forrest Wilder, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Harvey Kronberg of the Quorum Report, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Observer writer Chris Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
In part one, our panelists pick apart the factors that helped make 2014 such a big win for Republicans:
In part two, the panelists look ahead to next session: How will Dan Patrick wield the gavel in the Senate? And how can Democrats influence policy when they’re so greatly outnumbered?
Gather round, boys and girls: The 84th Texas Legislature is close at hand. Our state, much as it did at the beginning of the 83rd and 82nd and 81st and so on and so on, sits at a crossroads. Down one side of the fork, we see a future of good government, long-term planning and legislative restraint. Down the other, we have … not that.
Monday was the first day bills can be filed for next session, an occasion which is now rung in annually by the filing of state Rep. Tom Craddick’s (R-Midland) probably-doomed-again push to make texting while driving illegal. Hundreds of bills have been filed so far, and some are predictable: Democrats are lining up to repeal anti-same-sex-marriage measures. Republicans are lining up to pass open carry laws. There’s a wide variety of technocratic fixes on both sides of the aisle. Here are a few of the stranger ones.
Newly elected tea party state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) has produced an extraordinary oddity in Senate Bill 62, which would require the state’s comptroller to produce a detailed invoice totaling up the cost of illegal immigration to the state—and then would require the comptroller and attorney general to present the invoice together to the feds. If the federals don’t pay up, Huffines would have the state turn up the heat:
After the submission, the comptroller and the attorney general shall use every means available to collect from the federal government the amount requested by the invoice, including by withholding any payments of money this state owes to the federal government in a total amount not to exceed the amount requested.
And if the comptroller doesn’t go along with Huffines’ scheme and compile an invoice? Under the bill’s provisions, the comptroller’s office would have $25,000 of its funding cut every day. Huffines, apparently, thinks government should work mostly via extortion.
Just as thought-through is Huffines’ Senate Joint Resolution 6, a proposed constitutional amendment that would provide term limits for Texas legislators—three full terms for senators, and six full terms for representatives, or 12 years each. Odder are the provisions that would also impose a 72-month cap on the speaker of the House, as well as committee chairmanships, where accumulated expertise is generally considered an asset.
These bills have as much chance of surviving the Legislature as a polar bear in Death Valley, but it’s a fun confirmation that Huffines, like a number of new senators, isn’t going to develop a reputation for subtlety.
State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), who pledged to deal a fatal blow to the specter of Sharia law in Texas a few months back, doesn’t have a bill along those lines yet: But he does have legislation to kill daylight savings time, ensure teachers can place the Ten Commandments in a “prominent position” in classrooms, and establish a 14-member “joint nullification committee” to determined which federal laws are unconstitutional and should be nullified in the state. OK, man.
There are more substantial bills, of course. Among them, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) proposes raising the minimum wage to $10.10—though that measure has little chance of making it to the floor, either.
The most consequential bills filed yesterday have to do with the state’s revenue structure. The state’s tax base is growing, and legislators never fully restored the sweeping spending cuts they made in 2011. Which means they have money to play with—they can either restore funding to state services, or cut taxes yet again. From Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick on down, the latter impulse seems to have more momentum.
State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), who is climbing up the senate ranks as the new head of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, has a bill out that would raise the state’s franchise tax exemption to $5 million.
This “fiscally responsible approach,” Schwertner said in a statement, would provide tax relief while “still maintaining a balanced budget,” because it would only deprive the state of $880 million dollars in revenue each biennium. That’s a hefty chunk of change. But, Schwertner’s office says, it’s certainly more “responsible” than proposals that would “eliminate the franchise tax entirely.” Expect to hear a lot of that kind of reasoning this session.
Oh, and here’s a bonus: One fun subplot in Austin these last few months has been the efforts of the Texas Ethics Commission to enhance disclosure requirements for dark-money groups like the one run by Michael Quinn Sullivan, the conservative kneecapper and would-be powerbroker who’s been struggling mightily to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus.
In past sessions, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) and state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) were key supporters of dark-money disclosure bills. Seliger’s proposal zipped along in 2013, until it was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. Geren told the San Antonio Express-News in January his first bill this session would be about dark money disclosure, but neither he nor Seliger have filed one yet.
But incoming state Sen. Van Taylor, a Sullivan-aligned tea-party-type who’s replacing Ken Paxton in the upper chamber, proposes a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature authority to tweak and alter rules passed by state agencies. The Ethics Commission isn’t singled out—the wording of the amendment is broad—but just the other week, Van Taylor signed a letter condemning TEC’s rulemaking process, and it makes sense that the two would be related. It’s going to be a down-and-dirty session.