A Year After West Disaster, Legislators Still Talking About Reform

At a hearing this morning, a House committee considers a set of modest changes to the way Texas oversees fertilizer plants.
A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.
Jonathan McNamara
A house destroyed by the West fertilizer plant explosion in the northern part of town.

As the one-year anniversary of the West fertilizer plant disaster approaches, we’re getting a clearer idea of what the Texas Legislature might do to strengthen oversight of the state’s ammonium nitrate facilities. The answer: a little bit of this, a little bit of that, but nothing sweeping.

Still, something is a whole lot more than what’s been done to date, which is nothing. The Legislature met for several months after the West Fertilizer Company plant exploded, killing 15, in April 2013, but did little more than talk. And that’s what lawmakers have been doing in the year since too.

This morning, the Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee held its third hearing on the West disaster in the past year. The committee’s chair, Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), gave a general outline of some of the changes he’d like to see at the 96 fertilizer plants in Texas, and ordered the half-dozen state agencies in attendance to work on draft legislation to be ready in June or July.

Pickett addressed the glacial pace of proposing reforms, saying he “didn’t see the need for a knee-jerk reaction.” One reason for the go-it-slow approach is the committee’s make-up. Seven of the nine members are Republicans, many of whom are hostile to any additional government regulation. As if to underscore the point, state Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) wondered out loud this morning, as he’s done at previous hearings, why “we haven’t had that many incidences. What has kept that from happening? Luck?”

State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy—who was testifying at that point—responded politely that two of the state’s deadliest industrial disasters had involved ammonium nitrate: the 1947 Texas City disaster, the worst in American history, that killed 581 people after 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated on a barge; and the West fertilizer plant fire and explosion that killed 15 people and injured hundreds (the official count is still unknown, as the Dallas Morning News reported this weekend.) But, hey, that’s only an average of nine deaths per year.

So, Pickett is trying to craft a set of changes that can pass muster in an anti-regulation environment.

State Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso)
State Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso)

Among the changes at the top of the list is giving the State Fire Marshal’s office more authority over ammonium nitrate facilities. The most concrete change discussed today was consolidating reporting data with the fire marshal. Fertilizer facilities are required to report how much ammonium nitrate they have on hand to state and local authorities through Tier II reports. It’s especially critical that local emergency planners and first responders see, and use, these reports to prepare for a potential emergency. In West, the company submitted incomplete information to the Department of State Health Services and while authorities in McLennan County received the report in February 2012, there’s no indication they used it in any meaningful way or that the state flagged the hazardous ammonium nitrate quantities.

Both Pickett and the head of the Department of State Health Services indicated today that Tier II reporting should be moved to the State Fire Marshal’s office. But it was unclear what, if anything, the Legislature might do to make sure that the locals are receiving and acting on the Tier II reports. Nim Kidd, the chief of the Texas Department of Emergency Management, said his agency had no way to enforce the reporting requirement.

Pickett also indicated a willingness to consider strengthening rules on the storage of ammonium nitrate. Connealy, the State Fire Marshal, said today that 46, nearly half, of the state’s 96 ammonium nitrate plants are housing the fertilizer in combustible wood-frame structures—just like in the West disaster. At the West fertilizer plant, the fire originated in the seed room and spread rapidly to consume the wood structure and the wood fertilizer bins.

“We have to keep fire away from ammonium nitrate,” he said. Connealy said requiring sprinkler systems or, alternatively, mandating that ammonium nitrate be stored in non-combustible storage bins made of concrete, stone or metal could go a long way toward avoiding another West-like disaster.

“I still worry about the 46 that are dangerous wood structures and we have no authority right now to go in and say change ‘em,” Pickett said.

But Pickett said he would not be proposing a state fire code. Currently, the Legislature bans most counties in Texas from adopting a fire code. Only counties with more than 250,000 people—or a smaller county adjacent to a county with that population—are allowed to adopt a fire code. That ban has been one of the more mystifying revelations in the aftermath of the West disaster, though it’s worth noting that McLennan County, where West is located, is big enough to establish its own fire code and opted not to. Asked whether there was any reason not to give counties the option, Connealy said, “I don’t think there’s any downside. It’s their decision.”

There’s also the issue of insurance. The West Fertilizer plant was only insured for $1 million, but the bill for property damage comes to some $200 million. The state of Texas has no minimum insurance requirements. But it doesn’t seem likely that Pickett will propose legislative changes, relying instead on the insurance market to propel higher standards.
“I’m kind of a free-market person,” said Texas Insurance Commissioner Julia Rathgeber. “Hindsight’s 20/20… [The insurance industry] has seen what can happen, and now they’re being a whole lot more conscientious.”

The exact contours of the draft legislation we’ll see when the Legislature convenes in 2015 won’t be known until this summer, but Pickett indicated an urgency to accomplish something.

“I really worry that anyone will cover this on the second-year anniversary,” he said.

The Latest Fad in Education Reform: Testing 4-Year-Olds

Greg Abbott's plan would bring Texas in line with federal policy and big business plans.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Outside Greg Abbott's campaign, standardized testing for 4-year-olds isn't just a right-wing policy idea.

Since the very first No. 2 pencil bubbled in the very first answer key, school testing in Texas has probably never been so unpopular.

State lawmakers have lately thought better of the test-everything approach they’d embraced till just last year. In their dramatic conversion last legislative session, they cut high school testing by two-thirds and tried to cut elementary testing, though the federal government put the kibosh on that effort. A vocal bunch of activist parents, longing for the days before high-pressure drills and test prep ruled classrooms, now keep their kids home on testing day as a sort of civil disobedience. Even in Texas, the breeding ground for No Child Left Behind, “testing” has become widely scorned.

