Author: Staff

Hair Love Missing in Texas: TLBC Announces Plan to File CROWN Act

Discrimination remains an active and poisonous force throughout Texas. House Democrats have the responsibility to fight policies that oppress members of our community. It is our duty to create an equitable playing field, where all voices, religions, traditions, and races are represented and celebrated. 

 

DeAndre Arnold’s story spurred a long-ignored conversation in Texas. As a graduating high-school senior, Arnold was suspended for refusing to shave his dreadlocks and will not be allowed to walk at graduation. Now a national icon, Arnold’s is sadly not alone. In Pearland, a high school student had to choose between filling in his shaved hair with Sharpie or suspension. A 4-year old in Tatum was given instructions to cut off or braid his shoulder-length hair, otherwise he could wear a dress and be referred to as a girl. 

 

These school policies are blatantly discriminating against students of color, and the defenders of these hateful practices are falling back on the age old adage, “that’s how it’s always been done.” That is a pitifully lazy excuse that ignores the pain and legacy of hair discrimination. 

 

Last week, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus (TLBC) held a press conference to announce their plans to file the CROWN Act “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair” in the 87th Legislative Session. Rep. Ron Reynolds (D- Missouri City) and Rep. Rhetta Bowers (D-Garland) will be jointly filing this legislation. The CROWN Act expands the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and Education Code to include anti-discriminatory policies in the workplace, K-12 public schools, and charter schools. Three states have already adopted this policy change and it has been introduced in both federal chambers. Twenty-two additional states are now considering passage. 

 

“These conversations are just becoming public now… People in our community were having these conversations around the kitchen table or in beauty salons and barber shops.” – Rep. Rhetta Bowers (D-Garland) 

 

Texas House Democrats fully support TLBC’s plan to file protections against discriminatory measures in our schools. We urge schools to take a hard look at their own hair regulations. Are your policies protecting students or unjustly hurting them?

 

Photo courtesy of KUT.

ACLU Files Lawsuit Against ICE – Allegations of Human Rights Violations

State-level legislation provides our members with significant opportunity to change Texans’ lives for the better. At the same time, many issues that deeply affect our constituents are still in the hands of the federal government. However, this does not exempt State officials from continually advocating and supporting policies that defend human rights and protect our citizens — especially on issues like immigration. 

 

Last April, ICE conducted the largest workplace immigration raid since 2008 at CVE Technology Group based in Allen, TX. ICE agents rounded up nearly 300 workers after a yearlong investigation of CVE’s connection to staffing agencies famous for overlooking documentation status. Originally, the ACLU filed an open records request for the search warrants that led to the raid, but ICE rejected the request. 

 

On Wednesday, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against ICE for violating the Freedom of Information Act when they refused to publicly release the search warrants or give a reasonable explanation as to why they were withholding these documents. 

 

According to testimonies from those subject to the raid, ICE transported CVE employees to a separate location and did not allow anyone to use cell phones or speak with one another. From these first hand accounts, it seems likely that both undocumented and legal residents might have had their rights violated and were coerced into revealing more private information than they would have had they been properly informed of their rights.  

 

“Some of the people who were arrested were on the path toward legal residency and had appointments at diplomatic offices to become documented workers.” – Dallas Morning News 

 

Eighty percent of those involved in the raid were women, many with families and children who will forever be traumatized by this event. The simple fact is that people, real individuals who are working to provide for their families and contribute to their community, are being hurt, not the companies responsible for hiring undocumented citizens. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 states companies may not “knowingly” hire unauthorized immigrants. This glaring loophole has made it possible for companies like CVE to willfully hide behind temporary staffing agencies while claiming ignorance. 

 

Immigration status cannot dictate whether or not our government decides to uphold universal human rights. Beyond the moral imperative to treat others with the same dignity and respect you would want for yourself, the Fourth Amendment protects not only U.S. citizens, but everyone in our country. 

Photo courtesy of NBC News.

Texas A&M Commerce Grieving Following Two Fatal Shootings within Three Months

This past Monday, a shooting at Texas A&M Commerce took the life of two women and sent a 2-year old boy to the hospital. This tragedy comes just three months after a shooting following a Texas A&M Commerce homecoming celebration that left 12 injured and two people dead. In both instances, no suspect has been convicted of murder, leaving the campus and Greenville community mourning without answers. 

Texas students face significant challenges going to school — be they economic, physical, or cultural. The last worry on their minds should be whether or not they can feel secure on their own campus. 

As State Representatives, our job is to ensure we do everything we can to prevent tragedies such as these. Our primary task must be to support our students and provide safe environments that promote innovation and learning, not fear. Texas A&M Commerce students noted that, despite statewide policies, the campus’ gun safety regulations are clearly in need of revisiting.

