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Scott Douglas III
Scott Douglas III

Last year, after Alabama passed the country’s harshest anti-immigrant legislation, civil rights leader Scott Douglas III proclaimed, “Hispanics are the new Negro,” comparing today’s marginalization of undocumented immigrants with the treatment of black people in the Jim Crow South. That raises the question, where is the Catholic Church?

While the leaders of African-American churches were the organizing force behind many of the most effective civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, today’s American Catholic Church—now more than 40 percent Latino, with the fastest-growing segment being immigrants—has advocated for immigrants in a decidedly less aggressive way.

In 2011, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted its official position on immigration reform, posted the policy on its website and called it a day. The bishops struck all of the usual, middle-of-the-road talking points: a path to citizenship, a worker program, an increase in the number of family visas and a focus on securing the border. It was a good start. Unfortunately, it seems to also have been the end.

By contrast, in the early ’60s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a coalition of African-American ministers led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., made a fateful decision to engage in provocative acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. When Americans saw the earnestness of those fighting for their freedom in the face of riot police, dogs and the Ku Klux Klan, it changed racial attitudes in this country.

In June, when I heard about Nuns on the Bus, a national campaign to raise awareness about immigration reform run by the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, I thought some real Catholic action might finally be happening. Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK and head nun on the bus, is no stranger to controversy. In 2012, the Vatican reprimanded her and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most nuns in the United States, for helping the needy regardless of religious affiliation and sexual orientation. In response, Campbell told NPR the Vatican didn’t know how to handle strong women. Now, Campbell and two dozen Brides of Christ were riding across America—mostly through Southern states—to speak out for immigration reform.

As I stood in the sweltering parking lot at St. Leonard’s Catholic Church in San Antonio, where the nuns made a stop, I quickly realized the event was more a call to concession than to action.

“It’s not a perfect bill, but something is better than nothing,” Alicia Torres told the crowd, referencing the bipartisan immigration bill that passed the U.S. Senate with a 13-year path to citizenship for those who qualify. Torres, now in her 20s, was brought to this country without documentation when she was 6. Despite having obtained a college degree, without documentation, she says, she can’t practice her career. If immigration reform is passed, she’ll have an accelerated path to citizenship, but she still lives with the fear that her mother—who suffers from kidney failure—could be deported.

Congressman Joaquin Castro, also in attendance, said that the agriculture industry reports that 50 percent of its labor force is undocumented. “That means the figure is probably more like 75 percent,” he speculated. Why can’t a group of people that size demonstrate just how integral they are to our society? Does the American Catholic Church realize it’s in a position to help immigrants push for action?

Rather than organize immigrants to political action, however, the Church’s strategy has been to lobby voters and legislators on their behalf. The call to action from Sister Simone, for example, was for the audience to fill out postcards to be carried by the nuns to the Senate in July. This puts a lot of faith in those in power to upend the status quo just because it’s the right thing to do.

I understand the Catholic clergy’s hesitation to organize immigrants into civil disobedience. The methods of the SCLC were controversial even by 1960s standards. In the view of many black leaders, nonviolent resistance would only incite violence from whites. Some black people and most whites believed that the issue of civil rights was best left to the courts. But who was on the right side of history?

The past has shown us that people in power give up that power only when they have no other choice. It’s past time for the Catholic Church to take a stronger stand for America’s immigrants.

Speak Ill, Go to Jail

Justin Carter (19) was arrested in Austin for comments made on Facebook.
Justin Carter (19) was arrested in Austin for comments made on Facebook.

Think you live in a free country where your rights, including freedom of speech, are protected by the Constitution? Don’t be so sure. Expressing your views, especially if they are controversial or in poor taste, is becoming a good way to land in jail for a long time. Take, for example, the case of Justin Carter. Carter is a nineteen-year-old who was arrested in Austin on February 14 after an argument he was involved in during an online video game session carried over to Facebook where he made some inadvisable remarks. According to court documents, Carter’s opponent called him, “crazy,” so Carter decided to respond with an over-the-top comeback.

“I’m fucked in the head alright. I think I’ma (sic) shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them.”

