ACLU of Texas: The “Best Activist Organization” in Austin!

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

It’s that time of year again – The Austin Chronicle’s Best of Austin ballots are ready for submission – and we are looking for your vote for “Best Activist Organization”!  

As you ponder over what lucky organization will get your vote, you might be asking “why you, ACLU of Texas”? We’ll tell you why: For starters, we are the only activist organization that advocates for all civil liberties issues – no picking and choosing for us.  Beyond that, just listen to some of the great things we got done over the past year!  By the time you are done reading, voting for yours truly will be the only logical choice.

  • We fought to keep kids in schools and out of jail.  Schools now have clear steps to follow to protect their students from bullying at school; parents now have the right to tell schools that the school cannot corporally punish their child; less kids will be ticketed as a result of their childish misbehavior; and before ticketing truant students, schools are now required to first implement preventative measures.  Better yet, students under 12 or over 17 can no longer be given tickets for being truant. 
  • In support of student Nikki Peet, we successfully persuaded the Flour Bluff High School to allow a Gay-straight Alliance (GSA) Club to be formed on its campus. Denying a GSA club the ability to meet, when the school allows other non-curricular clubs to meet, violates the First Amendment and the Equal Access Act. Schools around Texas took note that we won’t stand for this discrimination!
  • We advocated before the State Board of Education, and told them that scholarship, not politics must determine our children’s public school curriculum. 
  • We got Austin youth involved in activism! Our youth advocates made office visits at the Capitol, testified on behalf of their peers, and helped us with our “Know your Rights” manuals for students.
  • It was an uphill battle, but we fought tooth and nail against the anti-immigrant legislation at the Capitol this session.  And, we are glad to report that the ‘Sanctuary Cities” bill has finally died!

That is just a sampling of the ways we fought to defend your civil liberties this past year. Please show your support by voting the ACLU of Texas as the “Best Activist Organization” in the Austin Chronicle’s Best of Austin contest!  Click here for the ballot, make sure you fill out all the required information, and find the “Best Activist Organization” under the “Politics and Personalities” Section.  And remember, you don’t have to live in Austin to vote!

Thanks y’all!

Beyond out of step, Texas is endangering US nationals abroad!

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

The State of Texas is about to put a man to death without ensuring his fundamental due process rights. Unless Governor Perry or the courts stay this execution set for July 7, the United States will be in blatant disregard of international treaty obligations. The fallout from the unlawful execution could jeopardize the safety of American nationals, including U.S. military personnel, abroad.

Humberto Leal Garcia, a Mexican national, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in 1995 without being informed of his right, under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to seek assistance and legal counsel from the Mexican consulate. It wasn’t until he reached death row that he received the contact information for the Mexican Consulate – from a fellow inmate.

This violation of Leal’s consular right deprived him of his constitutional right to due process, which could have made the difference in both the guilt and/or sentencing phases of his trial. In 2004, the International Court of Justice, in the Avena and Other Mexican Nationals case, held that Leal was entitled to a hearing on the consular rights violation in his case. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have acknowledged that the U.S. is obligated to comply with the ICJ’s decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court said that the Avena decision constitutes an international obligation on behalf of the United States. On June 14th, Senator Leahy (VT-D) introduced legislation that would require implementation of the ICJ’s decision, and the bill has the support of the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State.

But, absent a federal law, it is up to the courts or Governor Perry to intervene and grant Leal a stay. Without this intervention, Leal will be put to death next Thursday without ever receiving the hearing he was legally entitled to. The U.S. is seen across the world as a leader in the fight for human rights. Violating international obligations undermines America’s leadership position and could embolden other countries to violate the consular rights of U.S. citizens arrested in their countries. The importance of ensuring the consular rights of Americans arrested abroad is clear after reading Euna Lee’s story, an American journalist who was captured in North Korea, and exercised her right to consular access. With more than 6600 Americans arrested abroad in 2010, it is in the best interest of the U.S. to hold up its side of the bargain.

Because of these concerns, a broad group of people, including former diplomats, retired military officials, and organizations representing Americans abroad are urging Governor Perry to grant a stay to Mr. Leal, and asking the U.S. Congress to pass legislation to ensure that the U.S. adheres to its obligation to inform foreign nationals arrested or detained of their consular rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

Please stand with us: urge Governor Rick Perry to stay the execution of Humberto Leal, and ask your federal lawmakers to vote for this legislation.

The ACLU of Texas Welcomes Summer Law Clerks, Policy Interns, and Youth Advocacy Interns!

With the arrival of summer, the ACLU of Texas is excited to welcome a talented group of summer law clerks, policy interns, and youth advocacy interns! Our legal and policy departments depend on these students for their high quality research and analyses that allow us to further the ACLU’s mission in the great state of Texas. Learn more about our interns below!

Get involved, join the an ACLU of Texas Community Action Network.

