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Alpine Synthetic Drug Case Ends in Plea Deal for Purple Zone Owner

Reason magazine features Purple Zone case in documentary alleging affair between shop owner and prosecutor
An Alpine police officer stands watch outside the Purple Zone smoke shop during a federal raid in May.
Tom Cochran
An Alpine police officer stands watch outside the Purple Zone smoke shop during a federal raid in May.

Back in July, the Observer featured the story of the Purple Zone in Alpine, a smoke shop near the Sul Ross State University campus that’s been raided repeatedly by local and federal authorities.

The cases resulting from those raids sat on the leading edge of the war on drugs—from a federal task force cracking down on narcotics near the border to a small-town prosecutor on a crusade against synthetic drugs. But there was also a major problem with the cases: Though the potpourri products seized from the Purple Zone did test positive for chemicals Texas has banned, they weren’t illegal at the time of the raids.

The trials of Purple Zone owner Ilana Lipsen and—for reasons that charging documents never made clear—her mother, who occasionally visits the shop, promised a dramatic showdown in a West Texas courtroom this fall.

That’s where our story ended, but in late September Lipsen pleaded guilty to a state charge of felony drug possession. The federal charges against Lipsen, stemming from a dramatic multi-agency raid in May, were dropped, and Lipsen’s record will remain clean if she completes 10 years’ probation. The charges against her sister and mother were dropped as well.

To other rural prosecutors trying to pursue expensive synthetic drug cases on a limited budget, this was probably a predictable end. Lipsen can move back to Houston, where she grew up, and escape the constant scrutiny of small-town law enforcement. But closing these cases also means plenty of big, strange questions will remain unanswered.

We’ll never know how Brewster County District Attorney Rod Ponton would make the case for convicting Lipsen of possessing drugs that weren’t illegal at the time. Nor will we hear a full accounting for the two wildly differing accounts of the violent federal raid at the shop in May, or for why Lipsen’s conditions of release from jail required her to publicly recant her complaints to the press.

But a few weeks ago, Lipsen’s story did get a full airing for a national audience, when the libertarian magazine Reason featured her case with a story irresistibly headlined, “Sex, Spice and Small-Town Texas Justice.”

Anthony Fisher’s story, and an accompanying 10-minute video, place the Purple Zone raid in the context of the national law enforcement build-up, tracing how a place that “evokes the Texas libertarian ethos of a quiet, safe town where you can expect to be left alone” became a stomping ground for “body armor-clad agents of the state.”

Late in the story and video (you can watch it below), Lipsen suggests Ponton’s fixation on her shop is rooted in personal jealousy, because she rebuffed him years ago after a one-night stand. In a response to Reason, Ponton called that allegation “a blatant lie.” (He issued a 10-point rebuttal to the story, to which Fisher replied here.)

Fisher’s story also includes a telling segment with Scot Erin Briggs, former managing editor at the Alpine Avalanche, describing just how toxic this story became around Alpine shortly after the federal raid, including an unhappy visit from the DA, then pressure from her bosses to give extra credence to the feds’ version of what happened in the raid.

According to Briggs, Ponton visited her at the Avalanche‘s office saying “I’m not here to threaten you.” He added that local law enforcement did not appreciate the article and “we don’t consider [the Lipsens] a credible source.” He also scolded her for not grasping how bad “spice” is. Briggs offered to have Ponton write a letter to the editor, which she promised to publish. Ponton declined and told her that he had contacted the paper’s owner.

Shortly thereafter, Briggs says the paper’s owner told her that while her facts were sound, “her tone was all wrong.”

But as Briggs goes on to explain, “The job of a local paper is to get at the truth the best we can, not be the voice of those in power.”

 

The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).
The Observer hosts a post-election wrap-up panel at the North Door in Austin.
Jen Reel
The Observer’s Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

The More Things Change…

dave mann at his desk
Dave Mann at his desk of 12 years. "It's hard to let go of my old friend, the desk," says Dave.

