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The Whole Star

immigration reform
Priscila Mosqueda
Protesters gather outside the Texas Capitol to demand immigration reform.

After years of polarizing debate and disagreement, the U.S. Senate passed the first “comprehensive” immigration reform bill in decades. The bill received bipartisan support, with 14 Republicans joining Senate Democrats and Independents in a 68-32 vote. But the bill’s provision for ramping up border security – and the reason it got conservative support – angered many residents along the border who are tired of militarization in their communities.

“This amendment makes border communities a sacrificial lamb, in exchange for the road to citizenship,” Christian Ramirez, director of San Diego’s Southern Border Communities Coalition told The New York Times.

The immigration reform bill’s fate is unclear in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. It certainly will not be as easy as it was in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Conservative representatives have already said they won’t consider voting on the Senate’s bill, and will instead either continue to draft their own version or adopt a piecemeal approach rather than a comprehensive bill.

The bill the Senate passed Thursday includes temporary legal status for some of the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, who would have to wait 10 years before applying for permanent residency and another three before being eligible for citizenship. They’d also have to pay back taxes and maintain a clean record before they could apply for a green card. Senate Republicans were tepid toward the bill, but Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) added an amendment that would double Border Patrol agents (already the law enforcement agency with the most officers in the country) and add 700 miles of fencing along the border with a $30 billion price tag.

The bill also mandates a system whereby employers must verify they are only hiring employees who can legally work within the U.S., and an entry-exit tracking program to find out if foreigners are overstaying their visas. Many conservative lawmakers, including, unsurprisingly, Texas’ Republican Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, voted against the bill and are calling it “amnesty.” One of their main complaints is that it doesn’t make citizenship contingent on tougher measures to secure the border.

Cornyn had proposed a different amendment, which senators from both parties called a “poison pill,” that would have called for a 100 percent securing of the U.S.-Mexico border and a 90 percent apprehension rate along the border before even considering a pathway to citizenship. Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, told Fox News that the bill “has immediate legalization … and the border security is sometime in the future, and just like in 1986, it’s designed never to come into being,” a statement Politifact rated “Mostly False.”

House Republicans echo those concerns. To pass in the House, any bill would first have to go through the House Judiciary Committee, headed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) who favors a piecemeal approach.

His committee recently passed several measures addressing immigration, including the infamous SAFE Act that originally proposed criminalizing illegal immigration:

“Last week, the committee passed bills that would revamp the visa system for agricultural workers and encourage state and local law enforcement agencies to help enforce federal immigration laws,” reports USA Today. “This week, it worked on bills that would provide more work visas to foreigners trained in high-tech fields and nationalize a program requiring business owners to check the immigration status of new hires.

“No bills have been filed to address the central questions of border security and a pathway to citizenship. And none of the bills heard in the Judiciary Committee has received any Democratic support because of how they approach each issue.”

Representatives will meet to discuss immigration after the July 4th recess, and will likely produce a bill with much stricter border security measures. Border residents can only wait and dread what a conservative-backed bill might do to their communities.

Hundreds testify against bills that would restrict abortion in Texas.
Nick Swartsell
Hundreds testify against bills that would restrict abortion in Texas.

Updated at 2:05 PM: 

Early this afternoon, the House State Affairs committee met for 10 minutes to vote on HB 60, HB 6 and SB 5. The committee approved HB 60, the omnibus abortion bill, HB 16, the standalone 20-week ban, and a SB 5 substitute that has the 20-week ban added. The meeting had been called with only two hours’ notice and was held in a tiny room without a live video feed or seating for members of the public or media. Abortion-rights activists on Twitter were outraged. As one #HB60 tweet read: “After hours of public testimony, the House State Affairs Committee steamrolls the rights of Texas in minutes”.

All three bills will hit the House floor on Sunday.

Original story: Yesterday and into the early hours of the morning, hundreds of people registered to speak for and against House Bill 60 and House Bill 16, both of which would severely restrict women’s access to abortion services in Texas.