So it was a bold move when Greg Abbott announced in March that, as governor, he’d improve education in Texas by standardized-testing 4-year-olds.

The idea was part of his campaign’s 26-page plan for Texas schools, which included intensive new training for reading and math teachers, and what he characterized as a responsible expansion of pre-kindergarten.

Nothing in American education policy has the clout that pre-K does today. There’s a long history of research suggesting that good early childhood education improves students’ performance later on. From the Obama administration on down, expanding pre-K has become the single most popular idea in education around the country.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro wisely capitalized on the momentum in 2012 by championing a local tax increase to build new pre-K centers, after state lawmakers cut funding. Similar efforts have since popped up in Houston and Fort Worth.

To get in on the pre-K craze without looking like some kind of free-spending liberal, Abbott came up with a $59 million-a-year pre-K expansion with grants to programs that proved themselves worthy. He proposed a few ways to pick the best programs, one of which includes, of course, “direct assessment.” One form those “direct assessments” might take: “norm-referenced standardized tests.” The plan explains, “A typical question on a direct assessment might ask the child to identify the letter B and provide three options.”

Maybe it sounds absurd to test 4-year-olds and grade their pre-K classrooms based on their progress. Abbott’s Democratic challenger, Wendy Davis, sure thinks so. “Greg Abbott wants to subject 4-year-olds to another intrusive, state mandated requirement,” she said in a statement. (Her own plan calls for universal full-day pre-K at a cost of $750 million a year.)

Abbott’s spokesman Matt Hirsch has countered by denying the campaign ever endorsed standardized tests for 4-year-olds, calling the accusation “absurd,” apparently because “norm referenced standardized test[ing]” is just one of three options.

Texas’ new anti-testing climate may have Abbott on the defensive, but testing kids in pre-K is well underway in other states, and big business is getting on board. President Obama’s Race to the Top program has encouraged new “kindergarten readiness testing” ideas. Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s education technology outfit, has developed pre-K tests for its tablet computers and—as the Austin-based Democratic consultant and columnist Jason Stanford wrote in February—its newest lobbyist in Texas is the Bush-era school testing evangelist Sandy Kress.

Texas already has a home-grown solution to evaluating pre-K programs. Texas School Ready is a certification program that schools can opt in to. Built by the UT Health Science Center in Houston, the program is meant to help parents pick a quality program Its pre-K testing algorithm, as the Observer reported last year, is handled by the company with perhaps the creepiest name in the education business: Arlington-based Optimization Zorn.

Still, Texas’ pre-K quality controls are pretty mild. (Mississippi measures attendance by scanning parents’ fingerprints.) As National Institute for Early Education Research director W. Steven Barnett told the San Antonio Express-News, “Texas has some of the weakest pre-K quality standards in the country with no limits to class size and [student-to-teacher] ratio.”

David Anderson, a former top official with the Texas Education Agency who’s now a HillCo Partners lobbyist, says some quality control is crucial to convince skeptical lawmakers to spend money on pre-K.

“How do you combat that notion that it’s just glorified babysitting and they’re just better off at home rockin’ on mama’s knee?” Anderson asks. Pre-K is both daycare and early education, but only the education piece will convince tight-fisted conservatives to fund it. The key, Anderson says, is to strike the right balance between ensuring quality and knowing when to stop testing.

But history suggests that on school testing, Texas lawmakers have a hard time knowing when to quit.

Republican State Reps. Matt Krause, Jonathan Stickland, Bill Zedler, Giovanni Capriglione and Stephanie Klick
Republican State Reps. Matt Krause, Jonathan Stickland, Bill Zedler, Giovanni Capriglione and Stephanie Klick at the State Capitol, holding signs for Texas Right to Life's #SilencedVoices campaign. Stickland also has a blank sheet of paper.


It was a banner week for civil rights here in Austin. At the LBJ Presidential Library for this week’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, there were many, many banners—plus four presidents, reams of elected officials and a lot of empty seats reserved for no-show Republican state lawmakers.

President Obama got to joke about socialized medicine, George W. Bush joked about presidential dick-measuring contests, college students chained themselves to the campus’ Martin Luther King, Jr. statue, and everyone had a great time not talking about Vietnam. There was at least a little talk—as our Chris Hooks reported—about why the civil rights cause remains vital today.

Exhibit A: The Texas State Board of Education.

“We’re citizens of the United States, not citizens of Mexico.”

That’s Weatherford Republican Pat Hardy—who’s headed into a tough primary runoff against a tea party opponent—explaining to the Houston Chronicle why Texas shouldn’t have to create a Mexican-American history elective for high schoolers. Hardy was part of a small minority on the board that voted Wednesday to solicit new textbooks on ethnic studies, including Mexican-American history.

By voting on the textbooks, and not to create a whole new course, the board avoided what could have been a pretty rough day of debate. San Antonio Republican Ken Mercer still found a moment to shine:

Two of my favorite U.S. senators are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Would they be included in that class?

Rubio and Cruz are, of course, Cuban-American. To be fair, Mercer’s point was part of a larger conversation about why Mexican-Americans were worth special treatment when even other Latino heroes might be left in the cold. But speaking of Cuba:

Dave Mundy, a Republican running for a South Texas state board seat, warned on Facebook that “our state’s public education system is about to be taken over by the most vile of racist radicals masquerading as academics because WE did not stand up and fight them.” Mundy described the scene Tuesday as “a pep rally complete with a busload of college radicals waving Che Guevara-like signs.”

