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"Saving the Dragan Family" on
The Dragan Family

Over the past decade and a half, the federal government has created a cash cow for private prison companies by detaining record numbers of undocumented immigrants in for-profit lockups. In 2009, Congress even imposed a quota on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), obliging the agency to detain an average of 34,000 immigrants per night across all of its facilities. At an average cost of $164 per day per detainee, the math works out quite well for private prison companies such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, which post billions in annual revenue. Taxpayers should be infuriated. Proven, common-sense alternatives to detention, including monitoring and case management, are available at a savings of more than $1 billion a year.

To fulfill the so-called bed mandates, detention centers are often populated with low-level detainees who are neither threats to security nor flight risks. Texas in general, and ICE’s San Antonio field office in particular, house among the highest number of low-level detainees in the country.

Consider 29-year-old Andrei Dragan. Dragan has been incarcerated at the South Texas Detention Center (STDC) in Pearsall, about an hour southwest of San Antonio, since May 23. Dragan, who has lived in the U.S. legally off and on since he was 5, lost his permanent residency due to a drug offense in 2010.

But he doesn’t need to be locked up. He served his sentence and dutifully obeyed his terms of probation.

Dragan and his lawyer believe he’s a United States citizen because his mother became a naturalized citizen when he was a juvenile. “He is an American as much as a Romanian,” his wife writes on a website devoted to Dragan’s release.

Dragan was employed as a Linux administrator in Manor and is the sole breadwinner for his wife and two young children, with a third baby on the way. Though his wife’s pregnancy has been diagnosed as high-risk and his employer sent a character reference to the court on his behalf, Dragan remains trapped, like tens of thousands of others, inside a slow-moving immigration system.

Several immigration attorneys I spoke with confirmed that STDC, which houses an average of 1,500 detainees at a time, is understaffed, and detainees can’t schedule legal appointments in timely fashion. Until recently, GEO Group, the private company that runs STDC, set aside only three rooms at the facility for attorneys to meet with their clients. After much complaining from attorneys, the prison transformed a broom closet into a fourth meeting room with limited access. Lawyers typically wait one to two hours to see their clients, but some tell me they’ve waited as long as eight hours.

“It’s difficult to recruit pro bono attorneys to do this work,” says Benicio Diaz, of American Gateways, an Austin-based nonprofit provider of legal services.

There also aren’t enough judges for every detention facility, so many detainees participate in their legal proceedings on closed-circuit television. Often attorneys have to decide whether to be with their client or with the judge.

“God forbid your client doesn’t speak English,” Diaz adds. “They have to phone in a translator. You’re listening to a translator via telephone, watching a judge on television.”

In an attempt to expedite his release, Dragan has volunteered to leave the country, but the government can sometimes take as long as six months to process a detainee out of the country—a far cry from the popular image of Mexican immigrants swiftly booted back across the river. To add to that, a 2009 Associated Press study of ICE data showed that of the 32,000 people detained on a given day, 950 had been there over six months and more than 400 had been there over a year.   

It’s hard to see who benefits from this inhumane and absurd system, other than private prison companies and their enablers in Congress. Expanding successful, low-cost alternatives to detention programs doesn’t just make good fiscal sense, it’s the right thing to do.

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border patrol van
Wikimedia Commons

Last year, I looked into the issue of motorists declining to answer questions at interior Border Patrol checkpoints in Texas. Many believe the checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. In any case, you generally don’t have to answer Border Patrol agents when you’re at these internal checkpoints. If an agent has probable cause to think you’re in the country illegally—and refusing to answer their questions isn’t probable cause—the agent can briefly detain you. A fascinating case in Brownsville has put this issue to the test.

Omar Figueredo, 28, grew up in Brownsville and attends graduate school in Ithaca, New York. He visited Brownsville last year with his partner, 31-year-old Nancy Morales. The couple declined to answer questions from Border Patrol agents at the Brownsville airport, leading to their arrest.

Born in Mexico to an American mother, Figueredo spent the majority of his childhood in Brownsville hiding in shame, believing that he was undocumented. After completing his permanent residency as a teen, he found out he should have been recognized as a citizen long ago.

Figueredo says, “That was the moment when I said, ‘This is all bullshit.’ I’m shelling out money to lawyers and paying money to the INS to process this. It’s a whole industry. There are redundancies and errors all the time.”

Figueredo secured his citizenship a few years ago but, he says, “The culture of fear, the intimidation and harassment from Border Patrol is so entrenched. You’re lying if you say that you don’t feel vulnerable or nervous in any way.”