HB 60 bans abortion after 20 weeks gestation, requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges to a hospital no more than 30 miles from the abortion clinic, prevents clinicians from prescribing the abortion pill remotely and requires clinics to make costly upgrades by becoming ambulatory surgical care centers. HB 16 contains just the 20-week abortion ban, and mirrors the clause removed from Senate Bill 5, which passed on Tuesday.

In an extraordinary feat of grassroots organizing by abortion-rights groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Planned Parenthood, the Lilith Fund as well as the Texas Democratic Party, bill opponents traveled from across Texas to be at the committee hearing for what organizers called a “citizen’s filibuster.”  With so little time left on the clock for the legislative special session (it expires on Tuesday), abortion-rights activists hoped to block the passage of the bills by forcing the committee to hear hours of public testimony.

Approximately 700 members of the public registered to speak. People waiting to testify—overwhelmingly in opposition to the bills—filled the committee room and a large overflow room as well as lobbies and corridors.

Filibuster organizers asked people to tell the committee how the anti-abortion bills would affect them individually. Testimonies were heartfelt and covered the full gamut of personal experience: those who had had abortions, who remembered the world before legal abortion, who had been raped, whose poor health meant that a pregnancy could be life-threatening.

Anti-abortion activists also testified in favor of the bills, some recounting for the committee their own negative experiences of abortion.

As the long night drew on, there was something of a carnival atmosphere in the overflow room where the “filibuster army” gathered to watch the hearing via video feed. While the committee room audience had to comply with procedural protocol (no applause, no speaking, no photos), the crowd in the overflow room clapped and whooped for each abortion-rights speaker who approached the mic. Live-tweets of the hearing using the #HB60 tag replayed the proceedings in real-time to a worldwide audience, allowing organizers to crowd-source donations of pizza and coffee for the flagging speakers.

But after hearing almost 11 hours of testimony, the State Affairs committee finally adjourned at 3:45am, despite what NARAL Pro-Choice Texas described on its Facebook page as “hundreds of people who had come from across the state to testify who had not yet been allowed to speak.”

HB60 and HB16 were left pending in committee. The House State Affairs committee must now meet again to approve the bills in advance of a full House vote. If passed by the House, the House and Senate will then have to resolve the differences between the bills. Abortion-rights activists hope that these deliberations will be so drawn out that Democratic Senators can conduct an official filibuster on Tuesday, thereby killing this special session’s anti-abortion bills.

So did HB60’s nightlong hearing buy opponents enough time to see the bill quashed by timing? To see if the citizen’s filibuster worked, we may have to wait for the Lege’s clock to tick out on Tuesday.

Regardless, Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas said: “As a movement, this was phenomenal and a galvanizing moment for us. I talked to so many young people who said that they had never participated in government before. This is a sign that we’re ready for a change. This is a sign of the times.”

Father’s Day at the Controversial Polk County Detention Center

Families separated by immigration policy caravan to the privately run East Texas lockup.
A Father's Day gift outside the Polk County facility
Marissa Barnett
Activists and members of families separated by immigration detention left a Father's Day gift outside the Polk County facility on Saturday.

Maria Cecilia Ovalle didn’t expect to take care of her two small children alone. Until May, she lived in Houston with her husband Juan Jose Carranza Alvarado and their children, a four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter. But after a scuffle at work, Juan was questioned by police who discovered he didn’t have immigration papers. They arrested him immediately.

Her husband, a steelworker in Texas for more than 10 years, was sent to the Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, 40 miles north of Houston. He was the breadwinner of their household and without papers, Ovalle says she’s had a hard time finding a job. She sold things from their home—an Xbox, two TV sets—to pay rent, but she’s not sure how long she can keep it up without work.

Ovalle isn’t sure how long her husband will be locked up. If he’s given an immigration bond to stay in the U.S., she says she’ll find a way to pay it. She doesn’t want to think about what could happen if he is deported.

Being undocumented means that she can’t visit her husband at Joe Corley, so their only communication is an expensive daily phone call. Ovalle’s eyes well up with tears as she tells the Observer that their two children—both U.S. citizens—can’t see their father.

