The Best and Worst of the 84th

Governor Abbott spent the weekend clearing his desk of all pending legislation, and thus we can finally close the book on Texas’s 84th legislative session. This year’s session wasn’t especially unusual, in that it saw its fair share of “chubbing,” glad-handing, horse-trading, and fist fights. Also typical was the sheer volume of threats leveled against Texans’ civil liberties. Thankfully, most of the worst proposals failed to make it onto the books—while some of the better ones did.

Here’s a rundown of some of the issues that mattered for civil liberties:

LGBT Rights:  The Texas legislature faced a serious quandary this year. On the one hand, some of our politicians really, really despise the idea of LGBT equality—more now than ever, with the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision due any day—and are terrified of the possibility that it will become a reality. On the other, Indiana’s “religious refusal” debacle demonstrated just how catastrophic state-sponsored discrimination is for business.

Against that backdrop, LGBT rights fared well this session. Our LGBT Equality Coalition rose to the challenge, and Texas business leaders spoke out against discriminatory laws. Legislators introduced more than 20 bills and two constitutional amendments designed to enshrine discrimination into state law, but in the end none of them passed.  The only LGBT-related bill to become law (signed by Abbott with great fanfare) merely reaffirms that clergy can refuse to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs, a right already guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Reproductive Rights: Not satisfied with passing the infamous HB 2 in 2013 (now before the Supreme Court) and the closure of more than half the states abortion clinics, extremist legislators tried to double down.  They introduced measures to eliminate an exception to the state’s 20-week abortion ban for severe fetal abnormalities and to block insurance from being used to pay for the termination of a pregnancy. While both of those measures failed, others did not.

In a particularly mean-spirited attack, the legislature revamped the “judicial bypass” process, making it even more difficult for young women who are victims of neglect, abuse, or sex trafficking to access abortion services. To add insult to injury, politicians also blocked access to breast and cervical cancer screenings for patients of Planned Parenthood, and diverted more state funding to discredited “crisis pregnancy centers,” whose literature has been described by the Texas Medical Association as “needlessly graphic” and “factually inaccurate.”

Criminal Justice:  Groups from every segment of the political spectrum united to reform the state’s criminal justice system. The Smart-on-Crime coalition helped enact a series of measures designed to streamline the penal code, reduce recidivism, improve the reintegration process, and give former convicts a better chance for success in life after prison. Disadvantaged school children need no longer fear a fast track to the prison system, now that truancy is no longer a crime. School police officers will receive specialized training to help them better meet the needs of the students they serve and protect. Prisoners destined for solitary will now undergo mental health screenings.

Immigration: The rights of the undocumented fared better than one might have expected in the current political climate.  For one, the fact that Texas DREAMers will continue to have access to in-state university tuition was welcome news. Additionally, two attempts to wrest immigration enforcement from the federal government were thwarted: the Interstate Border Enforcement Compact, designed to allow member states to coordinate border control efforts independent of the federal government, and the Sanctuary Cities bill, which would have required local law enforcement entities to enforce immigration law at the expense of their own local priorities.

However, one immigration measure that enjoyed broad support in the legislature was passed into law. A sweeping border protection bill that costs hundreds of millions of dollars, HB 11 shows that our legislature only embraces small government and fiscal conservatism when it concerns tax rates and deregulation, but not so much when civil rights, police overreach, mission creep, and government surveillance are on the table. The law sets up a centralized surveillance center, allows for southbound checkpoints of American citizens still in the U.S., and implements a hiring surge of officers, which has proven a reliable method for fomenting corruption and abuse in law enforcement.

The bottom line: In spite of some victories for civil liberties this legislative session, lesbian, gay and transgender Texans can still be fired, evicted, or denied services in much of the state, regardless of whether the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality. Texas women seeking abortion access find ever more obstacles in their path, with many more clinics forced to close if the Supreme Court refuse to step in. We still have one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country. Private prisons continue to clamor for more inmates, and the state still has heavy incentives to provide them. And legislators continue to push for proposals that would punish immigrants for seeking a better life.

The legislature reconvenes in 2017, and until then there is much work to do.

