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immigration reform

What a difference an election makes. Two years ago, Governor Rick Perry made the ban on sanctuary cities a legislative priority, and state Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball) even camped outside the clerk’s office to make sure she was the first to file her Arizona-style anti-immigration bills.

Texas lawmakers filed More than 85 immigration bills during the 2011 session. The debate was divisive, even bringing one Democratic legislator to tears on the Texas House floor. It couldn’t be more different this legislative session. Just a handful of immigration bills filed in Texas, and they’ve engendered little.

“It’s like night and day,” says Cristina Parker, spokesperson for the immigration advocacy group Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, or RITA. “We’re just not seeing much at the state level. All eyes are on federal reform right now.”

Aaron Peña, a Republican who served in the Texas House last session before retiring to become a consultant, says the 2012 election losses and his party’s inability to attract Hispanic voters has a lot to do with the subdued tone on immigration this session. “The harsh rhetoric put a lot of Hispanics off the Republican Party,” he says. “It took the election to bring that home.”

In a state in which Hispanics comprise 38 percent of the population—and growing—Peña says his party needs to adapt or suffer the consequences. Texas’ GOP leadership had tried for years to mute the divisive language among the party’s grassroots activists with little success. With the bruising nationwide losses last November, even Republicans in a stalwart red state like Texas had finally gotten the message, he says. “demographics don’t lie.”

The small number of immigration bills filed have so far been at a standstill at the Texas Capitol. Peña and Parker say they are closely watching House Bill 152, by state Rep. Roberto Alonzo (D-Dallas) which would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license. The bill would undo a 2011 provision that banned undocumented immigrants from receiving a Texas license.

“I consider it a bellwhether,” Peña says. “If the bill passed it would show that views among Republicans in Texas really are changing on immigration.”

The bill, like other immigration legislation, still hasn’t gotten a hearing. Parker says her group, which is an alliance of law enforcement members, business, faith leaders and immigrant advocates, is also closely monitoring HB 2187 by state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) which would expand the federal Secure Communities program to city jails. “If it’s expanded that concerns us,” Parker says. “It would make a terrible situation worse.” In 2010, a report by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights and the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law Center, found that jails in Travis and Harris counties had the nation’s highest rate of deporting people for misdemeanors.

With 66 days left in the legislative session, HB 2187 has yet to get a hearing either. “I don’t want to say that we aren’t monitoring the state legislature because we are,” Parker says. “But right now all of our energy and our lobbying is focused on Washington, D.C., and federal immigration reform. That for us is the Holy Grail.”


Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto has adopted a policy of not talking about the violence plaguing his country.

Gone are the press conferences touting the deployment of more troops or the capture of yet another drug kingpin. Despite the new president’s silence, little has changed regarding the drug war’s death toll since former President Felipe Calderon fled to Harvard in December. In the first 100 days of Peña Nieto’s presidency the daily drug-related murder rate has slightly risen and a fresh round of attacks have been leveled against media outlets and reporters.

In short, life hasn’t gotten any better for Mexicans living in the most violence-plagued parts of the country. Last year, I wrote about the devastation of the small farming communities in the Juarez Valley just outside of Juarez. An estimated 70 percent of the population was killed, disappeared or forced to flee. Many went into exile in the United States. The Reyes Salazar family, well known community activists from the small farming town of Guadalupe, fought to save their town with terrible consequences. Six of their family members were murdered. To date, the authorities have never investigated or pursued the family’s killers.

After the murders, at least thirty-two members of the family were forced to seek asylum in the United States. Saul Reyes Salazar, the patriarch of the family, won asylum for his immediate family in January 2012. Last month Saul’s sister Claudia and six other family members were also granted asylum with the help of the UT School of Law Immigration Clinic run by attorneys Barbara Hines and Denise Gilman.

“I’m thrilled that they won asylum,” says Hines, the lead attorney on the case. “They suffered extraordinary persecution in Mexico and deserved protection in the United States.”

For me, the good news that Claudia Reyes Salazar and other members of her family were granted asylum is overshadowed by the realization that they may never be able to go home. Recently, more members of the Reyes Salazar family were forced to flee Mexico. They are also asking for asylum. And from Enrique Peña Nieto’s government? Only silence.