As if to reinforce that sentiment, three days before the airport incident, Figueredo, his mother and Morales were pulled over in Brownsville. The Border Patrol agents demanded to see identification and to know what they were doing. When Figueredo refused to answer their questions, the two agents threatened to call the local police. Figueredo refrained from answering, but the women complied with the officers so that they could get on their way.

These experiences were on Figueredo’s mind when he and Morales arrived at the airport in Brownsville the morning of March 26, 2013. They were approached by Border Patrol agents near security. When he and Morales refused to answer questions about their status, the agents barred them from proceeding to the security screening. The couple missed the flight.

They were re-booked on a later flight but were again quizzed by the Border Patrol. This time, when they refused to answer, they were arrested—not by the Border Patrol, but by a Brownsville police officer.

Figueredo was charged with three misdemeanors: failure to identify, which under Texas law applies only when a person being lawfully arrested refuses to give a peace officer his or her name, birth date or address; resisting arrest; and obstructing a passageway. Morales also was charged with obstructing a passageway and interfering with public duty.

The prosecutors dropped all Figueredo’s charges except obstructing a passageway, a Class B misdemeanor. On April 7, he went on trial, which yielded a hung jury. The prosecution now wants to consolidate Figueredo’s case with Morales’ and hold just one trial.

Figueredo’s lawyer, Virginia Raymond, explains that both Figueredo’s and Morales’ cases have been reduced to a question of who was standing where and for how many seconds. “Clearly obstruction was not his purpose,” Raymond says. “Based on the police report, there’s no crime. People walked around him to get on the plane, and there’s no allegation that he even touched anyone.”

Of course, there are bigger issues here. Are local law enforcement officers now the lackeys of an ever-expanding homeland security apparatus? Do U.S. citizens have a right to go about their business without Border Patrol harassment, or are they subject to arrest every time they decline to show papers or answer questions? In Brownsville, and in hundreds of communities on this side of the border, citizens must submit to requests from immigration authorities for personal information such as their legal status and reasons for traveling. Most people just give up their rights and answer these personal questions so they can go on with their lives.

Only a few folks such as Figueredo and Morales are willing to endure the fiasco involved in standing up for their rights.

Let’s hope the Cameron County Attorney’s office drops these farcical charges. If anyone did wrong here, it was Border Patrol.

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Janet Murguía
Janet Murguía

Comprehensive immigration reform is dead, for now at least. In February, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner signaled that House Republicans are unlikely to let immigration reform advance, underscoring again that the anti-amnesty caucus maintains its grip on the GOP. It’s a disappointing turn in the long push by undocumented families and their advocates to bring some sanity and fairness to the nation’s immigration laws.

But in the grand tradition of “Don’t mourn, organize!” some activists are turning their focus from the mess in Washington, D.C., to a deportation crisis back home. Immigration activists are urging local officials to end participation in the federal Secure Communities program, which turns local jails into deportation hubs for federal officials. The country’s largest Latino advocacy group is also attacking President Obama for presiding over the most deportations of any U.S. president.

In a March speech, National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguía called on Obama to use his executive authority to halt unnecessary deportations. In April, the Obama administration will surpass two million deportations—an unprecedented number in the United States’ long immigration history.

“For us, this president has been the deporter-in-chief,” Murguía said. It was a critical remark uncharacteristic of Murguía and the National Council of La Raza, which many activists consider a group of Washington insiders uncomfortable with calling out Democrats for broken promises.

In her March speech, however, Murguía acknowledged that even if Obama used an executive order to end unnecessary deportations, it would be only a temporary fix. “We do a grave disservice to our community and to ourselves if we focus on only one front in this battle,” she said. “Only Congress can deliver a broad, inclusive and lasting solution. So, to the House of Representatives, we say take up reform now, or suffer the political consequences.”

Still, activists aren’t content to wait for the House to have a come-to-Jesús moment. Many are focusing their efforts on local power brokers. In Travis County, ranked 11th nationally and second in the state for deportations, immigrants are deported at a rate of 19 per week. The majority were arrested for misdemeanors, according to recent data from TRAC, a project of Syracuse University.

The high rate of deportations is the work of the Secure Communities program, which requires county jails to send fingerprints of people in custody to federal authorities. If an individual is in the country without authorization, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requests that local officials hold the person, at a cost of $105.10 a day in Travis County, to give ICE enough time to seize and deport the prisoner. The program was intended to deport dangerous criminals, but in practice many of the deportees have committed only misdemeanors. The result is that immigrants can be ripped from their families for an offense as minor as a busted taillight. And many are. A 2012 report by the Austin American-Statesman found that for every felon deported from Travis County between 2008 and 2011, two misdemeanor offenders were deported.

