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Political Intelligence

A woman holds up a plastic baby as pro-choice demonstrators chant in the Capitol rotunda.
Patrick Michels
A woman holds up a plastic baby as pro-choice demonstrators chant in the Capitol rotunda during the Senate House Bill 2 debate on July 12, 2013.

The Whole Woman’s Health abortion clinic in Austin has been closed for a year. Back in July 2014, the organization stopped providing services at its flagship facility due to Texas’ House Bill 2, which imposes surgical-center standards and other restrictions on abortion clinics statewide. Though the clinic is closed, Austin women still knock on the adjacent administrative office’s door daily—sometimes multiple times a day—asking for help.

While staff must turn away women seeking abortion services, Whole Woman’s Health has reimagined its empty clinic. This summer, the organization’s president, Amy Hagstrom Miller, launched Shift, a nonprofit that aims to foster open, accurate conversations about abortion and to educate the community about the medical side of the procedure in the hopes of alleviating stigma and combating misinformation.

Texas is a battleground for abortion rights. The state has imposed dozens of regulations on women and providers, including HB 2, which bans abortion after 20 weeks, complicates the use of the medical abortion pill, and places structural demands on clinics. Through her organization’s role as an abortion provider, Hagstrom Miller sees an opportunity to change the conversation about abortion in the state, where the issue is steeped in stigma and politics. On top of operating abortion clinics in some of the more medically underserved regions of Texas, including the Rio Grande Valley and East Texas, Whole Woman’s Health is also challenging HB 2 in the courts.

“We don’t shy from this sort of conflict that people have about abortion. We see that all the time,” Hagstrom Miller told the Observer. “As providers we’re very comfortable talking about the issues that surround abortion, and we do it every day with the women that we serve.”

The sign on the front door of the former clinic off Interstate 35 in north Austin reads “ChoiceWorks,” the name of the new co-working space established by the Shift nonprofit, a space open, for free, to community groups, students and others for meetings, trainings or simply a quiet spot to work. The former clinic’s front waiting room feels like a lounge, while the former reception desk is stocked with office supplies for those using the space. The former clinic now contains conference rooms.

Much of the clinic, including three exam rooms and the counseling space, remains the same, intended to be used during public trainings that Hagstrom Miller and her team have dubbed “Abortion 101” workshops. The facility maintains much of the signature Whole Woman’s Health vibe found at the organization’s clinics in other cities: lavender walls and low lighting throughout, with each room dedicated to a strong female figure in history, complete with her photo and a quote on the wall. While no medical services take place, the idea is to walk trainees through the entire process of getting an abortion. Hagstrom Miller plans to invite local community groups, students and elected officials at first, and then look statewide.

“People can get factual information, but then also talk about what happens in this [exam] room, how regulations actually show up in the practice and how those regulations affect women’s lives and their families,” Hagstrom Miller said.

DREAM Act Students Rally at Texas Capitol
John Savage
DREAM Act Students Rally at the Texas Capitol.

For nearly 150 years, the United States, under the 14th Amendment, has recognized people born here as citizens, regardless of whether their parents were citizens.

But Texas has other plans. In the last year, the state has refused to issue birth certificates to children who were born in Texas to undocumented parents. In May, four women filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Texas Department of State Health Services alleging constitutional discrimination and interference in the federal government’s authority over immigration.

Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who is representing the women, said the deluge of birth certificate refusals began last winter. “I’ve never seen such a large number of women with this problem,” she says. “In the past someone might be turned away, but it was always resolved. This is something altogether new.”

According to the lawsuit, the women who requested birth certificates for their children in Cameron and Hidalgo counties were turned away because of insufficient proof of their identities. State law allows the use of a foreign ID if the mother lacks a Texas driver’s license or a U.S. passport.