Tweeting the Drug War
Jen Reel
Saturday's panel at SXSW interactive.

The Texas Observer’s SXSW Interactive panel Life on the Line: Tweeting the Drug War highlighted the bravery of citizen reporters living in Tamaulipas—the most censored state in Mexico—to an international audience in Austin.

I joined KGBT-TV Interactive Manager Sergio Chapa, and UT-Brownsville Professor Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, to discuss the media blackout in the state of Tamaulipas on the Texas-Mexico border where reporters have been killed and threatened and Mexican news outlets bombed or burned to the ground.

The most censored state in Mexico also happens to be the country’s most innovative when it comes to circumventing the media blackout using social media. The panel highlights the birth in 2010 of the city hashtag #reynosafollow to collect and disseminate information on gun battles, blockades and other important information. Since 2010, citizen reporters in Reynosa have pioneered methods for sharing information while protecting their online identities.

As if to prove our point, a massive gun battle raged in Reynosa a day after our SXSW panel. The Mexican media didn’t report on the battle, which went on for three hours. Later, the government reported two dead and one injured, but through #reynosafollow journalists and citizens were able to verify that as many as 50 people died that evening.

A Rally for Medicaid Expansion Tuesday
Melissa del Bosque
A Rally for Medicaid Expansion Tuesday


Back in 2010 Governor Rick Perry compared the passage of the Affordable Care Act—aka Obamacare— to something like Godzilla crushing the Statue of Liberty. “Freedom was frontally attacked by passage of this monstrosity,” he huffed.

In three years, Perry’s rhetoric hasn’t changed much on health care reform despite lobbying from thousands of Texans, local government leaders and the medical community. On Tuesday, an estimated 2,000 Medicaid recipients and supporters gathered outside the Texas Capitol to persuade Perry and other Republicans to get behind the Medicaid expansion.

As lawmakers met inside the Capitol, former Texas Medicaid director DeAnn Friedholm addressed the crowd from the south steps, chiding Perry and legislators who have steadfastly rejected the expansion. Accepting the Medicaid expansion could provide the state with $100 billion in federal money the first decade, and provide insurance for at least 1.5 million Texans. “We’re here because people in the Capitol either don’t understand or even worse they understand but don’t care,” she said. “And we need to make it absolutely unacceptable, morally and politically, for them to do nothing.”

Friedholm, now the director of health reform for the advocacy group Consumers Union, said legislators should not get sidetracked by the argument that Medicaid is broken. “Can it be better? Yes!” she said emphatically. “But the biggest problem for Medicaid right now are the payments which are so far behind that doctors won’t accept Medicaid. And it’s the Texas Legislature that’s in charge of setting Medicaid rates.”

Texas Rally for Medicaid ExpansionIt’s rare that the business community, local government and powerful healthcare groups like the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Medical Association come together on an issue, she said. “The last time that happened was 10 years ago, and we passed CHIP [the Children’s Health Insurance Program] which is a pretty great program.”

People came from all over the state for Tuesday’s rally. Mike Seifert, a community coordinator with the grassroots RGV Equal Voice Network said 107 people from the Rio Grande Valley got up at 3:30 a.m. to board two buses for Austin. “It’s not easy when you’ve got kids and jobs, but they wanted to be here,” he said.

Seifert said Medicaid expansion could transform things for people along the Texas-Mexico border who “live day-in and day-out with the anguish of not having health insurance.” Many uninsured residents used to go to Mexico for low-cost health care, but are now unable to go because of the violence, he said. “I know of a woman who used to see a dentist in Mexico but she can’t go anymore. She had to pull out her own tooth because she didn’t have insurance.”

At the rally, Courtney Wyrtzen, from Austin, held up a photo of her 11-year-old daughter Blythe, who suffers from a nervous system disorder called Rett Syndrome. Wyrtzen said her family relies on Medicaid’s Medically Dependent Children Program for the treatments her daughter needs. “Children with special needs are receiving life saving care from Medicaid,” she said. “We need to protect it.”  Courtney Wyrtzen

Perry isn’t yielding on the Medicaid expansion. But at least there seems to be discussion among Republicans on how to lift Texas out of its dismal role as the state with the highest number of uninsured in the nation. Some legislators are reportedly    looking at a waiver recently granted to Arkansas that would allow newly eligible Medicaid recipients to move into a state health insurance exchange. The federal matching funds for Medicaid would be provided as a subsidy to taxpayers.

