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by Molly Kaplan, courtesy of the ACLU
After being attacked by a gang in Mexico, Nydia returned to the United States, where she had asylum status. Immigration officers ordered her deported anyway.

More than two million people have been deported since President Obama took office in 2008. Among this massive number of deportations, an increasing number of people with valid legal claims to remain in the U.S.—even U.S. citizens—are mistakenly deported, according to a report released by the ACLU today. Once returned to their “home” countries, many have suffered catastrophic consequences, including kidnapping and murder. Produced by Sarah Mehta, an ACLU attorney,“American Exile: Rapid Deportations That Bypass the Courtroom” is the first comprehensive study of deportations ordered by immigration agents instead of immigration judges.

Mehta, who was raised in Arlington, Texas, and now lives in New York, spent a year studying deportation cases and found that an astounding 83 percent of people deported in 2013 were removed without a hearing or a chance to see an immigration judge.

Many of the people Mehta interviewed were deported through a process called expedited removal, whereby an immigration enforcement officer can determine someone’s fate in a matter of minutes. In many cases, the officer’s decision can literally mean life or death for the immigrant. For example, Mehta interviewed a transgender woman from Mexico named Nydia R. who was deported under expedited removal despite having obtained political asylum in the United States. Back in Mexico, Nydia R. was raped and tortured by members of Los Zetas and barely escaped with her life. Mehta also documented other cases of people wrongfully deported who were kidnapped, tortured or even killed after being returned to their home countries. The Observer spoke with Mehta about the ACLU’s new report and how our immigration system, which Mehta calls “deeply corrupted,” has largely become a vehicle for mass deportations without legal due process.

 

Observer: Why did the ACLU decide to spend a year studying deportation numbers?

Mehta: Overwhelmingly, most people now are not going through immigration court and they’re not getting hearings. The bulk of our work to date had been making those hearings fair but increasingly it’s rare for someone to go to immigration court at all. There has been such a dearth of information about who is being deported that we wanted to do a real investigation into who actually is getting deported. When expedited removal was first introduced in 1996 and then expanded in 2005 there was a lot of concern even from congressional representatives that the wrong people—meaning people who had claims and rights—would be swept up and deported. In view of the very cursory nature of expedited removal it’s not really a surprise that mistakes are made nonetheless. We didn’t have any information as to how often it happens, what it looks like and to what extent people who have verifiable claims are still being deported.

Observer: Can you explain what expedited removal is?

Mehta: Expedited removal is where someone is ordered deported not by a judge, not by a lawyer, but by an immigration enforcement officer. It applies predominantly at the border and it allows the officer to order someone deported for five years, 10 years or even for life. It has the same consequences as a deportation order by a judge but without a hearing with evidence and rights to a lawyer. You would think a deportation order issued by an enforcement officer who is not a lawyer or an expert in law would be subject to more oversight and review but it actually gets less review. And it’s almost impossible to get a deportation order reviewed or rescinded once an enforcement officer has issued the order.

Observer: So, who exactly is getting deported?

Mehta: The problem is Border Patrol officers who are doing these deportations are not even asking basic questions. Some people said they were only asked their name and nothing more than that. So it’s not surprising that we have very little information about who gets deported because officers themselves aren’t asking any questions before they order someone deported. One group we looked at is asylum seekers—people who come here fleeing violence. This is one group of people that right now U.S. Customs and Border Protection is supposed to be screening for. They are supposed to ask people who are fleeing violence if they are afraid to go back to their country. The people we interviewed said they were never asked this question before they were deported.

We find that even lawful visitors and people who work lawfully in the U.S. from Canada or Mexico or elsewhere are being deported by expedited removal. The immigration officers assume they are not lawfully in the U.S. even when their claims can be verified, or they make assumptions that they are misusing their visas even when it can’t be verified and there’s no opportunity for them to contest it. Again this is without having to provide any evidence or an opportunity for the person to prove it’s not true.

Observer: Geographically, are there certain areas where there are more expedited removals?

Mehta: One thing I found very surprising is the consistent regularity of problems across the southern border. Along the southern border it didn’t matter where you were. There were consistent problems with Border Patrol officers failing to inform people of their rights and giving them forms often in a language that they didn’t know and ordering them deported in a matter of minutes.

Observer: What were some other surprising things you discovered?

