Back to mobile

Forrest for the Trees

Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

In early September, the Observer was the first to report that the federal government was planning a massive 2,400-bed family detention center in South Texas to hold Central American families entering Texas through Mexico. Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that it expected to open the facility in the small town of Dilley in early November. Corrections Corporation of America—the largest private prison company in the world and the operator of the notorious T. Don Hutto family jail near Austin—is expected to run the facility.

ICE said the detention center “will help ensure more timely and effective removals that comply with our legal and international obligations, while deterring others from taking the dangerous journey and illegally crossing into the United States.”

The South Texas Family Residential Center is located on a 50-care site owned by a Red McCombs-affiliated company, which runs a “man camp” for oilfield workers there. ICE said it expects to open the detention center with room for 480 “residents” and to build enough new housing to detain 2,400 immigrants by June.

Locking up children and their parents has an ugly history in Texas. The Obama administration pulled families out of the CCA-run T. Don Hutto detention center in 2009 after mounting evidence of civil-rights abuses. Families and children, many of whom are fleeing violence and human rights abuses, simply shouldn’t be held in jail-like conditions, advocates have said. They suggest alternatives, including truly residential facilities run by charities or faith-based groups.

Immigrant rights groups reacted with outrage today at the ICE announcement.

“Given the shameful history of family detention at Hutto, it’s horrifying that ICE would turn back to Corrections Corporation of America to operate what would be by far the nation’s largest family detention center,” said Bob Libal, executive director of the prison reform group Grassroots Leadership. “While little kids and their families will suffer in remote private prisons, far away from legal or social services, these multi-billion dollar private prison companies stand to make enormous profits.”

Dilley City Administrator Noel Perez says he has few details about the detention center, which will be located within the city limits. City officials, he said, had one meeting with CCA but haven’t spoken with ICE.

“We’ve just provided some general information on utilities and infrastructure,” Perez said. “We know it’s a done deal between CCA and ICE.”

Perez said the community’s attitude toward the detention center is one of “ambivalence.” He says he hasn’t gotten one call for or against it.

How long will the detention center be open? Perez says he’s heard one to two years, perhaps five. After that, he said, “We either fill it up with immigrants or we will fill it up with oilfield workers.”

Sen. Dan Patrick
Patrick Michels
Sen. Dan Patrick delivers a passionate speech in favor of House Bill 2.

In her 1988 campaign classic, “Insider Baseball,” Joan Didion wrote that political campaigns had little to do with democracy, and were not about “affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs.” Instead, “the process” was a “mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals”—policy experts, reporters, pundits, pollsters, advisors—”to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”

In her essay, Didion coolly dissects the 1,001 bullshit ways Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush are manufactured as candidates, abetted by a media all too game to play along. But the meta-narrative she documents emerged from public performances—no one involved tried to hide what they were doing. (The title of the essay comes from an “eerily contrived moment” in which Dukakis tosses a baseball to his press secretary on an airport tarmac while reporters and camera crews diligently take notes for stories on Dukakis’ authenticity and “toughness.”)

This is simply how modern political campaigns—at least high-level ones—are conducted. Didion’s complaints now seem a tad antiquated, though still righteously spot-on.

But now comes a new twist: the art of the non-campaign. The candidate who doesn’t even bother to put on a show, doesn’t even pretend to reach the broad middle of the citizenry and instead appears behind closed doors to small groups of like-minded voters, if he or she appears in public at all.

That’s the kind of campaign that some Texas Republicans are now running, in particular Ken Paxton, who’s favored to become attorney general, and Dan Patrick, who’s the frontrunner for lieutenant governor. Their campaigns are marked by a general refusal to speak with reporters, engage with their opponents, hold press conferences, meet with newspaper editorial boards, publicly announce events in advance, or even run TV ads.

Instead, the two men are running “stealth” campaigns—as the Houston Chronicle recently put it—speaking to tea party gatherings or events closed to the press.

A talk-radio show host not known for his reticence, Patrick ran a boisterous campaign against his three rivals during the GOP lieutenant governor primary and later in a head-to-head runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Now, he’s like the chupacabra: rumored but rarely seen in the flesh. The Houston Chronicle reported in a Sept. 12 story:

Then, as if a switch flipped, his campaign went into hunker-down mode.

It sent two news releases in the six weeks after the runoff. Patrick did not re-emerge until even later, in a July 16 public speech in front of an estimated 11,000 students, parents and teachers at the annual gathering of the Texas Future Farmers Association.

When he addressed the state’s broadcaster’s association Aug. 7, Patrick quickly left without taking questions from reporters —but only after shouting, “I’ve been the most media-friendly guy in the Legislature!” before vanishing.

Just this week, Patrick’s campaign declined an invitation to appear before the Houston Chronicle editorial board.

“At this time the senator does not plan to meet with editorial boards,” Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said.

When Patrick did announce a press conference last week, reporters wondered what big reveal he had in store. As it turned out, Patrick called the media together to announce that he was the most business-friendly candidate. The whole thing lasted 15 minutes.

His opponent, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who’s excited many Democrats with a peppy, wide-ranging effort, challenged Patrick to five debates but he agreed to only one. Patrick is campaigning—just not in a way accessible to most Texans.

“3 days – 6 cities – 3 planes & one rental car drive from Midland to Lubbock,” Patrick wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 18. “I will not be out worked.”

Ted Delisi, a GOP consultant quoted in the Chronicle, acknowledged that it’s “not the typical campaigning” but then implausibly tried to coin the approach as not being “covert,” but rather “the new overt.”