On most mornings for the past 12 years, I’ve come to work at The Texas Observer’s dusty little office in downtown Austin, walking through our creaky front door on thousands of days. This morning I did it for the last time as an employee of this wonderful magazine.

Next week I will start an exciting new job up the street at Texas Monthly. But today, on my last day at the Observer after nearly 12 years, including the last three and a half as editor, I’m feeling a little wistful and nostalgic.

I’m amazed at how much the Observer has changed. When I started as a temporary reporter in 2003, we had enough money to keep the doors open only another three months. Somehow the Observer kept going, as it always had. There were three editorial staffers. Our print magazine, which looked, as one staffer put it, like a ’60s newsletter, was read by a few thousand people. If we had a really big story, we’d have to wait a few weeks for a New York Times reporter to show up, re-do the Observer’s reporting and make it national news.

Now the Observer’s budget is stable, secure for years into the future. Our editorial staff has quadrupled and we’re getting ready to hire another reporter. In fact, the Observer will soon need to leave this cramped office for larger digs. Our work is now read by hundreds of thousands of people online every month.

In 2003, the Observer was a nearly bankrupt little outlet that produced great journalism. We still do great work, at least in my subjective opinion, but we’re now a growing, modern news organization with occasional national impact. I certainly don’t claim credit for any of this, but it was fun to be part of.

I will miss this place, with its familiar routine and sense of mission. But mostly I’ll miss the people. I like to brag on our staff, and, in my opinion, with good reason. The Observer has a remarkably dedicated, smart and talented group of people working here. It’s been a great joy watching them produce some of the best journalism the Observer has ever published.

Since 2011 Observer stories have won or were a finalist for some of the most prestigious journalism awards in the country: twice nominated for a National Magazine Award in reporting, twice a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and winner of a Sigma Delta Chi award for magazine writing from the Society of Professional Journalists.

I know for most people that recitation of awards doesn’t mean much. Just think of it this way: It means Observer stories were recognized alongside the best work from the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, GQ, Rolling Stone and all the other giants of the magazine world. It means this little staff produces some of the best journalism in the country. Again, I certainly don’t take credit for that. But I’m proud to have been part of it.

And I’m proud of the impact our stories had on people’s lives—people like Josh Gravens, whose life changed after he was featured in the Observer. Today I’m also thinking about the people we didn’t quite help enough. Namely, Alfredo Guardiola and Curtis Severns, two men I believe were wrongly convicted of arson, who remain in prison at this very moment.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a few thanks, especially to the former Observer editors I worked with—Nate Blakeslee, Jake Bernstein and Bob Moser—and from whom I learned so much.

I also want to thank everyone who has read and supported this magazine and especially the many of you who have shared your stories with us during my tenure. I ask only that you keep reading and keep supporting the Observer. There are few publications like it—beholden to no one, willing to tell important stories in Texas that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a rare place where smart young writers have the freedom to follow their passions. For 60 years, the Observer has produced great journalism. The names and faces may change, but the mission remains the same.

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From L to R: Forrest Wilder, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Chris Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
Jen Reel
The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

 

In case you missed our post-election, pre-Lege session discussion in Austin last night, we’re posting the audio from the event. You’ll hear the voices of moderator Forrest Wilder, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Harvey Kronberg of the Quorum Report, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Observer writer Chris Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).

In part one, our panelists pick apart the factors that helped make 2014 such a big win for Republicans:

The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).
Jen Reel
The Observer’s Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

In part two, the panelists look ahead to next session: How will Dan Patrick wield the gavel in the Senate? And how can Democrats influence policy when they’re so greatly outnumbered?

