Political Intelligence

Power Plays



After arresting 361 undocumented workers—mostly women—in a commando-style raid on a Massachusetts sweatshop in early March, federal officials quickly loaded about 200 of them onto planes and flew them to Texas before a federal judge could step in.

At press time, they were sitting in detention centers in Harlingen and El Paso. “They are very sad. They’re confused. They were swept away without being able to say goodbye to their children,” says Harlingen attorney Jodi Goodwin, who is working pro bono with other lawyers trying to help the workers. Goodwin says one female detainee is four months pregnant and was forced to sit for 14 hours with her hands and ankles shackled. “It’s horrendous,” she says, “simply horrendous.”

The raid, dubbed “Operation Frontline,” was 11 months in the planning and involved nearly 600 agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On the morning of March 6, ICE agents descended on the Michael Bianco Inc. plant in New Bedford, Mass., and arrested the owner and top managers for harboring and employing illegal aliens. The plant makes aircrew survival vests and lightweight backpacks for the U.S. military.

The undocumented workers, who worked mostly as “stitchers,” were shipped off to a nearby military base. Many had small children at home or ailing relatives, and didn’t have time to make arrangements for them. “It was awful. Parents didn’t know where their kids were or who was taking care of them,” says Anna Medina, who works at St. James Catholic Church in New Bedford. The church became the hub for the traumatized community. “There was a lady who was 43 years old. They didn’t believe she had a 4-month-old baby, and they told her, ‘Your crying isn’t going to help you.’ These people are human beings. They’re not animals. They’re not trying to take anything from anybody.” Officials from the Massachusetts Department of Social Services worked around the clock to get mothers with small children released or to make other arrangements for their children. Meanwhile, a phalanx of attorneys, law students, and paralegals who had gotten wind of ICE’s plan to move the detainees raced to identify the women and secure a federal restraining order that would stop authorities from transferring the workers.

The government moved more quickly. At about 8 p.m. on March 7, the day after the raid, 90 detainees, most from Central America, were flown to Harlingen. An hour after the group of Boston attorneys filed its motion for a restraining order, another 116 workers (88 Guatemalans, 22 Hondurans, three Mexicans, one Portuguese, and 1 Ecuadoran) were being loaded onto a plane bound for El Paso. A federal judge granted the request for a temporary restraining order on March 9, allowing roughly 90 undocumented workers to remain in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Others arrested were processed and released by immigration authorities.

John Willshire Carrera, an attorney for the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic of the Greater Boston Legal Services, says the speed with which the government acted—both in moving the detainees and responding to legal efforts—showed the operation had been planned well in advance. “They had the people moved out within 50 hours,” Carrera says. “It was an incredibly fast operation.”

Ludacris Censorship

One of the chart-topping pop songs of the moment is “Runaway Love” by Atlanta hip-hop star Ludacris and R&B singer Mary J. Blige. The song is notable as one of the few recent hip-hop hits that isn’t misogynist and actually has a social-justice message. The verses, rapped by Ludacris while Blige sings a soulful refrain, tell stories of abused and neglected young girls who run away from home. One lyric goes, “The days go by and her belly gets big/The father bails out he ain’t ready for a kid/Knowin’ her mama will blow it all outta proportion/Plus she lives poor so no money for abortion.”

Listeners to 96.7, KISS-FM, in Austin, owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc., haven’t heard it quite that way. The version on 96.7—and probably stations in other Southern cities—hacks off the phrase “no money for abortion” in favor of an odd, offbeat second of silence.

Popular radio edits out curses and other foul language from songs all the time. But why would a station censor a reference to a medical procedure that—at least last time we checked—is legal? Especially from a song intended to raise awareness about social issues?

We put that question to Jay Shannon, program director at KISS-FM. He says record companies—in this case, Def Jam Recordings—let radio stations choose among several versions of songs. Labels often will cut dirty, clean, and super-clean edits. Shannon says the station chose the super-clean version of “Runaway Love” mainly because it deleted a lyric about the sexual abuse of a 9-year-old girl. He says the reference to child molestation was inappropriate to air, and that the super-clean version also deleted the abortion phrase. (Clear Channel, he says, has no say in the programming at individual stations.) Shannon says it was the record company’s decision to edit out abortion. “We’re not a political station,” he says.

