Documenting the Plight of Undocumented Students

By Renee Floyd, 2010 summer intern

Anxiety about obtaining students loans, unsure of what major to choose, and fierce competition in the job market; sounds like typical college student stressors, right?

For undocumented students, these issues are multiplied by the uncertainty of being allowed to stay in the country after graduating. This is the struggle that Southern Methodist University seniors Daniela Balderas, Erik Burgos, and two of their classmates chose to depict in a documentary called Boxed In, funded by a $1,500 “Big iDeas” grant awarded by SMU last year. The fund supports projects that impact the Dallas community. The students chose to portray the often untold story of the children of immigrants, who after spending the majority of their lives here in America, face almost insurmountable difficulties in obtaining the dream of a college education, due solely to their illegal immigration status. Things that most students take for granted (like getting drivers licenses, receiving federal scholarships or jobs, and studying abroad) are not possibilities for undocumented students. Many are hesitant to even tell their stories for fear of being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and possibly deported to their parents’ country of origin.

Once completed in September, the documentary will be posted on social media websites like Facebook and YouTube, with the hope that it will shed light on the plight faced by students caught in limbo waiting for immigration reform.

Lessons From Farmers Branch

By Frank Knaack, ACLU of Texas Legal Advocacy Coordinator

As Fremont, Nebraska considers whether to suspend or implement a discriminatory and unconstitutional government background check requirement for anyone seeking housing or employment, it would be wise to remember Farmers Branch, Texas. Farmers Branch has, on three occasions, attempted to implement a similar law. The result:

  • The laws were found by the courts to violate the US Constitution, and were thus rejected.
  • These unsuccessful attempts cost Farmers Branch taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

We hope that the Fremont City Council determines that unconstitutional and wasteful laws are not in the best interest of Fremont’s residents. We also hope that Farmers Branch recognizes what happens after three strikes.

The Wrong Side of History

By Rachel Rendeiro, 2010 summer intern

There has been a lot of talk lately about the recent Federal District Court decisions invalidating portions of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, which, among other things, disrespects both states’ and civil rights by prohibiting the federal government from recognizing same sex marriages—even when they are legal at the state level.

On July 8, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts handed down two landmark opinions (here’s one, here’s the other) that struck down some of the most offensive provisions of the law. While it remains unclear whether the Obama administration will opt to appeal the decisions, these long-awaited holdings certainly represent a considerable stride forward in the struggle for equal marriage rights.

Unfortunately, in states like Texas, where discrimination against LGBT couples is written into the state constitution, the ruling will have very little immediate impact. In effect, the ruling prohibits the federal government from singling out same sex marriages as undeserving of its recognition. In other words, same sex marriages granted in states like Massachusetts and Iowa must also be acknowledged by the Federal government. However, the decisions do not require states—like Texas—that already ban same sex marriage, to put an end to state-sanctioned discrimination.

Regardless, these recent decisions should send a strong signal to Texas lawmakers that they are on the wrong side of history where LGBT rights are concerned. The rulings should also further galvanize Texans who champion civil liberties and encourage them to continue fighting to end discrimination against LGBT couples. It is time to tell our lawmakers that discrimination has no place in Texas!

A Great Day for Human Rights and Sensible Law Enforcement

By Frank Knaack, ACLU of Texas Legal Advocacy Coordinator

Human rights organizations, including the ACLU of Texas, opposed it. Senior law enforcement officials in Texas opposed it. And now, a federal judge blocked it.

The next question: will Arizona, a state with a similar budget crisis to that of Texas, now cease its assault on the Constitution or continue to waste its scarce taxpayer dollars defending its unconstitutional and discriminatory racial profiling law (SB 1070)? We hope the former prevails … but as usual, hope will probably not be enough.