But local officials, which issue birth certificates registered by the Texas Department of State Health Services Vital Statistics Unit, told the women they would no longer accept either the matricula consular, which is a photo ID issued by the Mexican Consulate to Mexican nationals living in the U.S., or a foreign passport without a current U.S. visa. Undocumented Central American women are also being turned away because they only have a passport without a U.S. visa. “They are locking out a huge chunk of the undocumented immigrant community,” says Harbury.

Harbury believes the rash of refusals is linked to the influx of Central American families who crossed the border last summer seeking asylum. “They are targeting the undocumented population, but immigration is a federal function and not the job of the Department of State Health Services,” says Harbury. Women are unable to enroll their children in school or daycare without a birth certificate, or to authorize their child to be treated in a medical emergency. “It causes all kinds of problems,” Harbury says. “How is a woman going to prove she’s the child’s parent without a birth certificate?”

Since filing the lawsuit in late May, Harbury says they’ve received dozens of calls from women who have been refused birth certificates for their children: “The phones have been ringing off the hook.” Recently, they filed an amended lawsuit with several more plaintiffs.

James Harrington, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, is also representing the undocumented families. The legal team is seeking a court order to reinstate the use of the matricula consular and foreign passports as valid proof of identity for undocumented mothers.

“Even in the darkest hours of Texas’ history of discrimination, officials never denied birth certificates to Hispanic children of immigrants,” said Harrington in a written statement. “Everyone born in the United States is entitled to the full rights of citizenship.”

Update: In a written statement Chris Van Deusen, press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services says: “DSHS accepts a variety of documents to verify a requestor’s identification … Texas does not accept the matricula consular as valid identification because the documents used to obtain the matricula are not verified by the issuing party. Several other states and some federal agencies also do not accept the matricula as a valid form of identification for the same reason.”

Correction: The story originally stated that vital statistics offices in Cameron and Hidalgo counties are run by employees of the Texas Department of State Health Services. The offices are run by city and county officials. The Observer regrets the error.



border patrol van
A U.S. Border Patrol truck at a checkpoint near Tucson, Arizona.

The unions that represent Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents aren’t shy when it comes to speaking out against the Obama administration’s immigration policies. But in a new report, “Blurring Borders: Collusion between Anti-Immigrant Groups and Immigration Enforcement Agents,” the Chicago nonprofit Center for New Community finds that some union leaders are working in tandem with anti-immigrant groups to undermine immigration policies and promote anti-immigrant views.

The most prominent example, according to Anu Joshi, campaign manager for the center, was a series of tense protests last summer in Murrieta, California, that made national headlines. Anti-immigrant protestors holding signs that read “Stop the invasion of illegals” and “deport illegals” blocked government buses filled with undocumented women and children as they tried to enter a Border Patrol processing center.

The protest organizers had received information about bus routes and schedules from Border Patrol official Ron Zermeno, a fact that came to light from reports in right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart and National Review.

“Murrieta was an ugly example of this collusion with anti-immigrant groups,” Joshi said.

According to the center’s report, Zermeno, who is health and safety director for the National Border Patrol Council Local 1613 in San Diego, was also “privately coordinating and assisting far-right, anti-government activists in organizing a nine-day ‘Border Convoy’ along the U.S.-Mexico border” from Murrieta to McAllen to protest the influx of Central American refugees arriving at the border.

ICE agents have also flouted the law, according to the center’s report. In June 2012, President Obama issued an executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which provides some undocumented students with legal status in the country. A few days later, 10 agents, led by Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council 118, filed a lawsuit arguing that the policy was unconstitutional and an executive overreach.

The agents were represented by attorney Kris Kobach, legal counsel for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (Kobach helped craft Arizona’s controversial anti-immigrant SB 1070 legislation, which required police to check citizenship status.) The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the agents’ case in April.

“They should be carrying out public policy set by elected officials,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It’s not their job to decide what is the law and what isn’t.”

But Shawn Moran, vice president and spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, said the union has every right to be involved in the political process.

“They have a right not to like it,” Moran said of the critics. “But not to identify us as members of a hate group or as racists.” Moran said his union represents at least 17,000 Border Patrol agents and that it isn’t in collusion with anti-immigrant groups.