POEMA ESCRITO EN UN CENTRO DE DETENCION

LIBERTAD.
EN ESTAS HABITACIONES OSCURAS
DONDE VIVO PESADOS DIAS
CON QUE ANHELO CONTEMPLO A VECES LAS VENTANAS:
CUANDO SE ABRIRA UNA DE ELLAS?
Y QUE HA DE TRAERME?
PERO ESA VENTANA NO SE ENCUENTRA,
O YO NO SE HALLARLA, Y QUIZAS SEA MEJOR ASI.
QUIZAS ESA LUZ FUESE PARA MI UNA TORTURA.
QUIEN SABE CUANTAS COSAS NUEVAS MOSTRARIA
SIN CONSIDERACION SIN PIEDAD
SIN PUDOR EN TORNO MIO HAN LEVANTADO
ALTAS Y SOLIDAS MURALLAS.
Y AHORA PERMANEZCO AQUÍ EN SOLEDAD,
MEDITANDO EN MI DESTINO
LA SUERTE ROE MI ESPIRITU
TANTO COMO TENIA QUE HACER
COMO NO ADVERTI QUE LEVANTABAN ESOS MUROS
NO ESCUCHE TRABAJAR A LOS OBREROS
NI SUS VOCES
SILENCIOSAMENTE ME TAPIARON EL MUNDO.

VICTOR VALENCIA.

Recap: Compilation of #HOUequality tweets

At a special City Council hearing on Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance that took place Wed., April 29, most residents who testified voiced their unequivocal support for the ordinance. Just 19 people spoke against.

Attend the public meetings on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. To sign up to speak at the Public Session on Tuesday, May 6, you must do so before 1 p.m. the day of the meeting by:

  • Calling the City Secretary’s office at 832.393.1100
  • Sending an email to citysecretary@houstontx.gov
  • Coming by the office on the public level of the City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby, Houston 77002 by 1:30 p.m. that
    Tuesday

Before you testify please download our guide (PDF), which is full of helpful tips for giving public testimony. If you can’t make it in person, tell your story online. You can submit text or a video link.

Show your support on social media!

Highlights from 2013 the Symposium

On Feb 10, 2013, we held a Symposium in Austin to find a cure to our state’s addiction to mass-incarceration. We learned from the best and most experienced: folks at the grassroots level, from the ACLU of Texas professionals who deal with the Texas Legislature every day and from an ACLU professional who has won victories in Florida, a state not unlike ours. Listen to what they think needs to happen in Texas.

Hope and Naz Mustakim | One Couple’s Battle Within a Broken Immigration System

Howard Simon | Using Electronic Communications to Enact Social Change

Panel Discussion| Key Policies to Focus on in 2013

ACLU of Texas | 75 years of protecting your liberty

Mass-incarceration is not the answer to all of our social problems like drug addiction or undocumented immigration, yet our country spends billions to lock people up instead of investing in real solutions. Want to help us end mass-incarceration in Texas? Be our eyes and ears in your part of the state when you join the Community Action Network. We need people like you to stand with us. Together we can make a difference.

Geoffrey A. Hoffman, Using the Deportation Power to Threaten Free Speech

Geoffrey A. Hoffman
Clinical Associate Professor, Director, University of Houston Immigration Clinic

Recently, CNN commentator and British citizen Piers Morgan has been the subject of a White House petition to deport him. The cascade of petitioners, now numbering more than 100,000, is troubling. A person’s exercise of free speech is not something that should lead to a threat of deportation. More than that, a non-citizen may not be deported based merely upon the desires of 10,000, 100,000, or even a million angry petitioners. Deportation may only be based on some valid, legal basis.

As a non-citizen lawfully present in the U.S., Mr. Morgan is entitled to due process, a point which may surprise many. Due process means he has to be served with notice in a particular way and be advised of the ground of removal. He is entitled to present evidence, witnesses in his defense, and argue for relief from removal if any exist.