In addition to the toll on families, the financial toll on taxpayers is significant. Reports from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards show that Travis County spent almost $26 million between October 2011 and January 2014 housing undocumented immigrants for the feds. Yet, on average, ICE reimburses just 18 percent of the costs.

The Democratic nominee for Travis County Judge, Sarah Eckhardt, promises, if elected in November, to try to end the county’s participation in the Secure Communities program by withholding funds for it.

Meanwhile, activists have been pressuring Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton to cease participation in Secure Communities. But activists are also lobbying officials with the city of Austin over the city’s agreement with Travis County to house Austin Police Department arrests, says Bob Libal, executive director of Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, an anti-private-prisons organization. With 70 percent of inmates in Travis County Jail coming from Austin police bookings, the city has the financial influence to sway county officials.

It’s a shame that the federal government asks local jurisdictions to shoulder the cost of Secure Communities, and activists should keep the pressure on. No one wins when we’re paying millions of dollars to tear families apart.

Wendy Davis speaking
Patrick Michels
Sen. Wendy Davis

Wendy Davis is in a precarious position. The same issue that catapulted her to fame—women’s reproductive rights—and made her the most exciting Democratic candidate for governor in a generation also has the power to alienate moderate voters. How she handles this quandary could determine her success in a deeply conservative state that’s historically tough on women.

In 1990, when I was voting for the first time, Ann Richards became governor by narrowly defeating a man who felt comfortable making a rape joke in front of a reporter. Even then, Richards won only 49.5 percent of the vote to Clayton Williams’ 46.9 percent.

Still, with a woman as governor, I naively assumed that by the time I reached middle age, sexism would be all but gone from the Texas political landscape. Imagine that.

Sadly, not only are things just as difficult for female politicians today, they’re worse for the average Texas woman. Over the last few years, conservatives have forced Texas women into a corner with transvaginal probes and worse. They’ve reduced access to low-cost reproductive health care and forced those who can afford an abortion provider to undergo medically unnecessary sonograms, 24-hour wait periods and sanctimonious descriptions of the fetus. Prominent conservative commentators—’s Erick Erickson prime among them—gleefully refer to Davis as “Abortion Barbie.” It’s no wonder that a liberal backlash is happening and that it’s rallying around the issue of women’s health care.

Davis’ 11-hour filibuster to block anti-abortion legislation in the Texas Senate in June was one of the defining feminist moments of the last decade.  It also shocked the near-comatose Lone Star Democrats into relevancy again. As with Ann Richards, Davis’ most passionate supporters are the women who are inspired by her feminist acts and the men who love those women. But that’s certainly not enough to win a statewide race in Texas.

So how does Davis continue to expand her base while staying true to the issues that galvanized liberals?  How does she do that in a state where the governor casually vetoed a fair-pay bill with broad bipartisan support? That bill, the state version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, would have extended the time Texas women have to file a pay-discrimination suit.

Davis can’t turn her back on women and repro​ductive rights. But she can frame the issue differently. After the fair-pay bill died, the Houston Chronicle uncovered letters from retailers like Kroger and Macy’s urging Rick Perry to veto the bill. This casts the situation not only as a women’s issue, but as a case of big business vs. working people.

In contrast to Davis, who was the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, Greg Abbott has stayed quiet on the issue. When questioned at the Texas Tribune festival in September 2013 whether he supports equal pay for women, he said he would “fight any discrimination,” but declined to specify whether he would support a bill. In an interview with WFAA on Sunday, Abbott again refused to say whether he would sign a fair pay bill into law, instead insisting that as a father of a daughter he “fully expects that women to be paid the what men are paid.”

The Republicans’ record of selling out consumers to big business could cause them trouble if Davis plays it right. She’s already calling for the removal of Cash America Vice President Bill White from the Texas Finance Commission—a situation that puts a predatory lender in charge of protecting consumers.

Davis’ defining issue of reproductive rights can also be viewed through a fiscal lens. A woman forced to have a baby she can’t afford is stuck in economic hardship. She may have to forgo an education to support her child. She may be trapped in an abusive marriage to keep ties with a breadwinner. She may become a drain on the state because of subsidies required to feed and house her family. No one expects a man to surrender to poverty or economic dependence. Why should we expect a woman to?