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder
Jen Reel
State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder
State Rep. Donna Howard
Jen Reel
State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) at the Texas Observer’s post-election panel discussion, 2014.
The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, political reporter Christopher Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
Jen Reel
The Observer’s Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, political reporter Christopher Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
Texas State Capitol in Austin, Tex.
Patrick Michels
Texas State Capitol in Austin

Gather round, boys and girls: The 84th Texas Legislature is close at hand. Our state, much as it did at the beginning of the 83rd and 82nd and 81st and so on and so on, sits at a crossroads. Down one side of the fork, we see a future of good government, long-term planning and legislative restraint. Down the other, we have … not that.

Monday was the first day bills can be filed for next session, an occasion which is now rung in annually by the filing of state Rep. Tom Craddick’s (R-Midland) probably-doomed-again push to make texting while driving illegal. Hundreds of bills have been filed so far, and some are predictable: Democrats are lining up to repeal anti-same-sex-marriage measures. Republicans are lining up to pass open carry laws. There’s a wide variety of technocratic fixes on both sides of the aisle. Here are a few of the stranger ones.

Newly elected tea party state Sen. Don Huffines (R-Dallas) has produced an extraordinary oddity in Senate Bill 62, which would require the state’s comptroller to produce a detailed invoice totaling up the cost of illegal immigration to the state—and then would require the comptroller and attorney general to present the invoice together to the feds. If the federals don’t pay up, Huffines would have the state turn up the heat:

After the submission, the comptroller and the attorney general shall use every means available to collect from the federal government the amount requested by the invoice, including by withholding any payments of money this state owes to the federal government in a total amount not to exceed the amount requested.

And if the comptroller doesn’t go along with Huffines’ scheme and compile an invoice? Under the bill’s provisions, the comptroller’s office would have $25,000 of its funding cut every day. Huffines, apparently, thinks government should work mostly via extortion.

Just as thought-through is Huffines’ Senate Joint Resolution 6, a proposed constitutional amendment that would provide term limits for Texas legislators—three full terms for senators, and six full terms for representatives, or 12 years each. Odder are the provisions that would also impose a 72-month cap on the speaker of the House, as well as committee chairmanships, where accumulated expertise is generally considered an asset.

These bills have as much chance of surviving the Legislature as a polar bear in Death Valley, but it’s a fun confirmation that Huffines, like a number of new senators, isn’t going to develop a reputation for subtlety.

State Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van), who pledged to deal a fatal blow to the specter of Sharia law in Texas a few months back, doesn’t have a bill along those lines yet: But he does have legislation to kill daylight savings time, ensure teachers can place the Ten Commandments in a “prominent position” in classrooms, and establish a 14-member “joint nullification committee” to determined which federal laws are unconstitutional and should be nullified in the state. OK, man.

There are more substantial bills, of course. Among them, state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) proposes raising the minimum wage to $10.10—though that measure has little chance of making it to the floor, either.

The most consequential bills filed yesterday have to do with the state’s revenue structure. The state’s tax base is growing, and legislators never fully restored the sweeping spending cuts they made in 2011. Which means they have money to play with—they can either restore funding to state services, or cut taxes yet again. From Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick on down, the latter impulse seems to have more momentum.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown), who is climbing up the senate ranks as the new head of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, has a bill out that would raise the state’s franchise tax exemption to $5 million.

This “fiscally responsible approach,” Schwertner said in a statement, would provide tax relief while “still maintaining a balanced budget,” because it would only deprive the state of $880 million dollars in revenue each biennium. That’s a hefty chunk of change. But, Schwertner’s office says, it’s certainly more “responsible” than proposals that would “eliminate the franchise tax entirely.” Expect to hear a lot of that kind of reasoning this session.

Oh, and here’s a bonus: One fun subplot in Austin these last few months has been the efforts of the Texas Ethics Commission to enhance disclosure requirements for dark-money groups like the one run by Michael Quinn Sullivan, the conservative kneecapper and would-be powerbroker who’s been struggling mightily to unseat House Speaker Joe Straus.

In past sessions, state Rep. Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) and state Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) were key supporters of dark-money disclosure bills. Seliger’s proposal zipped along in 2013, until it was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. Geren told the San Antonio Express-News in January his first bill this session would be about dark money disclosure, but neither he nor Seliger have filed one yet.

