Archive for June, 2010:
By Frank Knaack, ACLU of Texas Legal Advocacy Coordinator
The following could soon be overheard in a Texas public school near you:
“Today, children, we are going to learn how Senator Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated! … And later this week we will be studying the prominent role of religion in our government.”
Huh, what alternate universe am I living in? How could public school curriculum paint a one-sided picture of such a controversial figure? How could public school curriculum ignore the constitutional separation of church and state?
The answer: the majority on the Texas State Board of Education took it upon themselves to create a new history, one that weaves a narrow, ideologically driven historical narrative into Texas’ public school curriculum (this narrative also includes the Board’s own constitutional “modifications”). This new curriculum, adopted last month, was released Friday.
The new social studies curriculum attempts to morph highly contentious historical debates into universally accepted truths, and does so through the Board’s abuse of the power granted to it by the Texas legislature (see a PDF of our recent report, The Texas State Board of Education: A Case of Abuse of Power, for greater detail). The Board’s May meeting, where this curriculum was adopted, offered numerous examples of this abuse. Despite the fact that Board members personally selected the “experts” and review committee members appointed to update and recommend changes to the previous TEKS, Board members still felt the need to offer and accept a plethora of last minute amendments. Among the many factually questionable and/or ideologically-driven last-minute amendments approved by the Board was a requirement that students “evaluate efforts by global organizations to undermine U.S. sovereignty through the use of treaties.” Those Board members who voted for this amendment may want to check out the U.S. Constitution before this requirement makes it to the classroom. This is especially important given these members’ (stated) great reverence for our country’s Founders and our Constitution. For it was our Founders who wrote, in our Constitution, that “ … all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” (We stuck with one example because of our desire to keep this blog post below book length, which would be required to give these amendments, and the curriculum as a whole, the critique it deserves.)
By accepting these last minute amendments, the Board not only further clarified their agenda (it does not appear that ensuring the future for Texas’ children was anywhere near the top), but also made it impossible for the “experts” and review committee members to have the opportunity to review the amendments. (Let’s remember that it was the Board itself that established the process in the first place.)
Fortunately, all is not lost. While this flawed curriculum may have passed, it will not have any practical impact on Texas’ public school students until new textbooks are created to reflect this new history, a process many months in the making. It is also important to remember that while the Texas legislature may have granted the Board the authority to create the curriculum, it also has the power to revoke the Board’s authority over curriculum at any time. With a new legislative session quickly approaching, it is about time for the legislature to exercise their power by ensuring that only subject matter experts play a role in the development of curriculum for Texas’ public school students.
Stay tuned to the Liberty Blog to learn how you can take action to halt the Board’s abuses! And sign up to get Action Alert emails on the SBOE as well as other issues.
By Renee Floyd, 2010 summer intern
When it comes to immigration legislation, many Texas law enforcement officers are hoping what happens in Arizona, stays in Arizona. Along with many residents, senior local law enforcement officials feel that the job of enforcing immigration laws undermines their core mission: keeping their communities safe.
City and county law enforcement from throughout the southwest border region held a panel discussion on local immigration enforcement earlier this month in El Paso. For two hours, participants answered questions from the public regarding proposed legislation similar to Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070. The controversial legislation would require local enforcement to confirm the immigration status of those suspected of being illegal immigrants during interactions with the public and imposes a penalty for failure to do so. In effect, Arizona will mandate law enforcement personnel to engage in racial profiling.
By the end of the panel discussion, these law enforcement officials had made one thing clear: enforcing federal immigration law is not the job of local law enforcement. El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles remarked that those fueling the national debate didn’t understand the local communities that would be affected. As Sheriff Wiles stated, “I get really disgusted when I hear the national debate on immigration … (Politicians) make these outrageous plans without understanding our community.” Las Cruces, N.M., Police Chief Richard Williams echoed Wiles’ position. Williams stated in the long term there must be immigration reform because immigration issues complicate the job of making communities safe. In addition to the concerns voiced by law enforcement officials on the border, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo recently wrote that the bill would only push law abiding immigrants further into the fringes of society and impose additional burdens on local law enforcement.
Beyond the concerns of law enforcement over the legislation’s potential negative impact on safety, such legislation would also serve to distract lawmakers from pressing issues at a time when Texas is facing a $17 billion shortfall. In a statement criticizing plans to introduce an Arizona-like anti-immigrant bill in Texas, ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke stated:
“(I)t is preposterous that an elected official would even consider throwing an unconstitutional racial profiling law into the legislative mix. … Arizona’s law is unconstitutional. It doesn’t make Arizonans safer. It is leading to national protests and perhaps an economic boycott of the state. Over time, enforcement will erode community confidence in police and reduce community cooperation in fighting crime. Texas doesn’t need any of these bad results from a bad law.”