The clock is ticking. The federal government will only provide its generous 100 percent match (later shrinking to 90 percent) through 2016. It’s late in the game for Texas to draft an entirely new waiver application and program, and Perry already rejected setting up a state exchange like the one Arkansas will use.

We could know a whole lot more about where Texas is heading later this week. House Appropriations Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie) announced today that his committee will discuss Medicaid expansion Friday.

Texas DPS snipers in training
Craft International
Texas DPS snipers in training

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw announced Thursday that DPS officers would no longer shoot from helicopters to disable vehicles, “unless we’re being shot at or someone else is being shot at.”

McCraw made the announcement during a the House Appropriations Committee hearing, after Houston Rep. Sylvester Turner asked McCraw to address the controversial policy.

Last October, DPS helicopter sniper Miguel Avila opened fire on a truck during a chase down a caliche road near the small Hidalgo County town of La Joya. Avila killed two men and injured a third. Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers had been pursuing the truck, thinking it was moving drugs, and called for backup from the DPS helicopter.

But the truck was not carrying drugs or weapons. Instead, nine Guatemalan nationals were hidden in the truck bed under a tarp. The driver was a 14-year-old boy.

The men had each paid $2,000 to be taken from San Martín Jilotepeque in the state of Chimaltenango, Guatemala through Mexico, and then another $3,000 each for passage into the United States. Most were headed for jobs in New Jersey, Alba Caceres, the Guatemalan Consul based in McAllen told the San Antonio Express-News after the shooting.

McCraw said DPS had reviewed its policy last Friday and decided to end it. “I’m a firm believer that they did exactly what they thought they needed to do,” he said of the DPS snipers. “And it was consistent with the Texas penal code.”

Despite McCraw’s continuing defense of the policy, the shooting was almost universally condemned by law enforcement experts and civil rights groups. ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke applauded the agency’s decision to end the policy in a statement.

“We are relieved that Texas is ending this extreme practice, which no other southwestern border states have ever allowed. We hope that this decision is a step, if only a small one, toward ending the culture of violence that pervades enforcement of border security in Texas.”

It may be a small step toward sanity in border security policy, but Texas still has a long way to go. A tragedy forced DPS to ponder its lethal force policies regarding helicopter snipers but not a word has been said about use of force policies regarding DPS’ armored gunboats now patrolling the Rio Grande.

During his remarks, McCraw mentioned that officers needed to reserve the right to shoot back. He said officers had been shot at more than 77 times from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, but didn’t specify the time frame or where that statistic came from. He also didn’t say whether any officers had been wounded or killed in those shootings.

Bullets are flying from the U.S. side of the river, too. DPS has just begun its armed patrols on the river, while Border Patrol has been patrolling for years with some controversy. In September, a Border Patrol agent on a boat fired on a group of people on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, killing a man at a barbecue. In the last three years, U.S. agents have fatally shot four other unarmed Mexicans as they stood on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Between the Border Patrol and DPS, that makes two law enforcement agencies enthusiastically patrolling the border—and DPS’s new armored gunboats make the Border Patrol boats look like toys. Hopefully, it won’t take another tragedy before legislators look into the firepower behind DPS’s new “marine tactical unit.”

A Memorial for Migrants in Reynosa, Mexico
Eugenio del Bosque
A Memorial for Migrants in Reynosa, Mexico

Last year, nearly every region along the U.S.-Mexico border saw a decline in migrant apprehensions—except the Rio Grande Valley. Apprehensions there increased 70 percent, according to a recent report by the Washington Office on Latin America.

But the increase isn’t about Mexican migration. For the first time in history, non-Mexicans made up the majority of the migrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley, according to WOLA. Approximately 49,939 out of 97,762 migrants apprehended in the region in 2012 were Central American—primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to statistics released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection this week.