If anything, state Sen. Ken Paxton is even more covertly overt. Paxton is the overwhelming favorite to be the next attorney general—he faces an underfunded Democratic attorney with the somewhat helpful name Sam Houston. The highlight of Paxton’s resume so far is that he’s admitted to violating state securities law by accepting kickbacks from an investment firm without disclosing that relationship to regulators or his clients. And apparently he’s not eager to talk about it: Paxton has been almost completely AWOL.

I can find precisely one news account of a public appearance in the last month. On Sept. 8, he was the special guest of honor at a San Jacinto County Republican Party event, where he told the crowd that Obamacare would be “obliterated” if unspecified lawsuits were successful.

His Facebook page touts a fundraiser with Ted Cruz next Monday in Allen.

Perhaps Paxton learned the value of ducking the press in late July when—after noting to a sheriffs group that “a one-party system takes out accountability, takes out competition”—San Antonio Express-News reporter Nolan Hicks approached him after the event and was “physically blocked by Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm.”

Meanwhile, Sam Houston has fruitlessly tried to engage his opponent. He’s repeatedly challenged Paxton to debate, but Paxton’s only response has come through his spokesman. “Our opponent is losing, badly, so it’s not surprising that he continues this desperate ploy for publicity when he’s down by 20+ points,” Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune in an email.

So we have the prospect of a state senator who faces indictment and serious ethics charges waltzing into office as the next attorney general without having debated, campaigned or meaningfully engaged his general election opponent or the public on the issues of the day.

The approach, of course, makes perfect strategic sense. Democrats haven’t won a single statewide race in two decades, and Republicans enjoy sizable structural advantages even against well-funded and charismatic Democrats. Why risk saying or doing something stupid when you don’t need to? Why legitimize your opponent by pretending that he or she even exists? Better to keep your head down and coast to election.

The non-campaign approach is not entirely new. Rick Perry tried aspects of it in 2010, when he ran for re-election against former Houston Mayor Bill White. Much to the chagrin of the White campaign, Perry refused to participate in a single debate and snubbed newspaper editorial boards. He crushed Bill White 55-42. What lesson does a GOP candidate for statewide office draw from that? That silence is preferable to splashy public events. That talking to the mainstream press isn’t worth it when the voters who show up to the polls either get their information from preferred sources or consider snubbing the lamestream media as a mark of political bravery.

It also puts the press in a bind: How do you cover a non-campaign? Press conferences, block-walking, baby-kissing, stumping, Chamber of Commerce speeches: This is the stuff of which political journalism is made. The Houston Chronicle, for example, did a thorough story on Patrick’s stealthiness. But it was a one-day piece; it’s hard to keep writing about silence.

And if Paxton and Patrick prevail as expected, will more GOP candidates attempt the stealth campaign in the next general election? Probably so, until Democrats can prove more competitive. Are we entering an era when the state’s top officials won’t even have to engage with Texas’ general election voters? For Democrats, this seems the ultimate insult. They’re losing, and their opponents aren’t even trying anymore.

WTF Friday: Texas Secede!

texas secede

This week, the world watched as a proud people with funny accents, lots of oil and a long history of oppression at the hands of a distant, semi-foreign government flirted with secession.

I am talking, of course, about Texas. Sure, Scotland almost did the deed but what do those haggis-humpers know about freedom? The real story was happening here at home, where our Union is good but ya never know what’s gonna happen, ya know what I mean? Scotland was merely a warm-up, an inspiration for a referendum on Texas independence. As goes Scotland, so goes Texas, or so I’m told. Just ask Texas Nationalist Movement leader Daniel Miller (and, bizarrely, many journalists did). Pondered Miller in a post titled “Scotland is Paving the Way for Texas Independence”:

Have you wondered why the media on this side of the pond is relatively quiet in regards to Scotland’s upcoming referendum on independence? It is because those in power, sitting in lofty places, know that secession can be contagious. Look at what happened when the southern States of America began to break away. One by one, they followed.

Good ideas are contagious. Call it the bandwagon effect. Like teens buying One Direction schwag, one state decides to, say, defend the institution of slavery by plunging into a bloody conflagration and the rest can’t help but follow. Contagion.

But with independence (and the literal fulfillment of the Economic Development and Tourism Division of the Governor’s Office slogan “WHOLE OTHER COUNTRY”) comes great responsibility. National security. Border security. Public health.

Ain’t no thing, though. We’re already doing it.

First, we’ve got ourselves a secretary of D-Fence in Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter. When he’s not checking the Petroleum Club for jihadis, Painter is reading the morning intelligence briefing at Breitbart.com. Seems the sheriff has got a bead on a clear and present danger and it’s not mounting tensions between Midland-Lee and Odessa-Permian. Painter sees ISIS terrorist cells at the border. And they could be coming to the Permian Basin.

“I think it’d be naive to say that (ISIS is) not here…We have found Muslim clothing, they have found Quran books that are lying on the side of the trail, so we know that there are Muslims that have come across and are being smuggled into the United States.”

Maybe James O’Keefe dropped his costume? Well, in any case, there’s no proof that ISIS is here but there’s also no proof that they’re not. And ISIS is Muslim, Muslims use Quran books, and Quran books were found. Ergo: Code Red.

“If they show their ugly head in our area, we’ll send them to hell. And I think the United States needs to get busy. And they need to bomb them, they need to take them out.”

You heard the man: Bomb the ISIS stronghold. Bomb Texas.

(Also: the way Painter talks about “the United States” and “they,” you gotta kinda wonder: Has he already seceded?)

Independence, sovereignty, freedom—it means we’ve gotta police those borders ourselves. Greg Abbott’s got the Red River covered; who will take on the Rio Grande? There’s but one man for the job: Tony Tinderholt. Other men just talk; few are willing to admit that bloodshed (lots of it) is the answer.

