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Papers, Y’all?

Dept. of Immigration
by Published on
photo by Joanna Wojtkowiak

Can something as constitutionally challenged as Arizona’s “papers, please” law pass in Texas? Not likely—but get ready for heated rhetoric and a new round of immigrant bashing at next year’s Legislature.

The Arizona law requires police to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they “reasonably suspect” is in the country illegally. This doesn’t please law-enforcement types like Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Arizona’s Pima County, which shares 123 miles of border with Mexico. He’s called it “the worst piece of legislation I’ve seen in 50 years,” pointing out that the law forces his deputies to adopt racial profiling. Worse, the law allows any Arizona citizen to sue for non-enforcement. “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” Dupnik told an Arizona TV station.

And damned if right-wing legislators in Texas haven’t leapt on the bandwagon. State Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Tomball Republican, has pledged to introduce similar legislation. Leo Berman, her Republican colleague from Tyler, is also itching to file an Arizona-style bill.

The fact that Texas is not Arizona will block the effort, says Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston. “The business leadership in Texas is very cool, to say the least, toward any kind of Arizona-type immigration legislation,” he says.

Some Republican Party leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, agree. The political calculations are clear: Texas has a larger Latino population and a higher percentage of registered Latino voters than Arizona. By 2040, the Latino population in Texas metropolitan areas is expected to rise from 5.9 to 17.2 million; in rural areas, it is projected to double, from 777,000 to 1.6 million. Many of the additions will be young voters, which the GOP sorely lacks.

The Texas GOP walks a political tightrope trying not to alienate Latino voters. Take Perry. Shortly after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (who’s also running for re-election) signed the law there, Texas’ outspoken “border security” advocate said he had “concerns with portions of the law passed in Arizona” and that “it would not be the right direction for Texas.”

No matter how moderate Republican leaders try to sound, it might be too late for them to replicate the inroads the party made with Tejanos in the 1990s and early 2000s, says Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. “Gov. Bush deliberately avoided immigrant-bashing,” Polinard says. “But the Republican emphasis now on border security instead of comprehensive immigration reform is viewed by many Latinos as anti-immigrant.”

Republicans hold a slim majority in the Texas Legislature. If Democrats can avoid losing too many seats in November, an Arizona-type bill would probably not pass next session.

“The likelihood of it passing is slim in the current context,” Polinard says. “I think there are enough moderate Republicans left in the Legislature to let Berman and Riddle’s legislation die a quiet death.”

—Melissa del Bosque


family business

Like Father, Like Son

First, state Rep. Eddie Lucio III followed his dad, state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., into politics. Now the Brownsville Democrat has taken over one of his father’s business ventures: consulting for a sketchy private-prison developer.

The younger Lucio is consulting for Argyle, Texas-based Corplan Corrections Ltd., which has become notorious for selling struggling communities on risky, government-financed prisons with rosy promises of new jobs and economic riches—then leaving communities to figure out how to keep the facilities open. Corplan was part of a consortium behind a now-infamous $27-million jail in Hardin, Montana—it has never housed a prisoner.

The elder Lucio consulted for Corplan and other private-prison outfits from 1999 until 2005. Sen. Lucio helped convince local officials in Willacy County, north of Brownsville, to build a $60 million, 2,000-bed federal immigration detention center. In 2005, he suspended his lucrative consulting in the wake of a federal investigation that led to the conviction of two Willacy County commissioners for accepting bribes to support the project. Who supplied the bribes is a mystery; the investigation led to no further charges.

The stench of scandal has not deterred “Little Lucio” from consulting for Corplan. Recently the company has approached towns in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas with plans to build a detention facility for undocumented immigrant families. The company tapped Lucio to help in Weslaco, just outside his Rio Grande Valley district. In February, Lucio and Corplan CEO James Parkey urged Weslaco commissioners to pass a resolution supporting Corplan’s effort.

It could be a lousy deal for Weslaco.

“I think they’re being duped, frankly,” says Michelle Brané, director of detention and asylum programs with the Women’s Refugee Commission. The Obama administration has pledged to build no new facilities for undocumented children and their parents. According to an e-mail obtained by the Observer, the Weslaco city attorney learned in July 2009 that federal solicitation for new family detention facilities had been canceled.

Weslaco Mayor Buddy de la Rosa says he didn’t know about the policy shift. Lucio and Corplan didn’t mention it. Neither did the city attorney. De la Rosa wonders if it explains why he hasn’t heard from Parkey or Lucio recently. “They have been remarkably quiet for the past several weeks,” he told the Observer in late April.