Carter maintains that his comments were taken out of context and that he wrote them sarcastically. In fact, the police record states that he ended his comment with the abbreviations J.K., which stands for ‘Just Kidding’ and LOL, which stands for ‘Laughing Out Loud’. Nonetheless, an anonymous person—reportedly a total stranger in Canada according to Justin’s father Jack Carter— saw the comment and contacted the authorities. The tip was routed to a regional intelligence center and, according to Carter’s pro bono lawyer Donald Flanary, Carter was arrested before police even confirmed that the post came from his computer.

After searching Carter’s apartment and computer, police found no weapons and no further evidence that he posed a threat to others. Still, Carter was transferred to Comal County Jail where he was thought to have been when he posted the Facebook comments, and remained in jail for nearly five months, charged with a third degree felony of making terroristic threats. A judge set his bond at $500,000, an amount his family couldn’t afford to pay.

On July 11, after an arduous publicity campaign by Carter’s parents, an anonymous donor paid his bail and Justin walked free, but he could still face up to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. As a first-time offender Carter may be eligible for deferred adjudication community supervision, according to a press release from Comal County District Attorney Jennifer Tharp. If Carter keeps his nose clean for the duration, it would not result in a criminal record, but Carter’s father says the experience has left Justin traumatized. According to his mother, Jennifer Carter, Justin was assaulted a number of times and locked in solitary confinement for weeks.

“Without getting into the really nasty details, he’s had concussions, black eyes, moved four times from base for his own protection,” his father told NPR. “He’s been put in solitary confinement, nude, for days on end because he’s depressed.”

The case is just the latest in a disturbing trend of creeping authoritarianism in the United States. You don’t have to look far these days to see evidence of it. Forty year-old Jeffrey Olson in San Diego, for example, was charged with vandalism for writing anti-bank sentiments in chalk on public sidewalks. That case was dismissed in July, but had it turned out for the worst, Olson could have landed in jail for 13 years.

Not so lucky is 19 year-old Joshua Pillault of Oxford, Mississippi who was arrested in October of last year for allegedly joking in a gaming chat room that he was going to commit a Columbine-style hit on his former high school.

Like Carter, Pillault’s home was searched and no weapons or other evidence that he was serious about his threats were found. Pillault was coerced into talking to police without a lawyer and, though he maintained his remarks weren’t serious, he remained in jail, charged with making threats in interstate and foreign commerce and threatening property damage, and was denied bail. Finally, on June 20, hoping for a lighter sentence, Pillault plead guilty. He is now awaiting a mental evaluation after which sentencing will take place. Pillault could get 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

While Carter and Pillault’s comments were insensitive and thoughtless isn’t the point of the First Amendment that we tolerate speech even when we don’t agree with it? It’s disturbing that we’re criminalizing the speech of citizens at the same tim so many of us express little discomfort with the NSA spying on private conversations. Are we safe venting our anger anywhere? I, for one, am starting to feel a little paranoid.

Rick Perry at "The Response" in August 2011
Patrick Michels
Rick Perry

The news that Rick Perry will not seek re-election next year hit me hard. Sure it’s great to get some new blood in the governor’s mansion, but let’s face it: As a columnist, I’m worried about losing my go-to source for political comedy. There’s so much I count on from Rick Perry, from his perfect hair to his verbal flubs to the cringe-worthy name on his family ranch, that I just have to give a 10-gun salute to the old guy for all the material he’s abundantly provided over the years. Here in no particular order are the top 10 things I will miss about having Rick Perry as my governor.

1. First of all, I will miss having a governor who looks so badass shooting a gun. Say what you want about debate skills, when your governor has an intro video that rivals that of Walker, Texas Ranger, you’re talking master statesman.

2. I will miss having a governor who’s not ashamed to admit he’s a Christian. In a presidential ad. So brave!

3. I will miss having a governor with a mind like a steel trap.

4. I will miss having a governor who knows that a decade equals 90 years.

5. I will miss having a governor who confused the voting age with the legal drinking age. Cuz you’d have to be drunk to vote for him?