“What’s going to happen on that border is going to be bad. And people are going to die. And it’s a sad, sad thing to say. But it’s the only thing that’s going to stop this infiltration of our country.”

Instant fact-check: People are dying. Pretty much every day. Authorities reported more than 700 deaths of immigrants crossing the border in the last two years. And those kids that are being deported back to Central America? Some of them are getting murdered. And still they come. And still they come.

But the invaders can rest a little easier this week. An old border battle-ax is moving on. A 21-gun salute for Todd Staples, Protector of America’s Food Supply. Staples is leaving his battle-station at the Texas Department of Agriculture—where he made combating the narco-terror threat to our rutabagas and sorghum a fixture of the office—to head up the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

What happens to our farmers and ranchers now that Staples has moved on to greener ($$$) pastures? They’ll be easier targets of the vegan menace. During his last weeks in office, Staples took on school nutritionists at Dripping Springs ISD, who dared implement a Meatless Monday. Hey if Pink Slime and USDA ‘Grade D But Edible’ chicken “fingers” are good enough for the kiddos on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, they ought to be good enough on the day after God’s day. Wrote Staples in a special op-ed for the Austin American-Statesman:

While we have plenty of room in the Lone Star State for vegetarians, we have no room for activists who seek to mandate their lifestyles on others.

Abiding by the first rule of op-ed writing—never waste an opportunity to invent a conspiracy by not mentioning another one—Staples ends his piece by playing one of the classics of the genre.

Need I remind Texas schools of another ugly fight over agenda-driven propaganda? Remember CSCOPE? Let’s get the propaganda out of Texas schools.

And off the Texas Department of Agriculture website too. Such things will never happen in an independent Texas. If only we can get the quisling squishes to get with the program.

 

carnearhouston

Screw the tea party. I’m going to start a P.E.A. (Penalized Enough Already) Party. Because in Texas we don’t have a tax problem—though the system is deeply inequitable—so much as a fine, fee, penalty and surcharge problem. Instead of tricorn hats, P.E.A. Partyers will don green eyeshades and scour the state’s books for the insidious ways in which lawmakers fund government through hidden fees, usually imposed on those who can least afford them.

There is no greater enemy of the Texas P.E.A. Party than the Driver Responsibility Program. Never heard of it? Few have, but millions of Texans have been hurt by this disastrous and cruelly petty program. Passed with almost no debate by the Legislature in the bad-budget year of 2003, the program was intended to make bad drivers pay for trauma care by levying steep civil surcharges on top of criminal penalties for DWIs, multiple traffic violations and (most problematic) driving with an invalid license or no insurance. The Driver Responsibility Program was supposed to improve public safety. Instead, it has saddled countless drivers with onerous fines, introduced a new form of double jeopardy to the legal system, stripped more than a million drivers of their drivers’ licenses and—in a classic example of perverse incentives—decreased DWI convictions.

Here’s how it works: For most traffic violations (e.g., running a red light) drivers accrue “points,” and if you rack up six points in any three-year period, you’re levied a fine of at least $100 each year for three years. If you get convicted for DWI, no insurance, driving without a license or driving with an invalid license, you’ll receive an automatic surcharge on your fine of $100 to $2,000 each year for three years, depending on the offense. Or even more if you’ve already accumulated six points. That’s on top of court fees, criminal penalties and the administrative charges levied by Municipal Services Bureau, a for-profit company that runs the surcharge program for the Department of Public Safety. Each surcharge is treated as a different “account” by Municipal Services Bureau, and many people report never having received notice of their surcharges. Missing a single payment can lead to suspension of your driver’s license. You may not even know your license has been rendered invalid until you get pulled over and slapped with a ticket (cost: $500, plus court costs, plus $750 in surcharges, plus an automatic one- or two-year suspension of your license). A second offense means you’re probably going to jail.

The failure of the Driver Responsibility Program can be measured in many ways, but here’s just one: Of the $3.4 billion in surcharges that have been assessed over the last decade, only $1.4 billion has been collected—an abysmal collection rate of 40 percent. Another telling stat: Nearly 1.3 million Texas drivers now have invalid driver’s licenses due to the program’s spiraling penalties, making a simple trip to the store, or to work, either a hassle or a risk.

Many folks just can’t pay. The surcharges are tantamount to a tax on poverty.

“We shouldn’t be taking driver’s licenses from somebody because they don’t have money,” Edna Staudt, a conservative Republican justice of the peace in notoriously tough-on-crime Williamson County, told a legislative committee in early August. “They’re not crooks; they’re not criminals; they’re not thieves; they’re not robbers or rapists; they’re just people that didn’t have money. ”

As lawmakers have heard in hearing after hearing, the program is deeply unpopular, and voices calling for its abolition are unusually diverse. Judges, prosecutors and jailers hate it. Hospitals, whose trauma centers are directly funded by the program, are happy to find other sources of revenue. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving wouldn’t protest its repeal.

And yet the Legislature shows almost no appetite for serious reform. At a hearing in August, Rep. Joe Pickett, the El Paso Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “There is no intention on my part to do away with” the program. Instead, he circulated draft legislation that would modestly reduce the fees while trying to bolster “compliance.” Criminal-justice blogger Scott Henson rightly called Pickett’s weak bill “lipstick on a pig.” Why are lawmakers refusing to budge? Simple: They won’t find another way to fund trauma care. Pickett was blunt: “We’re the government. We’re living off of these monies … We’re not going to give up the money.”

This isn’t fiscal conservatism. And it sure as hell isn’t good governance. Time for a P.E.A. Party revolt.