Really though, kids already get all the Mexican-American history they need from the good people at Budweiser, who remind us that when Cesar Chavez wasn’t on a hunger strike, sometimes he liked to drink his lunch. And when he did, he’d make it a Bud:

Exhibit B: Lumberton ISD

Maybe you remember Lumberton ISD from the Great CSCOPE Panic of 2013, when the rural district north of Beaumont was accused of covert Muslim indoctrination. Now they’re back in the news because some parents complained about a transgender woman was hired as a fifth-grade substitute teacher.

After a public hearing on the matter Thursday night, the Lumberton ISD board reinstated the woman, Laura Jane Klug. But State Board of Education member David Bradley—equally a champion of LGBT and labor rights—proposed a simple work-around speaking to the Texas GOP Vote blog:

“He does not have to be fired as substitutes are not under contract. The district just fails to call him for the next days work.”

If any publishers plan to submit a gender studies textbook for state approval, let David Bradley get the first copy.

But on the bright side, we’ll care a lot less about discrimination and civil rights when we’re all burning in hell:

“Any nation that supports or proposes laws that are contrary to God’s natural created order is cursed and will cease to exist.”

That’s Matthew Staver, dean of Liberty University’s School of Law, relating a line he heard from a speaker in Peru to a crowd of pastors in Austin at the Texas Renewal Project’s briefing. As the Observer reported earlier this week, Staver continued:

“Tears began to roll down my eyes, because I began to think about the United States of America—the country that I was born in, that I love. … What we are doing now is not only destroying this country, but we are working to undermine Christian values in Peru and in countries around the world. This country is doing that. Under our watch! We can no longer be silent.”

And just how long do we have? Not as long as you might think. As the San Antonio Current noted today, Pastor John Hagee is warning his congregation of a “world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015,” referring to the four upcoming lunar eclipses known, among friends, as the “blood moons.” As Hagee explains, the meaning is clear:

“The end of this age is coming.”

If that’s true, why even plan ahead? Or better yet, why even family-plan?

“One thing that happens is that the pill is a gateway drug to abortion,” she insisted. “That’s why you see what sociology cannot explain, which is, as the pill becomes more and more available at ever younger ages, abortion rates go up.”

That’s Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, speaking at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary this week. The symposium was a light-hearted affair focused on our dumbed-down society, the demise of the family and how sorry we’ll be for questioning our Heavenly Father. Byron Johnson, director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, added this hopeful note:

“People who are secular have less children,” Johnson stated. “This is a global phenomenon. There are many countries in Europe that are just not having enough children to sustain the population.”

Johnson is optimistic secularism rates will decrease over the next 50 years, simply because religious couples “outbreed” secular couples.

So thank God this is still America, and our presidential libraries are enormous.

A TV crew waits for President Obama's arrival at the LBJ Library's Civil Rights Summit. April 10, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
A TV crew waits for President Obama's arrival at the LBJ Library's Civil Rights Summit. April 10, 2014.

Where the Pharaohs had pyramids, American presidents have libraries. In the field of legacy-building, the primary improvement presidential libraries have over pyramids—apart from the lack of forced labor and looting—is that libraries are run by living human beings, who continue to advocate for the leader long after they’re gone.

The LBJ Presidential Library’s Civil Rights Summit, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, was always going to be, first, about the maintenance and promotion of Johnson’s legacy. The attendance of three former presidents and one sitting president, each of whom are thinking about their own reputations, is a complicating factor. Each came to sanctify Johnson’s legacy, and to have their own legacy sanctified in return—in fascinatingly different ways.

Then there are the many august thinkers, historians, activists and politicians who have come to speak and bear witness—their presence gives credit to Johnson’s many accomplishments, and elevates them in return. (Jesse Jackson, miffed that he wasn’t included, cut short his participation in a trade delegation to Japan to show his face around the summit’s media center and crash George W. Bush’s party)

If you like Johnson this seems like a worthy goal. But given the importance of the subject at hand, it’s also something of a missed opportunity. The summit had the eyes of the media and a great number of powerful and influential people. It could have been a place to have frank discussions about the civil rights issues that confront us now, in 2014, and will continue to do so between this summit and the centennial of the Civil Rights Act in 2064. For the most part, it was not. Peppered with Sam Cooke songs and slideshows of the highlights of the civil rights movement, the audience’s gaze was directed toward the past.

"GMC: Official Vehicle of the Civil Rights Summit." Two General Motors executives were speakers at the summit.
“GMC: Official Vehicle of the Civil Rights Summit.” Two General Motors executives were speakers at the event.

As a political spectacle, though, it was highly engaging. There was the rare opportunity to compare and contrast the competing interests and personal styles of four presidents—Jimmy Carter, warm and occasionally flinty, opted for a seated “conversation,” with an interviewer, introduced by Graham Nash, happy as always to say exactly what he thinks.

The pomp and circumstance of Bill Clinton’s address outshone even that of the keynote speaker, President Obama. Clinton and Vernon Jordan, who introduced him, worked hard to establish the Clinton dynasty’s success in a number of areas not particularly related to civil rights, including America’s low inflation rate during his helmsmanship. He spoke of how America had backslid since his presidency, and didn’t mention Obama much, in a potential preview of his messaging in advance of his wife’s 2016 run.

George W. Bush, not overly keen to venture into the spotlight these days, gave a short address to a smaller crowd, predominantly regarding the deterioration of his administration’s education reforms. It was a national shame, he said, that the closing of the racial achievement gap had stalled, which is both true and a foreshadowing of an ex-presidency speaking Bold Truths.