What does calling for someone’s “deportation” – even a deportation with no valid basis- say about us as a nation? The First Amendment protects even probing foreign journalists and especially dissenters. Calling for one’s expulsion at a time of tragedy is one way to discipline those who profess unpopular ideas. Focusing on a non-citizen’s opinions in especially pernicious because it does two things: it seeks to expel the offending person’s views from the marketplace of ideas, but also, more importantly, shifts discussion away from the truly important issues underlying the tragedy in Connecticut: gun control. There is no valid ground for deportation which exists against Mr. Morgan. It is interesting that the voices which have now coalesced in support of his deportation have succumbed to a false assumption: that the federal government can be persuaded to exercise its extraordinary power to rid the polity of someone who has said something controversial or at odds with a special-interest group. This assumption is unsound.

The exercise of the federal deportation power which is the exclusive province of Congress and the executive branch in such a manner would be tantamount to unlawful and discriminatory “selective prosecution.” In a famous case, Reno v. AADC, 525 U.S. 471 (1999), the Supreme Court has stated that although there may be no Constitutional right to bring a selective prosecution case in the immigration context, the door was left open to such a claim where the basis for the alleged discrimination is “outrageous.” In this case, to enforce the immigration laws against Mr. Morgan for the exercise of his free speech rights would be “outrageous” in the way conceived of by Justice Scalia in his opinion in Reno v. AADC.

It concerns me deeply that as a polity we can envision the use of deportation in such a way with little analysis about the misuse of such power and no appreciation of the effects that such a proposed use would have on other parts of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment should not be trampled upon because the federal government has been imbued with other equally important powers, such as those over immigration and foreign affairs. To go down this road is dangerous and corrosive. While Mr. Morgan, a journalist and CNN celebrity, may not be fazed, all our rights are diminished if free speech can be subjected to the chilling effects of threatened deportation against those among us who espouse controversial or dissenting views.

UPDATE (Jan. 11): The White House responded to the petition to deport Piers Morgan by emphasizing his First Amendment rights to speak on gun control.

Orginally posted on ImmigrationProf Blog.

You have the right to make a difference

By Gislaine Williams, ACLU of Texas Outreach Coordinator

We are fast approaching the start of the 2013 Texas legislative session. Starting January 8 through the end of May, Texas lawmakers will meet in Austin for the 83rd Legislature. They will be proposing, debating, and passing laws that will impact all of us.

As Texans, we have the right and responsibility to be a part of this political process. You can make a difference by raising your voice to demand policies that will make a positive change in our communities. Learn how to become a grassroots activist at Community Watchdog TX.

The first step is to educate yourself. Become familiar with the major issues in Texas. Learn about the legislative process and get to know your representatives. Our toolkits provide you an overview of the critical issues facing our state:

  • Criminal Justice TX: Learn about mass incarceration, the rise of for-profit prisons, and the death penalty.
  • Educate, Don’t Incarcerate:  An overview of school discipline policies pushing students out of school.
  • Religious Freedom: A look at how our religious freedoms are threatened in Texas.
  • Immigrants’ Rights:  Find out how we’re working to reclaim the civil rights of all Texans, regardless of immigration status.
  • Find out who your representatives are here.
  • Learn how a bill becomes a law here.

Contact your legislator. There are a number of ways you can contact your representative about an issue. You can write a letter, telephone, or set-up a meeting in  the local district office. Use our lobbying guides to learn how.

Ready to meet with your legislator? We can help you schedule and prepare for your local meeting. Just email gwilliams@aclutx.org to get started.

Lobby with us in Austin! The ACLU of Texas will host our first ever Symposium & Lobby Day in Austin Feb.  10-11. On Feb.  10, you will hear from advocates and policy experts working on criminal justice and immigrants’ rights issues.  The following day we will go to the state capitol to meet with representatives to talk to them about the major civil liberties issues in our state. Sign-up today to receive more information.

Stay involved. Join the Community Action Network to get updates on ways you can advocate for change this legislative session.

Does the punishment fit the crime?