Support the Texas Observer
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center
Department of Homeland Security
Families in the hall at the notorious T. Don Hutto family detention center

Federal officials are planning a new for-profit family detention lockup for immigrant children and their parents in South Texas. The 2,400-bed “South Texas Family Detention Center”—as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is referring to it—is slated for a 50-acre site just outside the town of Dilley, 70 miles southwest of San Antonio.

The detention center is part of the Obama administration’s response to the surge in children and families from Central America crossing the Texas-Mexico border. In a statement to the Observer, ICE spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said the facility was intended “to accommodate the influx of individuals arriving illegally on the Southwest border.”

The property is part of Sendero Ranch, a “workforce housing community,” better known in the oil patch as a “man camp” for oilfield workers. Sendero Ranch is owned by Koontz McCombs, a commercial real estate firm connected to San Antonio mogul Red McCombs. Loren Gulley, vice president for Koontz McCombs, said the company is still negotiating the deal but Corrections Corporation of America—the world’s largest for-private prison company—is expected to run the detention center, and Koontz McCombs would lease the existing “man camp” to ICE. A detailed site map provided to Frio County shows a large fenced campus, including both residential housing as well as a gym, chapel and “community pavilions.” The “man camp” has enough space to temporarily house 680 detainees while new structures are being built, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said.

Frio County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Flores said local officials had recently met with CCA and the landowner but no one from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The massive facility would double the existing federal capacity for immigrant families and is certain to anger immigrant advocates who say a for-profit lockup is inappropriate for families, especially young children. They point to the failed experiment with detaining immigrant families at T. Don Hutto Family Residential Center, a CCA-run facility about 45 minutes northeast of Austin. The Obama administration removed families from the former jail in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, accounts of children suffering psychological trauma and a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic.

“Given the shameful history of family detention at Hutto, it’s beyond troubling that ICE would turn back to Corrections Corporation of America to operate what would be by far the nation’s largest family detention center,” said Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit that opposes for-profit prisons. “While little kids and their families will suffer in this remote private prison, far away from legal or social services, this multi-billion-dollar private prison company stands to make enormous profits.”

Cox, the spokesman for ICE, wouldn’t confirm or deny CCA’s involvement, saying negotiations for the project were ongoing. “We’re in negotiations,” Cox said. “We haven’t signed a contract with anybody yet.” He said the number of beds and other details of the project could change.

Gulley, the Koontz McCombs vice president, said there was no time frame to close the deal but, he said, “if it does happen, it will happen fairly quickly.”

The Obama administration has pledged a ”truly civil” detention model for housing undocumented immigrants, though immigrant advocates have said progress has been halting at best. The influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America has sent private-prison company stocks soaring, while it has helped derail the administration’s commitment to reforming the Bush-era detention system.

Just in the past month, activists were in a fury because federal immigration officials refused to release from a Karnes County detention center a 7-year-old Salvadoran girl so she could get treatment for a life-threatening cancer. The girl and her mother had fled violence in El Salvador that the mother said prevented the girl from getting treatment. After mounting pressure, ICE finally relented and freed the girl and her mom. The Karnes facility was unveiled in 2012 as a model for a more humane approach to detention.

Over the summer, ICE converted a law enforcement training center in Artesia, New Mexico to a detention center housing immigrant families, many of whom are seeking asylum. Attorneys working at the remote facility told the Observer the conditions are poor and that the government is doing whatever it can to deport people as quickly as possible, returning some folks to the extreme violence and persecution they were fleeing

Libal said he was not impressed by the Obama administration’s promise to make the familiy facilites more like residential living center than jails.

“The stories that are coming out [of Karnes] would show that…detaining families has the exact same effect it had at Hutto, the exact same disastrous impact on families.”

County officials said they were generally supportive of the project, though County Commissioner Pepe Flores said he worried that the city’s water supply might be stretched. “We can furnish the water,” he said, “but later on it might put a dent on the economic development.”

“They come in here and tell us, ‘We want your input on this and that,’ but the bottom line is they’ll do it anyway.”

A portion of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, near the Interstate 10 bridge in Harris County, remains visible as the sandy area in the center left of this photograph.
Gulf Restoration Network/Lighthawk.org
A portion of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits site, near the Interstate 10 bridge in Harris County, remains visible as the sandy area in the center left of this photograph.

Not far from the San Jacinto Monument, the octagonal column that marks the site of the battle that brought the Texas Revolution to a close, near where Interstate 10 roars over the San Jacinto River, lies another shrine to Texas’ ambitions: 14 acres of partially submerged dioxin-laden waste leaching into the river and down to Galveston Bay. In a city littered with Superfund sites, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, as they’re called, have become a signature environmental justice issue.

The EPA is overseeing a contentious debate over what to do with the site. And Harris County is suing the two companies that inherited the mess—International Paper and Waste Management—for $2 billion in penalties for damage it says was inflicted on area residents and the environment over four decades. Nearby communities, Galveston Bay guardians and Harris County authorities want the responsible parties to remove the waste, at an estimated cost of up to $636 million. But International Paper and Waste Management deny any liability and prefer the much cheaper option of capping the waste pits and leaving them in place.

The pits date to the 1960s, when Champion Paper contracted to have the waste from its nearby paper mill disposed of. The contractor, McGinnes Industrial Maintenance Corp., dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of waste contaminated with dioxins—a class of highly toxic chemicals—in open pits on the river’s west bank. By the late 1960s the site was abandoned and largely forgotten. Meanwhile, the river moved, the land sank, sea levels rose and storms and floods scoured the site. What was once a waste dump by the river became, at least partially, a waste dump in the river. Scientific research has linked dioxins from the pits to contaminated fish and crabs in Galveston Bay, potentially exposing residents—some of whom fish to put food on the table—to dangerous levels of the chemicals.