But incoming state Sen. Van Taylor, a Sullivan-aligned tea-party-type who’s replacing Ken Paxton in the upper chamber, proposes a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature authority to tweak and alter rules passed by state agencies. The Ethics Commission isn’t singled out—the wording of the amendment is broad—but just the other week, Van Taylor signed a letter condemning TEC’s rulemaking process, and it makes sense that the two would be related. It’s going to be a down-and-dirty session.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, center, with his son Johnathan Weisfeld-Hinojosa and daughter, Kriselda Hinojosa.
Sen. Hinojosa
Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, center, with his son Johnathan Weisfeld-Hinojosa and daughter, Kriselda Hinojosa.

Kriselda Hinojosa recalls how she unintentionally came out to her father in sixth grade.

“He actually saw me kissing my girlfriend at the time,” Hinojosa said. “So he caught me, but he didn’t get upset. He never yelled at me or anything. He was always very open-minded. I’ve never heard him talk bad about the LGBT community.”

Over the years, the now-32-year-old Hinojosa said, her father’s acceptance has evolved into righteous indignation over the fact that his only daughter doesn’t have equal rights.  Two years ago, Hinojosa “eloped” to Las Vegas with her girlfriend for a same-sex commitment ceremony. When she returned to Texas, it hit home for her dad that their certificate means nothing in the eyes of the state.

In 2013, Hinojosa’s father, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), authored a bill to legalize civil unions in Texas. And on Father’s Day this year, he penned a heartfelt pro-equality letter to his daughter that was published in newspapers statewide.

On Monday, Sen. Hinojosa took his support a step further, introducing a bill to repeal Texas’ statutory ban on same-sex marriage on the first day of pre-filing for the 2015 legislative session. Hinojosa’s bill, SB 98, was one of several that were set to be filed that—if all were to pass—would have the combined effect of legalizing same-sex marriage in Texas pending a public vote.

“He says he’s proud of me, but I’m more proud of him,” Kriselda Hinojosa said. “He’s taking a risk, also, because he could actually lose supporters, but it doesn’t seem to phase him. He’s doing what he thinks is right.”

Hinojosa is also co-authoring a resolution with Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), SJR 13, that would overturn Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, which was approved by 76 percent of voters in 2005. To pass, the amendment resolution would need a two-thirds majority in both chambers, as well as a simple majority at the ballot box.

Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas), filed a companion to Hinojosa’s statutory repeal bill in the House, HB 130, while Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston), filed a companion to Rodriguez’s resolution, HJR 34. The statutory repeal bills filed by Anchia and Hinojosa would have no impact unless and until the constitutional amendment is repealed.

LGBT advocates acknowledge that the marriage-equality bills’ chances of success are slim to none in the GOP-dominated Legislature. But their introduction on the first day of pre-filing, coordinated by Equality Texas, could help alter the tone in advance of a session in which the LGBT community is expected to be on the defensive.

The bills also amount to a significant show of support as the issue of same-sex marriage continues to wind its way through the federal courts—an antidote, if you will, to a court brief signed by 63 Texas Republican lawmakers earlier this year that linked same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia.

That brief was filed by the Texas Conservative Coalition in support of Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott’s appeal of a federal judge’s February decision striking down Texas’ marriage bans as unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia stayed his decision, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court has scheduled oral arguments in January. However, it’s possible the U.S. Supreme Court will settle the issue before the 5th Circuit gets a chance to rule.

Last week, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld same-sex marriage bans in four states, splitting with other circuit courts that have struck down similar laws. Attorneys for same-sex couples in the 6th Circuit plan to seek a review of the decision from the Supreme Court, which could issue a nationwide ruling that brings marriage equality to Texas as early as mid-2015.

Rep. Coleman, who’s filed bills to repeal Texas’ marriage amendment in every session since 2007, said Friday he’s optimistic that the high court will settle the issue once and for all.