Obama, true to form, gave a slightly professorial recounting of Johnson’s life. His was a more inscrutable address than the rest, as his narrative of Johnson’s career was slightly out of step with the narrative held true by his family and many in the room. Piqued in the past by comparisons to Johnson’s legislative prowess—Johnson’s greatest biographer, Robert Caro, remembered marked coolness the last time he met the current president—Obama underlined similarities between his passage of the Affordable Care Act and Johnson’s stewardship of the Civil Rights Act.

As for the daytime panels: It’s always fascinating to hear great Americans like U.S. Rep. John Lewis and great historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin speak. A panel featuring San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (introduced as Julio Castro by former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes) and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was an interesting look at the political dynamics of the immigration debate, but didn’t touch much on the human rights imperative actually at work—the pretty abysmal treatment of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country.

That set off a UT student named Deborah Alemu, who started heckling Castro during the panel. Alemu told reporters afterwards she’d only planned to interrupt the event if the participants started dancing around the issue—she decided they were. “When you’re sitting there and listening to someone who supposedly supports you, but their support only takes the form of words and not action, it’s extraordinarily heartbreaking,” she said. She was allowed to stay through the panel but ejected afterwards—the summit, heavy on Ken Burns-style black-and-white montages of civil disobedience, threatened those who engaged in it with prosecution.

Anti-Deportation protestors chain themselves to UT's MLK statue on the second day of the Civil Rights Summit. April 9, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Anti-Deportation protestors chain themselves to UT’s MLK statue on the second day of the Civil Rights Summit. April 9, 2014.

Alemu was part of a larger protest organized by pro-immigrant groups around the summit. Four UT students chained themselves to the campus’ Martin Luther King, Jr. statue, and spent the night there. They called for Obama to halt mass deportations of migrants, which have risen to a record level during his presidency. One speaker called it “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

In the morning, with a crowd of several dozen, they marched from the statue to the summit, where they got a distant glimpse of President Obama’s motorcade entering the library’s driveway from a police barricade. They sang “We Shall Overcome,” and three of the marchers sat in the street and were arrested.

After Obama’s speech, the marchers dissipated. But there was trouble inside. The summit’s panel on contemporary women’s issues had to be canceled. Billie Jean King had had a death in the family, and Tina Brown, the high-powered but reputationally-troubled magazine editor, had fallen sick, leaving Elizabeth A. Smith, CEO of Bloomin’ Brands, which owns Outback Steakhouse among other casual dining restaurants, alone. “In the spirit of the summit,” said Mark Updegrove, the director of the library said, “we shall overcome.”

Johnson’s achievements were titanic, and his reputation is improving—even without the library’s efforts. The cultural memory of Vietnam as America’s defining foreign policy failure is being supplanted by more recent escapades, but the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act continue to pay enormous dividends and will as long as this country sticks around.

At the end of a recent piece on the president, the Austin American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove picked up on an LBJ quote I hadn’t heard before.

“I’m kind of ashamed of myself that I had six years and couldn’t do more,” Johnson said at a civil rights symposium at the LBJ Library in December 1972. “Let no one delude himself that his work is done. While the races may stand side by side, whites stand on history’s mountain, and blacks stand in history’s hollow. We must overcome unequal history before we overcome unequal opportunity.”

Johnson especially saw his legacy as the beginning of a conversation, and not the end. It’s worthy to celebrate him, but Texans—and Americans generally—don’t get many chances these days to confront contemporary civil rights issues head–on. That’s too bad.

Todd Miller

Todd Miller, a Tucson-based freelance journalist, has covered the U.S.-Mexico borderlands for the last 15 years for publications, including Mother Jones, The Nation and Salon. His new book, “Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Homeland Security,” explores how the post-9/11 border security bonanza has gone global, morphing into a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry or as Miller calls it, “the new world border.”

At home, border militarization is spreading into the interior of the country with SWAT-style immigration raids, increasing surveillance and checkpoints. And abroad, the U.S. Border Patrol is exporting its training techniques and resources to countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic. Miller combines on-the-ground reporting with extensive research to expose the booming industry for military-grade weaponry, cutting-edge surveillance technology and prisons where corporations and politicians profit, while communities suffer the consequences.

Miller’s book is surprising and alarming, even for people, like me, who’ve covered the border for many years. I spoke with Miller recently about his new book.

Texas Observer: You cover a lot of territory in this book. It’s a very thorough examination of how the notion of border security and the U.S. Border Patrol has changed since 9/11.

Todd Miller: Yes, I wanted to really focus on the expansion of the agency and what that means in one sense and also look at some of the not so obvious, yet powerful manifestations of the expansion.

TO: What are some of the less obvious manifestations?

TM: One that I really focus on in the book is money. The idea that there is a private sector increasingly attached to this world of the Border Patrol and border security. If you look at Border Patrol agents they are just one part of a larger systemic world where more and more private interests are involved. One thing I do is go to border security trade shows and talk to vendors from different companies trying to sell their products in what they call the border security market. I talk to Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other big military companies as well as startup companies interested in this market. Projections show it’s a market growing at an annual 5 percent clip. In 2013 it was a $20 billion global market and if you add in homeland security and emergency management services we’re talking about a $544 billion market.

TO: You wrote that what was once a border reality has become a national reality. Could you expand on that?

TM: One of the things I do is spend extensive time on the northern U.S. border. I went to places like Detroit, Buffalo and even Syracuse. In western New York people have never seen these green striped vehicles before and all of sudden there’s checkpoints and roving patrols. There are more people being pulled over and more police collaborating with immigration. In New York state if you’re pulled over and don’t speak English they will call Border Patrol. They don’t have SB 1070 like Arizona but I interviewed a woman who was driving to the grocery story outside of Rochester, New York, when she was pulled over by the local police. She couldn’t produce a driver’s license so they called Border Patrol and she was detained for a month and then deported.