By Adriana Pinon
Staff Attorney

The October 25th shooting of two Guatemalan immigrants by a DPS sharpshooter triggered a firestorm of criticism from various organizations and public officials.  For the past month, the public has been trying to understand the details of this tragedy and whether the policy that allowed it should be revised.  This piece, written by Geoffrey A. Hoffman, an Associate Professor at the University of Houston  Law Center, analyzes the legality of the shooting astutely and accessibly.

Investigate Border Agency, Stop Abuse at Ports of Entry

By Vicki B. Gaubeca, ACLU of New Mexico and Krystal Gómez, ACLU of Texas

A year ago this week , a young woman working with the ACLU of New Mexico arrived at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) offices at the Ysleta-Zaragoza port of entry in El Paso/Ciudad Juárez. She was there to meet with a New Mexico State Police sergeant investigating her allegations of sexual assault by a Border Patrol agent that occurred while she was detained at a fixed checkpoint in NM. The meeting had been arranged in advance with CBP officials at the port of entry by the NM State Police, and CBP was made aware of the nature of the meeting.

What happened next frightened the young woman  so much that she dropped the investigation. This story, along with other stories of CBP abuse, will be featured tonight in a PBS special report on the program Need to Know. (Please see local listings for air times.)

This case is only one of many stories of abuse and impunity at the hands of CBP officers. The ACLU recently documented eleven cases of abuse at official ports of entry in a letter to the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The cases come from ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, and most involve U.S. citizens. The letter calls for an investigation into the cases and increased oversight of DHS Customs and Border Protection, an agency that has swelled in size to become the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country.

This PBS Need to Know documentary is the second installment in the series, “Crossing the Line,” that aired April 20 and focused on deaths and serious injuries caused by CBP officials.  The April 20th segment told the story of Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, a 42-year-old father of five who, in May 2010, died after a group of CBP officers beat him and shocked him with tasers at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego.  Live videotape of the beating shows bystanders calling on the officers to stop beating Hernandez-Rojas, hogtied and lying prostrate on the ground, as he screamed in pain and pled for his life.

On July 24-26, 2012, a delegation that includes members from ACLU-San Diego and Imperial Counties, ACLU-New Mexico and ACLU-Texas will travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with White House staff members, top officials at DHS and CBP, and congressional members to demand more accountability and oversight of Border Patrol agents.

Congress should create an external, independent oversight commission with investigatory, auditing, and subpoena power to respond to complaints from whistleblowers and the general public about CBP abuses, while protecting the identity and status of complainants. The oversight commission, which should include non-governmental organizations among its members, should be required to issue public reports on its activity and have the authority to make legislative, regulatory, or policy recommendations.

The time has come to create a mechanism for holding CBP accountable and to check the rising trend of abuse and deaths.

How’d This Conversation Get So Crazy?

Elizabeth, native born, was subjected to the kind of racial profiling – discrimination based on skin color or accent — that civil rights leaders predict will be widespread when law officers enforce the “show me your papers” law.

Watch the ugly situation that never should have gone beyond a difference in taste for regional cuisine.

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see YouTube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU of Texas’ privacy statement, click here.

Stand with the ACLU of Texas: Racial profiling is un-American. It violates the Constitution and the principles America stands for. We will fight to prevent laws like Arizona’s from being passed in Texas. And we will respond when towns like Farmers Branch pass ordinances that discriminate. Celebrate freedom this Fourth of July by joining the ACLU of Texas Community Action Network (CAN) to help us hold the line against these bad laws in Texas.

A good day for immigrant youth

By Olga Medina
Summer Legal Intern

Today, in a memorandum, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would halt the deportation of immigrant youth.  In effect, young immigrants who would otherwise qualify for the DREAM Act will receive deferred action for two years (subject to renewal) and become eligible for work authorization upon the satisfaction of certain requirements.  The memo authorizes the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in cases involving immigrant youth, regardless of whether or not an individual is in removal proceedings.

The announcement comes on the 30th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, which declared that immigrant and citizen children alike should have equal access to public education. Today’s announcement is a significant step forward for immigrants who were brought to the country at a very young age, have grown up in American society, and have obtained a public education under Plyler.  The announcement is a testament to the work of young activists and their allies who have advanced their cause and builds momentum for necessary policy changes in our immigration policies.