6. I will miss having a governor who makes a national debate feel like a Miss Teen USA pageant.

7. I will miss having a governor who’s taken that “whole ‘nother country” thing a bit too far.

8. I will miss having a governor whose family hunting camp has a name I can’t publish on this website, but that was painted on a giant rock for decades.

9. I will miss having a governor I get to pay twice.

10. And, finally, I will miss having a governor in office so long that children in Texas think the job is a lifetime appointment.

Adios, Ricardo.

David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” as recorded by Commander Chris Hadfield while on board the International Space Station.

On Sunday, May 12, Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield ended a five-month mission aboard the International Space Station by releasing a YouTube video of himself performing David Bowie’s 1969 hit “Space Oddity”—in space. Just three days later, the video had been viewed more than 11 million times, with nearly every one of the comments enthusiastically in support of Hadfield and astronauts in general. Earth’s first music video shot in space was the grand finale of a five-month social media campaign by Hadfield to engage the public in his space adventure. By broadcasting such mundane tasks as making a peanut butter and honey sandwich, brushing his teeth, and washing his hands, Hadfield managed to do what NASA and every other national space program hasn’t—reignite the public’s enthusiasm for space exploration.

But why did people become so blasé about space travel? America’s serious entry into space exploration was founded on the fear that the Soviet Union was going to colonize the moon. Fueled by paranoia about losing our technological and ideological superiority, the U.S. raced to get to the moon first. In 1969 the world gathered around television sets to watch Neil Armstrong take that first lunar step, and the result was a popular culture inspired by dreams of the future. When it became clear, however, that Russia wasn’t going to follow us to the moon, American moon missions ended. By the end of the 1970s, we had stopped advancing the frontier for human spaceflight, and the public’s enthusiasm waned.

In the ensuing years, government funding steadily dropped. The space shuttle program ended in 2011 and, by 2012, only one half of 1 percent of the U.S. federal budget went to NASA. Locally, cutbacks at the Johnson Space Center have resulted in massive layoffs for NASA employees and contractors. It’s hard to get precise numbers, but in the past three years, the Aerospace Transition Center, a human-resources facility run by the Texas Workforce Commission, has been utilized by an estimated 5,000 people in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake City, the home of NASA. Though the numbers are dwindling, the layoffs continue. But if American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is to be believed, the economic crisis we’re in didn’t cause the end of the space program. Rather, it could be the other way around.

In a 2012 Senate committee hearing on the future of the U.S. space program, Tyson theorized that “Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth because doing what’s never been done before is intellectually seductive whether or not we deem it practical.” He went even further to speculate that today’s economic crisis is a symptom of a collective loss of ambition due to our loss of the space dream.

Intellectual seduction seems a good term for what Commander Hadfield did with his social-media campaign. His zeal for space exploration is such that even the act of washing his hands is something he wanted to share with the world—and the world wanted to share it with him. His nearly one million Twitter followers attest to that.

To NASA’s credit, the agency was instrumental in helping Hadfield carry out his video broadcasts. The agency provided the technology that allowed Hadfield to do an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit live from space. But it was Hadfield’s enthusiasm and creativity that provided the content.

Not only did he mastermind the “Space Oddity” recording, planning well ahead of his mission to get permission from David Bowie to alter the lyrics and perform the song, but he also spent hours outside his 10-hour-a-day job as an astronaut creating content for his followers back home.

What NASA does now is crucial. It can take Hadfield’s social-media model and leverage its creativity to drum up popular support for new projects like commercial space-transport company SpaceX’s proposed rocket launch site outside Brownsville, a move that could bring hundreds of jobs to Texas’ poorest region. Or NASA can go back to what it was doing before and risk floundering another 20 years.

If that happens, however, American innovation may go with it.

One Nation Under Willie

Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson

In case you haven’t heard, Willie Nelson turned 80 recently. Fans, celebrity friends and the media have been showering him with tributes for weeks. The outpouring is unsurprising to Texans; Willie has always been the kind of entertainer to make everyone feel like family. I can’t think of anyone who manages such broad appeal while remaining such an outspoken liberal. Perhaps our lawmakers, perpetually stuck in political gridlock, could learn a thing or two from the man who brings together the hippies and the rednecks to create one Willie wonderful world.