Wendy Davis may always be associated with the abortion debate, and there will certainly be Texans who vote against her because of it. But she can attract moderate voters without alienating her liberal base if she casts the issue of women’s rights in economic terms. As we’ve learned the hard way, in Texas, money talks.

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ACE Cash Express logo
ACE Cash Express logo

When El Paso decided to open a toll road this year, drivers were told they could pay tolls or purchase toll tags online, over the phone, or by mail. Convenient, right? But drivers who want to make payments in person would have to visit ACE Cash Express, a payday lender that charges up to $5 in fees for the service. While some states strictly regulate or ban payday lending, Texas is happy to deliver its economically vulnerable citizens directly to the doors of these questionable institutions. It’s what Texas government does best—look out for big business at the cost of its citizens.

Linda Martinez, a manager at ACE Cash Express in El Paso, told the El Paso Times recently that the arrangement was an opportunity for her company to get new customers in the door and “offer them a lot of the services that we provide.” Services like payday loans, installment loans, car-title loans and prepaid debit cards—products that often carry outrageous interest rates and sink desperate people deeper into debt. ACE, for example, offers a two-week payday loan at an APR of 792 percent. The El Paso toll authority recently canceled the arrangement, though the North Texas Toll Authority still has a similar deal with ACE Cash Express.

It’s a systemic problem we’ve seen before, this fox-in-the-henhouse kind of governing. The chair of the Texas Finance Commission—the agency that’s supposed to regulate the payday loan industry—is Bill White, vice president of Fort Worth-based Cash America. Yes, the commission that’s supposed to protect you from predatory lenders is led by a predatory lender.

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently fined Cash America $19 million in consumer refunds and fines for, among other things, “unfair and deceptive practices,” failing to maintain and provide records, violating the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, and violating the Military Lending Act.

Meanwhile, White told the El Paso Times that borrowers who find themselves in worse debt after doing business with his company should take responsibility for their actions. Of course, when people in power talk about taking responsibility, it usually means regular people get screwed.

Take, for example, the innocuous-sounding Driver Responsibility Program, created by the Texas Legislature in 2003. The law allows the Texas Department of Public Safety to extort surcharges ranging from $100 to $2,000 from traffic violators, on top of traffic violation fines. Drivers who don’t pay the added fines can lose their licenses.

DPS contracts with a private company to collect the surcharges. And, of course, the private contractor has its own fees. Municipal Services Bureau, according to DPS’ website, is “legally authorized to charge individuals service fees in addition to the surcharge.” Those fees include a service fee of 4 percent of the original surcharge amount; an installment-plan fee of $2.50 for each partial payment; a credit or debit card fee of 2.25 percent of the payment; and an electronic check fee of $2 for each payment. And guess where you can pay your traffic violation surcharge in cash? ACE Cash Express.

By 2010, more than 60 percent of those surcharges, according to The Texas Tribune, had gone unpaid. An estimated 1.3 million Texas drivers lost their licenses, and sometimes their jobs because of lack of transportation. Some legislators have fought to repeal the program, admitting the law is a failure, but so far, they’ve only succeeded in reducing surcharges for drivers with low incomes.

The deregulated electricity market is another example of the state looking out for big business instead of for working Texans. Stories abound of hidden fees, disconnections without notification, rip-off prepaid electricity cards, and multi-level marketing companies peddling power (read: pyramid schemes). Some of those practices are illegal and policed by the state. But the biggest rip-off of all is perfectly legal: deregulation itself.

The Texas Coalition for Affordable Power calculates that Texans living in deregulated areas paid $22 billion more from 2002 to 2012 than they would have if they had paid the rates enjoyed by people living in regulated areas like Austin and San Antonio.

This is what happens when government serves business at all costs. We pay the price, little by little. It really adds up.

Hempstead ISD seal

On Nov. 12, Hempstead Middle School Principal Amy Lacey took to her school intercom with an unusual announcement: Students were now banned from speaking Spanish in school. This was necessary, Lacey said, “to avoid disruption.” Rarely has a middle school intercom announcement caused such a stir. The fallout made national headlines and, once again, painted Texas as a backward state intolerant of its multicultural population.

Students at Hempstead Middle School, between Brenham and Houston, have said at least a couple of teachers took Lacey’s announcement as license to discriminate against Hispanic kids.

“There’s one teacher that said, ‘If you speak Spanish in my class, I’m going to write you up,’” eighth-grader Tiffani Resurez told KHOU-11 news.

