Hungry for Justice
Detainees at the Port Isabel Processing Center, an immigration holding facility just north of Brownsville, were two weeks into a hunger strike when this issue went to press. Though there’s debate over the number of men involved-between one (according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and 100 (according to Families for Freedom, an immigrant advocacy group)-the strike marks a rare resistance effort at one of the country’s largest ICE facilities.
Participating inmates say they’re protesting physical and verbal mistreatment, but they add that their message is larger than the conditions at Port Isabel, which holds 1,200 inmates.
“The main reason is the prolonged detention we’re all subjected to,” Rama Carty, one of the strikers, tells the Observer in a phone interview. “It’s unconstitutional. It’s unjust. Many of us shouldn’t be here in the first place. We’re held past any reasonable time.”
Like Carty, many of Port Isabel’s detainees have been transferred from various corners of the United States. Many are waiting for asylum requests and court appeals challenging their detention, but now find themselves thousands of miles from their attorneys.
Carty was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 1 year old. After being convicted on a drug charge-wrongfully, he claims-he has been held in three ICE facilities across the country for 13 months. At Port Isabel, he’s far from his girlfriend in Boston, stuck in a corner of Texas that has only enough pro bono attorneys to serve a fraction of the detainees.
With a rising number of detainees nationwide-more than 300,000 in 2008-ICE officials say they relocate detainees based on available space. “It’s a bed management issue,” says Nina Pruneda, an agency spokesperson. “Wherever we have bed space is where we move detainees.”
Immigration attorneys suspect there’s another reason for sending detainees to South Texas. “They’ve intentionally contracted with facilities that they know are distant from families and attorneys,” says Mark Heller, a Chicago-based attorney representing several hunger strikers. “At Port Isabel, there are all these illegitimate cases, but no one to defend them.”
While the Port Isabel detainees wait for their appeals, some say they’re subjected to mistreatment. Lawyers, relatives and inmates say detainees, including several hunger strikers, have been beaten by guards and denied medical treatment.
Asked about allegations of abuse, Pruneda says, “We treat all detainees with dignity and respect. It’s a safe and secure environment.” (The Observer hasn’t independently verified the detainees’ abuse claims.)
The strikers hope to address their complaints with Dora Schriro, the newly appointed special adviser on detention and removal for the Department of Homeland Security.
ANDREWS COUNTY LENDS $75 MILLION TO BILLIONAIRE
If a billionaire came to town and asked you and your neighbors for $75 million to build him a radioactive waste dump near two local aquifers, you’d probably run him out of town, right?
If so, you’re not from Andrews County.
On May 9, by a tiny three-vote margin, the voters of Andrews County approved $75 million in bonds to build a recently licensed, low-level radioactive waste dump. (Anti-bond group No Bonds for Billionaires is considering a recount request.)
The company behind the dump, Waste Control Specialists LLC, is owned by Dallas-based tycoon Harold Simmons through parent company Valhi Inc. Even after a $3 billion loss in the economic downturn, Simmons is still worth $3.9 billion, according to a Forbes estimate.
Simmons may have lost almost half his net worth, but he still managed to scrape together more than $362,000 to spend on political campaigns, mostly Republican, in the last half of 2008.
So where does the 146th-richest man in the world get off asking Andrews County (with a poverty rate of 16 percent, above the national average) to underwrite his waste scheme?
“We just think it’s a good time to be cautious, and we’re being cautious,” Simmons told The Dallas Morning News in April, speaking generally about his business holdings.
For Waste Control, the economic crisis “could not have come at a worse time,” said CEO Bill Lindquist in a video on AndrewsBondElection.com, a pro-bond Web site built for Waste Control by an Austin PR firm that touts its success in “grassroots outreach.”
With credit markets frozen, the company says it had to seek taxpayer-backed financing. “[T]he citizens of Andrews have always been there and we have greatly appreciated the support we have gotten,” Lindquist said in the video.
Voters might have been confused about what they were voting on. The ballot refers to a “solid waste disposal facility,” commonly called a garbage dump; no mention is made of radioactive waste. Cyrus Reed of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club calls the ballot language “horribly misleading.”
Waste Control covered the election costs, which, according to the county, are expected to be $5,000 to $7,500.
Waste Control says there is no risk to taxpayers. The $75 million will purchase equipment and build dump facilities that will be owned by the county, but leased back to Waste Control. As collateral, the company is pledging stock and assets worth $500 million. It’s quite a deal. Except that if the company goes bankrupt, Andrews County will be left with little more than a hole in the ground filled with radioactive waste.
Lord Help ’em
THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT PRAYS FOR A COMEBACK
In much of the country, the Christian right is receding. Beaten at the polls and out of power in Washington-and with younger leaders such as Rick Warren no longer the exclusive property of the GOP-the union of the religious right with a certain segment of the Republican Party is a political marriage seemingly in decline. Not in Texas. Here, winning over the Christian right may still be the key to capturing political office. Or so Gov. Rick Perry hopes.
That was clear on May 5, when about 700 Christian activists packed a ballroom in the North Austin Doubletree at the unholy hour of 6:30 a.m. for the Texas State Prayer Breakfast. Ostensibly the event was about promoting prayer and the 58th annual National Day of Prayer two days later. Still, the political overtones were impossible to miss.