As Arizona’s government ponders its next move, some of our legislators continue to assert that Texas needs a similar law. Maybe their cable and Internet are down and their newspaper delivery person is on vacation? With a multi billion dollar budget crisis awaiting the 82nd Texas Legislature, there is no time for our legislators to engage in Arizona style shenanigans, especially shenanigans that make our communities less safe and violate our basic fundamental values.

In addition to troubling statements from some of our legislators, our Attorney General, as we wrote last week, officially dragged Texas into Arizona’s mess when he filed a legal brief in support of SB 1070.

On Wednesday, the values that make our country great prevailed. But, unless we continue this fight Wednesday may become the exception.

The Best Investment: Education

By Emily Ling, 2010 Summer Policy Intern

Texas’ soaring high school drop out rate is a serious problem. Think about this: How much money does Texas lose when students drop out rather than graduate?

A report released last year by The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M calculated that the “predicted cost of dropouts from the cohort of the senior class of 2012 is between $6 and $10.7 billion.” Knowing Texas could be at least $6 billion better off if we could see every student in the class of 2012 receive a diploma should provide some good incentive to seriously tackle the dropout rate.

Obviously there is no single solution for helping kids stay in school. The ACLU of Texas will explore issues relating to high school drop outs at the annual meeting July 31.

Here are the top three recommendations from the ACLU of Texas to keep students in class long enough to graduate:

1. Make sure that curriculum is relevant to all students. As the nation has recently seen, the Texas State Board of Education has prioritized political ideology over quality education in the adoption of curriculum standards for the state’s public schools. While having a politically charged curriculum is a disservice to all students, it is especially damaging to those children who will feel disconnected from the lessons taught in class. As Rod Paige, Secretary of Education under George W. Bush, has noted, a curriculum must be relevant to the student in order to fight dropout issues. The SBOE is meeting again this week, and unless it hopes to risk driving up even higher dropout rates, it would be wise to start establishing curriculum that fully engages ALL Texas children.

2. Keep kids out of the juvenile justice system. Once students are suspended or become involved in the court system, they are much more at risk for never finishing school. And, with 163 Texas school districts now maintaining their own police forces, and most others with on-campus law enforcement, more students are finding their minor misconduct results in criminal consequences rather than simple school discipline. Zero tolerance policies and excessive punitive measures coupled with the rising use of expulsion and ticketing in schools have effectively pushed many kids out of the classroom for good. Further bad news: When kids drop out of school now, they often become involved in the adult criminal justice system later.

3. Set Seniors Up To Succeed. In 2007 the Texas Legislature expanded traditional truancy laws beyond the scope of minors, so that now students between the ages of 18-21 who enroll in school can be subject to truancy charges for failing to attend class, even if they have to leave school to support their family. In the years since this change in law, schools have increased the number of truancy charges they’ve files by 40 percent – meaning tens of thousands of more students have faced fines and jail time for failing to attend class. When school districts charge students with truancy, their attempts to graduate are only further complicated by court appearances, fines, and even possible jail time. The state of Texas should be encouraging older students to complete their education, rather than being the only state in the nation to prosecute legal adults for too many school absences.

It’s in the best interest of our communities and our economy and our kids to have a more educated, more productive workforce. More is at stake then just the future of individual students – the future health of Texas is also on the line.

Shame on Attorney General Abbott

By Frank Knaack, ACLU of Texas Legal Advocacy Coordinator

Last Wednesday, our Attorney General filed a legal brief supporting Arizona’s new discriminatory racial profiling law (SB1070). Worse, he did so in Texas’ name.

It appears Attorney General Abbott may have missed a blog we wrote last month. The blog in question highlighted Texas law enforcement’s opposition to Arizona’s new discriminatory racial profiling law (SB1070). Had he read the blog, Attorney General Abbott would have saved our state both the embarrassment of being associated with Arizona’s discriminatory law as well as the time and expense (at taxpayers cost) of taking this legal action. In addition, he would have understood that in addition to being unconstitutional and a waste of our tax dollars, SB1070 makes communities less safe.