Since 2016, Texas has had its “campus carry” law in effect. The law allows:

  1. Licensed gun owners to carry concealed weapons on campus, and 
  2. Gun owners to store handguns in safes within dorms and university residences. 

While there are some restrictions to the concealed carry law, including mental health and student service locations, we need to seriously consider the implications of these laws and if they are costing students their safety. Additionally, we must continue pursuing common-sense policies that can help us put an end to gun violence.

Photo courtesy of Washington Post.

Court Debts Cripple Texans

Texas leads the nation in unpaid court fees and fines. The money wasted on debt collection would be far better spent serving those who are unduly punished by these excessive court fees and fines. The system disproportionately targets low-income and minority residents and unjustly widens the wealth gap in our State. 

Texas Court Debts by the Numbers, 2012 to 2018:

  • $8.7 billion dealt out in court fees/fines
  • $3.5 billion or 40% uncollected 
  • $1 billion was “paid” for using the jail-credit system
    • 10 million days of incarceration  = $1 billion in jail credits
    •  $825 million of the $1 billion were cases in which the sole reason for incarceration was the inability to pay rather than any threat to public safety
  • $81.08 = the average cost of daily incarceration in Texas
  • 35 cents out of every $1.00 of debt collected was spent on debt collection 

The jail-credit system represents one of the biggest indicators of inequity in the court fee/fine collection process. When defendants are unable to pay, judges may waive the amount, require community service, or more often than not exchange jail time for fees and fines. Defendants earn minimum wage for hours of jail time they serve that goes directly into paying off their fees and fines. This is the only option for many in Texas. At the end of the day, we are unfairly penalizing residents for not having money to spare and spending far more on incarceration costs than we are “collecting.” 

To further demonstrate the local impact of debt collection, Travis County alone has more than $18 million in outstanding court fees/fines. Of the money it collects, over one third goes directly back into paying for the cost of collecting fees/fines. In one year, $4.8 million was spent on court proceedings and staff related to the collection process and $4.6 million was spent on incarcerating individuals in the jail-credit system. 

Over the past two sessions, we’ve passed legislation (SB 1913 and SB 1637) requiring courts to hold ability-to-pay hearings in cases wherein defendants are unable to afford fees or fines. However, in a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice, researchers found that the majority of judges did not hold ability-to-pay hearings. A new task force composed of Travis County officials will be meeting throughout the next few months to summarize the structure of fee and fine collection and suggest potential policy changes to address the issue. 

Photo above courtesy of ACLU.

Federal Judge Saves Gov. Abbott From Horrible Decision on Refugee Resettlement

Last Friday, Governor Abbott formally opted out of the federal refugee resettlement program, a legal and widely supported form of immigration. While Gov. Abbott habitually demonstrates intolerance towards immigration, this most recent decision actively ignores his basic duties as a public servant and the suffering immigrants are attempting to escape when they relocate to the United States. The refugee resettlement program was born out of the 1980 Refugee Act and places highly vetted immigrants fleeing from their country of origin in the best place possible for their economic and emotional health. 

The ability to opt-in or -out of the program came with President Trump’s Executive Order 13888, which declared that states and localities must give written consent to participate in the resettlement program. Trump’s executive order came after he slashed the refugee cap for FY 2020 to less than 20% of the original number, going from 95,000 to 18,000. Since it’s release, 41 states have formally agreed to continue participation with the resettlement program. Texas is still the sole state to decline participation in the resettlement process, despite public backlash to Governor Abbott’s decision. It is disheartening that Governor Abbott brandished Texas with a reputation of being xenophobic, unwelcoming, and insensitive to human needs. 

Yesterday, a U.S. federal judge, Judge Peter Messitte of Maryland, ruled the executive order, and by extension Governor Abbott’s decision to pull Texas from the refugee resettlement program, unconstitutional, citing that localities and states cannot be afforded veto power. Judge Messitte also noted in his 31-page report that the executive order violated the 1980 Refugee Act. 

Although we feel deeply relieved with Judge Messittee’s decision, we do not underestimate the damage Trump’s executive order and Governor Abbott’s decision have already done. We know both Trump and Governor Abbott will continue to undermine legal immigration, and we will keep fighting regressive policies that run counter to basic human decency.

 

Below is a list of editorials from major Texas news outlets on the refugee ban, including select quotes from each. 

 

Texas is the only state to turn its back on refugees, and we should be ashamed

Dallas Morning News | January 11th, 2020

This is not a question of seeking to enforce border laws… This is about creating space for people with clear and approved asylum claims, and we are sorry that in his letter Abbott chose to conflate Texas’ border struggles with the decision to reject refugees.” 