“They’re so young. It really affects them,” she says in Spanish. “They ask me, ‘Where’s daddy? Where’s daddy?’ I tell them he’s working far away.”

Ovalle says that anguish over her family’s separation drew her to the Polk County Adult Detention Center in Livingston on Saturday, joining some 70 other activists for a “Father’s Day Caravan to Close Polk.”

Austin-based nonprofits Grassroots Leadership and Texans United for Families organized the caravan, part of the national Detention Watch Network’s “Expose and Close” campaign, which calls for the immediate closure of 10 U.S. detention centers, including Polk County.

On a bus from Austin Saturday morning, I met more people with stories like Ovalle’s, and other activists, as we rode to Livingston.

Rocio Villalobos sits quietly in a window seat. As a member of Texans United for Families, she coordinates a volunteer visitation program to T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a 512-bed private, for profit detention center in Taylor that imprisoned families until 2009.

Just over 500 women are currently detained in Hutto, which has received scrutiny for violating ICE detention standards. Villalobos says conditions in Polk are similar, if not worse.

She says one thing that differentiates the two is access to contact visits. At Polk, a glass partition separates visitors and detainees. “The act of being detained, the act of being so isolated, and being kept from any kind of social contact or emotional contact with their loved ones, is adding to their distress,” she says.

Her concerns are many: isolation of detainees, lack of access to proper medical and legal services, labor practices within facilities, separating families, and the massively profitable private prison system, which the Observer reported on in May.

A few miles from the facility, some passengers lather themselves in sunscreen and prepare for the next couple hours in the Texas summer heat.

Activists chant outside the Polk County Detention Center
Marissa Barnett
Activists chant outside the Polk County Detention Center on Saturday.

The charter pulls into a driveway where another busload of people from the Houston-based nonprofit LIFT: Liberating Immigrant Families Together are waiting. As I step off the bus, I catch my first look at the large beige structure.

The IAH Secure Adult Detention Facility, as it’s known more officially, is a 1,054-bed prison run by the for-profit Community Education Centers (CEC). U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays CEC an average of $56 a day for each bed filled, according to a report by Detention Watch Network and Texans United for Families. Now, 822 beds are filled by men waiting—some up to a year—for their immigration hearings.

The report, based on interviews with 60 detainees, the warden, CEC staff members and two ICE officials last July, details some of the conditions in Polk. Among its long list of offenses: inadequate medical care, solitary confinement, no contact during visits, unhealthy meals and labor exploitation.

Sam Vong, who wrote the report, joined the Polk caravan. Last July he toured the facility with other Texans United for Families members.

“These are cinder-block cells where there are eight men in each very small cell with no privacy,” Vong says. “One man even talked about having to drink from a water foundation directly adjacent to the toilet. It’s very dehumanizing.”

Immigrant rights advocates say they’re worried about what’s happening inside Polk’s walls. But on Father’s Day weekend, this event is focused on what’s happening to families separated by detention.

Yajaira Lopez is standing in the shade, listening to speakers at the vigil. Back in January, more than 10 ICE officials entered her family home and arrested her husband Jayron, threatening to deport him to Guatemala. Yajaira says their young daughters watched as ICE agents took their dad away.

Jayron was imprisoned in the Joe Corley Detention Center until May when he received immunity. Yajaira tells me her 11-year-old daughter Jasmine’s attitude started changing, and both of their daughters’ grades slipped. Yajaira has a pacemaker for her congestive heart failure, and was even hospitalized for two days in February, which she attributes to stress from Jayron’s case.

Yajaira says she and her daughters, all U.S. citizens, were able to see Jayron while he was detained. But it’s not uncommon for detainees to have few visitors.

Matt Gossage is a volunteer for Texans United For Families, and director of the documentary “Hutto: America’s Family Prison.” The problem is multifaceted, he says. One is that undocumented family members can’t visit without a passport or visa, and he says even coming to vigils like this one is a risk. Even then, people might be detained in states far from their family. “It’s not always logical why ICE will send detainees to certain facilities. They have their own reasons but it’s not for the welfare or wellbeing of the detainees and their families,” he says.