In 2005, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department finally discovered—or rediscovered—the impoundments while looking into a request to dredge the area for sand. The San Jacinto River Waste Pits were listed as a Superfund site, setting off a continuing struggle over how the site should be dealt with—and who should pay. Texans Together, a Houston-based grassroots group, has helped organize the communities of Channelview, Highlands and Baytown, and pressed the EPA to prioritize the health of the nearly 17,000 people living within five miles of the site. Fred Lewis, president of Texans Together, warns that simply capping the waste and monitoring it is akin to “leaving a loaded gun in the river to blow up sooner or later.” A study paid for by Texans Together and conducted by Texas A&M-Galveston professor Sam Brody concludes that the combination of rapidly rising sea levels, flooding, tropical storms and increased development in the area “make the low-lying San Jacinto Waste Pits extremely vulnerable to inundation and erosive events.”

Supporters of a full remediation scored a big victory in late July when EPA rejected a site study that the two companies had paid for after Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan uncovered evidence that the report’s authors were biased and trying to steer EPA toward options that would leave the waste in the river. EPA isn’t expected to make a decision until 2015.

“This is a battle between money and people,” Lewis said. “And it’s going to be a fight until the EPA decides.”

The Harris County lawsuit is set for trial at the end of September.

Support the Texas Observer

rickperrybooking3
Forrest Wilder
At his booking, Rick Perry laughs at his own joke. He forgot the punch line.

Somewhere out there Molly Ivins is having one hell of a laugh. Gov. GoodHair provided an unintentionally awesome twist to her old line that the Texas Legislature is “the national laboratory for bad government.”

As part of his post-felony indictment victory tour (never dreamed I’d be typing that line), Perry spoke at an event hosted by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity group in Manchester, New Hampshire, last Friday, during which he called the states “lavatories of democracy.” Yep, and he’s the man on the throne.

Down here in the toilet bowl of gubmint, we’ve come to expect a few clogs in the ol’ plumbing. Like that time that Rick Perry responded to a massive humanitarian crisis of children and families fleeing Central America for the calmer climes of Texas by deploying troops to the border, only he forgot to pay said troops on time—resulting in the little snafu that some of the guardsmen had to pay a visit to a Rio Grande Valley food bank for their MREs. Wasn’t Sun Tzu’s No. 1 rule that you can’t fight narcos on an empty stomach? I guess you go to war with the army you have, right?

State officials have repeatedly said, though, that the border “surge” isn’t a militarization of the Rio Grande Valley… Except, perhaps, when they think no one is listening to their conversations with their pals in the tea party. As David Dewhurst told Waco Tea Party Radio recently:

“I don’t want to see any loss of life, but if anyone is listening from south of the border I’d recommend them that if they are approached by the DPS put your hands in the air and don’t fight, otherwise it’s not going to be pretty.”

“Hands up, don’t shoot” worked out pretty well for Michael Brown. No reason to think it wouldn’t for undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, in the race to the Governor’s Mansion—the veritable toilet seat of our Lavatory—democracy is on the march. Today Greg Abbott announced that he was backing out of the only statewide televised gubernatorial debate. “Due to our inability to agree on specific details of the format, Attorney General Greg Abbott will regretfully not be participating in the WFAA debate,” said Robert Black, senior campaign adviser.

And what might those details be? Did Abbott’s team not like the chyron that WFAA was planning? Did they not approve of the lighting or the color of the walls? Did they want to dictate what color blouse Davis might wear. We don’t know. What we do know is that Abbott and Davis have nailed down just one debate—in McAllen, with no live audience (per Abbott’s request) and no statewide TV coverage. On a Friday at 6 p.m. You know when governments and corporations release stuff they want to bury in a news cycle? Late on a Friday.

Since 2002, there have been a total of just three (3!) gubernatorial debates. (No, I am not counting 2010’s match-up of Democrat Bill White and Libertarian Kathie Glass. That wasn’t a debate; it was a hater’s ball.)

In 2002, Democrat Tony Sanchez and Rick Perry had two debates. In 2006, there was one four-way debate among Perry, Democrat Chris Bell, and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. Perry refused to debate Bill White in 2010.

(Compare that to the umpteen debates among the four GOP candidates for lieutenant governor.)

Down here in the lavatory of democracy, it seems we’ve washed our hands of democracy.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples
Patrick Michels
Todd Staples at the 2012 Texas GOP convention.

“What is really happening on the Texas border?” Good question—the one posed in a Texas Public Policy Foundation-hosted panel discussion today at the Capitol. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, though hardly a household name, is an influential free-market think tank funded by a variety of corporate interests. The $7.6 million-a-year organization has been variably described by conservatives as a “thought leader” of the Texas right, an “intellectual powerhouse” and, in the memorable words of Rick Perry, “a big ol’ Abrams rolling across the desert, picking out commonly-held misconceptions, and blowing them away with sound research and clear thought.”

What is really happening on the Texas border? I guess it depends on who you ask. To answer the question, TPPF called on a) Mike Vickers, a rancher and veterinarian in Brooks County who runs the controversial Texas Border Volunteers, of “Hunting Humans” fame; b) Todd Staples, the Texas ag commissioner who thinks porous borders threaten America’s food supply and wrote a book to prove it; c) Brandon Darby, the former FBI informant who now runs the border snuff-site Breitbart Texas; and d) Shawn Moran, the vice-president of the Border Patrol union.