Since the early 1970s, Willie Nelson has been the kind of artist who lets his hair down. Literally. “I let my hair grow and I would go into truck stops just to see what would happen,” Willie said of those days in a 2008 interview. It didn’t hurt him. Willie found his greatest success in his home state while embracing the southern-fried counterculture of the Austin music scene.

From growing hair, Willie graduated to open support of growing marijuana. He serves as co-chair on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). The advocacy group has lauded Willie for “doing remarkable things to ‘normalize’ cannabis in the eyes of the American public,” by, “living an honest and transparent existence regarding his enjoyment derived from decades of cannabis use.” Willie is serious about his weed. After his arrest in 2010 for marijuana possession in Sierra Blanca, Texas—following pot busts in 2005 and 2006—he formed the TeaPot Party. “There’s the Tea Party. How about the Teapot Party?,” he said. “Our motto: We lean a little to the left.” And last year, he released the song, “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” with rapper and avid pot smoker Snoop Dogg.

It helps that he approaches controversial topics with humor and grace. Willie broached homosexuality with his 2006 cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” a track that challenges the masculine stereotypes of the cowboy. The follow up track on the same album, “Ain’t Goin’ Down on Brokeback Mountain,” had some fans scratching their heads with its homophobic refrain, “That shit ain’t right.” But a recent interview in Texas Monthly confirmed Willie’s support of same-sex marriage. “I never thought of marriage as something only for men and women,” Willie said.“ But I’d never marry a guy I didn’t like.“

In December, while the country was debating gun control, Willie went on Piers Morgan Live to say he believes there’s no need for civilians to own high-powered semi-automatic rifles that shoot 100 rounds, adding, “Those are for military.”

Still his fans, many of them conservative country music lovers, keep him busy enough to play 200 shows a year.

“Whatever Willie’s politics are, you’ll never hear him speak about them when he does a show,” says Joe Nick Patoski author of Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. “That’s why his fan base is so broad and politically diverse. A Willie Nelson show is agnostic; the focus is on entertainment.”

Unless he’s doing a Farm Aid benefit. The entertainer co-founded the charity in 1985 to champion the small family farm. It turned out to be a cause upon which most people can agree.

As far as I can tell, that’s the real secret to Willie Nelson’s far-reaching appeal. In his music and in his life, he genuinely cares about the little guy in a way that never seems contrived like so many other country music acts. I know of no other performer of his caliber who spends 30 minutes after every show signing autographs. In 2011, he traveled to Japan to play a benefit for the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Closer to home, his recent birthday concert outside Austin quickly turned into a benefit for the victims of the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West, a town just 10 minutes from Willie’s birthplace, Abbott. Thousands turned out to wish Willie well and sell out the venue.

Then he boarded his bus the Honeysuckle Rose IV (it runs on Bio-Willie, his own alternative fuel brand), and got on the road again to continue his “Old Farts and Jackass Tour” (yes, you read that right) currently crossing North America.

What’s not to love?

The proposed merger of three University of Texas campuses in the Rio Grande Valley has far-reaching financial implications. You should be rooting for the Texas Legislature to pass a bill that would combine the campuses of the University of Texas-Brownsville, University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen, operated by the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. The new institution would provide educational opportunities to a long underserved region at a time when ignoring the need for higher education in the Valley could soon burden the state’s economy.

The stakes for Texas’ economy are high. Steve Murdock, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and ex-state demographer, has estimated that undereducated Hispanics could cost Texas $11.4 billion annually in lost tax revenue by 2050. Alternatively, closing the earning gap between Anglos and minorities, he said, could, by 2050, increase average annual household income in Texas by $16,000. The solution: better education for Texas’ minority population. The Rio Grande Valley, where roughly 90 percent of the residents are Hispanic, is the place to start. As UT-Pan Am President Robert S. Nelsen told the Observer in March, “If we don’t get it right in South Texas, we don’t get it right in this nation and we especially don’t get it right in this state.”

Hispanics now comprise a majority of the kids in Texas public schools, and Nelsen says they make up 89 percent of the student body at UT-Pan Am.

Still, only 4.6 percent of all Texas Hispanics were enrolled in college in 2011, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That’s compared to 7 percent of African-Americans and 5.6 percent of Anglos.