Saturday’s protesters want President Obama, ICE, CEC and the men locked beyond the tall fence to hear their call and end immigrant detention.

As Ovalle finishes sharing her story, the crowd chants, “No estas sola, no estas sola.” “You’re not alone.” They say this to offer their support, but it also conveys a hard truth.

“We want to remind people at the facility that we’re here, we care about them, and we’re going to continue to push for it to be closed,” Villalobos says.

Before filing onto the uses and heading back home that afternoon, the crowd erupts into one last chant: “We’ll be back!”

john cornyn
U.S. Senator for Texas John Cornyn.

The U.S. Senate’s vote Tuesday to debate the bipartisan Gang of Eight’s immigration bill on the Senate floor surprised DREAMers and bill negotiators, who had hoped for at least 60 votes to move the bill forward, but actually received 82 votes. The 15 senators who voted against the bill were Republicans, including Texas’ Ted Cruz, who said the bill would “make the problem of illegal immigration … worse rather than better.” Despite Cruz’s failed attempt to block the legislation, 28 Republicans voted to move forward on the bill, which would provide an eventual and conditional pathway to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Texas’ other Senator John Cornyn voted to move the bill forward but then offered an amendment, which two bill negotiators referred to as a “poison pill.” Cornyn wants the ability to monitor every mile of the international border and a 90 percent apprehension rate of immigrants trying to cross it illegally. The amendment would bar undocumented immigrants from applying for legal status until after these and other conditions are met. Cornyn and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky say Cornyn’s amendment is essential to securing conservative support in both chambers. But border residents say they’re sick of border fences being built around their homes and the increased surveillance and militarization of their communities, which has only resulted in more migrant deaths along the border.

Still, Cornyn told his fellow senators Tuesday that the Senate’s bill will not survive in the House where there is a Republican majority without his amendment:

“Here’s the bottom line and the reality,” he said on the Senate floor. “Without a border security trigger, immigration reform will be dead on arrival in the House of Representatives. My amendment provides such a trigger, the gang of eight bill does not. … My amendment is essential to moving this legislation forward and to getting an outcome that ultimately will end up on the president’s desk.”

Gang of Eight Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, reportedly told immigration reformers at a Washington, D.C., event that Cornyn is bluffing and that his vote is not crucial to the bill passing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, called Cornyn’s amendment a “poison pill” meant to kill the legislation because Democrats will not back the “trigger” provision that makes immigrants’ legal status dependent on stringent border security measures. Today, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who is part of the Gang of Eight, echoed Reid’s concerns.

“I am confident we will get a bill passed, and I hope – I sincerely hope – our colleagues in the House will take our lead and pass comprehensive immigration reform this year,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, said as he wrapped up his introduction of the bill on the Senate floor. “I hope they will join us in realizing the time has come for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Si, se puede.”

But border security – and the degree to which it needs to be beefed up to stem the flow of migrants traveling north – will be a central topic of debate as the bill moves forward, as will the specifics of the proposed pathway to citizenship. Though the bill currently proposes a long process toward citizenship, some senators have already started raising questions about what kinds of benefits legal immigrants would get, including welfare. A temporary visa program for high-tech and low-skilled workers will also be a component of the bill and will form part of the debate that will continue over the coming weeks.

Senators say they hope to pass a bill before the July 4 recess. But things may not go so smoothly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says a bipartisan group is working on its own version of an immigration bill.

Workers Defense Project staff and supporters perform inside Capitol rotunda on Workers’ Memorial Day to commemorate workers who have died on the job and push bills that would improve conditions for workers in Texas.
Jason Cato, Workers Defense Project
Workers Defense Project staff and supporters perform inside Capitol rotunda on Workers’ Memorial Day to commemorate workers who have died on the job and push bills that would improve conditions for workers in Texas.

On Thursday, for the first time in El Paso history an employer was arrested and indicted for robbing a worker of his wages.