It seems counterintuitive to see a surge in migration through one of the deadliest routes in Mexico. But the explanation may be partially rooted in cartel control of the booming human trafficking business.

The Rio Grande Valley borders the Mexican state of Tamaulipas where 72 migrants were massacred in 2010 and another 193 bodies were found in 2011 in several mass graves near the town of San Fernando. The region has such a fearsome reputation among migrants that detainees in a New Mexico immigrant detention facility begged U.S. officials to deport them anywhere but Tamaulipas.

Maureen Meyer, a senior associate at WOLA and an author of the report, said that poverty and increasing levels of violence are pushing many Central Americans to make the dangerous trek. It’s also the shortest route from Central America to the United States, she pointed out. “The fear of what might happen to them in Mexico is not enough to deter anybody,” Meyer said. “They know the risks but they feel there’s no other option and it’s horrible, but it’s a risk they are willing to take.”

I’ve written before about the surge in unaccompanied minors from Central America which left government agencies and nonprofits scrambling last summer to find beds and resources in Texas for the children. People working with these children also pointed out that rampant insecurity and poverty were compelling many of the kids to come to the United States.

I still wonder, however, whether the growing business of human trafficking also has something to do with the uptick. In a November report from Insight Crime, analyst Steven Dudley writes about the the new landscape of human trafficking, which now involves street gangs, transnational organized crime groups, corrupt officials and independent smugglers.

Trafficking migrants has become big business for organized crime. The feared Zetas cartel largely control this dangerous and lucrative route from Central America to the Rio Grande Valley. “They have remained faithful to their central mission,” Dudley writes. “To control the territory where they charge a fee to organized crime groups and increasingly to legal businesses.”

Smugglers must pay $500 per migrant to the Zetas just to pass through the Texas border area, according to WOLA. This was what the Gulf Cartel was charging per migrant, I was told in 2010, for the right to cross the Rio Grande into Texas. These cartels shoulder none of the overhead or risk of moving and storing contraband—all they have to do is collect their money for each migrant who passes through their territory.

If human smuggling has become so valuable to organized crime, it makes sense that they might invest in recruiters in Central America to help convince migrants to take the perilous journey. Organized crime is now trafficking in hope, and the market is endless.

Brad Bailey
Brad Bailey
“I’m an honest-to-God conservative. I even have a dog named W,” said Brad Bailey by way of introduction. In his mid-30s, with close-cropped, sandy blond hair and dressed in a suit and tie, Bailey looked like one of the dozens of newly elected Republican state officials milling around the lobby of the downtown Austin Hilton during a conference for conservative policymakers in early January.

But Bailey, who runs a chain of family-owned catfish and seafood restaurants near Houston, said he felt like an outsider. “I’m not a politico. I’m in the hospitality business,” he said. The Texas Republican Party could learn a thing or two from the hospitality business. “At one of my restaurants, if I were to turn my back on my customers or treat them rudely, they wouldn’t come back,” he said. “That’s how the Republican Party treats Hispanics.”

Bailey had never felt a calling to get involved in Republican state politics until last year, he said. His “aha moment,” as he called it, was when a longtime employee, who is Hispanic, came to him one day at the restaurant and asked whether it was true that Republicans hated Hispanics. “This guy had worked for me for 10 years,” Bailey said. “He’d seen the Republican bumper stickers on my car and he said, ‘You and your family seem like good people. So why do you hate Hispanics?’

“There wasn’t anything I could say to convince him otherwise,” Bailey said. Alarmed, he went to his local representative, who advised him to get involved in the next Republican state convention. So last June, the restaurateur found himself in Fort Worth among the state’s most die-hard Republicans, trying to convince them to endorse a guest worker program as part of the state GOP’s immigration platform. After that, Bailey went to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. His lobbying of delegates there proved successful; the platform called for a guest worker program.

Bailey said he’s worked mostly with Hispanic conservatives to convince the party to soften its divisive rhetoric toward Latinos. Hispanic conservatives recruited Bailey to speak to his fellow Anglo Republicans about their immigration hang-ups. “They said, ‘It’s going to take a white guy like you appealing to other white guys to get the GOP to turn around.’ It’s unfortunate but true,” he said. “There’s Hispanic outreach and then what I do—we call it ‘gringo inreach.’”