“I can’t speak to what an individual local has done,” he said. “But our interactions with those groups have been nothing but professional. There’s no behind-the-scenes manipulation. We’re very transparent about what we want and how we go about getting it.”

David Arriaga - Stephen F. Austin
Courtesy of Patrick Michels
David Arriaga checks on students in his Mexican-American studies class at Houston’s Stephen F. Austin High School in April.


When Houston author and activist Tony Diaz lit a cultural fire at the State Board of Education last year by demanding that Texas honor its majority Hispanic student body with a high school course in Mexican-American studies, the board did what it does best: It burned.

Board member David Bradley (R-Beaumont), perhaps as a sort of thought exercise, proposed adding a course in Irish-American studies to honor his heritage. Board member Pat Hardy (R-Weatherford) deemed the course wholly unnecessary. “We’re citizens of the United States, not citizens of Mexico,” she said.

Diaz asked, “Who will walk with us into this new America, and who will turn their backs on us?”

MerryLynn Gerstenschlager of the Texas Eagle Forum wondered aloud what sort of “new America” Diaz had in mind and why the Founding Fathers weren’t good enough for him.

The board reached a murky compromise, agreeing to request textbooks for a few ethnic studies subjects, including Mexican-American studies. It set 2017 as the date the programs should be in place. However, it took an otherwise hands-off approach by allowing any school that wants to teach Mexican-American studies to do so, but not placing the state in the position to tell them how.

Inside the hulking, historic Stephen F. Austin High School in Houston’s East End, David Arriaga met the board’s invitation this year with a new course in Mexican-American history. On a Wednesday in late April, 22 students sat in Arriaga’s class with copies of F. Arturo Rosales’ Chicano! The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement open on their desks. Working in groups, they wrote on poster-sized sheets of paper about how the Chicano movement of the ’60s differed from state to state across the Southwest.

Arriaga, a cross-country coach and former assistant principal, isn’t exactly the sort of fist-raising revolutionary that conservatives feared would run a course like this. “I’m just not that militant,” he says. While students in California were staging walkouts 50 years ago, he was growing up in Seguin, picking cotton when he wasn’t in school. But he recognizes that, like his students, he is better off because of the people who agitated back then for fair wages and better schools. He wants his students to see themselves in that history. “I tell ’em, ‘For everything that happens, we have somebody to thank for it,’” Arriaga says. “It’s people their age or a little older participating in a cause.”

That message and work by Arriaga and others to give students a chance to see their home lives reflected in the classroom have proved to be powerful. Researchers in Arizona last year found a “surprisingly strong” relationship between participation in a Mexican-American studies course and a student’s likelihood to pass standardized tests and to graduate. It’s an idea that shouldn’t be as novel as it is: Give students a curriculum that fits the way they experience the world. Now teachers in other parts of Texas are developing curriculum guides and lessons to help schools offer courses in history, literature, music and art with a Mexican-American focus—stepping in to help, basically, where the state board demurred.

In Mission, social studies teacher Victoria Rojas just finished her first year teaching a dual-credit course with South Texas College professor Trinidad Gonzales. In San Antonio, Palo Alto College professor Juan Tejeda teaches a dual-credit course at KIPP College Preparatory High School. University of Texas researchers Angela Valenzuela and Emilio Zamora just completed the first semester of their Academia Cuauhtli, a Saturday school to teach students as early as fourth grade about social justice and cultural heritage.

“The idea is really to help children feel secure in their communities, that their own knowledge that they bring with them from their households [is] important to them in their own life,” Valenzuela told the Observer.

Her program is a partnership with Austin ISD, the City of Austin, Austin’s Mexican American Cultural Center and a community-based organization called Nuestro Grupo. Along with the classes and field trips for 33 students this year, Academia Cuauhtli is developing curriculum for use across all of Austin ISD.