Mehta: One thing that surprised me is the people who get deported who have verifiable claims, people who already have rights to stay in the U.S. It’s not surprising that Border Patrol officers will make mistakes about people who have complicated claims because they’re not lawyers and they’re not trained to give people these very complicated legal determinations but, again, people like Nydia who had asylum—these are things that could have been determined before they were deported. Deportation comes with very specific consequences. It’s very hard to put right even honest mistakes, but in many cases it seemed that Border Patrol officers weren’t even taking the time to do a very basic check to verify a person’s status, to give a person time to collect evidence or to call their attorney or call their family to bring the evidence to prove their claims.

Observer: And why do you think this is?

Mehta: I think in part there’s a general assumption along the southern border in particular that people who are apprehended there don’t have rights or claims to be there and that it isn’t worth the time to verify those claims. And part of the problem is that the Department of Homeland Security interprets the border not as a line but as a 100-mile zone so there are people who are living within 100 miles of the border who are treated as if their lives and rights are disposable. Even if law enforcement officers try to do a good job and have the best intentions they often just don’t have the expertise and sometimes the time to verify a person’s claims and ask the necessary questions that would elicit the information that they need.

Observer: And in fact you even found U.S. citizens during the course of your study who had been deported?

Mehta: Yes, and it’s predictable because it’s a deeply corrupted system that is designed to fail people with their rights. Based on the assumption that anyone arrested in the 100-mile border zone isn’t going to have a right. I think there are mistaken assumptions based on a way a person looks, or his language abilities that lead officers to assume that they aren’t citizens and they unfortunately don’t give them the opportunity to prove that before deporting them. Deportation can come with very catastrophic consequence for some people. Some of the individuals in the report were attacked, kidnapped and raped or sometimes all three. One person was murdered after being deported and they had told the officers about the danger before they were deported.

Observer: So how do we fix the system? We always hear about spending more money on border security but are we spending enough on our immigration court system? What about providing attorneys to immigrants who need them?

Mehta: We have deeply underfunded the court system and all of the mechanisms and safeguards that provide justice and protect people’s rights. While there has been an expansion of funding for the militarization of the border there hasn’t been comparable funding going to the courts. The courts are severely overburdened as it is. We hope that with Obama’s executive action that there will be some reprieve on the courts and they will free up to adjudicate people who were left out in the executive action.

There also need to be attorneys and an opportunity for people to read the deportation order in a language they understand before they sign it and an opportunity for them to know about the rights and the consequences of taking a deportation order or accepting voluntary return. Right now border officers have the discretion to refer people for a hearing but it doesn’t appear they are using that discretion because [in 2013] 83 percent of the deportations were from officers and not through the court system. Border Patrol officers should screen for people who might have claims to be in the U.S. and children in particular. These individuals should get a hearing with all of the protections that go with it.

Observer: I often hear from commenters online who say, “Why should we be so concerned about providing legal representation to people who are not U.S. citizens?

Mehta: For one thing we don’t know if they’re citizens or not in some of these cases. There are a lot of people who are U.S. citizens who were not born in the United States and there are people who were arrested and deported who it turned out are U.S. citizens. Verifying their claims sometimes requires legal assistance. This can be a quick and easy thing but other times it can get complicated and does require a lawyer’s assistance. But beyond the people who are U.S. citizens there are a lot of people with strong ties and rooted lives here who are parents or relatives of U.S. citizens, who are a part of our community and their rights matter. It’s important to have lawyers, it’s important to have justice because the entire integrity of the immigration system depends upon it.

 

Former Jasper Police officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham
Surveillance camera footage from May 5, 2013, shows Jasper Police officers Ryan Cunningham and Ricky Grissom's brutal treatment of a woman inside the city jail.

Two former Jasper police officers won’t face criminal charges for assaulting a woman in their custody last year, the last chapter in an incident that became a flashpoint for racial tension in the East Texas town.

The Beaumont Enterprise reported in November that a grand jury had cleared officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham, who are white, for a violent encounter with a black woman named Keyarika Diggles inside the Jasper City Jail. Overhead cameras caught the officers grabbing Diggles by the hair, slamming her face onto a counter and pinning her to the floor, before dragging Diggles, by the feet, into a holding cell. According to her lawyers, Diggles spent hours in the dark “detox” cell before being strip-searched by police dispatcher Lindsey Davenport.

Along with the damning video footage, the case was troubling because Cunningham and Grissom had arrested Diggles at home that morning for nothing more than an unpaid traffic ticket. And the ticket wasn’t quite unpaid—the single mother of two had been paying down her debt in monthly installments. Even after those payments, she still owed $100 at the time Grissom and Cunningham knocked on her door—but it’s still not clear why they’d chosen to arrest her that day.