Given TPPF’s purported free-market pedigree, I thought the line-up was curiously slanted toward seal-the-border types. Where was the business case for immigration? Where was the conservative realist who gets that immigration is largely driven by the push and pull of national economies and labor market factors? That person wasn’t present so we—and by “we” I mean an overwhelmingly white crowd—instead spent an hour and a half pondering, for example, Urdu dictionaries found in the desert. “No question it belonged to the coyote,” Vickers said. “It’s got phrases in there that say you must pay a dollar, do you speak English, do you speak Spanish?”

We heard about the Ebola threat from immigrants. “There’s huge concern for Ebola,” Vickers said, pointing to apprehensions of people from Nigeria, Kenya and Eritrea. “Africa is here. They’re coming from all over the world.”

We heard about the terrifying supposed correlation between a crackdown by the Chinese government on ethnic Uighur militants and an increase in Chinese apprehended at the Southwest border.

“Now here’s the deal,” Darby said. “If you look at when China started cracking down on Islamic militants and putting them in prison and chopping heads off—and I’m not saying I’m in favor of chopping people’s heads off—if you look at their crackdown and you look at our numbers of when people from China started increasing, they’ve gone up substantially. That’s a concern to me.”

We heard about how Vickers’ group has videotaped mountain lions tracking groups of migrants on the verge of death. And we heard many other tales of a dangerously porous and unsecured border.

What we didn’t hear much about was how much achieving an acceptable level of border security (as Darby put it, “I want to see that border locked down”) would cost—at least not

until an audience member posed the question. What’s the price-tag for 100 percent security? And what would that look like?

Shawn Moran, the Border Patrol rep, came the closest, offering the figure of $120 million (a year?) to “fully staff” the agency. Of course, hiring enough agents to meet congressionally set hiring goals is a tiny step. It excludes all the other things on the wish list: the costs of detention facilities, prisons for all the immigrants prosecuted for illegal crossings, judges to process immigration cases, new fences, cameras, drones, gunboats, National Guard deployments, ICE agents, etc.

To solve the crisis, Moran said, “I don’t know what it would cost in terms of dollars. I do know it would cost a lot in political will.”

Darby didn’t get any closer to answering the question: “What are the metrics for a secure border? I always tell people I don’t know the exact cost, but I can tell you that it’s much more than just Border Patrol and just the fence and just sensors.”

What does it cost to “lock down” the border, to achieve 100 percent security? The National Guard deployment ordered by Gov. Perry runs around $12 million a month. But the governor has called it a “stopgap measure” and state officials confess that the “surge” only covers one small part of a 1,200-mile border.

Ultimately it is not a question that can be answered with a dollar figure. How much would it cost to end terrorism or to win the war on drugs? More than all the money in the world.

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst tours the Rio Grande on a well-armed DPS boat
Office of the Lt. Governor
Lt. Gov. Dewhurst tours the Rio Grande on a well-armed DPS boat

In October 2012, game wardens with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department gave chase to a red pickup truck near La Joya in the Rio Grande Valley, believing the truck was carrying a load of drugs beneath a tarp over the bed. The game wardens called DPS for backup, and soon a DPS helicopter joined the high-speed chase. As the truck sped along near the U.S.-Mexico border, DPS trooper Miguel Avila opened fire on the truck, killing two young Guatemalan men and injuring a third huddling underneath the tarp with six other undocumented immigrants. None of the men were armed and no drugs were found in the truck. The incident provoked international outrage and led DPS to revise its shoot-from-a-helicopter policy.

Now, Texas is “surging” National Guard soldiers and DPS troopers to the Texas-Mexico border in response to an influx of unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence and mayhem in Central America. The “surge” has raised concerns that the border region is being militarized, and many residents—some of whom are undocumented or have family members who are—say they feel less safe, not more.

The delicate situation begs for caution and restraint, especially from elected officials. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has approached Texas’ border operations with all the subtlety of a coal-rolling F-350 diesel dually.

Dewhurst is a frequent guest on Waco Tea Party Radio, a two-hour local radio and web program run by two tea party activists. It was on that program that Dewhurst said last summer that he saw “bags of feces” at the Capitol during the abortion protests. And three weeks ago, he was on the show again to talk about Texas’ border security operations. Dewhurst made all sorts of blustering comments on the show, and added a new spin to the wildly inaccurate figure—first generated by DPS and later repeated by Gov. Perry—that undocumented immigrants have committed 3,000 homicides in Texas since 2007. (Dewhurst’s twist was to say that there were 3,500 “capital murders.”) But, there were several comments that struck me as particularly incendiary. Asked by co-host and Waco Tea Party President Toby Marie Walker about what the Texas Rangers are doing on the border, Dewhurst said:

“I don’t want to see any loss of life, but if anyone is listening from south of the border I’d recommend them that if they are approached by the DPS put your hands in the air and don’t fight, otherwise it’s not going to be pretty.”

Now, I doubt there are any, say, unaccompanied children from Central America listening to an obscure tea party podcast in English while trying to stay one step ahead of death on their journey to the U.S. And the kids and families are turning themselves in anyway. But of course the menacing bravado here is not meant for immigrants; it’s meant for those who fear and loathe undocumented immigrants—the audience that Dewhurst has been unsuccessfully pandering to for at least two years.

Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, called Dewhurst’s remarks “absurd.”

“The greatest threat down here is the Border Patrol and DPS. Immigrants, there is no evidence that these folks crossing are committing violent acts. … What this region doesn’t need is any more boots on the ground. We need judges. We need immigration officials to process all these folks.”

On the tea party show, the lt. governor went on to get more specific about what sort of rules of engagement to expect from DPS. But first, he took a shot at Border Patrol.