Bailey said he’d already spoken to 30 Republican clubs across Texas. On this day, he was in Austin to take part in an immigration panel at the conservative conference held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.Republicans know they need to appeal to Hispanics if the party wants to remain in the majority, but that doesn’t make Bailey’s gringo inreach any easier. “I had a guy tell me the other day that there were 30 million illegal aliens living in the United States,” he said. “There’s just no way that’s true, but it was hard to convince him otherwise.

“We need to change, and I think Texas can be a leader for the nation,” he said. Then Bailey excused himself, eyeing a group of legislators across the lobby. “Better go,” he said. “I’ve got work to do.”

Police in Juarez, Mexico.
Julian Cardona

Among the scrub brush and rolling sand dunes where townspeople once rode horses, Mexican officials made a grisly discovery in the Juarez Valley in November. They uncovered 15 shallow graves near an unfinished house on “La Colorada” ranch in Ejido Jesus Carranza. In those desert graves lay 20 bodies, which officials estimate may have been there since 2010—the height of the bloody war between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels (see “The Deadliest Place in Mexico”).

“They say those graves belong to El Diego,” said Gustavo de la Rosa, the Chihuahua human-rights ombudsman. De la Rosa lived just two miles from the ranch but fled to Juarez in 2009 because of threats from the military, which was patrolling the Juarez Valley at the time.

“El Diego” is Jose Antonio Acosta Hernandez, a notorious leader of La Linea, enforcers for the Juarez Cartel. A former cop, El Diego was arrested in July and extradited to the United States. Mexican officials say he ordered the deaths of at least 1,500 people, including two U.S. citizens linked to the U.S. consulate in Juarez. El Diego also allegedly gave the order to massacre students at a birthday party in Juarez’s Villas de Salvarcar neighborhood.

It was U.S. authorities who tipped off Mexican officials to the location of the clandestine cemetery just three miles from the Rio Grande and Texas. An examination of the remains found that the victims were shot, strangled or beaten. Their ages ranged from 18 to 40. Most appeared to be male, said Jorge Enrique Gonzalez Nicolas, regional state prosecutor, in a press conference afterward. “The next step is to begin the process of identifying their bodies,” he said, according to the El Paso Times.

There will undoubtedly be more gravesites, said de la Rosa. “We have so many missing and so many dead, there must be graves all over the valley.”

There was a military checkpoint on the road leading to La Colorada. “Many of those dead probably came from Juarez, so they had to pass through that checkpoint,” de la Rosa said. “I never heard of anyone being detained for transporting a body.”

Juan Fraire Escobedo at the Austin protest Thursday


Two years ago, Juan Fraire Escobedo sought political asylum in Texas after the assassination of his mother Marisela Escobedo and the murder of his 16-year old sister Rubi.

Marisela was shot and killed December 16, 2010, on the steps of the Chihuahua State Capitol where she was holding a vigil to bring her daughter Rubi’s killer to justice. Government authorities had refused to help the family even after Rubi’s former boyfriend, Sergio Barraza, confessed to killing her.

The family was forced to conduct their own investigation. Through sheer persistence they found Barraza in the state of Zacatecas and located Rubi’s partial remains. Meanwhile, his sister’s killer had joined the Zetas drug cartel, which runs Zacatecas. “We went to the chief of the federal police in Mexico City, and he told us ‘he’s with the Zetas. We can’t do anything.’”

Escobedo’s dogged pursuit of justice made him a target of death threats. More than the cartels, Escobedo blames a corrupt government system that allows organized crime to flourish. Nearly two years after his mother’s death, Escobedo joined at least a dozen other activists in Austin Thursday to protest in front of the Mexican Consulate against impunity and corruption in his homeland.

“After years and years of corruption in the government it’s difficult to get any justice in Mexico, especially because of the security situation,” he said Thursday. “And here in exile it’s like I don’t exist to my country.”

As more Mexicans like Escobedo seek refuge here a protest movement is building in Texas to exert pressure on Mexico. “We’re tired of living with the violence,” he said.