In a state that constantly (and loudly) touts its business-friendly attitude, workers almost never reap the benefits. Construction workers and other low-income workers suffer some of the worst conditions in the country, with some of the worst pay.

In 2011, Austin-based Workers Defense Project successfully lobbied for a bill that amended the state’s wage theft code, authored by Senator Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso), that made it harder for employers to get away with stealing workers’ wages. The amendment to the Texas criminal code closed a loophole which allowed employers to get away with paying employees only partially for their work without facing criminal charges. El Paso has become the first city outside of Austin to indict an employer for stealing wages.

“It’s huge because we’re finally treating the stealing of someone’s wages the same way we treat someone stealing from Target or Albertsons or [any] store,” says Jed Untereker, an attorney with Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project who represented the employee. “The consequence for an unscrupulous employer is you’re going to be thrown in jail if you don’t pay your workers what they’re owed.”

In El Paso, workers advocates were able to get the case to the indictment stage because of the El Paso Wage Theft Task Force created in 2011. So far, El Paso is the only city in Texas with an official wage theft task force, which includes the El Paso Police Department, the El Paso Sheriff’s Office, El Paso County and District Attorneys and the Labor Justice Committee.

The Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project is also a member of the task force, as is Sen. Rodriguez, the author of the bill. “While implementation of SB 1024 continues to be a challenge, we are making progress,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “Because non-payment of wages is especially common for low wage workers, it is a major quality-of-life issue. Working families with no margin for temporary hardship cannot afford to miss even one paycheck.”

Despite the tougher criminal code, worker advocates across the state are having a hard time getting local police departments and district attorneys to prosecute wage theft cases. It’s difficult to get police departments to file reports and even harder to get district attorneys to prosecute the cases, which they consider low priority.

In Austin, police officers have worked with Workers Defense to make several arrests and at least three indictments in the past few years, Workplace Justice Coordinator Patricia Zavala says. Some employers were even indicted before the amendment passed. But that was a result of the collaboration between Workers Defense, APD and the county attorney. In other cities, workers have had to resort to the civil courts. But most victims don’t have the resources to go to court, so they simply lose their wages, often losing weeks’ or months’ worth of work.

In the El Paso case, the owner of a local roofing company failed to pay an employee more than $2,000 for replacing a roof. The police talked to the homeowner, who said she had already paid the roofing company owner. When the worker confronted his boss, the man said he “didn’t want to” pay him, according to a press release.

Workers Defense is now hoping to see similar successes in Dallas. Emily Timm of Workers Defense says the group’s newly opened Dallas branch is trying to work with local law enforcement and the county and district attorneys to get wage theft cases prosecuted like in Austin and now El Paso. She says labor groups along the border are doing the same thing. Worker advocacy groups are also lobbying for a variety of bills currently making their way through the Texas Legislature this session. The bills mostly govern wage theft, payroll fraud and workers’ compensation, but so far none have made it to the House or Senate floors for debate.

Some of the Dallas exonerees, from left to right: Claude A. Simmons Jr., Thomas McGowan, Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Richard Miles.
Sarah Lim
Some of the Dallas exonerees, from left to right: Claude A. Simmons Jr., Thomas McGowan, Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Richard Miles. Press photo.

Every once in a while, I’ll be reporting a story and want to keep hanging out with my subjects.

It doesn’t always happen. I sometimes end up in places that give me a feeling of guilty relief that I can just walk away. But if I could have, I would have lazily dragged out the reporting of my 2011 Observer story, Freedom Fighters. But the feature was slated for the cover, the copy was due, and so I was quickly bound for keyboard purgatory.

The Observer story follows a group of exonerated prisoners who had come together to help each other deal with their struggles, and then had organized themselves into a force fighting for criminal justice reform. I met them at the Texas Capitol, where they were lobbying for a bill to strengthen eyewitness identification procedures across Texas. It passed. I also went to Dallas for one of their group meetings, where they discussed the struggles of returning to the free world: Dealing with friends and family members who abandoned them and now came asking for money; bonding with children who had grown up without their dads; and just learning to trust people again. But these men gave little hint of the bitterness they had every right to feel. In fact, they were more full of purpose than most people I knew.