In light of local law enforcement’s stated opposition to similar legislation in Texas and the waste of valuable legislative time and money needed for its enactment, the Texas Legislature should recognize that this is not in the best interest of Texans. Such legislation does nothing to address our country’s real and pressing immigration concerns and would likely lead to the erosion of local law enforcement’s community relations, and in doing so would make our communities less safe.
By Michael Cowles, 2010 summer intern
Last week, another person was killed on the U.S.-Mexico border, this time a 15-year-old child. The incident arose after a group started throwing rocks (a common occurrence on the border) at a Border Patrol agent who was apprehending an individual suspected of trying to cross the border illegally. “Since biblical times, rocks have been used as a crude but effective weapon to injure and kill humans,” the National Border Patrol Council said, in defense of the Border Patrol agent’s actions.
It wasn’t the rocks, however, that proved deadly.
The situation instead escalated when the agent, unharmed, opened fire on the group of rock throwers and struck Sergio Adrian Hernandez Güereca in the head, killing him. The border agent was “not trained, nor paid to withstand violent assaults” without the ability to “defend” himself, the union said. However, a video has already emerged that cast serious doubt on the validity of the agent’s version of events.
Training of Border Patrol Agents
Four years ago, in the shadow of anti-immigrant demonstrations and legislation introduced in Congress, the Bush administration engaged in a flurry of hiring of new Border Patrol agents. In order to accomplish this rash of new hires, the agency lowered its hiring standards and training practices, a move that was even criticized by the Border Patrol’s union at the time.
A video of the most recent incident, taken by a bystander on a camera phone, raises serious questions about whether insufficient training was at the heart of this shooting. At no point in the video does the agent appear to make an attempt to distance himself from the group. Soon after the group began throwing rocks, the agent can be seen firing two bullets at Güereca and the others as they ran away from him. The agent then waited for several seconds and fired a third bullet. It was one of these bullets which killed 15-year-old Güereca.
Accountability for Agents Who Break the Law
As important as proper training is ensuring that agents are held accountable if they act dangerously and/or illegally. While this latest incident has caused outrage in Mexico, groups like the Border Patrol union have already begun to diminish the incident or dismiss it outright (the Border Patrol union says Güereca’s death was due “solely to his decision to pick up a rock”). While it is premature to judge the legality of the agent’s action, it is clear that this incident requires a full and transparent investigation by the US government. This investigation takes on particular importance and urgency following President Obama’s recent announcement that he plans to send an additional 1,200 National Guardsmen to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Breaking the Pattern
Meanwhile, there is an ever increasing body count of Mexican nationals along the border. Only two weeks ago, a 32-year-old man died after being Tasered by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer. His death was ruled a homicide by the San Diego coroner. In this year alone, there have been 17 incidents of people being injured or killed by Border Patrol agents, already higher than last year and double the count from 2008. When this spike in violence will end depends largely on how the Obama administration responds to the increasingly evident need for better training of Border Patrol agents and accountability when things go wrong. In Güereca’s case, there must be a full investigation. If the agent is found to have acted negligently, used excessive force, or committed a criminal homicide, he should be held to account. The safety and security of our borders cannot be ensured unless there exists properly trained agents who both ensure and abide by the rule of law.
By Jessica Cohen, 2010 summer intern
(Want to do more? Please visit the ACLU Action Center and tell Congress to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”!)
Last weekend marked the 9th Annual Austin Pride Festival and Parade. Calling the event a success would be nothing short of an understatement. The weekend festivities included a variety of musical and comedy acts at the Long Center, a Block Party celebration on 4th street, and the Austin Pride 5K Run. The flagship event of the weekend was of course, the impressive Pride Parade on Saturday in the downtown area. Thousands lined the downtown streets to demonstrate their pride of and support for the LGBT community, and of course to see some creative floats, live music, and a whole lot of cheering.
While this celebration may have the feel of a light-hearted, Austin-ized Mardi Gras extravaganza, the significance and message behind the Austin Pride Festival is of utmost importance to our society and to the ACLU of Texas. This year has marked major steps toward the realization of equal rights for members of the LGBT community across the nation. President Obama’s Presidential Memorandum demanding the expansion of hospital visitation rights to non-family members and his administration’s efforts to revoke “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” denote impressive strides decades in the making. However, there is still much to be done, including securing same-sex partnership benefits from employers, ensuring protection against discrimination, and government recognition of same-sex relationships.