Escobedo, is a member of Mexicanos en Exilio a nonprofit composed of exiles who have fled Mexico. The nonprofit was started by El Paso immigration attorney Carlos Spector to bring attention to human rights abuses in Mexico. His daughter Alejandra helped organize the protest Thursday.

Protestors said they have little faith that Mexico’s new president Enrique Peña Nieto will combat the corruption and respect the rule of law. On December 1st during his inauguration in Mexico City dozens of protestors were arbitrarily detained and some were tortured, according to a preliminary report by Mexico City’s human rights commission. Some of the protestors are still being held in detention.

“Injustice moves me to come here today,” said 60-year old Angel Camaño who is originally from Guadalajara. “People try to protest in Mexico and they are being put in jail. The politicians talk about democracy and liberty but we don’t see it.”

Jen Reel
Latricia Jones and her son walking in their neighborhood next to the Koch's Corpus Christi refinery

In October, while finishing up my story “Kochworld” on oil refineries in Corpus Christi owned by billionaires Charles and David Koch I received an invitation to participate in a journalism conference in Lubbock, held by the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), the nation’s oldest and most venerable journalism organization for reporters who cover the environment.

I was happy to have been invited. Hundreds of environmental journalists were attending the conference which would be hosted by Texas Tech University. Some reporters had come from as far away as Europe and Latin America.

But first I’d have to finish my story. All I needed were the comments I was waiting on from Koch Industries. Imagine my surprise when I get an email back from Koch Industries’ spokesperson Katie Stavinoha: “I am working on it. Have been at a SEJ deal.”

My first thought was, “What’s Koch Industries doing at a conference filled with environmental reporters?”

Turns out Koch Industries was a sponsor. The SEJ and Koch struck me as an odd match. Not only are the Koch brothers top spenders on global-warming-denial organizations and Washington lobbyists, they also publicly attack reporters, on their web site, who criticize their environmental record and business practices, and publish Internet ads on high traffic sites attacking reporters. (I would soon be subjected to this treatment.)

I probably wouldn’t have ever known the Kochs were sponsoring the conference if I hadn’t gotten that email from their public information officer. You’d be hard pressed to figure it out in the SEJ program. On page 33 of the 34-page conference booklet was a list of “generous contributors that made it possible for Texas Tech University to host the conference.”

Toward the end of that sponsor list was Matador Ranch. But no mention that the 130,000-acre ranch is owned and operated by Koch Agriculture Company, a subsidiary of Koch Industries. The ranch has hunting and deer breeding operations, as well as commercial and registered cattle, and Quarter horses.

The conference schedule included a tour of Matador Ranch to discuss conservation practices and “creative ways to find water,” according to the conference booklet.   Nowhere in the description of the tour did it say the ranch was owned by Koch Industries or that the Koch brothers would be paying for a lunch for the environmental reporters on the tour. The only inkling was that one of the speakers listed was Jim Mahoney, executive vice president for operations and compliance at Koch Industries. (Checking online the SEJ schedule now mentions the Kochs own the ranch. I’m not sure when SEJ made this change to the tour description. I downloaded my program on October 18th and there was no mention.)

At the conference in Lubbock, I ran into longtime environmental advocate Tom “Smitty” Smith, executive director at the nonprofit Public Citizen’s Texas office, who had been invited to speak on a panel about a “clean” coal plant in Odessa. I asked whether he knew that Koch Industries was a conference sponsor. Smith was as surprised as I was. I also spoke with Houston environmental activist Bryan Parras, who was speaking on a panel about environmental injustice at the conference. He had no idea either.

I brought this up with Beth Parke, executive director of the SEJ while I was in Lubbock in October then again by phone last week. Parke arranges the agreements with hosting universities. Her duties include the implementation of board policies, strategic planning for the conferences, and budget and finance.

I raised the issue of Koch Industries environmental record and their aggressive treatment of reporters who write critically about their operations. In November, after my story “Kochworld” came out I experienced the wrath of Koch Industries firsthand. The company ran ads against me and The Texas Observer on Google and the Poynter media web site saying that we were “dishonest” and “deceptive” among other things.

So, my question to Parke was why does SEJ have a polluting company that publicly attacks journalists sponsoring its conference?