It was already a touchy time for Jasper’s police. The city’s first black police chief, Rodney Pearson, had been removed in 2012 by a City Council stacked with new members who ran, in part, on a pledge to replace Pearson with a chief they deemed more qualified; all the serious candidates they considered were white. It wasn’t until October 2013 that the council hired the current chief, Bob MacDonald, who spoke freely about the need to reach out to the city’s black community and build trust. One of his first initiatives was to buy body cameras for the city’s police force.

Former Jasper Police officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham
Former Jasper Police officers Ricky Grissom and Ryan Cunningham

Diggles settled a civil rights lawsuit against the city and the officers last December for $75,000. And less than a month after the incident, Jasper’s city council voted to fire Cunningham and Grissom. That alone was a stronger response than many allegations of police brutality get, and Jasper Mayor Mike Lout said the council would work with the district attorney to consider criminal charges against the officers. Lout and other city leaders stressed that the Diggles case wasn’t a sign of some deeper racial divide in the city, but an isolated incident with the perpetrators swiftly punished.

“The law is the law for everyone, and just because you have a badge on doesn’t mean you have the right to break the law, or do something wrong,” Lout said at the time.

These days, in the week since the Ferguson, Missouri, grand jury cleared Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, that hasn’t exactly been the prevailing sentiment. We’ve been reminded of how easily prosecutors can secure indictments when they want, and how rarely police officers are indicted for shootings and other allegations of misconduct. Emily DePrang’s Observer series on impunity in the Houston Police Department detailed those same problems last year.

The Jasper grand jury’s decision, coming so long after Diggles’ beating, but a few days before Darren Wilson was no-billed in Ferguson, is at least another marker of just how wrong it is to suggest that “the law is the law for everyone.”

In September 2014, after losing his city police job, Cunningham hired on with the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office, according to records obtained by the Observer from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Grissom apparently isn’t working in Texas law enforcement at the moment, but he easily could someday, like so many officers with spotty records who shuffle quietly from town to town.

And Diggles, whose beating remains unpunished, wound up back in the Jasper jail last May—for trying to shoplift $31 of baby formula from Walmart.

 

The War at School

Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, February 25.
Patrick Michels
A dissatisfied public school student at the Save Texas Schools rally.

 

This year, as we do every Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law Ryan and I traded war stories over a table laden with food and drink. Our front lines are in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, but deep in the heart of Houston. Our stories are drawn from the stuff of our lives as teachers, soldiers in the education wars unfolding in the classrooms of our nation.

Ryan and I fight our battles in different theaters. I teach history at a university in Houston while Ryan teaches English at a nearby high school. Both of our respective institutions, of relatively recent birth and still busily inventing their school traditions, pride themselves on spanking-new football stadiums and high-tech classrooms. But this year, as in year’s past, our experiences were dramatically asymmetrical. When I confide my anxiety that I have fewer than 10 students in one of the two classes I teach twice a week, Ryan shares his relief that he has fewer than 30 in one of the six classes he teaches every day. After I express my impatience with students who do not read deeply, Ryan tells me about students who cannot read at all. When I have the ill grace to bemoan earning $30,000 a year less than the national average for full professors, Ryan smiles wanly, too gracious to reply that this gap represents more than two-thirds of his own yearly salary. While I worry about the mad spawning of administrators at my school, Ryan confesses his hope to become an administrator—if only to escape the grim impasse in which he finds himself.

Simply put, Ryan is in the trenches and I am not. Like many volunteers who rally to their nations’ colors in times of need, my brother-in-law was an idealist when he signed up. An indifferent student in high school, Ryan fell in love with literature at university; as a teacher, he hoped to reach students who resembled his younger, bored self. More than a decade on the front lines, however, has pulverized that idealism. Just as all war gives the lie to words like “honor,” “duty” and “sacrifice,” so too has teaching undermined Ryan’s belief that few professions are more honorable than teaching and his willingness to make financial sacrifices on behalf of duty to a literate citizenry. His experiences have trumped all of that. I do not know if it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes, but I have good reason to believe there are few if any idealists still working in Ryan’s school.

How could there be? Take the example of 1914: Once that war of movement ossified into one of stasis, generals and politicians increasingly turned to technological breakthroughs to snap the stalemate. From poison gas to dirigibles, tanks to flamethrowers, one silver bullet after another was fired during World War I. Most were duds, and some were worse. Poison gas drifts over one’s own lines, tanks become firetraps and flamethrowers turn their users into Roman candles.