That could soon change. The bill to create a premier university in the Valley won unanimous support from the Texas House and easily passed the Senate but hasn’t yet won final passage.

The new institution would remain part of the University of Texas system and would become eligible for funds from a public endowment called the Permanent University Fund. The new university could also access the $50 million Institute for Transformational Learning, a part of the University of Texas System that bills itself as “promoting innovation” and funds online learning programs throughout the UT System.

Nelsen says that technology is a big part of the merged university’s future. “We’ve thought a lot about virtual classrooms. We’re doing more and more online and hybrid classes because of the great demand.” Online courses can be especially beneficial for working students or students who have children.

This year the school added masters of business administration and masters of public administration programs to four others already online, and the school has plans to do the same next year for special education and nursing programs.

The merger brings with it the plan to create a long-sought medical school at the Harlingen campus. “If you look at what happened at the UT Health Center San Antonio,” Nelsen said, “in 22 years, it generated over $18 billion in economic impact. Just creating a $98 million science building will have a $134 million impact. It will bring 125 extra jobs to the Valley.” That’s welcome news, because one downside to the merger is the loss of some jobs at the merging schools. UT-Brownsville recently notified about 250 employees that they no longer will have a job come August.

The newly formed university will also get access to a University of Texas funding program that provides allotments to attract top teaching talent.

All of which could lead the new university to become an emerging research facility. “I think this merger is an economic engine for the Valley and for the state,” Nelsen told me. It’s a long-overdue investment in higher education in one of the state’s most ignored areas—and hopefully will provide Texas an economic boost. If the bill passes, the merged university would be a win for the Valley and potentially a win for the rest of the state too.

Charros with flags
Cindy Casares
Charros carry the flags of the United States, Mexico and Texas through the Grand International Parade.

In many parts of the U.S., when the subject of Mexico arises, calls for more border security, higher walls and stricter immigration laws quickly follow. But in Brownsville, Texas, the ties that bind two nations together have been celebrated for 76 years during the annual Charro Days Fiesta. I grew up in Brownsville and have been attending Charro Days—named for the Mexican cowboy with the wide-brimmed hat—since the early 1970s. My parents and grandparents, likewise, attended from the time they were young. But with U.S.-Mexico relations riven by American immigration enforcement and Mexican narco-violence, I went home to see how traditions have changed.

Just days before this year’s Charro Days, the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros issued a travel warning for the border region of the state of Tamaulipas, following a spate of carjackings.

But I found that the border spirit—neither fully American nor fully Mexican but something altogether unique—lives on.

Grand International Parade Crowd
Cindy Casares
Crowds line Elizabeth Street in downtown Brownsville to watch the Grand International Parade. Charro Days Associaton President Henry LeVrier estimates 60- to 80,000 people attended this year.

Consider one of my favorite floats in Saturday’s parade: a flatbed truck carrying a group of uniformed Customs and Border Protection agents playing conjunto music. I saw them at last year’s Sombrero Festival where they brought the house down. The irony of a bunch of Hispanic guys in CBP uniforms playing Tex-Mex music to a cheering Hispanic crowd is not lost on me. It’s also not unusual in the Rio Grande Valley where Texas and Mexico meld into one.

Locals continue to keep Charro Days a bi-national celebration as best they can. In the early days, the bridges to Mexico remained opened so that citizens of both countries could freely share the events happening on both sides—street dances in Brownsville, rodeos in Matamoros, parades in both cities.

Those days are gone, but this year the mayors of Brownsville and Matamoros still met midway on the Gateway International Bridge for the traditional Hands Across the Border ceremony. The mayors exchanged gifts and hugged while schoolchildren from both countries did the same. Wearing a fringed leather jacket with white filigree—a traditional costume from the state of Tamaulipas—Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez recalled the importance of this symbolic gesture.

“We are more than neighbors, we are family,” he said to the crowd in English, while Matamoros Mayor Alfonso Sanchez Garza described the ceremony in Spanish as “a hymn to the friendship the two cities share.”