As our Executive Director, Terri Burke, stated:

“We are deeply disappointed that Attorney General Abbott has filed a brief supporting Arizona’s extreme ‘show me your papers’ law. Discriminatory laws have no place in Texas, or in America. By filing this brief in support of Arizona’s discriminatory racial profiling law, Attorney General Abbott has brought shame on my native state.”

As Texans, we are proud of our values … and supporting a discriminatory racial profiling law is certainly not one of them. Furthermore, we rely on law enforcement to keep us safe. Their input should not be ignored.

Shame on Attorney General Abbott for dragging Texas into Arizona’s mess. His action was plain un-Texan.

Vindication for A.A.

By Dotty Griffith, ACLU of Texas Public Education Director

School districts should take note of the ACLU of Texas’ recent Fifth Circuit victory in which the appellate court upheld the right of a American Indian kindergarten student to wear his hair in long braids because that’s part of his religion.

The situation reflected in this case – a school district abridging a student’s right to religious expression – isn’t unique to Needville ISD, located in a small town by the same name near Houston.

We get complaints about similar situations from all over the state. Not all result in lawsuits and this ruling should make similar court wrangles unnecessary.

This religious rights victory should be a wakeup call to any school district that tries to put its dress code ahead of the rights of a Catholic student to wear a cross, a Jewish student’s right to wear a yarmulke or, as in this case, an American Indian student’s right to honor his heritage and beliefs by wearing long braids.

A Call for Transparency in the Willingham Case

By Peter McGraw, 2010 summer intern

There is one issue in the death penalty debate that I hope both sides can agree on: innocent people should not be put to death.

Tragically, as we wrote about last year, it appears Texas may have done just that when it executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004. Now, a stalled forensics investigation stands in the way of finally bringing Mr. Willingham’s possible wrongful conviction and execution to light (as well as shedding light on the use of junk science in capital trials). After months sitting on the case and rumor that the investigation will be carried out behind closed doors, the panel charged with investigating the Willingham fire and the rest of the forensic science commission are finally scheduled to meet again on July 23rd in Houston. You can help stop further injustice in Mr. Willingham’s case by demanding that the panel conduct a public, swift, and transparent investigation – please email (, call (888-296-4232), or submit public comments on TFSC’s website. Without public pressure, the commission will likely continue its past inaction.

The last commission meeting, on April 23rd, was the first time that Mr. Willingham’s case was discussed under new Chairman John Bradley. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the commission decided they could only devote 15 minutes of the 6-hour meeting to the likely conviction and execution of an innocent man. However, they were able to set aside an astonishing 90 minutes to discuss the role of private laboratories in developing evidence for criminal cases, a topic entirely outside of the purview of the commission according to Steven Saloom of the Innocence Project. After the meeting, Bradley refused to provide a timeline for the investigation into Mr. Willingham’s case: “However long it takes, that’s however long it takes.” That is a terrifying answer to hear in the state that leads the nation in executions.

Bradley’s conduct since being appointed last October has been less than forthright. He failed to show at a recent House Public Safety Committee hearing, dodging criticism of TFSC’s lack of procedural guidelines and public records policies. There are also reports that Bradley asked other members of the panel leading the Willingham investigation to destroy all emails relating to the investigation. Even Dr. Sarah Kerrigan, current member of the Willingham panel, thought this request was outside Bradley’s authority.

Support for the death penalty has declined since the mid-90’s, due in large part to an astounding 138 exonerations of people on death row. The panel’s investigation could lead us towards number 139, albeit too late to help Mr. Willingham. If the hearings are made private then we risk adding further injustice to Mr. Willingham’s case as well as to those already on Texas’ death row, as the state may be refusing to confront possible mistakes in ordering executions. Furthermore, we risk silencing a necessary public debate about capital punishment.