Chris Scott, one of the exonerees, had an especially bold plan. He wanted to free other innocent men behind bars by starting a detective agency—staffed solely by exonerees— to investigate their cases and help push them through the courts.

After the story ran, I told my friend, filmmaker Jamie Meltzer, about Chris’ ideas, and Jamie asked me to help him produce a film on it. We began filming just as Chris began working on his first case. And so I got my chance to come back to Dallas and hang out. We all took a road trip in a Hummer together to interview a prisoner in East Texas. I spent a day with exoneree Johnnie Lindsey. He watches dawn arrive every day from a lawn chair in his garden, savoring his freedom along with a morning coffee and cigarette. Later on, he careened around his quiet subdivision in a go-cart, cackling with joyous laughter.

See more in the trailer below. Their detective agency also will be the focus of a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered, scheduled to air on April 15. And we’re going to keep following the exonerees as they crack cases. You can help make it happen by supporting our kickstarter campaign.

Duane Buck
Duane Buck was sentenced to death in 1997. His attorneys are appealing the sentence, citing testimony that claimed Buck was more dangerous because he is black. Photo from Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

In 1997, a Harris County jury sentenced Duane Buck to death for a double murder. During the sentencing phase of the trial, a psychologist testified Buck was more dangerous and likely to reoffend simply because he was black.

Buck’s lawyers’ appeals have reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which initially stayed his execution before deciding in November not to review the case. On Wednesday, his attorneys appealed the death sentence in Harris County, citing a study released the same day that shows minorities are more likely than whites to be sentenced to death in the county.

The study, by University of Maryland criminology professor Raymond Paternoster, found that from 1992 to 1999, Harris County prosecutors sought the death penalty for African-Americans more than three times as often as they did for whites with similar cases. Hispanics fared even worse—the DAs pushed for capital punishment four times as often for Hispanics as they did for whites.

Juries were slightly more even-handed, the study finds, but not by much—African-Americans were sentenced to death twice as often as whites, and Hispanics got the death penalty three times as often.

The psychologist who testified in Buck’s case, Dr. Walter Quijano, provided “expert” testimony in countless criminal cases in Texas at the time, and claimed race partly determined “dangerousness” in at least seven cases. While reviewing one of those cases in 2000, then-Attorney General John Cornyn recommended all seven offenders get a new sentencing hearing. Six of the cases got a do-over, and all those offenders (four Hispanics and two African-Americans) were re-sentenced to death.

Buck’s case never went up for a resentencing hearing. The state said his case was different from the others because the defense—not the prosecution—called Quijano to the stand. Most of the Supreme Court agreed. In a dissenting opinion, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan argued that the prosecutor revisited the race factor “in a question specifically designed to persuade the jury that Buck’s race made him more dangerous and that, in part on this basis, he should be sentenced to death.”

The Supreme Court made its decision in Nov. 2011, but Buck’s legal team filed its appeal in Harris County’s 208th Criminal District Court on Wednesday.

“I think it’s important that race not play a factor at all in capital prosecution,” Kate Black, one of Buck’s attorneys, tells the Observer. “To have Dr. Quijano’s testimony in cases with black defendants such as Mr. Buck’s is problematic and it’s been corrected in the other six cases except for Mr. Buck’s.”

Harris County has executed more people than any other county in the U.S. Its 117 executions are more than any other state besides Texas. Blacks have accounted for 56 percent of its executions since 1984, though just 19 percent of the county’s population is African-American. Despite the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case, Buck’s attorneys think they have a good chance of getting him a new sentence.

For one thing, they have the study. They also have one of Buck’s former victims—who was injured during his fatal attack on his ex-girlfriend and a male acquaintance—asking the state to overturn the execution. Joining her is one of Buck’s former prosecutors, former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Linda Geffin.

Buck’s team will await the state court’s decision, but Black says they will appeal to the Supreme Court if they are denied.