The demand that members of the LGBT community receive equal treatment under the law strikes at the core of the ACLU’s mission of protecting individual liberties. As such, the ACLU of Texas stands with the LGBT community in demanding equal rights and working towards a better future. Hopefully, the day in which LGBT rights are fully recognized both publicly and privately is not far away, but in the mean time, the ACLU of Texas remains committed to the cause.
Weren’t in Austin for last weekend’s festivities? Don’t fret. San Antonio Pride is this weekend, June 12-13. And, for those in the Houston area, the Houston Pride Parade takes place on June 26 at 8:30 pm. ACLU supporters interested in participating in the Houston Pride Parade should contact the Houston chapter at firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday, June 23rd.
By Jen Dykstra and Evan Mintz, 2010 summer interns
The phrase “human trafficking” usually summons images of internationally smuggled laborers and trans-national sexual exploitation. However, at last week’s meeting of the state Criminal Jurisprudence and the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence committees, testimony from district attorneys, police and non-profits demonstrated the horrors are much closer to home. The hearing shook our preconceptions about the reality of human trafficking in Texas and the challenges facing law enforcement.
Given Texas’ massive border with Mexico, sprawling international airports, and global shipping ports, it is no surprise that state government would take up the issue.
What we learned is that a vast amount of trafficking occurs exclusively within U.S. borders. Many spoke of teenage runaways whisked into forced prostitution or labor within 48 hours of living on the streets. Even more shocking was that, according to the Austin Police Department, 20 percent of all human trafficking victims travel through Texas at some point — mostly on Interstate 10.
What Texas Has Done and Needs to Do
During the 81st session, the legislature passed HB 4009, which requires the Attorney General to establish a task force to develop policies, procedures, data collection, and training to assist in the prevention and prosecution of human trafficking. It was a strong step, even after Texas became one of the first to codify human trafficking as a separate offense from kidnapping.
Many who testified enumerated the shortcomings Texas, and the rest of the nation, faces in fighting human trafficking. Some problems are obvious — funding programs, training local law enforcement officers, and general public awareness. However, a recurring theme was how to break the cycle of girls willingly returning to prostitution after age 18.
The testimony from district attorneys, police, and non-profits painted a picture of a vast system exploiting men, women and children.
Law enforcement is currently ill-prepared to deal with an industry hidden within our cities, and police often come at the problem indirectly. Police often only catch human traffickers after charging the victims with a crime. Young girls exploited by traffickers are arrested for prostitution, and only through investigations of this crime do police learn about threats and coercion inherent in human trafficking. For this reason, enhanced training for local law enforcement on identifying victims of human trafficking is an essential next step.
Despite steps to specifically criminalize involuntary trafficking, this distinct problem is often viewed through the lens of voluntary immigrant smuggling. And many district attorneys are willing to rely upon familiar misdemeanor charges, such as unlawful restraint or prostitution, rather than the felony charge of trafficking.
And in a Texas-sized irony, girls not old enough to legally consent for sex can still be charged for prostitution. The age of consent in Texas is 17, but girls younger than that are frequently charged with prostitution. It is contradictory and wrong for girls too young to consent to be arrested specifically for doing that very thing. To fix this, Mandi Kimball, Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs for Children at Risk, proposed that the legislature add a minimum age requirement for the charge of prostitution. This change would help protect the exploited, while encouraging law enforcement to focus on the perpetrators of the crime, not the victims.
Texas Has More Work to Do
While Texas is making strides, there is more that can be done. Look for upcoming legislation in Texas starting next January, and contact your state representatives to support funding and legislation aimed at human trafficking.
By Matt Simpson, ACLU of Texas Policy Strategist
The much-debated and controversial Austin Regional Intelligence Center (ARIC) took an important step forward in recent days.
The Austin City Council approved the ARIC Interlocal Agreement, which binds the 10 partner agencies participating in the ARIC to common goals, states a commitment to resource and information sharing, and articulates the kinds of information that will be collected.
In testimony, concerns about the scope of information to be collected were repeatedly articulated by privacy and civil liberties advocates and Austin residents.
The Council will be held responsible for violations of the privacy and civil liberties of Austin residents. By incorporating clear direction as to the kinds of information the ARIC will collect, council member Morrison and City Council have taken an important step in focusing the center on criminal matters. Focusing on known and suspected criminals not only discourages fishing operations that often result in privacy and civil liberties violations, but also focuses resources on tangible threats to public safety.
The ARIC will become operational in the next several months and aspects of the center policy remain troubling. For example, despite Council efforts to improve the mission of the ARIC, the center will still collect Suspicious Activities Reports. This program collects complaints from area residents about other residents and shares these reports in a federal database. As the ARIC becomes operational, the City of Austin, residents of the Austin area, and their elected officials will have to continue to be vigilant to ensure the ARIC is living up to our expectations.