Parke said that SEJ had an agreement with Texas Tech, and it was the university that had raised the money from those sponsors to host the conference. This agreement was a “firewall,” she said, between the sponsors and the SEJ.  “We don’t feel it’s our job to tell them [Texas Tech] who can or cannot give money. I don’t even want to know how the sausage was made honestly,” Parke said. “My job is get the agreements with the institutions and let them fill that account however they can.”

Texas Tech gave the SEJ about $150,000 for catering and other event planning for the five-day conference. Parke said on average the sponsors gave between $5,000 to $7,000. As far as she knows, she said, the Kochs only spent $600 on lunches for everyone who attended the tour of their Matador Ranch. She said she didn’t know why the ranch was chosen as a tour site for the conference.

“The lunch thing is like, OK it’s $600,” she said. “Is it really worth the hassle of us trying to find another way to cover the lunches?… It seems a little abstract.”

But it wasn’t abstract for a lot of environmentalists and reporters who have dealt with Koch Industries. “Anytime sponsorship comes along there are all kinds of conditions and requests for special treatment that go along with that,” Tom “Smitty” Smith said.

Parke said there was no such special treatment at the conference. “We draw the line very clearly. If someone wants to be present at the conference they should buy an exhibit table. What we don’t sell is influence, and we’re very clear about that to the universities too, and we have to push back sometimes.”

Smitty brought up the other  SEJ conference sponsor he found problematic—Waste Control Specialists (WCS)—that operates a massive radioactive waste dump in West Texas. The dump and the company is owned by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. Kent Hance, chancellor of Texas Tech, has a financial interest in the dump and is the company’s former lobbyist. A tour was arranged for journalists to visit the radioactive waste site. But nowhere was there any information about Hance’s role in the company, or an opposing perspective on the panel of the tour, Smitty said.

Karen Hadden, executive director of the environmental group Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, or SEED, was dismayed to see a tour for out-of-state journalists to the WCS radioactive dump with few if any opponents included on the tour. Hadden is a longtime, vocal opponent of WCS.

When Hadden approached SEJ about her concerns they invited her to ride along on the bus and go on the tour. But WCS said Hadden could not go on the tour, though the company did allow someone from Sierra Club to tour the site. “I heard (WCS) said I would be too disruptive,” she says. “Which means I would ask questions that they didn’t want to answer.”

So Hadden asked if she could ride along on the three-hour bus ride and stay on the bus while the reporters toured the radioactive waste dump. WCS said, “no” to that as well, Hadden said.

“It was kind of a shock to be told I couldn’t go,” she said. Hadden added that in the end, she rode part of the way on the bus so she could give her perspective to the reporters. “I had to get off the bus halfway there,” she said. “ I had to arrange for somebody to follow the bus and pick me up.”

“What did the reporters say when the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and you got off?” I asked.

Hadden laughed. “One of the reporters asked. And an organizer of the tour said ‘they don’t want her there’. The reporters quickly understood. But I am very thankful that the reporters let me ride along on the bus.”

SEJ’s Beth Parke said she wasn’t sure what happened with Hadden and the WCS tour. “I heard that it might have been an ID issue. She didn’t do what other people did in time to get clearance.”

Parke said they’ve had many critical journalists lead industry tours during the conferences. “We had a situation with Abrahm Lustgarten from ProPublica who isn’t a favorite person of the fracking industry leading that tour.”

At the end of our conversation. Parke conceded that she could see how reporters should have known the Koch Brothers would be picking up the tab for lunches before arriving at their remote Matador Ranch. “I appreciate what you’re saying, and we probably should have told people. We’ll put it under advisement for the future,” she said.

It’s not easy funding a five-day conference every year, especially in the age of downsizing media organizations, she said. “Our members want the ethics, but they don’t want to pay for that.  If you wanted to go to a conference totally paid for by journalists and organized by journalists it would be $850 per registrant … and people just won’t pay that and so it comes down to a devil’s bargain. And the universities are over that same kind of barrel trying to educate people and keep their institutions afloat,” Parke said. “They end up in some tricky places… It’s just hard for us to police every relationship we make and get entangled with in these conferences. But we’ll do what we can do.”

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