These aren’t the first classes of their kind in Texas. In Pasadena, Agustin Loredo has taught a high school course in Mexican-American studies for eight years. What’s new is that so many teachers—including all of those mentioned here—are building lesson plans to help others spread the classes even faster. And the popularity of Arriaga’s class among Houston’s school leaders, says trustee Juliet Stipeche, prompted the district to apply to make Mexican-American studies a state-approved “innovative course,” a move that could finally force the state to throw its support behind the class.

After Stipeche raised the proposal at a school board meeting, Houston school trustees threw their unanimous support behind it. Earlier this month, Houston ISD got word from Texas Education Agency staff: The course was approved for any district in the state to pick up as an elective starting this fall.

Texas Public Policy CEO Brooke Rollins
Texas Public Policy Foundation President and CEO, Brooke Rollins.

It was no accident that the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) chose April 21 as the day it opened its brand-new headquarters, President and CEO Brooke Rollins told a crowd at the building’s opening ceremony. It was the 179th anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, an event, Rollins said, that imbued in every foundation employee “the simple willingness to keep fighting, no matter the cost, no matter the odds, no matter the sacrifice.”

One might ask: What cost? What odds? What sacrifice? For years, the foundation has been the brain trust of the Republican majority in Texas, a key part of the Rick Perry years and now, it seems, a key part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reign. It has easy access to the halls of power and to an enormous amount of money. Its backers, largely businessmen, have seen a great return on the “investment”—Rollins’ word—of their donations, as the state continues to favor policies that favor them.

Now, TPPF has a costly new HQ, built from scratch, to permanently affix it among the lobbyists who take up much of the office space in the few blocks south of the Capitol. It is, TPPF promotional material declares, “liberty’s new address.”

In a slickly produced video to accompany the day’s festivities, Perry, in black tie, told the think-tankers that it was nice to have them so close to the Capitol. But “if the Texas Public Policy Foundation was in a tent on the outskirts of Travis County, it would still make a difference,” he said.

This is doubtless true, in the same way that a billionaire doesn’t stop being a billionaire when he goes camping. The foundation’s power doesn’t come from its domicile, but from the money and power that back it, and from the decades of work that have gone into building a machine to elect candidates amenable to that wealth and power. The building is just an accessory.

But what an accessory! Six floors and 42,000 square feet, a top-floor patio and quasi-classical adornments on the building’s exterior. Rollins’ invocation of the Texas revolution didn’t come from nowhere: The building’s cornerstone announces that the foundation was “founded in 1989 . . . with a spirit forged in 1836.” Henry Arthur McArdle’s 1901 oil painting of the Battle of San Jacinto hangs halfway up the lobby’s grand staircase. The text of William Barret Travis’ last letter from the Alamo is emblazoned on the back wall of the first-floor auditorium. Breakfast on opening day was named after Anson Jones, lunch for Sam Houston, and a panel with “entrepreneurs”—TPPF donors including Red McCombs and James Leininger—was named after Mirabeau Lamar, for some reason.

These labored parallels to revolutionary history aim to establish TPPF as a defender of the faith, the keeper of an ideological heritage that extends back to the state’s founding, even as the opening day’s speakers presented the think tank as an up-and-comer that in its young life has radically changed the state, and still has oh so much work to do. It’s not a contradiction, per se. There’s no more intoxicating drug in American civic life than the ability to deny your power and rewrite yourself as the underdog—as it is for the foundation’s donors, so is it for the foundation.

Konni Burton

Greg Abbott launched his term as governor earlier this year by bucking a long-held GOP conviction: local control. Addressing a conservative policy foundation in Austin, Abbott said that liberty-depriving city regulations, such as a ban on plastic bags, are “a form of collectivism” that’s “eroding the Texas Model.”

Abbott’s give-me-plastic-bags-or-give-me-death declaration presented an ideological conundrum for Texas conservatives: How does one defend local control while denying municipalities the freedom to enact regulations preferred by local officials? Enter stage (far) right state Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville), a liberty-loving hero.