There are all kinds of stories like that in many places where you’ve never had stories like that before and it’s taken many people by surprise. In Erie, Pennsylvania, it’s much like Rochester—it’s not near a border crossing. It’s actually on a lakeshore, but it’s considered an international border because the borderline is 12 miles out on the lake. Alan Bersin, the former chief of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said a threat of terrorism was more likely to come from the Canadian border than on the U.S Mexico border. There’s way more agents and resources on the southern border but the buildup has increased at a much higher rate on the northern border, especially since 2005. Another aspect is the increased operations of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the interior of the country. Border Patrol agents can operate within 100 miles of an international border but ICE, with its increasing collaboration with law enforcement under different agreements like 287g and Secure Communities, can operate anywhere. The way people are being arrested and deported often in the interior of country there’s a semblance of that reality from the southern border moving north and into the interior of the country.

TO: In the book you talk about growing up in Niagara Falls and about the economic collapse of your town and then the expansion of the homeland security state in and around Niagara Falls. Can you talk about that a little?

TM: When I say I’m from Niagara Falls most people think I’m from Canada mainly because that’s where most tourists go to see the falls. Niagara is a border town and I grew up on the New York side of it. It’s mostly an industrial town that’s relied on the chemical and metallurgical industries. In the last 20 years it’s been in economic decline. Many of the companies have left. Now when you go there it’s a very tragic scenario. The city of Niagara has about 35 percent poverty. There’s potholes everywhere and collapsing homes. The town seems like it’s dying but at the same time in the last five or six years we’ve seen a lot of growth of the Border Patrol in Niagara Falls. It’s quite astonishing for me, because I’ve lived in the Arizona borderlands for a long time now, so when I see one of the green and white striped Border Patrol vehicles in Niagara, I feel like I’m in Arizona or Texas. It’s almost surreal but it’s happening. You have a city that’s collapsing but the Border Patrol is growing and they are working with the Niagara Falls Police Department and they have all of these resources. The Border Patrol’s Buffalo sector headquarters has huge video walls, high-powered surveillance cameras and all of this really expensive technology, plus these shiny new vehicles and all of these resources in a city that is economically collapsing, so it’s quite startling.

TO: It sounds like they might be the only employer hiring in Niagara these days?

TM: It’s definitely one of the only agencies that seem to be growing. Perhaps the Niagara Police Department is hiring as well.

TO: How are the role of the Border Patrol and the notion of border security expanding outside of the United States? You call it “the new world border.” And there are some interesting examples you cite like the recordings that were broadcast by the U.S. government from airplanes over Haiti after the earthquake that said, “Don’t even think about coming to the United States.”

TM: I spent a lot of time doing research on the Dominican-Haitian border. The reason I went there is because the Dominican Republic formed its own Border Patrol in 2007 at the urging of the United States. And it turns out that the United States also helped the Dominican Republic with the resources to form their own border patrol and U.S. Border Patrol agents went to the Dominican Republic to give trainings and help the new force get off its feet. I went there and met with some border guards from the Dominican Republic on the northern Dominican-Haitian border. What you see is a very rudimentary version of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Dominican Republic has put up a wall but it looks more like protest barricades. There are agents sitting and watching their patch of border and making sure that no one gets across.

It’s a phenomenon that’s happening globally. There’ve been over 100 countries that the U.S. Border Patrol has traveled to give trainings on border security and in some cases help other countries form their own border policing units. Especially in the case of Iraq where they’ve been going for about seven years now and helping Iraq form it’s own border police—the same with Afghanistan. Wherever the United States has had some serious military efforts abroad that’s where we’ll then follow up with this notion of border security. In Central America if you look at some of the money the U.S. is giving to Central American countries, especially in the drug war effort, there’s money designated for different Central American countries to increase their border security and Border Patrol agents have gone into places like Honduras and Guatemala. And so you see it’s more and more of an international phenomenon. When I go to border security trade fairs there’s a significant foreign presence as more and more countries ramp up their border policing apparatus. That’s why the global market is increasing at 5 percent and it’s becoming a booming market.

TO: Who’s competing with the U.S. in this booming border security market?

TM: When I talk to experts in the United States they often cite Israel as a leader as far as this idea of development of national security technology used on a border. Israel is leading the charge. The University of Arizona has a science and technology park and they are one of the first that is actively trying to develop a border security cluster in the U.S., at least according to its CEO. They are trying to attract all kinds of companies who work on border security, border management technologies. I asked the CEO if it would be the most significant cluster of its kind in the world and he said, ‘No, Israel has the most significant cluster in the world’. This will be the first of its kind in the United States.

TO: So, do you think most Americans are unaware of all of these huge changes in border security?

TM: Yeah, I do. If you look at immigration reform and the ongoing debate rarely are the for profit interests mentioned. For instance, with the Senate passage of the immigration bill last June there was $46 billion going to border security technology, drones etc. You have all these private interests invested in this legislation passing with a huge package for border security. It’s something that needs to be talked about because it’s a significant actor especially if they have lobbyists in Washington. You go to a trade show and last year at the main one in Phoenix everyone was talking about immigration reform like a treasure trove for border security interests. That part of the comprehensive immigration reform package is not being debated. The reason not many people know about it, is because it’s not being discussed as it should be.

State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville)
Patrick Michels
State Board of Education member Ruben Cortez (D-Brownsville) speaks before public testimony on a proposed Mexican-American history course on Tuesday.