While no such horrors have been visited on Ryan and his colleagues, they are casualties nonetheless of the same kind of magical thinking. Like the mustachioed generals of yesteryear, Ryan’s school administrators insist that technology can win hearts and minds. To this end, Brian and his students were armed this year with Dell tablets. The administration’s ambition to go paperless, which carried a $17 million price tag, has turned into a fiasco worthy of the Battle of the Somme. Every day, Ryan teaches six classes, each of which runs 49 minutes. This race against time, thanks to the Dells, has become an obstacle course. Inevitably, students forgot to charge their tablets, or forgot to save their material or simply forgot to bring their tablets. Other students were plagued by software problems, while some of the more privileged, scornful of the Dells, refused to use them. After three months of mayhem and muddle, Ryan’s students have tabled the tablets and are again, like students in far more advanced Finland and Japan, using paper and pen.

The costs of technological magical thinking extend far beyond landscapes littered with torched tanks and darkened Dells. There is also our passionate attachment to standardized tests. In Texas, administrators cling to the STAAR—the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness—with the same desperate conviction that Douglas Haig, Britain’s commander at the Somme, applied to Heavy Artillery Reserves (HAR). Just as the makers of munitions always emerge from war victorious, it is the corporate education complex and its legion of consultants who benefit most from these tests. Given that Pearson Education, the maker of STAAR, charges Texas taxpayers $90 million a year, is it surprising that Ryan must lead his students over the top and into the test? His students’ futures and his own rest on this test, and the twining is doubly tragic: Ryan risks his job if his students don’t test well, and his students risk missing the true rewards of reading and writing if they’re only taught to test well.

This massive investment has birthed a new literary genre in Texas—the 26-line STAAR essay, for which students are drilled relentlessly—at the expense of genres like the novel and drama. “Teaching the test,” Ryan told me, “comes at the cost of teaching literature.” Even the path to the test is mined with difficulties. All of Ryan’s classes include special-education students. The state rightly compels schools to mainstream these students, but in a cost-saving strategy about which many parents are unaware, nearly half of the students in some of Ryan’s classes have special needs. To attend to the dizzying array of needs in these classes requires daily miracles as great as that of the Battle of the Marne.

When Ryan is not careening through one class to the next, he is mired in paperwork, and here lies the true pity of his situation. Though he works 60 to 65 hours a week, he has barely any time to meet with his students, the ostensible beneficiaries of his labor.

But do we parents really care? Like family on the home front who find comfort in the official version of events—WWI gave us the modern spin on the word “propaganda”—we gaze at the facades of our schools and are reassured by the medals, like “Exemplary” and “Recognized,” they have earned. We turn our gaze elsewhere, convinced we are on the road to victory. But when I listen to Ryan, I cannot help but think that such victories may be no less Pyrrhic than those of 1918, or 1950, or 2003.

Truth in Texas Textbooks founder Roy White
Truth in Texas Textbooks
Truth in Texas Textbooks founder Roy White

When they write the history books about the State Board of Education, last week’s drama over our new social studies textbooks probably won’t go down as a high point.

After punting on a preliminary vote Tuesday, the board approved the textbooks on Friday despite receiving hundreds of pages of revisions at the last minute, which many members hadn’t read. Those revisions came partly in response to 1,500 worried letters from the public that were still arriving just last week. Though the 10-5 vote split on party lines, members agreed that this year’s textbook approvals had been a mess.

But the process was a big win for at least one man, Roy White, and his fellow volunteer textbook watchdogs.

White’s year-old group Truth in Texas Textbooks made an impressive entrance into Texas’ ancient and ongoing fight over what children learn in school, with a recently-released 469-page review of this year’s social studies textbooks. The review was cited widely by conservatives upset over the books and helped drive publishers to rework many passages—dozens of small changes like removing the word “nonpartisan” from a description of Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters in a McGraw-Hill text. Republicans on the board agreed to scrap all the submissions from one publisher, Worldview Software, because the company seemed insufficiently deferential to public concerns—a decision Worldview’s president called “arbitrary and capricious.”

With an avid grassroots following, and conservative board members receptive to his concerns, White and his group have quickly become influential gatekeepers to the hot and everlasting debate over Texas’ schoolbooks.

Samples of most books and electronic materials are available for anyone to review online, but some are only available in-person in Austin or at a regional education center. And even then, reading through the texts is a lot of work. Most people only encounter the debate after it’s been framed by one of a few mediating groups with the motivation and the manpower to get through all the texts. The Texas Freedom Network has long been one of these, and succeeded this year in pushing back on climate change doubt, and language minimizing slavery’s role as a cause of the Civil War.