On Dec. 2, more than two weeks after Lacey’s announcement, a letter went home from the superintendent assuring parents that “neither the district or any campus has any policy prohibiting the speaking of Spanish.”

After the story went public, school district spokesperson Laurie Bettis released a written statement that included the sentiment that the district is “continuing to ‘Create a Culture of Excellence’ which includes embracing all students of all cultural and diverse backgrounds. Our priorities are our students.”

But in a school with an enrollment that’s half Hispanic, Lacey’s actions hardly seem culturally sensitive to the students. The principal remains on paid leave until the school board finishes its investigation into the incident. The district held a public meeting on Dec. 9 for parents to air their concerns.

“I really believe [Lacey] did the right thing,” Jamie Cavender told the school board, according to KHOU. “My children don’t know if they’re being talked about or being made fun of.”

This incident in Hempstead revives a sad Texas tradition. Fear and ignorance have long motivated discrimination against Texas’ Hispanic students. According to the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas Online, sometime between 1880 and 1930 Hispanic children faced a curriculum that was less about the three R’s and more about “the three Cs: (common cultural norms, civics instruction, and command of English).” According to the handbook, “Linguistic intolerance was reflected in English-only policies. Inferior schooling and unfavorable socioeconomic circumstances caused lower test scores, higher withdrawal rates, and lower median number of school years than the general population received.”

Hey, that sounds familiar.

While some English-only advocates like to argue that Hispanic students’ refusal to learn English leads to poor academic performance, systemic issues like economic disparities and inferior school resources are the real culprits. But why take on a difficult challenge like systemic racism when you can just ban someone else’s native tongue?

I would like to point out to the dunderheads who advocate for English-only policies in this country that the majority of people around the world—66 percent actually—are multilingual. Compare that with the United States, where only 17 percent of Americans speak more than one language. Could this have anything to do with the fact that we now rank 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading among developed nations? According to the Global Languages Initiative, knowing more than one language increases cognitive abilities such as problem solving, creativity and memory. And how about this: Shanghai pupils, who outscored every other country in the world on that same test, begin learning English at age 6.

Forget the fact that Spanish was spoken for hundreds of years before English was ever uttered in Texas. This is about where our country is headed.

Through modern globalization, a large percentage of corporations in the U.S. are foreign owned or based. Learning a second and third language can only improve job prospects.

At the time of this writing, no decision has been made on what to do about Principal Lacey, but some parents are calling for her job. Considering almost 30 percent of Waller County, of which Hempstead is the county seat, is Hispanic, perhaps Lacey ought to forego banning Spanish from her school and consider learning the language herself. It could only improve her job prospects.

Ted Cruz’s Daddy Issues

Rafael Cruz
Rafael Cruz

Most Texans probably didn’t realize that when they elected Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate, they were getting his dad thrown in at no extra cost. Lately, Rafael Cruz has been working overtime to offend everyone from President Obama to the LGBT community. The senior Cruz falsely claimed that the president doesn’t say “one nation under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance. He accused Obama of being a Marxist. He called for him to be sent “back” to Kenya. It’s almost as if Rafael Cruz is trolling us. And it’s working. The media has been lit up for weeks with lists of all the crazy things that have come out of his mouth.

Ted Cruz (né Rafael Ted Cruz) acts as though the media is picking on his father. “Some folks have decided to try and go after him because they want to take some shots at me,” he said recently on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

But it’s not as if journalists are exploiting privileged information from Rafael Cruz’s private life. These are claims he’s made in public forums. Moreover, the evangelical pastor is part of the senator’s inner circle. The two were billed together at September’s Family Leadership Summit in Iowa as a “Father-Son Team.”

It was in his speech at the Family Leadership Summit that Rafael Cruz told the audience that gay marriage is “really more about the destruction of the traditional family than about exalting homosexuality because [for socialism to work] you need to also destroy loyalty to the family.” Huh?

In my view, Rafael Cruz is doing us a favor by so publicly airing his twisted views, some of which he apparently passed on to his son. It goes something like this: Social welfare, such as President Obama’s health-care reform, is akin to socialism. Socialism depends on making the government into a god and therefore must remove the Christian God from our culture. Ergo, Barack Obama equals Fidel Castro.

It’s this connection between so-called godlessness and Communism or socialism that runs throughout the Cruz manifesto. Rafael Cruz seems to think that because he was born in Cuba, he is qualified—probably anointed—to ferret out Communists from within our ranks, an obsession that smacks of reheated McCarthyism. Even more eerie is the fact that his U.S. senator son has followed suit.