In a surprise twist today at the State Board of Education, members voted 11-3 in favor of strengthening Mexican-American studies in Texas schools—but not quite how they’d been expected to.

Instead of a new course in Mexican-American history, which the board was expected to debate, they approved a plan to ask publishers for new textbooks on the subject, along with other ethnic histories.

Yesterday’s outpouring of support for a new Mexican-American history elective was prompted by Brownsville Democrat Ruben Cortez’s decision last fall to add the course to a “wish list” for new state standards. Heading into today’s meeting, the board was expected to vote on whether to create the new course and ask Texas Education Agency staff to begin the work of drafting new state standards—known, in the parlance of the state bureaucracy, as TEKS—in Mexican-American history.

Some board members had already said they doubted whether Mexican-American history needed its own course. San Antonio Republican Ken Mercer wondered yesterday whether the course would include his two favorite U.S. senators, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (both of whom are Cuban-American). He was joking—one hopes—but the drawn-out process of creating the new course would have invited another round of the sort of hyper-partisan revisionist history that made the State Board of Education famous.

Instead, Cortez proposed using a vaguely defined elective course that already exists, called Special Topics in Social Studies, and asking publishers to submit textbooks on Mexican-American studies to use in the course—along with textbooks on African-American, Asian-American and Native American histories too.

Yesterday, Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller said she hoped the Mexican-American studies course would encourage the board to embrace other ethnic studies in public schools, and Cortez’s proposal did that. (Miller also mentioned women’s studies, which did not get included in Cortez’s amendment.)

After a very brief debate, the board approved Cortez’s proposal 11-3:

Republicans Pat Hardy, Tincy Miller and David Bradley voted against it. Board chairwoman Barbara Cargill abstained.

The move means no new high school course in Mexican-American history but to activists like Houston author Tony Diaz, who championed the recent #SupportMAS cause, the vote was still a win.

After the meeting, Cortez told the Observer that having a state-approved textbook on Mexican-American history would be a huge help to districts that want to teach the subject.

“The most difficult part that our districts have in this state is identifying the instructional materials to be taught for this course,” he said. “So did we create a new course? Did we create new TEKS? No. But as you know, our social studies books have very limited real estate. So they can only teach you about a certain limited number of individuals in history. By doing this, we’ve in essence created four new textbooks.”

Today’s vote was only preliminary; the board will take a final vote on Friday. Assuming his proposal passes then, Cortez hopes to tweak the Special Topics in Social Studies course when the board reconvenes in July. He’d like to see it become a one-credit course rather than a half-credit course, and add language to the course description that suggests a focus on Mexican-American and other ethnic studies.

For now, the textbook proposal dodged a nasty fight over just whose history U.S. and Texas kids should learn about in school. As Cortez diplomatically put today, “I’m just glad this didn’t get over-politicized in the board room.”

Outside the boardroom, things got nastier. This morning, conservative education writer Donna Garner blasted out a call to action asking her readers to call board members and oppose the “discriminatory” Mexican-American history course, as did North Texas activist Alice Linahan’s Women on the Wall.

Dave Mundy, a Republican running for a South Texas state board seat, warned on Facebook that “our state’s public education system is about to be taken over by the most vile of racist radicals masquerading as academics because WE did not stand up and fight them.” Mundy described the scene Tuesday as “a pep rally complete with a busload of college radicals waving Che Guevara-like signs.”

State Board of Education member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio)
Patrick Michels
State Board of Education member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio)

Mundy’s challenger in November, Democrat Marisa Perez, was among the board members who spoke at the pep rally, flanked by the signs (they were red and black). Today, Perez told the Observer the vote was a good sign for Texas’ social studies education.

“We’re making great strides in the right direction. I’m definitely excited and anxious about where this is going to take us,” she said. “Had we been approached in the same way for Native American studies or African-American studies, that push would have gone the same way.”

El Paso Democrat Martha Dominguez said she hopes the course becomes a way for Texas’ schools to reach out to students from even more cultures. “It does give recognition to not only the Mexican Americans, Asians and Native Americans, but it’s gonna pave the way for others that are here that we haven’t heard about,” she said.

“What we did today is even better than saying, ‘Let’s have a Mexican-American studies course’,” Cortez said. “And on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, what better way for us to end our day?”

MALDEF attorney Celina Moreno
Patrick Michels
Before testimony at the State Board of Education, MALDEF attorney Celina Moreno says a new Mexican-American history course is at least "a step in the right direction."

Last November, Ruben Cortez casually proposed to his fellow State Board of Education members that Texas develop a course in Mexican-American history.

It seemed like a small moment, easily missed after a contentious debate over Texas’ new high school graduation requirements. Cortez’s suggestion seemed at first to gracefully sidestep the state board’s hyper-partisan tendencies. By adding the course to a “wish list” for the Texas Education Agency to work on, it seemed as though the Brownsville board member had secured a big win for the activists and educators who’ve spent years working to get more Mexican-American history and literature into Texas’ school standards.

“Nobody raised an objection to my request,” Cortez told the Observer in December. “I was kind of speechless, everybody just stayed quiet.”

But over the last four months a political storm has been brewing around the Mexican-American history proposal, as activists for and against the proposal have called board members and raised the stakes. This week, before the State Board of Education votes on whether to develop the course, they’ll do what they do best: play host to Texas’ culture wars.

A few Republican detractors on the board have already suggested there’s no need for the course. As Beaumont Republican David Bradley explained to the Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Gray, “We don’t teach Irish-American history and Italian-American history.” Weatherford Republican Pat Hardy suggested students would be better off with world geography instead. And anyway, she told the Chronicle, “We’re citizens of the United States, not citizens of Mexico.”