In remarks that opened the breakfast, Jimmy Gregory of Texas Disposal Systems Inc., an event sponsor, urged everyone to vote for Perry in the 2010 governor’s race. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, likely to challenge Perry in the GOP primary, wasn’t mentioned.
Perry gave a strictly apolitical speech. But it was a stem-winder. He told stories and parables and read his favorite Bible verses. The crowd was rapt. He concluded with Jesus’ instructions to remember the neediest. “The sign of the saved is their love of the least,” Perry said. “If you want to see God, you must be among the beaten and the broken … . To see Jesus, go to the inner city, give a sandwich-not a sermon-a sandwich to the bag lady who lives under the underpass. To see Jesus, see the unattractive and the forgotten.”
Under Perry, Texas has slashed funding for many safety-net programs, but it was still a hell of a speech.
The governor then introduced country singer Clay Walker, who called Perry a “Christian leader” and added, “We don’t have enough Christians in office in this country. I don’t think we’ll have enough Christians in office until they’re all Christians.”
If anyone was feeling overly chipper after Walker’s performance, Gary Bauer, the special guest speaker, took care of that. Bauer-a former head of the Family Research Council and GOP presidential candidate who now heads a nonprofit called American Values-opened with a dour warning: “You folks have already been to the mountain top, and now here comes the guy from Washington, D.C., to lead you through the valley of the shadow of death.” Everyone laughed, but it soon became clear that he wasn’t kidding.
“I want to urge you to bathe your country in prayer, my friends, because I believe we are in a heap of trouble,” Bauer said. “If by some tragedy tomorrow, America was gone, this world would sink into another dark age. Your country is the only thing that stands between us and tyranny and darkness. … This country is in the middle of two great wars, and if we lose either one of those, we are doomed.”
Bauer’s first war is the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan against “Islamo-fascists.” It’s only a matter of time until radicals unleash a nuclear or biological weapon on a major European or American city that could kill millions, he said. His other war is here at home against an Obama administration trying to perpetuate the killing of the unborn; against homosexuals trying to destroy his sacred concept of marriage; against the ACLU hoping to remove Christianity from public life; and, more generally, against a vile, sex-obsessed pop culture.
One solution, of course, is prayer. Another, apparently, is to vote for Perry. “We need about 49 more like the governor,” Bauer said. -Dave Mann
Always an Aggie
THE GOVERNOR’S CROSS-FERTILIZATIONS AT A&M
Two years before he recently finagled a controversial deal to grant $50 million in state funds to his alma mater, Gov. Rick Perry bought a home near Texas A&M University and declared it a “homestead” for tax purposes.
This homestead-appraised last year at $235,870-is one of several steps in recent years that boosted Perry family ties to A&M, Bryan, and College Station. The moves have spawned rumors that Perry-a former A&M yell leader-could be positioning himself for a career as chancellor of the A&M system.
Perry strengthened his Aggie roots in January, when his Emerging Technology Fund quietly awarded an unprecedented $50 million to A&M for a drug-development center. When the news broke in March, House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican, expressed concern that A&M had signed agreements to collaborate with two struggling biotech companies.
One, Austin-based Introgen Therapeutics Inc., filed for bankruptcy in December 2008, shortly after the Food and Drug Administration rejected its cancer therapy, Advexin. Introgen has previously cropped up in the governor’s financial disclosures. Perry’s disclosures for 2001 through 2003, for example, reveal that his then-dependent son, Griffin, maintained a modest stock portfolio, including up to 499 shares of Introgen.
In January of the last year of Griffin’s reported Introgen holding, the stock traded for a little over $2 a share. When the FDA granted the company’s request for a fast-track review of Advexin in September 2003, Introgen stock soared over $11-heights that Introgen never hit again. Though disclosure law required the governor to indicate if and when Griffin sold the stock-and for what amount-Perry never did. Instead, he stopped reporting Griffin’s Introgen holdings in his report covering 2004. (The governor’s office, which asked that questions for this story be submitted in writing, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Perry also disclosed a hunting trip in 2007 as the guest of then-Introgen head David Nance. Nance, who has contributed $55,500 to Perry since 2005, resigned from Introgen in March 2009, shortly before the news of A&M’s state grant broke. Nance then launched a nonprofit to promote the creation of high-tech jobs in Texas: the Innovate Texas Foundation. Nance recruited the foundation’s No. 2 man, former Perry aide Ryan Confer, from the Emerging Technology Fund that gave the $50 million to A&M in the first place. Innovate Texas is funded by a federal grant administered by Perry’s appointees to the Texas Workforce Commission.
Meanwhile, Perry’s daughter Sydney entered A&M in 2005. Her father’s financial disclosures indicate that Bryan-based insurance company Phil Adams Co. employed the governor’s dependent daughter as a secretary from 2005 through 2008. Adams has given $125,600 to Perry’s campaigns since 2005.
In February the governor tapped Adams to be an A&M regent. Along with Houston trial lawyer Michael Gallagher, Adams is involved in litigation with Democratic U.S. Rep. Yvonne Davis of Dallas and Dallas businessman David Alameel over a disputed interest in a racetrack license. A related horse track license application is pending before Perry’s appointees on the Texas Racing Commission (see “The Inside Track,” Dec. 12, 2008). It’s good to know the king.