Burton is pushing legislation designed to create a new type of municipality: a liberty city. A liberty city must be established on the principles of limited government, preservation of individual and property rights, and restrictions on debt and taxing authority, says Burton’s chief of staff, Art Martinez de Vara.

Martinez de Vara also happens to be the mayor of Von Ormy, a small town in southwest Bexar County. Von Ormy is the self-described “freest little city in Texas” and the first Texas city established precisely on the tenets outlined in Burton’s bill. Burton is so serious about the idea that she lists the principles as a “Bill of Rights” in her legislation.

The first “article” in the bill takes aim at city regulations. It states that liberty cities “shall not enact an ordinance, resolution, or similar measure, or take any action, that infringes on the basic absolute and essential rights of the people.” That raises important questions. Where do the “basic absolute and essential rights of the people” begin? Where do they end? And where on that spectrum does the inalienable right to carry home your groceries in a plastic sack fall? Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, says cities already can choose to limit regulations and taxes. “Nothing says [cities] have to have a property tax or do zoning,” Sandlin says. “The bill is probably unnecessary.”

Martinez de Vara disagrees. To understand what a liberty city looks like in practice, take a closer look at Von Ormy.

Von Ormy incorporated six years ago and has roughly 1,300 residents. Von Ormy has no city property taxes. It relies on sales tax revenue from several truck stops—I-35 passes through town—to pay for public services. Its animal control officer, firefighters, and most of the police force are volunteers.

Martinez de Vara said the city doesn’t charge residents fees for anything. So, what can we learn from Von Ormy? Well, the town won’t be denying anyone the right to carry plastic.

But if a wild cur or wildfire wreaks havoc within the city limits, the tax-averse, freedom-loving citizenry might well be on its own.

lost in detention

In the last year, Texas has become the epicenter of immigrant family detention. There are now at least 3,000 beds in the state run by private for-profit prison companies devoted to family detention. We’ve been through this before. In 2010, the controversial T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor stopped housing detained immigrant families after a protracted legal battle and public outcry at claims of abuse, including children made to wear prison uniforms and threats of isolation for children who didn’t behave.

Five years later, the number of immigrant families in detention vastly outnumbers the bad old days of T. Don Hutto. In late April, three women detained with their children at the Karnes County Residential Center, a 532-bed immigrant detention facility in South Texas, filed a class-action lawsuit against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and GEO Group Inc., the private for-profit prison company that runs the facility. The three plaintiffs, Delmy Pineda Cruz, Polyane Soares de Olveira dos Santos and Lilian Castillo Rosado, say they were put in isolation, threatened with separation from their children and interrogated after participating in hunger strikes at Karnes.

Their pro bono lawyer, Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Civil Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, says the women are allowed under the First Amendment to peacefully protest. “This lawsuit is saying that the campaign of retaliation and harassment by ICE and GEO Group needs to stop,” she says. “Their rights need to be respected.”

In March, the three plaintiffs joined more than 75 other women in circulating a petition for their release. The group began a hunger strike to protest their detention in prison-like conditions. Immigration judges are issuing exorbitant detention release bonds that range from $5,000 to $15,000. (Single men in detention are typically given bonds of $1,500.) Immigrant rights advocates say it’s part of the government’s strategy to prevent another influx of Central American families seeking political asylum at the southern border.

Faced with the impossibly high bonds, the women and children have no choice but to remain locked up in Karnes or to accept deportation. The majority of the families come from three countries—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—that have some of the highest rates of violence in the world. Being locked up only exacerbates the trauma they’ve already suffered. “I’ve represented women who have been in detention for nine months already,” Natarajan says. “These women are simply saying that they’re not a threat, and that they shouldn’t be detained.”

But the women suffered a setback in May. U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez denied their motion for a temporary restraining order to halt alleged retaliation against the women for participating in protests at the Karnes facility.