“I have been fighting to repeal this ban ever since it passed in 2005, and it remains one of my highest priorities,” Coleman wrote. “The persistent advocacy from the LGBT community and allies have turned the tide in public opinion, and in this way we have already won: most Americans now support marriage equality (a huge turnaround in just a short period of time), and for the first time ever a recent poll found that more Texans support marriage equality than those who do not. Even the majority of young Republicans support marriage equality. When the Supreme Court has its say on this issue, it will do so in an environment that already supports marriage equality.”

Correction: The original story did not accurately reflect the authorship of the various bills. The post has been corrected. We regret the error.

avid-dewhurst-ballot
Jade Stanford/Twitter
A new champion appears to some Bexar County voters

What a week. What a country! From coast to coast, Americans spoke clearly to defend the principles they hold most dear: a higher minimum wage, legal marijuana, robust, diverse voter turnout and the conservative political leaders who share those values.

I.

But make no mistake as to what this election was really about. Tuesday’s results were absolutely a referendum on one man alone, who wasn’t even running in Texas:

avid_Dewhurst.”

Avid Dewhurst. An emphatic Dewhurst, a committed Dewhurst, a champion for these uncertain times.

While most Texans were casting their votes for either Greg Abbott or Wendy Davis, a dozen lucky Bexar County voters were offered a third way.

Avid Dewhurst. A man of such substance and grace that he is well-suited to the moniker “Mountain Dew.” A Dewhurst who will not equivocate, who will not yield, who will not leave for a snack or watch the clock run out when principle—whatever principle—is on the line. A man who does not just see jars of feces and tell someone about it later, but smashes them, then and there, with the gavel the people have placed in his capable hands.

Yes, though David Dewhurst may be but a memory in Texas politics now, Avid Dewhurst was making news on Election Day. At least 12 voters in Bexar County were served an electronic ballot with, instead of Greg Abbott, someone named “avid_Dewhurst.”

Actually, the machine’s manufacturer explained, avid_Dewhurst’s unlikely candidacy was due to a “faulty memory card.” But what is more likely, after all? That the fault lies with one computer’s memory, or that the fault, in fact, is ours?

We may disagree, but isn’t it, after all, only the terms of the issue that divide us, and not the issue itself?

II.

Consider the non-discrimination ordinance in Houston.

The move by the city of Houston’s outside legal counsel to subpoena sermons from five pastors—relating to the ordinance, “Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity”—made it clear what the ordinance is really about. And last weekend’s “I Stand Sunday” mega-prayer rally in Houston offered glimpse of where we’re headed. In a word: Nazis.

Author Eric Metaxas provided a historical perspective on the need to rise up against tyranny before it’s too late:

“If we don’t wake up and fight before then, we won’t be able to fight. That’s just what happened in Germany. And that’s the urgency that we have in America now. And people may think that’s incendiary or I’m being hyperbolic. I’m sorry—I wish, I wish, I wish I were. I’m not.”

RightWingWatch collected a few of the event’s greatest hits, like First Baptist Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, who explained that it was all in keeping with Satan’s longtime modus operandi that those in power today are attacking Christians by “trying to paint them as extremists.”

Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, national treasure and patron saint of truck stop novelties, offered some reassurance, and a keen understanding of what goes on in women’s bathroom stalls:

“For all you ladies in Texas, trust me when I tell you this. When you’re seated in your restroom, putting on your Maybelline, when I need to take a leak, I’m not going there.”

Robertson’s message was clear. Liberal spin aside, Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance is actually about one thing above all: letting men into the ladies’ restroom.

Sometimes a thing’s true meaning can be difficult to discern. Outsiders of questionable morals may try and twist the message to their own purposes.

III.