Mr. Amigo.Eduardo Yañez
Cindy Casares
Brownsville Police officers escort 2013′s “Mr. Amigo” Eduardo Yañez in the Grand International Parade. Yañez is a Mexican television and film star.
In the 1960s, a small group of Chamber of Commerce leaders in Brownsville created the Mr. Amigo Association to honor Mexican celebrities who work toward furthering U.S.-Mexico relations. Over the years, a number of famous Mexican entertainers—both male and female—and one former Mexican president have been crowned Mr. Amigo. This year’s title-holder, a telenovela star named Eduardo Yañez, drew throngs of adoring female fans to Charro Days festivities, especially the three Brownsville parades that took place Thursday through Saturday.

Saturday’s parade also featured fifteen entries that made the trek from Matamoros to appear in the event. Thirty years ago, that number would have easily been much higher, but tightened security and immigration measures have changed things, Charro Days Association President Henry LeVrier says. For years, the Grand International Parade started in Brownsville and continued on to Matamoros to join that city’s Fiestas Mexicanas, but that all changed about four years ago due to concerns over firefights in Matamoros between Mexican military and cartel members.

Kids in Costume, Charro Days
Cindy Casares
Children are a big part of Charro Days. Parents dress their kids in traditional Mexican costumes to pass on a love of their heritage.
These days, after the parades families are more likely to head to the Sombrero Festival —a 27 year-old fair held in Brownsville’s Washington Park with live music, food booths and Mexican-themed competitions like the “Grito Contest,” (a grito is a Mexican victory cry), and the ever-popular “Frijolympics,” (a bean cook-off).

A bevvy of souvenir shops from the Matamoros mercado have also come over to the Brownsville side now that Brownsvillians are afraid to travel to Matamoros to buy their Charro Days costumes.

As Mayor Martinez said at last year’s Hands Across the Border event, “Our two cities will always be one family. No matter the forces that try to pull us apart.”

LeVrier agrees, telling me, “We continue meeting throughout the year with organizers in Matamoros to keep the spirit going.”

Neither prefabricated walls nor the threat of narco-violence can destroy that and I suspect, when this current political climate is relegated to the history books, Charro Days will still be going strong.

A fascinating video is circulating on the Internet featuring motorists who decline to answer questions at Border Patrol checkpoints miles from the border. Questions like, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” or “Where are you headed?” are met with polite refusals. In the video, one pair of motorists stopped at a Laredo checkpoint refuse to answer an agent’s question about their citizenship. When the agent becomes agitated and orders the driver to pull over to secondary inspection, the driver politely says, “No thank you.” The agent calls over his supervisor. “Unless we’re living in a police state,” the driver says. “Unless this is Mexico or Nazi Germany … this is still America and I can travel down this road without having to answer questions from federal agents.” The kicker is the motorists get away with it; the supervisor ultimately waves them through.

This was a surprise to me because I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley where travelers must pass through an internal checkpoint in Sarita or Falfurrias to reach points north. The Border Patrol operates a total of 71 permanent and tactical checkpoints on the southwest border, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. (Tactical checkpoints do not have permanent buildings. They support permanent checkpoints by monitoring and inspecting traffic on secondary roads that the Border Patrol determines are likely to be used by undocumented travelers or smugglers.) As the checkpoints have proliferated, so has concern over the rights of motorists. Critics of the internal checkpoints say they violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on “unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Still, it was unclear to me if you are legally obligated to answer Border Patrol agents’ questions. What, exactly, are your rights and responsibilities at these checkpoints? I put the question to a few legal experts.

Denise Gilman, co-director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says that Border Patrol agents at internal checkpoints are allowed to ask motorists basic questions about citizenship, identity and travel itinerary, but they cannot detain you or search your vehicle without probable cause. Your refusal to answer questions would not provide probable cause to allow for such a detention or search, she added.

“So, if you refuse to answer, they can pull you out of the line and over into ‘secondary inspection’ and they can probably hold you there for about 20 minutes or so,” she said. “But they cannot do anything more if you continue to refuse to respond unless something else develops during that time period that would lead to probable cause.”

More than one motorist in the video declined to pull over into secondary inspection, yet they were allowed to go on their way without incident.