Rodriguez questioned whether the women, because they are undocumented, have legal standing to seek protection under the First Amendment, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Government lawyers also argued that the undocumented women didn’t have the right to seek protections under the U.S. Constitution. If the U.S. government prevails on that argument, it could set a dangerous precedent: a two-tiered society of some who are protected under the U.S. Constitution, and some who are not.

texas churches

Pastor Donnie Romero has gone viral.

“I’m going to explain to you why God wants these people to be put to death,” Romero declared during a sermon in December. “The word of God is very clear that God is against the sodomites, that they’re filthy, and it says they’re an abomination to God.”

A clip from Romero’s sermon, posted on YouTube by Right Wing Watch, has been viewed more than 28,000 times. It also helped land Romero’s Fort Worth church on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual list of active anti-LGBT hate groups.

“Their gay-bashing is intense,” said Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project. “Stedfast Baptist Church is very crude in its hatred. That’s not a complicated thing to explain why we put them on the hate list.” Romero didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Stedfast Baptist is one of two Texas-based organizations added to the list this year. The other is Probe Ministries of Plano. They joined longstanding designee Tom Brown Ministries of El Paso. The increase in Texas contributed to a 10 percent jump in anti-LGBT hate groups nationwide, from 40 to 44.

Meanwhile, the overall number of hate groups of all types declined by roughly 17 percent in 2014, from 939 to 784. Beirich said she’s unsure whether anti-LGBT hate is on the rise or SPLC is simply doing a better job of tracking it.

“The rhetoric is becoming much harsher for sure,” she said. “I think some of the groups are becoming harder-line, whether we’ve listed them or not, because they’re losing on a lot of fronts.”

Probe Ministries, which has a syndicated radio show with more than 1 million weekly listeners, has published materials on its website saying gays molest children at higher rates and die younger, Beirich said.

“If an organization is knowingly putting out false propaganda to demonize a particular population—in our view, that qualifies them as a hate group,” she said. Probe Ministries President Kerby Anderson rejected the designation, saying his group is “compassionate” and pointing to its work with Living Hope Ministries, which offers so-called gay conversion therapy.

“That’s not the first time I’ve seen people that did not deserve that designation receive it, so I guess I’m not too surprised by what the Southern Poverty Law Center does,” Anderson said.

Beirich said SPLC maintains a high bar for the hate list. It’s not enough to oppose same-sex marriage or espouse Bible-based views about homosexuality. Rather, groups must use slurs or engage in demonization and propaganda, tactics that make the LGBT community more vulnerable to hate crimes.

“We don’t want to just list everybody in the world,” she said. “We want to point out what is particularly damaging.”

Asked why more prominent groups aren’t on the list—such as Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council Beirich said SPLC hasn’t considered them. The Alabama-based organization relies heavily on the media to bring potential hate groups to its attention.

“We try our best to track these groups. We don’t get all of them,” Beirich said, adding she plans to review Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council for possible inclusion on next year’s list.

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Too Young to Jail

Harris County Juvenile Justice Center
Harris County Juvenile Justice Center

Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has been on an eight-year march to clean up the Texas juvenile justice system, driving a messy process that has involved the closure of state-run lockups, the restructuring of two state agencies and a reduction in the state’s population of juvenile offenders to one-fifth of what it had been.

Not long ago, Texas was a cautionary tale of mismanagement and unchecked abuse; now it’s seen as a national leader in juvenile justice reform. But this year, the question of how that reform should proceed has split Whitmire from many of his usual allies.

His priority this session is to further reduce the number of youth in remote state lockups, placing more of them in probation and treatment programs near their homes and families. There’s widespread support for his bill that’s intended to accomplish that.

A coalition of child advocates and criminal justice reformers has argued for another big change this session: to raise the age of “criminal responsibility” from 17 to 18.

State Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) has illustrated the law’s strange logic with a hypothetical: “A 17-year-old could go into a store and could not buy cigarettes,” he told the Associated Press in March, “but they could steal the cigarettes and be punished as an adult.”