—Forrest Wilder


dept. of injustice

Slow Burn

After nearly seven months’ delay, the Texas Forensic Science Commission turned its attention back to the disputed case of Cameron Todd Willingham on April 23—for all of 10 minutes.

The upshot: more stalling of its inquiry into whether discredited forensic evidence led to Willingham’s conviction for the 1991 fire that killed his three daughters. Nine fire scientists have examined the case and concluded that Willingham was likely innocent when Texas executed him in 2004. The commission’s investigation halted last September, when Gov. Rick Perry replaced three members of the panel and installed hard-line Williamson County D.A. John Bradley as chair. Bradley kept the politically dangerous Willingham affair out of public view during the GOP gubernatorial primary—a political boon for Perry, who allowed the execution to go forward despite questions about the evidence.

On April 23, the commissioners met for more than six hours in a cramped room packed with reporters and activists in the upscale Omni Mandalay Hotel in Irving. For most of that time, they avoided any talk of cases marred by disproved forensics—the agency’s primary mission—in favor of more mundane topics: backlogs at crime labs, whether to hire a general counsel, and maintenance of the agency’s website.

They finally raised the Willingham issue four hours into the meeting and spent 10 minutes explaining they had a lot of work left on the case and that the inquiry is in its “infancy.” Four members were named to a panel that will continue the Willingham investigation—out of public view.

Bradley made that clear when he talked—and we’re using the term loosely—with reporters after the meeting. Asked about a timeline for the investigation, he said, in perhaps the quote of the year: “However long it takes, that’s however long it takes.”

Asked how he would describe the meeting, Bradley responded, “Well, you were here. You heard it. You can report it.”

Why would the Willingham panel meet behind closed doors? “Because the ability to resolve and discuss these issues requires that we have those discussions in private.” Asked when the panel would meet, Bradley said he didn’t know. Then he excused himself to catch a plane.

The commission won’t be seen again in public until its next official meeting in July. (Bradley has changed the meeting schedule from monthly to quarterly.)

It’s too late for Willingham. But the commission’s continued delay tactics could be denying justice to hundreds of wrongly convicted Texans. As the Observer reported last year, more than 700 people remain in Texas prisons on arson convictions—perhaps one-half of them convicted by discredited forensic evidence.

—Dave Mann


Dept. of corrections

Guilty, Finally

In 2005, J.C. Moore was incarcerated at the West Texas State School, a juvenile correctional facility in Pyote. Moore remembers Assistant Superintendent Ray Brookins as an intimidating figure. “If he asked you to jump, you better ask how high, or else you’d be locked up,” Moore says.

At night, Brookins played favorites, taking kids out of their dorm rooms for “cleaning.” Moore knew something wasn’t right. But, he says, “whenever we would bring it up with staff, we would get blown off. We were told, ‘It will be looked into.’”

It never was, at least not by the Texas Youth Commission (TYC), the state juvenile corrections agency. The message that staff members were sexually abusing boys reached as far as Austin, but it wasn’t until a math tutor got word out to the Texas Rangers that an investigation was launched and evidence collected.

Then the case was brushed under the rug. The men quietly resigned from their jobs. Brookins went to work at a hotel, while John Paul Hernandez, the principal also implicated, was hired by a Midland school.

In 2007, the Texas Ranger report was leaked to the Observer and The Dallas Morning News.

A scandal exploded, bringing TYC to its knees. Legislators demanded changes. Sweeping reforms passed. Yet Brookins’ and Hernandez’s cases languished in the Ward County D.A.’s office.

Brookins finally went to trial on April 20. After 11 witnesses testified—one victim stated he was abused as far back as 1994—Brookins was sentenced to 10 years. (Hernandez’s trial date has not been set yet.)

TYC’s incarcerated population has shrunk in the meantime. The Pyote school where the abuse occurred is set to close May 28. The executive director of TYC, Cherie Townsend, denies the closure is related to the scandal, but many interpret the decision differently.

“They wanted a trophy, and the West Texas State School was it,” says Suzanne Smith, a former administrator at the school.

One former employee wrote on Facebook, “IT WAS GREAT AND WONDERFUL WHILE IT LASTED!!! … WE JUST MIGHT HAVE TO DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN!!! I WOULD!!! WOULDN’T YOU???”

J.C. Moore would not.

“I feel relieved that it’s closing,” he says. “The facility should have been closed a long time ago.”

— Laura Burke