Don’t let politics triumph over bringing justice to Mr. Willingham’s case. Contact the commission early and often about its next hearing and demand an open investigation of Mr. Willingham’s case!

It Takes Two to Tango

By Brigitte Amiri, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
Lisa Graybill, ACLU of Texas
Harriet Johnson, ACLU of Mississippi

Couples who share responsibility for making healthy decisions about their birth control methods should be supported. That’s why we took action when men who sought to purchase emergency contraception for their female partners were turned away by pharmacists at Walgreens in Texas and Mississippi.

We applaud the men and women who contacted us and stood up for their rights to obtain emergency contraception. We also applaud Walgreens for making explicitly clear that emergency contraception must be sold to men.

We hope Walgreens will be the model for pharmacies across the country. But if you are denied emergency contraception we urge you to stand up for your rights and contact us because we remain concerned that these incidents were not isolated.

In fact, we are investigating another drug store chain whose pharmacy refused to sell emergency contraception to men.

In response to our letters to them detailing these complaints, Walgreens recently issued a bulletin to all of their pharmacies nationwide instructing them that emergency contraception can be sold to “male and female customers age 17 and older.” The bulletin also said that a male customer who asks to purchase emergency contraception need not be “accompanied by a female, and does not need to identify the individual for whom he is purchasing the product.” This policy tracks the FDA’s guidelines for distribution of emergency contraception.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved emergency contraception for sale behind the pharmacy counter for men and women ages 17 and older. Time is of the essence when accessing emergency contraception. Experts stress that emergency contraception is most effective the sooner a woman takes it, and its effectiveness decreases every 12 hours. It is therefore crucial that a customer can get access to emergency contraception as soon as it is needed. A couple who is trying to quickly access emergency contraception to prevent an unintended pregnancy should be supported by the pharmacy, not shunned. Luckily, Walgreens’ headquarters agreed.

You, My Fellow Patriot

By Terri Burke, ACLU of Texas Executive Director

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a patriot and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

Just in time for the Fourth of July a national publication ranked the 100 Most Patriotic Cities in the country. We’ve all seen lists like these, ranking the top cities in this or the best cities for that. Let’s be honest, they’re mostly gimmicks designed to get the readership talking and chambers of commerce excited. But I must admit, I bit on this particular list and wondered which city ranked the most patriotic in Texas.

Have any guesses? My first guess – with its numerous military bases and high concentration of veterans – was San Antonio. If your first guess was the same as mine, we were both wrong.

I looked at the list and there it was: The most patriotic city in Texas (21st nationally) is Austin, our state’s capitol. Yes, THAT Austin. Famously weird and liberal Austin – the city sometimes referred to as the “blue hole in the red doughnut,” other times labeled San Francisco East – had ranked the most red-white-and-blue-lovin’ city in the Lone Star State. Some folks feel that way about the ACLU of Texas. But there’s nothing liberal or conservative about believing in and protecting the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Now, I don’t place much stock in these lists because they’re gimmicks. But it did get me to think, “What makes one patriotic?” This list, for instance, used flag and firework purchases, among other criteria, to come up with its rankings. Flag waving and sparklers are all fine and good, but I would argue that’s the easy way to show your patriotism. Standing up for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, even when it isn’t the easy thing to do, now that’s patriotism.

Which brings me back to my original point: You’re a patriot. I know this because you’re reading this and would answer “yes” to at least one if not all of these questions: Should you be free to practice a religion or none at all? Is it your right to express a viewpoint freely and openly? Do you feel that all in this country, regardless of race, ethnicity or background should be treated fairly, equally and with respect?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you, and the ACLU of Texas, believe in the Constitution and all it stands for.

As I’ve traveled this great state meeting many of you I can honestly say that ACLU of Texas supporters are some of the most ardently patriotic individuals anywhere. This weekend, when you celebrate our country’s birthday and settle in for that post-cook out fireworks show, don’t forget to wave the flag and be proud. You’re a patriot.