Truth in Texas Textbooks’ review offered ammunition to folks more concerned that Ronald Reagan gets the admiration he deserves, or that books don’t gloss over the dangers of militant Islam. Where one world history text describes Christianity in its glossary as “the religion based on the belief that Jesus Christ is the son of God,” a Truth in Texas Textbooks reviewer complains: “Fourteen words is hardly an adequate definition of the greatest and most powerful religion in the known world or all of history.”

Concerned citizens flooded board members and publishers with more than 1,500 emails about the social studies texts, and Truth in Texas Textbooks’ own volunteers provided much of the live public comment before last week’s vote. White alone spent more than an hour at the podium during his statement.

White tells the Observer that activists in other states, and longtime state board observers, were amazed to hear publishers made so many changes in response to his group’s review. “They started laughing when I said the publishers are talking to us,” he says. White figures it’s because he caught the publishers at the right time, at the end of a critical approval process with a board that values public comment.

“Everybody I have talked to—TEA, SBOE members, even lobbyists with the publishers—tell me, in the history of Texas they had never seen so many inputs from the public to the process. So that, I think, is a good thing,” White says.

White is a pilot with Southwest Airlines, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a former public school teacher. He also chairs the Bexar County chapter of ACT! for America, which circulates news about the dangers of Islam. “It’s been described as an anti-Muslim group, which it is not,” White says. “It’s an education in radical Islam.”

In 2012, ACT! for America produced a report on Islam in textbooks nationwide, titled “Education or Indoctrination?” And last year, White says someone from ACT! for America asked him to lead a textbook review for Texas. He and his research director, a home-school mother named Pat Blair, put out calls for volunteers on tea party email lists, and sought input from conservative culture war veterans like Neal Frey and Common Core critic Sandra Stotsky.

Most of all, he says, his group is citizen-driven—all volunteers, regular folks, no paid reviewers. He’s not running a nonprofit; he’s funding the work himself. And together, over conference calls and online project management tools, they completed the monstrous task of a full textbook review. In Austin last week, his team met in person for the first time. “It’s another wonderful testimony to why I love living in Texas, and the spirit people have to really get things done,” he says.

“I’ve talked to some people in the media trying to put labels in front of people’s names, as they have with me. [It] doesn’t really help educate and lay the foundation for what the article should be about, which is improving textbooks. Who wouldn’t want better textbooks?” But White, who’s also been a spokesman for the Southwest pilots’ union, doesn’t let it get to him. “The media does what they do. I’ve been around long enough to understand that.”

Here’s how White’s group describes its mission instead: “The purpose of TTT is simple, to provide Social Studies textbooks that are truthful and factual that meet the Texas Education Knowledge Standards.” It’s the state standards, not White, after all, that include Moses as a leading influence on the founding fathers.

White says some volunteers bailed on the group early on, when the group’s training made it plain that their job was to remain objective. “We certainly see some ideology seep into there, and we have to kind of beat down our biases,” he says. “For us, we just said judge us on our work, judge us on the quality of our work.”

The group’s comments on each text are posted online as Word documents, plus a 52-page summary of their findings. They include grammar fixes and corrected dates, but dwell mostly on the usual questions of patriotism, religion, global warming and evolution—all the usual battlegrounds the State Board of Education is known for. Most of all in the reviews, you’ll find Islam—insisting that armies, not traders, spread Islam to new parts of the world, and that jihad can’t be defined as anything but violent struggle.

The Texas Freedom Network’s review of the new group’s reviews called its complaints “peculiar” and questioned whether the group’s reviewers were qualified for the job. A note on one Truth in Texas Textbooks’ review, TFN notes, suggests including information on Young Earth Creationism sourced to Conservapedia.com.

Texas allows months of public comment on these books, which generates weeks of blow-by-blow news coverage. But in practice our textbook adoption process is still pretty opaque because of the sheer volume of material it produces: thousands of pages of original text to review, and thousands more pages of back-and-forth between reviewers and publishers. Even White isn’t sure how many of the group’s recommendations made it into the texts approved on Friday.

But he and his group are still hard at work, sorting through the last-minute revisions to find out. And when they do, they’re ready to make textbook purchasing a whole lot simpler—because the state board’s decision is only a prelude to the real show: a final Truth in Texas Textbooks review complete with one simple letter grade for each book. Once they know which book is an “A,” a “B,” or a “C,” they’ll know which books to lobby their local school board to purchase.

“I think that’s the misconception—for us, how they voted, up or down was just another day on the calendar for us. Most people think when you’ve done the review process, that’s it,” White says. “Our goal all along was not to just do the reviews, but to give the customer, the parent, the school board member a tool to assess what material they should purchase.”