“I don’t know of any case where the person has refused to go into secondary inspection as in the YouTube video,” says Barbara Hines, a clinical professor of law at UT who co-directs the immigration clinic with Gilman. “But it is a very interesting civil disobedience idea. Because in order to arrest the person, the Border Patrol, again, would need probable cause.”

I happened to have a trip planned to the Valley last weekend. On my way back to Austin, I stopped at the checkpoint in Sarita. Rather than refuse to answer the question, “Are you a U.S. citizen?” I asked the agent whether or not I was legally obligated to answer. She was taken aback at first, asking if I was going to pull a camera on her. I told her I was doing a story for the Texas Observer, which probably ensured that I would get out of there without a hassle.

Her supervisor referred me to the Border Patrol Public Affairs Office in Falfurrias and I went on my way never having revealed my citizenship.

By email later, a Border Patrol spokesman gave me the answer I was looking for: “Although motorists are not legally required to answer the questions ‘are you a U.S. citizen and where are you headed,’ they will not be allowed to proceed until the inspecting agent is satisfied that the occupants of vehicles traveling through the checkpoint are legally present in the U.S.”

Border Patrol agents are granted authority to question the occupants of vehicles traveling through an established checkpoint based on U.S. vs. Martinez-Fuerte. That was a 1976 Supreme Court decision that said permanent or fixed checkpoints set up by the U.S. Border patrol on public highways leading to or away from the Mexican border are not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Congress also gave the Department of Homeland Security authority, through the Immigration and Nationality Act, to conduct searches within a “reasonable distance” of the border, which DHS defines as 100 miles.

Hines points out, however, that federal laws and regulations are subordinate to the Constitution.

So it seems you are within your rights not to answer the Border Patrol agent at an internal checkpoint (this doesn’t go for actual borders!), but the agents are also within their rights to ask you about your citizenship. At least for a while. After that, they’d need probable cause to detain you.

vote here

Uh-oh. The Supreme Court might strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the venerable 1965 law that’s protected minority voting rights for nearly half a century. The court will hear oral arguments next week in Shelby County v. Holder. At issue is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of racial discrimination (Texas included) to get “pre-clearance” from the U.S. Department of Justice before making changes to the voting system.

Apparently some justices have been jonesing to declare racism a thing of the past and usher in an America where everyone can live happily ever after. Unfortunately, that’s a fairy tale. While the days of overt discrimination may be mostly behind us, institutional racism still exists and will take much longer to eradicate. Hispanic and black Texans understand this better than most.

“Texas’ history is so that it is, in all honesty, a poster child for why we need Section 5,” MALDEF Attorney Luis Figueroa said at a press call held by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights February 21.

Just take the recent Texas redistricting mess.

Less than a year ago, a federal, three-judge panel in Washington D.C. ruled that the new congressional maps drawn by the Republican-led Texas Legislature were intentionally discriminatory. That’s a pretty high (or low, in this case) bar to meet.

Writing for the panel that included Judge Rosemary M. Collyer and Judge Beryl A. Howell, Judge Thomas Griffith said they were, “persuaded by the totality of the evidence that the plan was enacted with discriminatory intent.”

Bear in mind that George W. Bush appointed two of the judges on the panel. When conservative judges are calling your actions discriminatory, your issues probably run deep. Yet, just six months later, the Supreme Court would say we are free of that discriminatory intent?

Just two days after the federal court struck down Texas’ redistricting plan, another panel of judges in that same court ruled that Texas’ new voter ID law, was also in violation of Section 5 of the VRA. The law would’ve required voters to present a valid, government-issued photo ID to vote, but judges figured out what critics had been saying all along: the requirement would hurt those Texans most likely to be without a valid ID, mostly poor people of color.

“Record evidence suggests that [Senate Bill] 14, if implemented, would in fact have a retrogressive effect on Hispanic and African American voters,” the judges wrote. “Everything Texas has submitted as affirmative evidence is unpersuasive, invalid, or both. Moreover, uncontested record evidence conclusively shows that the implicit costs of obtaining SB 14-qualifying ID will fall most heavily on the poor and that a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans and Hispanics in Texas live in poverty. We therefore conclude that SB 14 is likely to lead to ‘retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise’.”