A spokesperson for Def Jam Recordings says radio stations sometimes ask the record company to delete words from the super-clean version. “I don’t know if [this case] was the label that did it or the radio station asking them to take it out,” says Portia Kirkland, director of marketing at Disturbing the Peace Records, Ludacris’ Atlanta-based label and a Def Jam partner. If Def Jam removed the abortion reference, she says, it’s because “in some Southern states, some conservative states, abortion is a very sensitive issue.” It’s not clear how many other Southern stations might be playing the same censored version, though Kirkland does note the irony. “It was a song to make people think,” she says.

Dealing Green, Seeing Red

The brief burst of euphoria that greeted the announcement of the proposed TXU Corp. leveraged buyout has predictably faded into a miasma of bitterness and disappointment. The international environmental community and mainstream media heralded the deal between national groups Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and private equity firms Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and the Texas Pacific Group as a new era for green deal-making. As part of the proposed takeover, the two firms agreed to combat global warming, invest in conservation and renewable energy, and abandon eight of TXU’s 11 proposed coal-fired power plants. The prospective new owners also have been promoting—in television and newspaper ads—a 10 percent discount for 1.3 million TXU customers who remain on one of the company’s highest-priced electric plans. However, consumer groups and some lawmakers say Texas ratepayers will suffer.

“I’m not quite positive there is a way to make this deal good,” says Virginia Goldman, an ACORN organizer in Houston. ACORN, a nationwide social-justice group, is calling on the Legislature and public employee and teacher pension funds that own TXU shares to stop the buyout.

“We all want clean air, but we also want to afford our sky-high electric bills,” says Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP in Texas.

The seeds of this rift between consumers and environmentalists were planted in 1999, when some environmental groups, including Environmental Defense, supported retail electricity deregulation after provisions boosting renewable energy and cutting air pollution were added. Consumer groups opposed the legislation to the end.

One key state lawmaker and foe of deregulation, Houston Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner, has been vocal in criticizing the deal while accusing environmentalists of selling out consumers. Environmentalists who were not involved in the buyout talks have tried to cheer coal’s setback while questioning the long-term wisdom of the deal for consumers. “The question here is, do we need to increase our electric rates to be able to achieve and harvest those environmental benefits?” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen and a principal organizer of anti-coal forces in a recent committee meeting. “We can get the benefits without necessarily mortgaging the future electric needs of our state.”

Jim Marston, energy program director for Environmental Defense in Texas and a member of The Texas Observer board, helped broker the TXU deal. “There’s nothing in our blessing of the global warming plan … that in anyway limits the option that the Legislature has,” he says, “or any other position of the consumer groups in dealing with some of the unintended consequences of deregulation.”

Monkey on Their Backs

There is an inexpensive, responsible, proven way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS—but it’s illegal in Texas. Needle-exchange programs give drug users clean needles in exchange for used ones at a 1-to-1 ratio, helping to stop the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C. Texas ranks fourth in the nation for the number of AIDS cases, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Three bills this session would legalize such exchange programs—Senate Bill 308 by Sen. Robert Deuell (R-Greenville); House Bill 856 by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio); and HB 1846 by Rep. Solomon P. Ortiz Jr. (D-Corpus Christi).

None of the bills proposes state funds for the exchange programs. “It’s prevention without a fiscal note,” says Scot Kibbe, legislative director for Deuell.

Indeed, the proposals would save the state money. A syringe costs 7 cents, and the average price of lifetime treatment for someone with HIV/AIDS is $385,000, says Tracey Hayes, director of the ACLU’s Access Project, which promotes legalization of syringe exchanges. “Across the board, in hundreds of studies, HIV always goes down in cities that have needle-exchange programs,” Hayes says. “Almost every state in the nation allows for either needle exchange or pharmacy sales, or both.” Yet in Texas, needle exchange is illegal, and pharmacists cannot sell needles to someone they believe to be an addict.

Syringe-exchange programs also provide users regular contact with health-care workers and addiction specialists who can steer them to social services and treatment when they’re ready, Hayes says. Workers offer users tips like how to avoid an overdose and how to care for abscesses, she says.

Similar legislation has failed in the last seven legislative sessions.

Deuell, a medical doctor, has supported exchange bills the last two sessions, but this is the first time he is the principal author, Kibbe says. Last session the exchange proposal was opposed by both Sen. Jane Nelson, a Lewisville Republican and chair of the Committee on Health and Human Services, and Rep. Dianne White Delisi, the Temple Republican who chairs the Committee on Public Health. A spokesperson for Nelson’s office says the senator is waiting for a committee hearing to decide how she will vote this time around.

Chris Bernard, head lobbyist for the Access Project is optimistic this time around. “Syringe access is no longer a controversial issue,” he says.