In the House, there’s apparently plenty of support for changing the law, but Whitmire is against it in the Senate.

For one, he objects on philosophical grounds: The line between juvenile and adult must be drawn somewhere, and Whitmire likes it just where it is. “I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult,” he told the Observer.

He’s also concerned that the juvenile system isn’t ready for an influx of new 17-year-olds. He worries the 13-and 14-year-olds could be put at even greater risk, and he questions whether Texas juvenile lockups, in their current states, are any safer than a segregated spot in an adult jail.

“Raise the age” advocates note that even after the change, violent 17-year-olds could still be certified as adults. In 2013, 96 percent of the 17-year-olds arrested in Texas were caught for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes—and in those cases, a treatment program and a sealed record could change their lives.

Recent research has noted that young people are more impulsive than adults, but they’re also more receptive to rehabilitation. Intervening early could keep many from re-offending—saving the state money in the long run.

Despite the added cost of treating 17-year-olds in the juvenile system, the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation has signed on. TPPF analyst Derek Cohen told House members at a hearing in April that 17-year-olds simply don’t belong in the adult system. “It’s about using the best particular tool for the job,” he said.

House members at that hearing, Republican and Democrat alike, seemed receptive to the idea. Some probation officers said they needed more time to prepare for the change, and county officials pleaded for help covering the costs. But all seemed to agree on the premise. Elizabeth Henneke of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reflected at one point: “Not a single person has come up here and said 17-year-olds should not be treated as kids.” That may not be the case, though, if the bill comes up for debate in the Senate.

border security
Staff Sgt. Terra C. Gatti, Virginia Guard Public Affairs/Flickr
Soldiers depart from the Virginia National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility in Sandston, Va., to provide aerial reconnaissance support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of the national effort to counter illegal immigration along the Texas border.

The state’s republican leaders have made border security their top priority and are prepared to spend millions, perhaps even billions, on it. Now if they could only agree on what securing the border means.

In late February, the Senate Finance Committee began debating the state budget for the next biennium. But the state’s top budget analysts, the Legislative Budget Board, told the committee that since the state lacked any consensus on—or definition of—border security, it was nearly impossible for them to track expenditures or determine how effective the funding has been.

Despite the confusion, the Senate is proposing to spend as much as $815 million on border security in its draft of the budget. State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), a member of the committee, said at the hearing that it was unclear to him why the extra funding is needed. “We’re crafting this out of a very vague set of numbers and comments,” he said. “Recently we had an influx of young children crossing the border that resulted in the reaction of putting a whole lot of money at the border. Now we’re doing something different … We all need to know what the goal looks like, not just, ‘The more money we put into it the tougher we are.’”

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said she left the draft budget vague on purpose. “My goal was to increase funding significantly, which we did … and to cover certain areas, but to leave it up to the committee’s discretion how we do that. … We do have a very clear goal and that’s a secure border,” Nelson said.

From the meeting it also became evident that the debate over border security spending isn’t entirely a partisan one. State Sen. Kevin Eltife (R-Tyler) said he wanted to see clear goals and performance measures before voting on more money for border security. “On this subject in particular I’ve heard people say it polls well and that’s what voters are demanding. I get that,” he said. “I don’t care what it polls. Every dollar we spend has to be accounted for. We’re dealing with all of these contract fiascos. I don’t want to come back in another two years after spending $800 million to find out we have another boondoggle on our hands.”

Eltife has cause for concern. No-bid border security contracts have been doled out in the past. In 2012, the Austin American-Statesman revealed that the Texas Department of Public Safety had given at least $20 million in no-bid contracts to a private Virginia consulting firm called Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS). The company, founded by retired Army Gen. John Abrams, is one of the main architects of the Texas border security plan.

After the 2012 revelations, the Public Integrity Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office began to investigate the ALIS contracts. But the unit was forced to end its investigation in 2013 after then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed $7.5 million for the anti-corruption agency.

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