 

Abbott’s rejection of refugees incomprehensible

Houston Chronicle | January 11th, 2020

Asylum-seekers and refugees are some of the most heavily vetted individuals who ever seek a home in the United States. As he noted, Texas has long been a leader in welcoming refugees. In fact, in recent years more refugees have resettled in Houston and Texas than any other city or state in the country.” 

 

Texas’ heart, ability to help are bigger than Gov. Abbott’s decision to bar refugees

Fort Worth Star Telegram | January 10th, 2020

… the Trump administration has already decided to limit the total number of refugees allowed into the U.S. by the end of the current fiscal year to 18,000, a big cut from previous years. Even if Texas took a disproportionate share, as Abbott noted it has in years past, it would be a relatively small job for the state.” 

 

Welcome refugees and the benefits they bring Texas

Austin American Statesman | January 2nd, 2020

Refugees aren’t making Texas less safe, but they are contributing to the state’s prosperity. Refugees in Texas had $4.6 billion in spending power and paid $1.6 billion in taxes in 2015…” 

 

Texas should say yes to refugee resettlement

San Antonio News Express | January 1st, 2020

… most political leaders across the nation — and across party lines — recognize that welcoming refugees fleeing war, violence and oppression in their home countries is not just the morally right thing to do but also a boon to local economies and community growth.

 

Photo above courtesy of KUT.

ExxonMobil Lawsuit Battle: The State vs. Harris County

Over the last decade, Texas Republicans have shown a pattern of disregard for public safety and the rights of local governments, notably in terms of environmental protections. We now face contaminated water and air, incalculable injuries, and even fatalities due to the GOP’s indifference.The State repeatedly chips away at local governments’ ability to hold polluters accountable for negligent behavior. This has become increasingly evident in recent State-filed lawsuits against polluters in the Harris County area, specifically in county and State-filed lawsuits against ExxonMobil.

Within a span of five months, the Baytown ExxonMobil power plant had two severe, life-threatening explosions. The first released contaminants into the surrounding area for nearly 8 days following the explosion. The second left 37 people injured. The power plant has also been violating pollution laws since 2013. Harris County immediately took action and filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, stating the company violated the Texas Clean Air Act. Days later, the State filed the same lawsuit. 

In a hearing this Friday (1/17), the State will present the case that Harris County’s lawsuit is in violation of the Texas Water Code.

Beyond taking away local governments’ right to file environmental lawsuits that affect their communities, a State-filed lawsuit against ExxonMobil has two very large implications. First, the case will be heard in Austin rather than Harris County. Second, any money from civil penalties will go directly into the State’s general revenue rather than being split between the State and Harris County. 

The fight over the ExxonMobil case is one of many attempts by Attorney General Paxton to stomp out local control. Over the past few sessions, the State voted to limit the amount of civil penalties a county may collect from a lawsuit, forced local governments to notify the State when a lawsuit is filed and allow the State to take over the lawsuit, and barred counties from hiring outside parties. These actions have all been taken under the guise of ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity.’ However, these policies enable the State, and Attorney General Paxton, to control the lawsuits and ultimately let polluters off easy. 

Texas House Mass Violence Committee Continues Work in 2020

On Thursday, the Texas House Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety will hold a hearing in the city of El Paso just five months following the El Paso Walmart terrorist attack. Family members of victims and those directly affected by the mass shooting will provide testimony. 

As the date grows closer, we can’t help but consider the legislature’s response, and specifically  its failures to the people of Texas. In the wake of the El Paso mass shooting, Governor Abbott spent $5.5 million additional dollars on law enforcement, established a Domestic Terrorism Force, a Texas Safety Commission, released eight executive orders, and authored a Texas Safety Action Report. Additionally, Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick created House and Senate Committees on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

While this list seems robust, there has been little if any collective action since this summer’s shootings to address gun violence in Texas. Since the inception of these committees and task forces, two additional mass shootings have ravaged Texas – both in Midland/Odessa and White Settlement. People continue to lose their lives and Governor Abbott has seemingly given up on forwarding any potential solutions to the issue.

While Governor Abbott avoided meaningful gun safety reform, Texas House Democrats stood together across the state to call for an emergency special session. We prioritized five should-be simple policy changes that the majority of Texas supports: 

  1. Extreme risk protective orders
  2. Close background check loopholes
  3. Ban the Sale of High Capacity Magazines
  4. Limit the Open Carry of Certain Semi-Automatic Long Guns
  5. Require Stolen Guns be Reported to Law Enforcement

We want our places of worship to be filled with joy and reverence, not fear or hate. We want our playgrounds to be a place of imagination and wonder, not shrouded in suspicion. We want our citizens to live with open arms and without the constant threat of violence. 