A march for immigration reform at the Texas Capitol.
Priscila Mosqueda
A march for immigration reform at the Texas Capitol.

After years of struggle and protest, immigrant families finally have something to celebrate. At least four million undocumented immigrants could receive work permits for three years under the executive action.

It’s disappointing though, that the Obama proposal includes more militarization along the border, especially when border communities are begging for more oversight of the existing military-industrial border complex, which has already gotten out of hand.

Another important thing to remember is that this is only a temporary fix. There’s no path to legal residency or citizenship. Without Congress acting to reform our broken system legislatively, we’re going to have an even crazier, more complicated patchwork of temporary visas, temporary work permits, legal resident visas, etc., etc. We’re creating an immigration caste system of people living under provisional agreements, not fully integrated into our society and living under limited legal protections. This creates a nightmare for law enforcement, the courts, and most of all for the families who are subject to the whims of Congress and the next president. What happens at the end of the three-year window?

The battle continues. But for today, let’s celebrate this small miracle. Here’s a  breakdown of Obama’s immigration reform: The good, the bad and the ugly.

 

The Good

 

1) An expansion of people eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, aka DACA.

Prior to the executive action, only those who were under 31 on June 15, 2012, who had entered the U.S. before June 15, 2007 and who were under 16 when they entered the U.S. were eligible. Now all undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before the age of 16, and not just those born after June 15, 1981 can qualify for DACA. They’ve also bumped up the U.S. entry date from June 15, 2007 to January 1, 2010. The work permits and relief from being deported will last three years, instead of two.

2) Some parents of U.S. citizens and lawful residents can also get deferred action and a work permit if:

  • They have been in the country for at least 5 years;
  • Their child was a U.S. citizen as of November 20, 2014;
  • Must complete criminal, national security background checks and pay a fee.

 

The Bad

 

1) More militarization along the border.

2) Parents of DACA kids do not qualify under the executive action.

3) Nothing in the executive action affects the thousands of women and children being held right now in immigrant detention facilities in New Mexico and Texas.

 

The (could get) Ugly

 

1) A Priority Enforcement Program, aka PEP, replaces the controversial Secure Communities program—which encouraged local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law. It looks like under PEP, ICE detainers will be replaced by a notfication system among other things.

Cristina Parker, spokesperson for the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, which helped lead the charge in Texas against the unpopular Secure Communities program, says that her organization and others who have fought against the program for years are celebrating its demise. S-COMM was the reason that many immigrants were deported for minor misdemeanors or traffic infractions.

Parker says they are pessimistic, however, about the new program and eagerly awaiting more details on how it will be implemented. “ICE doesn’t inspire confidence in how it follows directives. It’s a rogue agency. And this really sounds very similar to the first day of S-COMM,” she says. “That’s kind of where we’re at now but we’re trying to be cautiously optimistic.”

Immigration attorney Dan Kowalski is equally pessimistic about any change in policy. “It’s going to be really tough for ICE officers on the ground and managers in the field and D.C. to execute because their whole training is to detect, detain, arrest and deport. It goes against the grain of their training,” he says.

2) The president also directed Homeland Security to revise policies regarding deportation priorities.

Here’s the new policy in brief from the memo:

“DHS is going to implement a new department-wide enforcement and removal policy that places top priority on national security threats, convicted felons, gang members, and illegal entrants apprehended at the border; the second-tier priority on those convicted of significant or multiple misdemeanors and those who are not apprehended at the border, but who entered or reentered this country unlawfully after January 1, 2014; and the third priority on those who are non-criminals but who have failed to abide by a final order of removal issued on or after January 1, 2014.

Under this revised policy, those who entered illegally prior to January 1, 2014, who never disobeyed a prior order of removal, and were never convicted of a serious offense, will not be priorities for removal. This policy also provides clear guidance on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.”

Again, this will depend a lot on how ICE implements the directive. In the past, they’ve been criticized for doing their own thing and not exercising prosecutorial discretion. The new policy could get ugly if ICE continues to act on its own, and not according to the president’s directives.

Alex DeChiara
Courtesy of the DeChiaras
Alex DeChiara

 

Rick DeChiara can’t undo his daughter’s suicide.

He can’t erase the memory of coming home to find 17-year-old Alex hanging from a tree in their backyard—and having to cut her down. He can’t wipe away the recollection of picking up Alex’s high school diploma a day after receiving her death certificate.

“I can’t undo what’s been done, but maybe I can prevent somebody else from taking the same path,” DeChiara told the Observer this week. “That’s what I want to do. If I can stop some other kid from doing what Alex did, then I’ll be a success.”