Consider, for instance, this T-shirt sold by the football team at Arlington’s Martin High School:

martin-football-t-shirt-2

An editorial in the school paper explained that, sure, we all get that the shirt is about turnovers and giving up the football, but hey, a reasonable person might—saving questions about the Native American mascot in a feather war bonnet for later—wonder whether the shirt’s humor here might play on something outside the game itself:

The shirt’s main message is to state the player’s idea that there is no need for the opponent to put up a fight in letting our team take the ball away from them. … But can this saying be easily misunderstood? Yes. Though it certainly was not the goal of the shirt, its slogan connoted rape culture.

Speaking with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ken White, the Martin booster club president, responded with swift sympathy and the outrage of great moral conviction:

“I have a wife, I have a daughter, I have a mother,” White said. “Our players have sisters and cousins. It’s unwarranted. Our kids deserve better, especially from our own school.”

Strong words. White was, of course, not suggesting that “our kids deserve better” than a rejected punchline from Chicken Soup for Clayton Williams’ Raunchy Cocktail Hour. He was defending the T-shirt after the school district banned it.

Yes, the outside world might see “Shhhhhhh, just let it happen” and think “rape joke” or even “insanely rapey“—but actually, White explained, it’s about team unity:

“It’s sickening to me that it was misconstrued.”

IV.

Consider another recent example of attempted nanny-state nannying in the private affairs of the market. KHOU reported this week on the persistent business of “murderabilia”—”souvenirs produced by and about notorious killers,” like James Byrd Jr. killer John King.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn has tried to shut down the business, but to little avail. Said Houston-based victim’s rights advocate Andy Kahan:

“The problem is enforcement. It’s virtually impossible to enforce a Texas law when you have a California dealer or any other dealer from another state selling items from a Texas inmate.”

KHOU spoke with murderauction.com founder G. William Harder, who’s upset because he’s been banned from visiting inmates in Texas. Crime victims may complain that the people who killed their loved ones are profiting off the crime, but Harder explained that, actually, his business is about the very bedrock of the American idea:

Harder, who proudly shows off photographs he’s taken with Charles Manson, argues he’s merely exercising his rights by serving an unusual niche of crime aficionados. Nothing, he said, separates him from an author writing a true crime book, a television network airing crime documentaries or a broadcast reporter covering a lurid murder.

“Just because a segment of society doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean you can tell me I can’t do it,” Harder said. “I understand that there’s victims attached to this. It’s a sensitive subject, but I don’t invite them. This is what this country was founded on: free enterprise and capitalism.”

migrant children
Eugenio del Bosque
Immigrant children deported to Mexico.

An 8-year-old boy was raped and sexually abused at the Artesia Detention facility in New Mexico but Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at the facility did little to stop the abuse, said Bryan Johnson an immigration attorney who is representing the boy’s family. As the number of detention beds for migrant children and families grows rapidly, including two facilities in Texas, advocates and attorneys worry that abuse is increasing too.

The boy is from El Salvador and came across the Texas border with his mother and younger brother this summer. The family was sent to the detention facility in July after his family sought asylum. A few days later the child was raped by an older boy at the facility, said Johnson. When his mother reported the rape to an ICE official he told her there was “nothing that could be done about it.”

“Obviously the abuser is a very troubled child,” Johnson said. “He was in the same dorm room with my client and it’s my understanding that he abused other children as well.”

Johnson said there are at least 200 children at the Artesia facility and that the game room and bathrooms, where some of the abuse occurred, are not supervised. “There were actually many witnesses the second time my client was abused and this time ICE actually called the local police,” Johnson said. “But the police never spoke with the boy or his mother about what had happened.”

Johnson said it was especially terrible that after the boy’s ordeal, ICE wouldn’t allow the family to be released on humanitarian parole to relatives living in the United States. An immigration judge intervened and asked ICE to reconsider its decision. “They were finally released on a $10,000 bond in October, which is quite a lot for a bond,” Johnson said.