WDP_Press_Conference
Jason Cato, Workers Defense Project
Workers Defense Project Executive Director Cristina Tzintzun unveils study that found half of Texas construction workers are undocumented.

As the immigration debate continues on the national stage, one issue is consistently left out of the conversation: workers’ rights.

Texas has the second-largest undocumented population in the country, and in 2011 the state accounted for 16 percent of construction permits issued in the U.S. (more than Florida and California combined). Many undocumented immigrants take construction jobs, becoming easy targets for employers trying to cut costs by exploiting workers.

The Austin-based nonprofit organization, Workers Defense Project, says workers’ rights need to be part of the conversation as legislators in Washington, D.C. hash out immigration reform. On Thursday the group released a study, “Build a Better Nation,” that found 50 percent of all construction workers in Texas are undocumented. Workers Defense and University of Texas researchers surveyed 1,194 construction workers in Austin, Houston, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio for the study. About 70 percent of construction workers in Texas are concentrated in these areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“I think it’s pretty shocking that one in two [construction] workers in the state is undocumented,” says Cristina Tzintzún, executive director of Workers Defense Project. “I think it shows why Texas desperately needs immigration reform, because it’s an industry that’s critical to our state’s economy.”

Roughly “one in every 13 people in the Texas workforce labors in construction, meaning as many as 400,000 Texas construction workers are undocumented,” according to the study. These undocumented workers are exploited more than U.S.-born workers, the study finds. One in four undocumented workers experienced wage theft, while less than one in 10 U.S.-born workers had their wages stolen. Only 14 percent of undocumented workers made a living wage in 2011 in Texas, while 42 percent of American workers did.

The finding comes after another recent study released by the group in January that highlighted violations against construction workers in Texas and the conditions in which these laborers, largely immigrants, live (or die).

Tzintzún says federal immigration reform talks have mostly ignored workers’ rights. President Obama’s draft on immigration reform centered around providing a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, while the Gang of Eight bipartisan senators proposed a similar but slower solution, contingent on further beefing up of Border Patrol.

Meanwhile, she says, immigrant workers are afraid of reporting dangerous working conditions and abuse because employers threaten them with deportation. The problem can be exacerbated with guest-worker programs, which tie an immigrant’s ability to stay in the country to his or her employer.

This has become a favored talking point for conservatives that have recently jumped on the reform bandwagon (mostly businessmen and politicians reeling from low Latino support in the election). Conservatives want immigrant workers to be legally able to come into the country and work when they’re needed, but go home when they’re not.

Tzintzún and other workers’ rights activists, on the other hand, think the guest-worker system is broken and that a pathway to citizenship is the only option that ensures workers are protected. But whether conservatives will be willing to put workers’ rights first and get behind a pathway to citizenship remains to be seen.

immigration reform
Priscila Mosqueda
Immigrants' rights groups demonstrate at Capitol to demand immigration reform.

A steady throng of demonstrators marched down Congress Ave. to the Capitol Friday morning, carrying huge colorful banners and signs with messages like “I was born in the USA – Don’t take my mommy and daddy away!” and “End detentions now!” The demonstrators came from all over the state and represented about 30 organizations calling for “fair and just immigration reform that provides dignity and rights for all.”

Immigration reform rallies in 2006 drew massive crowds (Dallas reportedly had 500,000 demonstrators) and were predominantly staged in response to the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act pushed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin). Though the march today was much smaller (the Austin Police Department estimates less than 1,000 people participated), the message was still clear: immigrants are coming out of the shadows and demanding that the federal government finally pass an immigration reform plan that grants them more rights.

immigration reform

Chants like “Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha!” dominated the morning, or “Obama, listen, we are still fighting!” Downtown traffic was temporarily stopped as Austin Police Department officers on motorcycles escorted protesters down the street to the Capitol. A man carrying a large United States flag led the march, followed by a group holding a white banner that said “Texans Demand Fair Immigration Reform!” in red, black and blue.

Participants rolled into Austin by the busload, arriving from Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley. Ramona Casas of ARISE, a non-profit organization that serves colonias, says their bus carrying 57 people set out for Austin at 3 a.m.