Law Clerks

“Summer law clerks are an absolutely invaluable resource for the ACLU of Texas. Under the supervision of ACLU of Texas attorneys, law clerks investigate complaints, research the relevant law, and help us bring civil rights cases all across the state. The energy and enthusiasm summer law clerks bring to the office inspires the whole staff.”
Lisa Graybill, Legal Director, ACLU of Texas

Alissa Parsley
Alissa was born and raised in Austin, and attends the University of Texas School of Law, where she is focusing on immigration law. This summer, Alissa’s tasks include writing a legal memo on the Equal Access Act and students’ right to form gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in public secondary schools; drafting a report on religious entanglement in Texas public schools; and preparing a Know Your Rights presentation to students participating in Texas GSA Network’s Youth Activist Camp on how to successfully set up GSAs at their schools.
Tassity Johnson
Tassity grew up in Houston, and attends Yale Law School. Her interests include literature, cultural theory, buying too many used books, and spending too much time on the Internet. This summer, Tassity is investigating legal issues relating to the solitary confinement of juveniles, and researching the grievance and exhaustion procedures used in different Texas state and federal prisons pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act.
Tim Neal
Tim was born in New Jersey, grew up in Dallas, and currently attends the University of Texas School of Law. Tim is a devoted Longhorns fan, is a movie buff, and a comic book geek. This summer, Tim is assisting in the drafting of a report on conditions of confinement for immigrant inmates held in privately run facilities used exclusively to house noncitizens serving criminal sentences. These facilities, like the Reeves County Detention Center (RCDC) in Pecos Texas, are infamous for providing substandard medical care to inmates, many of whom have committed no crime beyond illegally re-entering the country. The ACLU of Texas is currently litigating a federal civil rights case on behalf of the family of an epileptic inmate who died in solitary confinement after being denied access to life-saving medical care at RCDC.


“Working under the Policy and Advocacy Department, our policy interns and youth advocacy interns are creating a Know your Rights curriculum designed to educate Texas students about their rights guaranteed under the US Constitution and the laws of Texas. Their expertise, fresh ideas and dedication are key in our efforts to advance the civil rights and liberties of all Texas youth.”
Matt Simpson, Policy Strategist, ACLU of Texas.

Hannah Zimmermann
Hannah grew up in Northampton, MA, is currently a student at the University of Texas School of Law, and hopes to pursue a career in immigration and international human rights law. This summer Hannah has been drafting a comprehensive summary of civil-rights-related developments in the 2011 legislative session, as well as reviewing and analyzing bills related to the School to Prison Pipeline.
Sara Myklebust
Born in Tucson, AZ, Sara is a student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT, focusing on immigration policy and social issues. She like to play disc (frisbee) golf, camp, swim and cook in her free time. Sara has been advocating for humane immigration policies at the legislature, and also helping to write Youth Rights trainings.
Elizabeth Stephens
Elizabeth is a candidate for an MA in Sustainable International Development at Brandeis University. She is interested in a career applying a human rights approach to international development. This summer she is creating a Know Your Rights Curriculum for youth and public school students and piloting these trainings with partner organizations in Austin.


“From advocating for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline at the Legislature earlier this year, including testifying for the ACLU of TX before both Senate and House Committees, to their current work researching and drafting Know Your Rights presentations to educate their peers throughout Texas, Ian and Solveij have been and continue to be invaluable assets to the ACLU of TX.”
Frank Knaack, Policy and Advocacy Strategist, ACLU of Texas.

Solveij Praxis
Solvei will be a senior at Westlake High School and before this internship she worked with the ACLU of Texas as a member of the youth legislative team. She is glad to have this opportunity to expand her knowledge of youth rights and responsibilities.
Ian McCurley
Ian will also be a senior at Westlake High School, and was a member of the youth legislation team with the ACLU of Texas. He is currently working on Know Your Rights trainings, and is glad for the advocacy experience he has gained from working with the ACLU of Texas.

A Glimmer of Hope in Texas’ Approach to the War on Drugs

By: Frank Knaack
Policy and Advocacy Strategist

June 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs” — a war that has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world’s largest incarcerator. Throughout the month, check back daily for posts about the drug war, its victims and what needs to be done to restore fairness and create effective policy.

The federal government’s failed “war on drugs” has had a devastating impact on Texas. From the now infamous Tulia and Hearne drug arrest scandals, to the millions of dollars wasted through anti-drug trafficking programs, Texas’ drug policies have eroded our liberties and squandered our tax dollars.

But hope is not lost in Texas. While it’s true that the state’s close proximity to the horrific “war on drugs”-related violence in Mexico has fueled the adoption of some “we must surrender our liberty to ensure our security”-type legislation, there have been some positive changes as well. The cost of the “war on drugs” has forced our legislators to look at alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders, and racial profiling scandals have forced needed changes in state laws governing criminal trials. While we cannot count on a smart drug policy in Texas anytime soon, a glimmer of hope is finally on the horizon.

For starters, the need to rationally address Texas’ massive corrections budget, in part fueled by the large number of inmates sentenced for nonviolent drug offenses, has led to a number of positive changes. The call for alternatives to incarceration, in Texas and across the country, has also benefited from “a growing belief among state lawmakers that prosecuting drug offenders aggressively often fails to treat their underlying addiction problems and can result in offenders cycling in and out of prisons for years.