This is not the first case of abuse reported in family detention facilities recently opened to hold families seeking asylum. In October, several Central American women reported that guards sexually abused them at the Karnes County detention facility run by the private prison contractor GEO Group. The company signed a contract to hold as many as 530 women and children at the South Texas facility.

A recent report “Locking Up Family Values Again,” by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Women’s Refugee Commission called the U.S. government’s rush to detain families an “inhumane practice.” Since the summer, the government has opened 1,200 beds at the Artesia and Karnes facilities to detain women and children. Another 2,400-bed family detention facility is slated for a 50-acre site just outside the town of Dilley, 70 miles southwest of San Antonio.

As long as children are held in detention there will be cases of abuse, Johnson said. The average age of children held at the Artesia facility is six. “There’s an inherent conflict of interest providing what’s best for children and keeping them locked up in detention,” he said.

Leticia Zamarripa, an ICE spokesperson, said in a statement that the agency notified the Artesia Police Department this summer upon being informed of an incident between two boys at the Artesia Family Residential Center.

Both boys and their mothers are no longer residing at the facility. Both families entered the United States illegally in early July; both were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents and transferred to the facility. Last month, an immigration judge heard both cases, and ordered the release of both families.

ICE remains committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are housed and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner. ICE has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or assault, and our facilities are maintained in accordance with applicable laws and policies. Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken.

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Connie Wilson
Courtesy of Connie Wilson
Aimee Wilson (center) and Connie Wilson (right) with their son Aidyn.

The state of Texas is now recognizing Connie Wilson’s same-sex marriage. In September, as the Observer first reported, the Texas Department of Public Safety refused to issue a driver’s license to Wilson, because her name was changed through a same-sex marriage in California. DPS says the policy is based on Texas’ constitutional amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriages.

After being denied a license, Wilson renewed her passport in her married name, based on the federal government’s recognition of same-sex marriages. Last Monday, Wilson returned to a different DPS office and used her passport to obtain her Texas driver’s license in her married name.

“Unbeknownst to them or not, they are recognizing that I have a name that was gained by same-sex marriage,” Wilson said. “Regardless of consequences, they’re still having to recognize that that is my name.”

On her first trip to DPS, Wilson presented her California marriage license to show why her name is different from the one on her birth certificate. After noticing that Wilson’s spouse’s name is “Amy,” a DPS employee refused to issue the license citing DPS policy.

However, DPS policy also states that the agency accepts passports to obtain driver’s license without any additional identification.

Wilson, who moved with her wife from California to the Houston area this summer, said her advice to same-sex couples relocating to Texas is simple: Get your passport and make sure it is renewed.

“Go the extra mile,” she said. “Just relieve yourself of any undue stress. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it’s a fact of life.”

In retrospect, Wilson said she thinks her story, which drew national attention, helped raised awareness about discrimination faced by same-sex couples. She said she faults not only the DPS policy but also the discretion apparently granted to DPS employees. She said she’s heard from others who’ve obtained driver’s licenses using same-sex marriage licenses, so she believes DPS employees decide what documents to accept.

“It’s human nature, we’re going to put our own belief system into that discretion,” Wilson said.

The issue of DPS discrimination against same-sex couples resurfaced last month, when out lesbian Houston Mayor Annise Parker suggested on Twitter that her daughter had been refused a license because she has two moms. DPS responded by saying the decision to turn away Parker’s daughter was based on insufficient documentation of her residency, not same-sex marriage. But the agency refused to elaborate, citing privacy concerns.

The mayor, whose daughter was eventually able to obtain her license, has also declined to elaborate on what took place beyond her tweets. But based on Wilson’s own experience, she thinks she has a pretty good idea.

“Within my mind, there’s no doubt she was pulled aside because of the fact that she has two moms,” Wilson said.

Wilson, who has children ages 1 and 4, said she sometimes worries about discrimination they might face as they get older. But she noted that she and her wife chose to move here.

“It’s a great place,” she said. “It’s a great state. California wasn’t perfect, either.”

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