At a 2011 Koch brothers luncheon in Austin, Ted Cruz made the assertion that when he was at Harvard Law School, the faculty harbored more self-proclaimed Communists than Republicans. “There were 12 who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government,” he told the crowd.

“We are puzzled by the senator’s assertions, as we are unaware of any basis for them,” Robb London, a spokesman for Harvard Law School, told The New Yorker.

The basis for the senator’s claims can likely be found with his father. By his own account, Rafael Cruz began grooming his son for this sort of anti-Communist preoccupation when he was a boy.

Rafael was seriously involved with conservative Christian policymaking in the late 1970s when Edward McAteer founded the Religious Roundtable, a right-wing group that aided Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980.

Rafael Cruz was on the Texas board of the Religious Roundtable when Ted was 8. It was at this time, Rafael says, that he began talking with Ted about politics. He told his son that America is a haven from Communist Cuba and that if America loses its freedoms, there will be nowhere left to go. He also taught Ted that God had handpicked him.

“When he was 4, I used to read Bible stories to him all the time, and I would declare and proclaim the word of God over him,” the senior Cruz said in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. “And I would just say, ‘You know Ted, you have been gifted above any man that I know. And God has destined you for greatness.’ And I started making declarations about the word of God to him. Every day, every day, every day.”

If that isn’t some Tiger Woods-level programming, I don’t know what is. Earl Woods called his son “the chosen one” too, claiming Woods would “do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity.” Like Tiger Woods, Ted Cruz grew up to be a prodigy, but at what cost to his humility and sanity? And, more important, at what cost to our country?

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A Facebook page started to alert residents about checkpoints

I don’t know about you, but if the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) set up checkpoints in my neighborhood, I’d want to know precisely why my community was being targeted. I’d want some answers. On Sept.15, DPS launched what it called a “multi-agency law enforcement initiative” that included setting up roadside checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley, ostensibly to enforce traffic laws. (The initiative, later dubbed Operation Strong Safety, also included increased river, air and road patrols to address so-called “significant criminal activity,” as well as commercial vehicle enforcement.) From the beginning, locals worried that DPS troopers at the checkpoints were going after undocumented immigrants, Arizona “papers please”-style. Rumors of deportations and immigration-related arrests spread quickly on the Internet. Within days, one Facebook page, written in Spanish, had more than 50,000 people warning each other of roadblocks throughout the mid-Valley.

In early October, three weeks after Operation Strong Safety began, it ended. To date, DPS has offered little in the way of justification for its big border incursion, and we’re left with many questions about DPS’ experiment with checkpoints.

Although there is no evidence that DPS was arresting and deporting people, Valley residents remain suspicious. If this operation was really about enforcing traffic laws, why was it in the Valley? Why not put checkpoints in Houston or Dallas or, for that matter, Lubbock?

It makes you wonder, especially given DPS Director Steve McCraw’s obsession with border security.

Some civil libertarians call the border a “Constitution-free zone”—bristling with drones, Border Patrol agents, internal checkpoints and a border fence constructed by suspending dozens of federal statutes.

Last year, a DPS trooper shot and killed two Guatemalan immigrants from a helicopter in Hidalgo County. Neither man possessed drugs or firearms.

The fallout from the incident caused DPS to reverse the policy, though airborne snipers can still fire at a vehicle if they think a suspect “is about to use deadly force.” So you can’t blame people in the Valley if they get a little jumpy when DPS starts setting up checkpoints.

State Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) was prompted to publicly question McCraw about the initiative after his office received about 100 calls related to the checkpoints—centered in Hidalgo County—during a two-day period. Constituents claimed the checkpoints were targeting poor neighborhoods, especially colonias, where many undocumented immigrants live. How many troopers were stationed in Hidalgo County versus the rest of the state? Canales wanted to know. How much were the checkpoints costing taxpayers? What data justified DPS’ claims that the Valley is a hotbed of “criminal activities, unsafe driving behaviors” and “vehicle crashes”? Most important, how could DPS justify picking on the Valley instead of more populous areas of Texas?

McCraw and DPS didn’t really answer the questions, said Curtis Smith, Canales’ chief of staff who I spoke to during the operation. “They gave us the same information that was in the press about why Hidalgo County versus other places,” Smith said. “We have a huge issue with drivers without insurance, but traffic issues I’m not so sure. I don’t think we’ve gotten much in terms of real data.”

Publicly, McCraw claimed the Rio Grande Valley leads Texas in the number of citations DPS issued to drivers for lack of driver’s licenses in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and added that the Valley is second only to the Houston area for “no insurance” citations issued by DPS during the same period.