“[Border Patrol agents] are outgunned. Most of them are carrying a 9mm. They’re outgunned; they’re outmanned. And their rules of engagement is [sic] that if they’re fired on, they’re required to back off. And quite frankly if you fire on our DPS they’re going to try to locate you and apply suppressing fire and somebody’s going to get hurt.”

Border Patrol has hardly been reticent about using deadly force. Quite the opposite in fact. According to Texas Monthly, Border Patrol has killed at least 42 people since 2005—and many of those incidents have been shrouded in secrecy and a virtually non-existent system of accountability. (Read Nate Blakeslee’s account in Texas Monthly of how a father on a picnic with his wife and two young daughters in Nuevo Laredo was shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent—an incident that federal officials have said virtually nothing about.) A recently released report commissioned by Border Patrol found that Border Patrol agents have stepped in front of cars in order to justify shooting at the drivers and opened fire on rock-throwers when they could’ve simply moved away.

The report recommended tightening Border Patrol’s use-of-force policies—advice that the federal agency has taken and applied to a set of new rules. But DPS troopers have strictures that Border Patrol agents apparently do not.

It is reasonable that DPS troopers could use force, including deadly force, if fired on. DPS’ Use of Force policy stipulates that an officer may discharge his or her firearm if the “use of deadly force is justified” and “the discharge does not present an unreasonable risk of injury to third parties.” The circumstances where deadly force is allowed include when “the officer reasonably believes that deadly force is immediately necessary to defend the officer or another person from a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury.”

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger refused to say whether DPS’ use of force policy extends to gunfire emanating from Mexico. The policy is silent on that question but one can imagine how “suppressing fire” into Mexico from, say, DPS’ six armor-plated, 900-horsepower gunboats—each equipped with “four .30 machine guns capable of shooting 1,100 to 1,200 rounds per minute … enough to cut grass,” according to Dewhurst—could spark an international incident. It’s all fun and games, and good politics, until someone gets hurt.

On a less bloody level, DPS has to be careful not to be seen as doing immigrant enforcement.

Of late, DPS has had a rocky relationship with border residents, who’ve bristled at the state law enforcement agency’s deployments to the Rio Grande Valley. Last year, DPS spearheaded a “multi-agency law enforcement initiative” called Operation Strong Safety, which featured roadside checkpoints, ostensibly to enforce traffic laws. Valley residents complained that DPS was unfairly picking on them and worried that state troopers were taking on immigration enforcement, a charge that the agency disputed. A Facebook page devoted to tracking the shifting roadblocks attracted more than 50,000 people.

So, it’s understandable that many folks in the Valley look on the latest “surge” of National Guard troops and state law enforcement personnel—also dubbed Operation Strong Safety—with trepidation. DPS Director Steve McCraw has pledged to use the “boots on the ground” to focus on law enforcement and drug interdiction. The agency has acknowledged that only federal authorities can enforce immigration laws, but state cops can still play a role. If a state trooper encounters someone suspected to be in the U.S. illegally, “that individual is immediately referred to the appropriate federal authorities,” a DPS spokesman told the media in June.

Last week, an undocumented woman, Isabel Barbosa, who’d lived in La Joya for 17 years and has five U.S. citizen children, was pulled over by a DPS trooper for swerving. Instead of writing the woman a ticket, the trooper “flagged down” a “passing Border Patrol agent” according to a summary of the incident provided to the Observer by DPS. “DPS subsequently released the driver to the Border Patrol.”  

Some Texas Republicans are now floating an idea that Texas can constitutionally take over the federal government’s role in policing the border. On that same Waco Tea Party show, Sid Miller, the GOP nominee for agriculture commissioner, argued that the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on states’  engaging in war provides an exception in the case of an invasion.

“And I would suggest that this would classify under the definition of an invasion, when you have hundreds of thousands of people pouring through your border,” Miller said. “It’s never been done before, but if Texas would invoke Article 1, Section 10 we’d have all the same powers as the federal government to arrest illegals coming across, process them under Texas law and to return them to their country of origin.”

When I spoke with Terri Burke of the ACLU this week, she was in the Valley and had recently visited with a group of colonia residents in San Benito she said were terrified to leave their homes because of the presence of DPS and Border Patrol in their neighborhood.

“They have no authority to immigration enforcement, so this business of ‘we’re just calling in the Border Patrol’ is a specious argument when you see the DPS and Border Patrol cars sitting side by side,” she said. “What they’re really doing is harassment. They’re disrupting the lives of people who live in this region whether they are documented or undocumented.”

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Judging from the reaction of national pundits and journalists, the verdict in the case of State of Texas vs. James Richard “Rick” Perry is already in: Rick Perry is not just innocent, he’s being railroaded by liberal Democrats in a vindictive, politically motivated prosecution. The rush to judgment happened almost immediately after the indictments came down on Friday, even as our friends in New York and Washington confessed that they knew little of Rick Perry’s legal troubles and in some cases hadn’t even read the two-page indictment, much less bothered to understand the issue in the larger political context. Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine called the indictment “unbelievably ridiculous” and fulminated that Perry “is exactly as guilty as” a “ham sandwich,” referring to the old saw that a good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich.

On Twitter, top-shelf pundits were even more dismissive:

Obama adviser David Axelrod, who knows a thing about expansive executive authority, weighed in:

Axelrod’s tweets led to headlines such as “Rick Perry: Even David Axelrod Thinks Indictment Is ‘Sketchy.’

The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote that she “felt sorry” for Rick Perry and compared the case against the governor to the congressional Republicans’ lawsuit against Barack Obama.

Even legal analysts seemed strangely lazy about the whole thing. UC-Irvine law professor and blogger Rick Hasen admitted he hadn’t “studied Texas law or the indictment closely enough” but nonetheless went on to make the sweeping claim that the indictment represents the “criminalization of politics.”