The board will debate and take a preliminary vote on Mexican American studies Wednesday. Tuesday was for live public testimony, which was overwhelmingly in support of the course.

“Our history is skewed,” George Reyes told the board, “and as a result of this, bullying continues to invade our hallways with misrepresentations.” Vero Higareda, president of the Texas Freedom Network’s UT-Pan American’s chapter, drove from the Valley to tell the board that a Mexican-American history course would help students understand the stereotypes she hears all the time, and feel more confident tearing them apart.

For a few hours on Tuesday afternoon, students, educators and recent graduates told the board that a Mexican-American history elective would help students better understand themselves, and see how they fit in with an education system that often feels as though it isn’t meant for them.

Eloy Gonzalez told the board he’s a migrant farm worker from South Texas. “I went to college and I felt like college wasn’t the place for me,” he said—until he discovered Mexican-American studies. That changed everything, he said, and now he’s been accepted to Columbia University. That good news, in spite of the concerns that prompted his testimony, drew the only comment from board members. As he left, board chairwoman Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) cheered him on: “Congratulations! Job well done on your education.”

One of the reasons we’ve come to this point is that Texas’ current social studies standards give so little room to Mexican-American history. David Barton, the controversial far-right historian appointed as an “expert” reviewer during the last revision five years ago, even recommended deleting civil rights leader Cesar Chavez altogether. State approval for a new Mexican-American history elective would encourage schools to teach the course consistently around the state, and show that Texas’ schools are responsive to the more than 50 percent of its students who are Hispanic.

At a press conference before the testimony, Tony Diaz—the author and Lone Star College instructor who leads the “Librotraficante” effort to smuggle banned Mexican-American literature into Arizona—made a dramatic plea to embrace Mexican-American studies in Texas schools. Not approving this course, he suggested, would be a step on the path toward Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies in schools.

Other supporters said board approval for the course would be the beginning of a more inclusive set of state standards. “We hope this opens the door to a conversation about African-American studies and women’s studies and more,” said Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller.

State approval for this one course wouldn’t change the fact that so much of Texas’ education agenda—like the new graduation requirements the Legislature passed last year—is set without input from Hispanic leaders. Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Celia Moreno called the potential course “a step in the right direction,” but what’s needed more than anything, she said, is “a paradigm shift” to include more input from Mexican-American stakeholders about the rest of the school system. That, she said, “is long overdue.”

Cortez and his fellow state board member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio) both said they hoped the board would support the new course, but they expected it’d be a tough fight when the debate begins on Wednesday.

KETK's Neal Barton
KETK's Neal Barton

Sometimes it’s baffling that the United States, unlike most of the world, continues to have a persistently large population of climate change deniers. But, then, you see something like this—a preposterously misleading commentary on climate change that ran on KETK, the NBC affiliate in Tyler—and you begin to understand why. The two-minute segment, which ran on Friday, was billed as “Global Warming, Laughable” and featured the commentary of KETK News Director Neal Barton. The piece is riddled with factual errors, bizarre assertions and it cites an obscure scientist and a committee of the United Kingdom House of Commons. Oh, and it’s also plagiarized from a British newspaper. Basically, Barton read portions of a story from the Yorkshire Evening Post on his “POV” segment, passing the views off as his own.

The story (or in this case, a text version of what aired) opens innocently enough:

Recently, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report in seven years on the now widely accepted phenomenon known as “climate change.”

For the record, the IPCC is the global authority on climate science, consisting of hundreds of climate authorities from dozens of countries. The panel’s recent findings call climate change “unequivocal” and warn of dire effects from sea-level rise, wildfires, flood and drought.

But then, Barton’s POV takes an abrupt (far-right) turn away from the broad scientific mainstream into a kind-of false-balance upside-down world.

But, one teacher says it’s all bunk and you won’t hear this on the mainstream media. So I’m glad to serve equal time.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report, damning the media for confusing ‘fact’ with opinion and pushing the message that, in terms of freak weather, ‘the worst is yet to come.’

Yeah, sure it is.

Barton doesn’t mention that the House of Commons is a British institution. But more important, he gets the committee’s report completely wrong. The report, in fact, laments  that the public is misinformed on what scientists know about climate change, and criticizes the media in the UK—the BBC in particular—for scientific inaccuracy and relying on “experts” with an agenda. Which is precisely what Barton does. So he says in his commentary:

Emeritus Professor Les Woodcock goes against the grain and when a reporter asks the former NASA scientist about “climate change” and “global warming,” he laughs.

He says the term “climate change” is meaningless. The Earth’s climate has been changing since the Earth was formed 1,000 million years ago. The theory of “man-made climate change” is an unsubstantiated hypothesis [about] our climate [which says it] has been adversely affected by the burning of fossil fuels in the last 100 years, causing the average temperature on the Earth’s surface to increase very slightly, but with disastrous environmental consequences..

Notably, Professor Woodcock gets the age of Earth wrong. it’s not 1 billion years old, it’s about 4.54 billion. But, then, why is Barton quoting a British professor when the U.S. has most of the world’s prominent climate denialists? I emailed Barton yesterday to ask about some of his claims and he sent me a link to a news article in the Yorkshire Evening Post, one of the leading newspapers of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Which is kind of a weird thing to do because, as it turns out, nearly every word of Barton’s commentary is lifted verbatim from the Yorkshire Evening Post story, which ran in February, including the quote from Woodcock. The only difference is that Barton noticeably pauses over the word “reproducible” twice, and then skips over it. He also adds a few choice interjections (“Amen sir”).