The reason the Valley leads the state in unlicensed drivers is probably that Texas no longer allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Still, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics show that Hidalgo and Cameron counties’ per capita fatal crash rates were below the state average in 2012. When you consider that number, and that Houston has more uninsured drivers than the Valley, it makes you wonder: Was DPS unfairly picking on the Valley and its immigrant population?

For years, some law-enforcement groups have pushed the Legislature to approve statewide checkpoints for drunk drivers, but legislators have repeatedly rejected the proposal. Yet most of the state’s leaders hardly bat an eye when roving checkpoints are deployed “down there.”

I emailed DPS spokesperson Tom Vinger to ask when DPS would be staging roadblocks in Harris County and got a noncommittal response: “Future regulatory checkpoints will be assessed following the current initiative.”

On October 24, DPS released the results, comparing data from that time period with that of three weeks prior, though the department still failed to address Canales’ concerns. Without further enlightening us about how much the program cost, where checkpoints were located or how they were chosen, the report stated that troopers issued 281 citations and 249 warnings for driver license, liability insurance, vehicle registration or inspection violations. Twenty-nine arrests were made for outstanding warrants and there was a 13 percent increase in driver license transactions at area driver license offices, including new and renewal driver licenses compared to the three weeks prior.

The report also reiterated that checkpoints were never used to ascertain immigration status, so no immigration arrests were made. Moreover, the report said, U.S. Border Patrol was not involved in this aspect of the initiative. The report added that area traffic crashes decreased by 18 percent during the operation as compared to the three weeks prior, while injury crashes decreased by 20 percent and fatality crashes by 25 percent.

ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke remains unimpressed. “While DPS has released a self-serving account of the operation, it continues to withhold information about the checkpoints from government watchdogs who have requested it under the [Texas] Public Information Act,” she said in a press release, referring to a request her agency filed on October 4. “We again call on DPS to give a full accounting of its actions so that the public can ascertain the truth of what happened at these checkpoints.”

The DPS report stated the agency will continue to conduct surge operations along the Texas-Mexico border as necessary to specifically combat increases in Mexican cartel drug and human smuggling activity and related criminal activity, such as felony pursuits, stash houses and home invasions.

While the motives behind the initiative remain in question, one thing is certain. McCraw succeeded in uniting a Valley community that historically has not been all that vocal about immigrant rights. If DPS is itching for a fight on the border, it may get one—not from drug cartels, but from people who live there.


No sooner had the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act this summer than Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the state’s stringent new voter ID law, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011, would “immediately” take effect. That’s despite a federal court’s earlier ruling that the voter ID law would place “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.” Of course, placing burdens on voting is the whole point.

With a general election set for Nov. 5, the time for theoretical debates is over. For the first time, voters will be required to present an approved form of photo identification to vote. The hoops are plenty. Get ready to jump.

Let’s assume you’re registered and ready to head to the polls. When presenting photo identification at the polling place, the key word is “acceptable.” What is considered acceptable ID by the state of Texas? Here’s the list from the Secretary of State’s website:

• Texas driver license
• Texas election identification certificate
• Texas personal identification card
• Texas concealed handgun license
• U.S. military ID card containing the
person’s photograph
• U.S. citizenship certificate containing the
person’s photograph
• U.S. passport

Any of the above forms of ID, with the exception of a citizenship certificate, can be up to 60 days expired. What if you don’t have one of these seven forms of ID? Then you want to direct your attention to item No. 2 on the list, the Texas election identification certificate, or EIC.

The EIC has been available free of charge since June 26, the day after the Supreme Court decision. You can get an EIC only at a Texas DPS office, which means some voters will have to travel as far as 200 miles round-trip to get one. DPS offices started opening Saturdays on Sept. 14, less than two months from Election Day, solely to process EIC applications, and will do so until Nov. 2. (Disregard the error we discovered on the DPS website that says Nov. 6. We were told it would be fixed.) Saturday hours are only at select offices in 13 of Texas’ 254 counties. At press time, only eight EICs have been distributed statewide, according to DPS. Yes, you read that right: This state of 26 million has processed only eight election identification certificates.

Not surprisingly, Travis County is worried that at least 25,000 people in the Austin area could have trouble voting on Election Day. All because of a made-up “voter fraud epidemic.”

The list of documentation needed for an EIC is less complicated than the tax code, but not by much. First, you must demonstrate U.S. citizenship with a passport or birth certificate or other approved document.