“We want them to hear us in there,” Esther Reyes of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition said, pointing to the pink granite Capitol building. “Si, se puede! We’re here today because we want to be recognized as citizens of this great country!”

Protesters, largely Hispanic immigrants, waved miniature American flags as the national anthem was sung. The crowd included children wrapped in blankets, huge groups of DREAMers from all over the state, as well as elderly people with walkers and canes, all holding signs and chanting. Labor unions were also present and faith leaders were among the speakers. Activists demanded immigration reform that includes an end to criminalization, deportations and detentions; an end to militarization of the border; and a pathway to citizenship that leaves no one out.

immigration reform

“The time of immigration reform has arrived. This is and will be our year,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso. “… millions of families, millions of people that are as American as any other American – those Americans that don’t have documents – this is the moment for those families.”

Luis Maldonado, a DREAMer from the Rio Grande Valley, said President Obama’s Deferred Action program, which stays deportations and provides temporary work authorization for some immigrants who came here as children, is not enough.

“Our families need to be incorporated into this movement,” Maldonado said. “Just like the DREAMers and the allies fought for [Deferred Action], now let’s fight for comprehensive, fair and just immigration reform that will not take decades for myself and my family to become citizens.”

Demonstrators emphasized that today will not be the last time they march. On Feb. 27, they are taking their demands to Washington, D.C., in a “Day for Border Advocacy.”

texascompact
The Texas Compact can be found online at texascompact.org.

The topic of immigration is seldom discussed these days in the Texas Legislature, but Texans still want a seat at the table in Washington, D.C., where immigration reform has finally gained traction and bipartisan support. A group of conservative religious and business leaders, pushing a set of immigration goals they call the Texas Compact, wants to ensure Texas has a role in new immigration laws by lobbying Texas’ federal legislators to get behind reform.

“[This] … is our moment in history to write the chapter on how Texas, and our country eventually, handles with dignity, humanity and in our best interest our immigration issue,” said Marcia Nichols, co-chair of the Compact, during a press conference call Tuesday. “The reality living in Texas is we have always had an integral part of our community that have been immigrants. We have been behind the curve in adopting sensible, fair approaches to this reality.”

The Texas Compact is modeled after the Utah Compact on immigration, a plan released three years ago. The Texas Compact outlines five principles: creating solutions for immigration reform at the federal level; encouraging law enforcement to differentiate between criminals and undocumented immigrants; recognizing the vital impact immigrants have on the U.S. economy and enabling them to have a greater impact; putting an end to the practice of separating families through deportation; and facilitating undocumented immigrants’ participation in a “free society.”

Texas is the fourth state to adopt such a compact, drafted largely by conservative religious and business leaders. In the press conference call Tuesday, moderated by former Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, business representatives from Houston and members of the evangelical and law enforcement communities talked about the state’s need for immigration reform. The Compact has signatories from all over the state, including Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.

Compact Co-chair Mike Nichols was also on the call and compared the immigration issue to the fight for civil rights. Nichols is the Chairman of Houston’s Financial Task Force and a former Senior Vice President at Sysco Corp. He said Texas congressmen seem to be afraid to support immigration reform, and the Compact is a means to encourage them to do so by showing them Texans of all stripes will back them up. The key, the authors agreed, is for legislators to act now.

President Obama has also lately criticized Congress’ lack of action on immigration reform. During his State of the Union address last Tuesday, he urged Congress to write immigration legislation. On Saturday night, the newspaper USA Today reported that a leaked White House draft on immigration would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status within eight years, among other provisions. Though Obama says he will await bipartisan legislation from Congress, he has said he’ll move forward if Congress does not act, and that this immigration proposal will be his back-up plan.

Marcia Nichols and other members supporting the Texas Compact say nothing will be gained by Texas’ leaders refusing to participate. “Never in the history of our country has history been written by people who lack courage or who use the veil of indecision and wait and see,” said Nichols. “There’s never been change from that attitude.”

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