Six months after his daughter’s suicide, DeChiara took a major step in that direction Sunday.

Along with his wife and Alex’s younger sister, he traveled from their home in Euless, near Fort Worth, to a Transgender Day of Remembrance observance at the Cathedral of Hope, a predominantly LGBT church in Dallas.

Alex was transgender, and even though she took her own life, the annual ceremony commemorating victims of anti-trans violence was dedicated to her.

“I made a lot of new friends down there. They’re a wonderful group of people,”  said DeChiara, a New Jersey native who works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and described himself as the “macho” type.

“I’m going to stay in touch with a lot of people,” he said. “It was good for all three of us.”

DeChiara, speaking publicly about his daughter’s death for the first time with the Observer, acknowledged he wasn’t always so comfortable with the idea that Alex was trans. When she began to come to terms with her gender identity in middle school, she discussed it with her mom but grew distant from him.

“What Alex didn’t realize was that, just because I don’t understand, doesn’t mean I can’t accept,” he said. “I didn’t understand. … It took me a while to come around.”

DeChiara said his relationship with his daughter had improved somewhat prior to her death, but other problems—depression, bullying and isolation—proved insurmountable.

Alex sported long blonde hair and sometimes wore a few items of women’s clothing to Euless’ Trinity High School. Although there was no physical violence, DeChiara said classmates talked behind Alex’s back, and sometimes to her face, calling her a “freak.”

“She was spending a lot of time down at the counselor’s office,” DeChiara said.

“Apparently the counselor was aware and tried to do something about it [the bullying], but I don’t know how much further it got from there. I’ve heard it was teachers that were saying stuff as well.”

Eventually, the DeChiaras agreed to transfer Alex her to an alternative school, KEYS High School. But that move cut her off from friends and something she loved—working with special needs children at Euless Trinity, where she was no longer allowed on campus.

Alex DeChiara
Courtesy of the DeChiaras
Alex DeChiara

“When she was banned from school, things spiraled out of control,” DeChiara said. “Part of the reason she loved those kids at the special ed building is because, like them, she was in a body she didn’t want to be in, and she could identify with them. That was her passion. She was going to go to school to teach autistic kids.”

Alex, who’d taken several AP courses at Euless Trinity, graduated a month early from KEYS, but being home alone only made things worse. DeChiara said he had no idea how deep his daughter’s depression had become.

On May 8, when DeChiara found Alex hanging from a tree, she’d left a note on her desk saying only that she didn’t want a funeral—a request her parents honored.

“There is no amount of sins I have ever done in this lifetime, that anybody should have to go through what I did that day,” DeChiara said. “Mom? I would have had to bury two people if she got home before me.”

After Alex’s death, one of her friends connected the DeChiaras with a Dallas LGBT group, which invited them to the Trans Day of Remembrance. DeChiara only wishes Alex had found those resources when she was alive.

Studies show roughly half of trans youth have contemplated suicide, and one in four have made an attempt.

The numbers may be even higher in Texas, which has no explicit anti-bullying protections based on gender identity and few resources for LGBT youth outside major cities.

“There definitely needs to be more,” DeChiara said. “They definitely need to have a place where they know they can go.”

DeChiara said there are suicide hotlines, bullying prevention programs and perhaps even a modicum of support for gay teens and their parents.

But he added: “As far as transgender awareness kind of stuff, that’s a different story. I don’t think that’s quite as popular, as out there in the open.”

The Transgender Day of Remembrance is today, Thursday, Nov. 20. For a list of events in Texas, go here.

Daniel Candelaria, Loren Campos at an UT Austin rally to pass the Dream Act, June 2012.
Jen Reel
Daniel Candelaria and Loren Campos at a UT-Austin rally to pass the Dream Act, June 2012.

President Obama’s plans for the long-awaited executive action on immigration will finally be unveiled tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT in a televised announcement. This will be followed by a rally at a high school in Las Vegas on Friday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid where undoubtedly more details of the president’s plan will be revealed.

I asked longtime immigration attorney Dan Kowalski with The Fowler Law Firm in Austin to give Observer readers a broader idea of what Obama’s executive action might contain and how it might impact the estimated 1.7 million undocumented immigrants living in Texas. What’s certain is that whatever plan Obama unveils Thursday evening it will change millions of lives for the better.

Observer: How many people do you think the executive action will impact?

Kowalski: Anywhere from 2 million to 6 million people, but the details are a closely held secret so we won’t really know for sure until tomorrow night, although I think tomorrow night could just be a teaser. I read that Congress will be briefed tomorrow so we’ll see about that. It could be that more details will also be revealed on Friday in Las Vegas.