In 2019 alone, 37 Texans have died in mass shootings. We know we can do better and our goal for 2020 must be to set politics aside and tirelessly work to protect Texans.

Photo above courtesy of KFOXTV in El Paso.

Fighting for Kids’ Healthcare

Twenty percent of the total number of uninsured children in the U.S. live in Texas, but only 10% of the nation’s children reside here. Texas’ rate of uninsured children has grown to 8.3% in recent years, double the nation’s average. The Austin American-Statesman showcased this problem in an editorial highlighting Texas’ failure to insure children. Currently, Texas ranks second in the rate of uninsured children in the nation. 

Despite our prosperous economy, thousands of Texas parents are left terrified every day, worrying about how they will access basic healthcare needs for their children. Children have a right to adequate healthcare, from routine checkups that can identify, or even prevent, long term health and developmental concerns to more life-threatening issues. Children should be able to access medical care when needed without question, and Texas should protect children and advocate for their best interests. By not confronting our uninsured crisis, we are failing Texas families. 

The number and rate of uninsured children is in part the product of the Trump administration’s insistence on rolling back funding to healthcare systems and outreach programs, including slashes to the Navigator program which helps Texas families identify potential discounts and enroll in the right healthcare plan. Likewise, the blatant attack on immigration under the Trump administration caused many immigrant families living here legally to unenroll in programs in fear of retaliation or deportation.

Additionally, Texas Republicans habitually ignore a clear remedy to the healthcare crisis we face – Medicaid expansion. Medicaid expansion in Texas could potentially insure roughly 1.1 million more Texans. This past session, Representative John Bucy filed a Democrat-backed amendment to expand Medicaid in Texas, leaving the federal government to cover 93% of the associated costs and leading to years of State savings. GOP state legislators once again rejected attempts to expand Medicaid. 

Beyond Medicaid expansion, Rep. Phillip Cortez filed HB 342 to extend child Medicaid’s continuous eligibility to 12 months to align with Texas CHIP. As we move forward into the new year, House Democrats will continue to prioritize our children’s health and will work to expand the access and ease of healthcare.

Budget Night: 2019

Yesterday the Texas House debated the budget for nearly 12 hours, eventually approving the $251 billion that will fund numerous programs and agencies. This budget came to the floor with many key Democratic priorities. We owe a big ‘thank you’ to the Democrats on the Appropriations Committee who helped shape this bill. In several ways, the budget became better during yesterday’s debate.

What we fought for

Below are just some of the amendments House Democrats passed directly onto the budget:

  • Rep. Julie Johnson amended the budget to protect Medicaid recipients from having their services cut as the result of cost-saving efforts.
  • Rep. Rafael Anchia amended the budget to measure the success of border security outcomes and provide accountability to how we spend those dollars.
  • Rep. Shawn Thierry amended the budget to put more money into community mental health support.
  • Rep. Michelle Beckley amended the budget to study immunization coverage rates at Texas child care centers.

Of course, there were many issues we fought for that did not prevail, such as Rep. John Bucy’s Medicaid expansion amendment. That amendment would have brought a million more Texans affordable health care, provided thousands of jobs, and put billions into the state’s economy. While we are disappointed in the party-line vote, we are proud knowing that yesterday’s vote was the closest Texas has ever come to joining the majority of other states in the U.S. that have expanded Medicaid.

There’s still a long way to go.  HDC members and allies will continue advocating for the issues we all care about until the budget is officially adopted by both chambers at the end of session.

We want to commend all the work done yesterday, the days prior, and throughout the weekend. Texas Democrats have a lot to be proud of, and we couldn’t have done it without everyone working together and fighting for real solutions for all Texans.

The Halfway Point

Today is the 70th day of the 86th Legislature, the halfway point in our 140-day regular session. Of course, in many ways, the session is just beginning – but will ramp up very quickly in the days and weeks ahead.

Tomorrow, the House will consider legislation on the floor for the first time this session.  Today, the House Appropriations Committee voted out HB 1, the 2020-21 state budget bill, along with a supplemental appropriations bill, HB 4. The full House is expected to debate those measures next week.

As these important debates approach, we are thrilled that there will soon be 67 Democrats – the most since 2009 – on the floor of the House.  This afternoon, Rep.-Elect Christina Morales of Houston was sworn-in on the House floor.  It is expected that Rep.-Elect Ray Lopez of San Antonio will be sworn-in in the next few days as well.  We welcome these newest members of the House Democratic Caucus and look forward to working alongside them to provide opportunity to all Texans.