I asked Barton in an email about his apparent plagiarism.

“We’ve only been keeping records for 100 years,” he responded. “I was told this when I did tv weather 30-years ago. That’s was before I went through 40 hours of college meteorology. I was told this by meteorologist who trained me. They were absolutely right then—and now. The Evening Post was right on it.”

I asked him if it was appropriate to plagiarize in a commentary.

He responded (spacing in the original):

I attributed right from the article.

I said where I got it from.

Plagiarism is just saying here is what I think and never mentioned where you found it.

I cite articles all the time.

Of course it’s ok in a commentary.

It’s the basis many times for the commentary.

That’s where you start.

You agree or sometimes disagree.

This is not the first time Barton, or KETK, has run into controversy. In 2010, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy criticized the station for its cheerleading of a tea party event in Tyler that featured Glenn Beck and Rick Perry. The reporter responsible for that report explained to, “The TV station I work for, and I don’t necessarily agree, has taken a right-wing approach.”

But Barton explained that KETK is “right on track with our coverage of the Tea Party.”

Senator Craig Estes presides over a meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security. April 7, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Sen. Craig Estes presides over a meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security on April 7, 2014.

For a year, gun rights activists have been holding protests around the state, demanding the right to legally carry firearms in public places. They took their assault rifles to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza, and they showed international visitors Texas’ best at South by Southwest in Austin. On Monday, they got a sign from the Legislature that their “open carry” efforts might be bearing fruit. At a day-long hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, more than 60 witnesses, including a handful of opponents, testified in support of loosening the state’s gun laws—with an open carry measure at the top of the list.

Open carry supporters hope to codify the right to carry long guns like shotguns and assault rifles in public places—preempting local restrictions—and allow concealed handgun license-holders to carry their handguns openly. Last legislative session saw a number of gun bills passed, with “campus carry,” the right to carry firearms on college campuses, narrowly defeated after a lengthy debate. Notably, the open carry bills went nowhere, dying in committee. But now, open carry seems set to join campus carry as part of the gun debate next session, as the Legislature tilts rightward yet again.

In contrast to the passion and heated rhetoric from the open carry supporters who came to testify, the committee itself was poorly attended—only the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) stayed for the duration of public testimony.

The advocates invited to give testimony—among them, lobbyists from the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association, and C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas—sold open carry as the correction of a historical error. Alice Tripp of the Texas State Rifle Association said open carry would reverse a restriction put in place in the 1880s as a result of the “occupying federal army during Reconstruction.”

Some had the history a bit wrong. The gun restrictions were enacted after Reconstruction, by Democrats who were, in large part, fearful of gun-owning freed slaves. But that too was raised by witnesses. Michael Cargill, an African-American Austin-area gun rights activist, described the bill as “the last of the Jim Crow laws.”

That was a revelation to Estes, who repeatedly asked for information on the subject, so expect that to become a big talking point next session.

And there were other arguments that abused history to varying degrees.

“The fact that there was so little crime in the Old West is because everyone was carrying around guns,” Grisham told the committee. “Texas was a low-crime state until these laws got passed during Reconstruction.”

That, too, is a bit off. Gun laws in the South came about primarily because of a fear of armed black people, but restrictions on carrying guns in towns in the “Old West,” which were surprisingly pretty common, contrary to the image propagated by Hollywood, were a reaction to spreading violent crime, not the result of it.

“In almost every section of the West murders are on the increase, and cowmen are too often the principals in the encounters,” wrote the Texas Live Stock Journal in 1884. “The six-shooter loaded with deadly cartridges is a dangerous companion for any man, especially if he should unfortunately be primed with whiskey. Cattlemen should unite in aiding the enforcement of the law against carrying of deadly weapons.”

Many newspapers from the Old West, while generally supportive of the right to own arms, found their overuse (and public display in towns and settlements) a menace. But we’ve progressed. It’s 2014. Crime is low. The risk of being targeted by an Apache or Comanche raiding party, while not recently calculated with scientific precision, is also low. Texans predominantly live in urban areas: Five of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in the state.

Yet the demand for a greater variety of legal weapons—some at the hearing made a bid for the Legislature to make Bowie knives legal, and one bemoaned that you couldn’t obtain a machine gun without “jumping through a bunch of hoops”—and more ways to carry and use them has never been greater.

For many of those testifying, guns are the ultimate expression of self-empowerment. They represent the right to free one’s self from any and all collective enterprises—police protection among them. So the stakes are high.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” said Amy Hedtke, a homeschooling mom who brought one of her children to testify as well. “We are not asking you to plow new ground here. We’re asking you to stop salting the earth of liberty.”

Another open-carry supporter, William Brown, came for personal reasons. “At the age of 18, I committed a drug crime that cost me the next 17-and-a-half years of my life in penitentiary. I know what a human being is. I have a firm grasp on man’s true nature. I think people who disarm Americans don’t know what a human being really is. There is an element of humanity that is beyond sociopath. They make parole too.”

Brown, in a coat and tie and a long, braided goatee, added: “When I was a youngster, I used to commit robberies. I only went to places that beforehand I knew, they did not have firearms.” Open carry would be a deterrent to people like his younger self, he said. “Back then, if I had walked into a place and seen a gun in a holster, I would have turned right back around and walked out.”

New groups like Moms Demand Action—who were angry that they hadn’t been invited initially and were only included at the last minute—provide a potentially significant counterbalance to the gun rights movement, but they’re still dwarfed in terms of passion and numbers. Open carry will be a significant issue during next year’s legislative session—and Monday’s hearing was another demonstration, if it were needed, that those in support are by far the loudest voices. That counts for a lot.