Since 2003, the Texas Legislature has passed a number of bills aimed at reducing the number of individuals incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses. Instead of building new and costly prisons, the legislature has increased the use of probation and provided increased funding for nonviolent offenders to attend residential and nonresidential treatment programs. And, as the numbers show, concerns about any coinciding decrease in public safety are unfounded: as Right on Crime pointed out, “serious property, violent, and sex crimes per 100,000 Texas residents have declined 12.8 percent since 2003.”

And there’s more good news! In response to drug task force scandals in Tulia, Hearne, and elsewhere involving the falsifying of government records, witness tampering, fabricating evidence, stealing drugs from evidence lockers, selling drugs to children, and large-scale racial profiling, the Texas Legislature passed legislation that prohibits the conviction of people for drug offenses based solely on the word of an undercover informant. Many of the innocent individuals (mostly African-American men) in those cases were convicted based on testimony by sworn officers and informants with checkered pasts (to put it nicely).

So, while we still face the old and discredited zero-sum security/liberty rhetoric, real progress has been made in Texas to reduce the negative impact of the 40 year-old “war on drugs” for all Texans. Thus, hope is not lost!

Learn more about the war on drugs: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Growing Wave of Opposition to Sanctuary Cities Bill

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

The Texas Senate passed SB 9 last week, but not without fierce opposition. Police chiefs, religious leaders, businesses leaders, human rights advocates all sounded similar alarms – SB 9 will hurt our economy, undermine our safety, and undercut our values.

Today, the House is holding hearings on SB 9 and its House counterpart HB 9. Today is also World Refugee Day. Unfortunate irony aside, the collective message is clear – SB 9 and HB 9 are wrong for Texas.

Major news outlets around Texas agree with the concerns about this legislation. We hope that Texas House Members will heed these concerns before casting their vote.

  • A Dallas Morning News editorial on June 16th notes that supporters of this bill have “ignored police chiefs who say their current policies work fine…[and who say that the bill] would undermine police chief’s attempts to focus on violent or property offenses”. The paper noted additional problems with the bill including undefined language, high risk of racial profiling, economic costs, and scaring off witnesses, and “hopes that House members wake up to the everyday mess this bill would cause and fight passage”.
  • On June 17th, on the front page of the Houston Chronicle Metro Section, a sad and gripping article explained that the Sanctuary City bill would have done nothing to prevent the death of Houston Police officer Kevin Will, killed last month by an undocumented drunk driver, who had already been deported twice. The article clearly shows that this legislation is not only ineffective, but also argues that looking tough on undocumented immigration for political gain will not be worth the costs to society.
  • A June 15th editorial in the Star-Telegram called legislators out for twisting the purpose of the bill by falsely connecting undocumented immigration to protecting us from violent Mexican drug cartels. The paper argues that the bill will not deter drug traffickers, but it certainly will burden police departments (costing about $4.5 million to train officers), and will ruin the lives of good people who come to Texas to provide better lives for their families.
  • The San Antonio Express calls the bill a misguided initiative, searching for a problem (‘Sanctuary Cities’) that is hard to prove even exists. Furthermore, the bill will distract police from their primary mission to protect against crime, and while it targets Latinos, all Texans will feel the negative effects.

Senate Passes Anti-Immigrant Legislation

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

While not a surprise, it is still a disappointment that just after midnight Wednesday following more than five-hours of debate, the Senate passed anti-immigrant legislation known as SB 9.  Some legislators tried, and failed, to pass similar legislation during the regular session, but Gov. Rick Perry resurrected the issue during the special session. The bill will shortly move to the House for debate, where it is also expected to pass.

During debate, a number of senators stood up to the majority and placed their colleagues who supported the bill on notice.  Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio called the bill hurtful, ignorant, and offensive. Sen. John Whitmire of Houston opposed the bill stating that he had a moral duty to stand up against discrimination. Sen. Jose Rodriguez of El Paso asserted that while the nation’s competitiveness depends on Hispanics, Texas will be viewed as an unwelcoming place towards all immigrants — legal and illegal, documented and undocumented.

Earlier this week on Monday, hundreds of people including police chiefs,  business and religious leaders testified about why this bill will hurt all Texans.  This discriminatory bill will have the unintended consequence of making Texas’ communities less safe, drain our already strapped economy, create distrust between law enforcement and residents, and tear families apart.  Instead of combating dangerous and violent crime, this bill could turn our local officers into state and locally funded immigration police and will actually discourage reporting crimes and working with police. Members of the business community, law enforcement officials, faith groups, and concerned residents have all come to the same conclusion:  This bill is not good for Texas. 

One other unintended consequence of this bill – and one we hope for — is a new generation of human rights advocates, whose first priority will be to hold government officials accountable for anti-immigrant measures such as SB 9.  This fight is far from over, and we will be on the right side of history.  Want to help?  Find out how by visiting our website,, and signing-up for our E-Alerts.