The Voting Rights Act was passed at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and was secured through a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It intended to put an end to discriminatory voting practices like poll taxes and literacy tests that created widespread disenfranchisement of minority voters. Proponents of the measure warn that we will see a return to those days if Section 5 is struck down. In Texas, even with the VRA, we’ve never stopped having to fight those who don’t want to see people of color turn out to vote.

I hate to think what this state will look like for minorities if our legislators are left to govern on their own.

Sam Houston State Office Building
The Sam Houston State Office Building houses the State Ethics Commission offices.

In the words of Fred Lewis, an attorney who advocates for campaign finance reform, the Texas Ethics Commission is not just toothless, but gumless—a shell agency that makes a mockery of good government. And that’s by design. The Ethics Commission was created and is funded by the very people it’s supposed to police: our legislators.

Examples of the agency’s weakness aren’t hard to come by, but try this one out: The commission has apparently never formally asked the Travis County district attorney to investigate a case. (The Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit is charged with criminal investigations of state officials, most famously indicting former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.)

In a tough-on-crime state, it’s the politicians who enjoy a peculiar lack of enforcement and policing—largely thanks to the Ethics Commission.

The big busts of corrupt politicians in recent years have happened with little help from the Ethics Commission. Instead, the agency has focused on trifling technical violations that have drawn the ire of lawmakers. It’s the equivalent of a cop busting jaywalkers while a nearby bank is robbed.

Take the case of former state Rep. Kino Flores, a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley known to contractors as “Mr. 10 Percent” for his habit of skimming off the top of government contracts. Flores was eventually the target of 59 allegations of misconduct and was convicted in 2010 of ethics violations. During its investigation of Flores, a Travis County grand jury expressed “outrage” at the vagueness of state ethics law. In a letter, the jurors excoriated what they termed “loopholes and vagueness which seem to be common for self-serving legislative laws and codes.”

The jurors specifically cited the opaqueness of the personal financial disclosures filed by elected officials. In Flores’ case, the Ethics Commission allowed him to declare himself a “consultant,” without listing who or what he was consulting for. There is no record of the Ethics Commission ever investigating Flores.

Lax ethics laws also plagued the case of former state Rep. Joe Driver, R-Garland, who in 2010 got caught double-dipping on travel reimbursements. Jay Root, then a reporter with the Associated Press, noticed the duplications on state and campaign travel records. Driver’s initial defense was that the Ethics Commission told him it was all good. Watchdog groups pointed out that lack of vigilance on the part of the Ethics Commission could lead to rampant abuse by lawmakers.

Because of the confidentiality rule, it’s not known whether the Ethics Commission was investigating Driver, and since House travel records before mid-2005 were already destroyed at the time of Driver’s confession, it was impossible to know how much Driver earned by getting reimbursed twice for the same expenses. Driver admitted to double-dipping for years.

Since former Travis County DA Ronnie Earle nailed former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on money-laundering charges, lawmakers have tried several times, unsuccessfully, to strip the Public Integrity Unit of its funding or authority.

Some board members of the Ethics Commission, perhaps feeling upstaged, suggested in November that the commission take over the Public Integrity Unit’s job. Luckily these proposals have gone nowhere, thanks in part to public outrage.

This legislative session, lawmakers have a golden opportunity to fix the Ethics Commission. The agency is up for sunset review, the once-every-12-years process of reforming state agencies.

Several watchdog groups have proposed that the Ethics Commission create an enforcement director position with the power to execute real investigations. Unfortunately, the sunset staff didn’t adopt that recommendation. But there are other ideas for reform.

Legislators could pump more money into the commission’s stagnant budget, so the agency could, for example, hire more staff with law enforcement backgrounds. They could also clarify the law to allow for sharing of information with law enforcement agencies. Finally, they could empower the executive director to sign off on subpoenas and other investigatory tools without requiring the Ethics Commission board—political appointees, all—to approve them.

Is it too much to hope that lawmakers will shine more light on their own dealings in the murky world of money and politics? Perhaps. Both Republicans and Democrats talk a good game about transparency and disclosure; it’s up to us to make them live up to it.