Observer: So which categories of immigrants do you think will be covered by the executive action?

Kowalski: I think the parents of U.S. citizen kids and maybe some parents of DACA kids (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and they may raise the DACA age and in addition there may be something for agriculture and there may be something for high tech workers. There’s rumors about that. But I think the biggest group to benefit will be the millions of parents of U.S. citizen children.

Observer: That’s a pretty large sum of people isn’t it?

Kowalski: It could be, but the limiting factors will be: No. 1, is there a time qualification? Meaning you have to have been here a certain number of years. And No. 2, what are the other eligibility requirements such as criminal record and what’s the filing fee going to be?

Observer: Typically when these types of executive actions have happened in the past there are quite a few caveats and restrictions to qualifying, correct?

Kowalski: It depends on how tightly they make it. If they make it really tight not many people will qualify. We’ll know a lot more when they release the application forms. But I think the application period won’t probably begin until two to six months down the road. USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) can’t ramp up that fast. They need to hire staff and create procedures and forms.

Observer: So it’s not something that will begin on Jan. 1?

Kowalski: I think it’s going to be March, April at the earliest.

Observer: Will there be funding there to support the huge number of people who will be filing?

Kowalski: Well, the thing about USCIS is that everything is fee-funded. They don’t get appropriations, so everything that USCIS does has to be funded through user fees. It will be a self-funding program no matter what.

Observer: What other groups of people should be included but won’t be?

Kowalski: I would like to see it be as broad as possible but that would require legislation. This action is more of a stopgap and what really needs to happen down the road is something from Congress that makes the visa rules broader and simpler to allow more people to immigrate.

Observer: How long do you think it will take people to go through the process with their paperwork? Immigration courts are already extremely backed up.

Kowalski: Well, this won’t have anything to do with the immigration courts. It will be an administrative process similar to the way that DACA is operating now. This will be much bigger than DACA of course, maybe 10 times as many people.

Observer: Will people who qualify under the executive action get legal residency permits?

Kowalski: No, they won’t get legal status, just a work permit. It will be like DACA—call it DACA-plus. I think they will probably get a work permit for two years, like DACA.

Observer: Anything else you think is important for people to know about this impending executive action on immigration?

Kowalski: A lot of people inside government and Congress and in the media are saying this action will spur Congress into finally doing something about immigration reform legislatively. I have the opposite view. There are plenty of people in Congress and in the administration that like the system broken. Fence-builders, jail-builders and the drone people and the enforcement people make a huge profit from the system as it is now. It’s good to be broken because it’s more work for them. If everything works and there are lots of visas then there’s nothing for them to enforce. Still, it’s going to be exciting to see what Obama announces tomorrow evening. Stay tuned.

Bill KingIt’s been hard going for moderates lately. The 2014 election cycle was the latest in a long series of culls, as hardline Republicans pushed their more conciliatory colleagues out of office and solidified their ideological hold on Congress. State governments haven’t necessarily fared any better: Texas now finds itself saddled with both national Sen. Ted Cruz (who recently derided net neutrality as “Obamacare for the Internet”—a statement so cynical it transcends mere idiocy) and Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, a man publicly pushing the idea that ISIS insurgents are sneaking across the Mexican border. The inmates have been running the asylum for a while; it was only a matter of time before they went off their meds.

Bill King argues that this situation is politically untenable and, more to the point, isn’t what people want. His new book, Unapologetically Moderate: My Search for a Rational Center in American Politics, collects a series of columns King wrote during an ongoing stint at the Houston Chronicle. In sections on immigration reform, health care and gun control, King hammers home a few central themes: Our nation is fundamentally centrist; our politics don’t reflect that truth; as a result, policy suffers and voters disengage.

King himself has a background in politics as a two-term mayor of Kemah, and he’s considered a possible contender in the 2015 Houston mayoral election. He’s also something of a wonk, with experience in business (he was president of Southwest Airport Services) and public policy (including a position with the task force that rewrote Houston’s hurricane evacuation plan in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita in 2005).

Reasonableness seems to be King’s guiding principle, and the columns collected in Unapologetically Moderate seldom find him especially fired up on any particular topic. He seems allergic to rhetoric in general, reserving most of his few flourishes for columns on government dysfunction. In “No Place to Call Home,” originally published in 2011, King wrote, “…the great middle of America has time and again served as ballast for our ship of state, keeping her from listing too far to port or starboard. The challenge this time around will be to see if it can keep the ship from splitting apart.”