Next, you must prove your identity. There are three ways you can do that:

1. Present one item listed in the primary identification category—either a Texas driver license or personal identification card that is between 60 days and two years expired; or

2. Present two items listed in a second category, such as an original or certified copy of a birth certificate or U.S. citizenship or naturalization papers without identifiable photo; or

3. Present one item listed in the second category, plus two of 28 items listed in the supporting identification category listed on the DPS site.

If you can navigate all that, the EIC is free and valid for six years if you are under 70, and never expires if you are over 70. If you are a person with a disability, you can apply at your county voter registrar for a permanent exemption from the photo ID requirement.

At the polls, election workers will be looking to verify that the name on your ID is identical or “substantially similar” to the one on the voter sign-in sheet. Did you remember to inform your county voter registrar in writing that you legally changed your surname after your change in marital status? Is there a clerical error?

If you show up at the polls without one of the approved photo IDs, you can still vote using a provisional ballot. But for your vote to count, you must present your county voter registrar with proper photo ID within six days.

I’m sure with Texas voter turnout already among the lowest in America, these obstacles will have no bearing on elections to come.

Blake Farenthold
Patrick Michels
Blake Farenthold

So much for Texas Republicans wooing the Hispanic vote. Remember when President Obama wiped the floor with Mitt Romney in the last presidential election and Republicans swore that they absolutely had to address comprehensive immigration reform or their party would go the way of the dodo? Well, I hope they weren’t counting on Texas Republicans to fall in line, because xenophobia and biblical voodoo have come back in the Lone Star State, if they ever left. Republicans in Texas will use any excuse to oppose a comprehensive immigration package.

Exhibit A: Former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Texas Cathie Adams was recently interviewed on the Christian radio show TruNews (“The only newscast reporting the countdown to the second coming of Jesus Christ”). Host and “End Times News Man” Rick Wiles warned that a biometric ID system could be added to a national immigration reform bill. Adams responded to Wiles by declaring the technology “demonic” and reminiscent of the “Mark of the Beast.”

“And, of course, we know in biblical prophecy that that is the End Times,” Adams explained. “That is going to be the brand either on our foreheads or on the back of our hands. That is demonic through and through. That is End Times prophecy. There is no question about that.”

Okay Cathie, I get it. You hate “illegals.” You don’t have to bring Beelzebub into it. At least Republican Congressman Kenny Marchant of Coppell is man enough to tell it like it is. He told an Associated Press reporter recently that he has no personal interest in helping to pass immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship because a bunch of new Hispanic voters would likely leave him out of a job.

“If you give the legal right to vote to 10 Hispanics in my district,” Marchant said, “seven to eight of them are going to vote Democrat.” Of course he’s not going to bow to the will of the changing demographics in his district, otherwise known as democracy. According to the congressman, immigration reform “is very unpopular in my district. The Republican primary voters, they’re being pretty vocal with me on this subject.”

Meanwhile, the number of Republicans nationwide who are coming over to the immigration reform side is worrying enough that Iowa Congressman Steve King thinks “a spell has been cast over a good number of” his GOP colleagues. Texas Republicans, on the other hand, are still hoping they can elbow immigrants out of the country.

Take, for example, Congressman Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi. He’s come up with the Texas Republican version of compassionate immigration legislation. That’s when they don’t deport DREAMers. They deport only the DREAMers’ parents. Last year, Farenthold was into blaming undocumented teens for moving here with their families. This year he’s trying to “find a compassionate solution for their status that doesn’t reward illegal behavior of their parents.” Because when I think compassion, I think about forcibly separating kids from their parents.

Still, a new survey by GOP pollster Whit Ayres shows that more than two-thirds of Republicans nationwide support immigration reform, including a path to citizenship. (Well, more of an obstacle course to citizenship, but still.) Yet U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz continues to argue that the Senate bill is not strict enough on border security. That is pretty hard to swallow coming from a Cuban, the one group of Hispanics that gets to benefit from the American immigration double standard. Both he and Sen. John Cornyn believe that citizenship should not be guaranteed, and they want 100 percent security—what they call “situational awareness”—at every segment of the southern border. I doubt they have that much situational awareness of their own kids.

Meanwhile, both Arizona senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, have jumped on board as supporters of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” immigration bill. You know it’s bad when Arizona Republicans are more compassionate than Texans. Perhaps their state went so far to the right that they were finally embarrassed enough to make a change. Sadly, it seems Texas Republicans have not yet hit bottom.

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