Among elite commentators, this seems to be the emerging consensus—that the pursuit of Perry somehow was a fundamental departure from legal norms and represents an attack on the very practice of politics. Incidentally, this is precisely the line that Rick Perry is taking. On Saturday, he called  the prosecution a “farce” and lamented that “some would use partisan political theatrics to rip away at the very fabric of our state’s constitution.”

Since uninformed speculation is apparently the coin of the realm, allow me to opine on what I think is going on. In the last few months, political reporters have begun writing the Rick Perry 2.0 Comeback story. National Journal had a particularly credulous piece—titled “The New Rick Perry”—that spent more than a thousand words allowing Perry to explain his decision to adopt those MSNBC glasses. More significantly, the piece basically chucked out almost everything we’ve learned about Rick Perry over his decades in politics to posit that he’s suddenly, mutatis mutandis, some sort of serious “bipartisan uniter” who’s shucked off the focus groups and polling and is finally just being his charming, fun-loving awesome self. It’s at best meta-level campaign bullshit, but this is how political journalism is practiced. The indictment—and the possibility that Perry could be knocked out of the running and even facing prison time because he’s a corrupt bully—blows a giant hole in the script.

There’s also a tendency on the part of political journalists to criticize anything that sanitizes the bloodsport of partisan politics. Like those football fans who belly-ache about new safety-conscious rules that “sissify” the game, political junkies are wedded to the idea that all’s fair in politics. That’s one reason, I think, why the press outside of Texas has been so incapable of seeing this through anything other than a partisan lens. The zealousness with which that line has been pursued—and reinforced by Perry’s allies—has led to some serious factual blunders and misconceptions. In the interest of trying to bring this episode back to reality, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Partisan Democrats Are Not Leading the Perry Prosecution

The criminal complaint against Perry was filed in June 2013 by the liberal Texans for Public Justice but it was assigned to a Republican judge in Bexar County who appointed Michael McCrum—a former police officer and prosecutor in the George H.W. Bush administration—as special prosecutor. McCrum was previously tapped by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (both conservative Republicans) to be the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas. There is no evidence that McCrum has a partisan axe to grind—quite the contrary.

The Travis County DA’s office, including Rosemary Lehmberg, had nothing to do with the indictment.

It’s Not About Rosemary Lehmberg’s Disgraceful Behavior… Or Even Perry’s Veto

As much as Perry and some in the media would like to make this about Lehmberg’s outrageous drunk driving—Perry’s legal team played a tape of her buffoon-ish behavior at the jail—the legal case against Perry is not about that.

I was someone who thought Lehmberg should have resigned for the simple reason that it is unseemly for a prosecutor guilty of drunk driving to send people to jail for the same crime. However, the process for removing Lehmberg is a local one. The local system opted not to remove her and Lehmberg pleaded guilty and went to jail. She plans to step down at the end of her term.

The Travis County DA is no different, in almost every respect, than the more than 300 local elected prosecutors in Texas. She is locally elected and is a servant of the jurisdiction she represents. The only thing unique about the Travis County DA’s office is that it contains the Public Integrity Unit, which polices corruption in state government. Practically speaking, this anti-corruption unit is one of the few checks on the power and influence Perry has accumulated over 14 years in office.

The Public Integrity Unit is largely funded by the Texas Legislature. That money isn’t earmarked for Rosemary Lehmberg; it’s earmarked for the oversight function of the Travis County DA’s Public Integrity Unit. It is that money that Perry threatened to line-item veto if Lehmberg did not resign. When she did not, and Travis County opted not to remove her, Perry then yanked the funding. Afterwards, he continued to make offers to restore the funding in exchange for Lehmberg’s resignation, according to media reports. One account says he signaled that he would find Lehmberg another well-paying job within the DA’s office. Had she resigned, Perry would have appointed her successor.

The criminal case against Perry centers on his “coercion” of a local elected official using threats and promises. It is not premised—as has been repeatedly misreported—on the veto itself. Craig McDonald, the head of Texans for Public Justice and the original complainant, has said as much. As McDonald told CNN:

“The governor is doing a pretty good job to try to make this about [Lehmberg] and her DWI conviction. But this has never been about his veto of her budget and about her. This is about his abuse of power and his coercion trying to get another public citizen to give up their job.”

There is a Lot We Don’t Know…Yet

It is quite possible that the case against Rick Perry will fizzle. Perhaps it is “flimsy” and “thin” and all the rest. Credible legal experts have said they think the prosecution will have a difficult time securing a conviction. However, none of us is privy to the evidence and testimony presented to the grand jury. According to Peggy Fikac of the San Antonio Express-News, McCrum said he “interviewed more than 40 people, reviewed hundreds of documents and read many dozens of cases.” Fikac and other reporters who staked out the courthouse long before the national press spent five minutes reading the indictment watched “current and former Perry staffers, Travis County employees and state lawmakers” entering the grand jury room over the summer.

It is possible that McCrum has gathered more information on Perry’s motives that will come to light later. Although the indictment doesn’t mention it, the Public Integrity Unit is investigating a scandal involving the $3 billion Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, a fund close to the governor’s office that suffered from cronyism and lax oversight. The Public Integrity Unit indicted one CPRIT official in December for deceiving his colleagues and awarding an $11 million grant to a Dallas biotech firm without a proper vetting.

What else, if anything, did McCrum turn up in his interviews and document search? At this point, we just don’t know.

This doesn’t make for explosive headlines but the fact is, we’re just going to have to wait and see how the case unfolds.

1 2 3 44