Category: Blog

HDC Hiring New Communications & Outreach Director

The HDC is looking to hire a third position in our office — a communications and outreach director. This person will compliment the current Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director, with a major focus on helping with HDC and Member-specific communications needs. A job description with information on how to apply is embedded here. Please feel free to apply yourself or to share with your networks and/or anyone you think might be interested.

Harris County Residents Wait Until 1:00AM to Cast Votes

Last night, voters across Texas showed up to cast their votes for the 2020 primary elections. Unfortunately voters at Texas Southern University were met with excessive wait times that kept residents there until 1:30 am. Thankfully, countless Harris County residents still persevered through six hour lines to vote, but we need to address why this happened and come to a solution that keeps polling places moving and voters voting. 

 

Harris County holds separate elections for Democratic and Republican primaries, which means voters are only allowed to use machines reserved for their own party, despite others potentially being open. This, combined with a number of voting machines failing due to 20-year old technology and an unexpectedly large Democratic turnout, contributed to the excessive wait times residents endured last night. 

 

County officials and polling locations must all work together to address these flaws so that everyone has a reasonable opportunity to vote. Standing in line at a polling location for over six hours is next to impossible for most residents and no one should be asked to do so to exercise a critical right. 

 

Hervis Rogers, the last voter at Texas Southern University’s polling location, had the following to say as he left… 

 

I wanted to get my vote in, voice my opinion… I wasn’t going to let anything stop me, so I waited it out.

 

Democracy lives and breathes with active participation in elections. It is imperative we do everything in our power to ensure all voices are represented and residents are given a fair chance to vote. 

 

Photo courtesy of Houston Public Media. 

First Ever Texas Girls in STEM Day

On Sunday, March 1, Texas recognized the first annual Texas Girls in STEM Day. The day marks a chance to celebrate and encourage the participation of girls in this state in fields related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — and is the result of House Bill 3435, passed by Representative Rhetta Bowers during the 86th Regular Session. The legislation encourages school districts to embrace programs, ceremonies, and class instruction that emphasizes women in STEM-related careers.

Texas Girls in STEM Day gives many young girls the opportunity to learn, ask questions, and dive deeper into subjects they may not have been encouraged to explore otherwise. We are confident that this will help increase participation in STEM subjects by giving names, faces, and credit to the Texas women who are currently succeeding in their STEM careers. Thank you to Representative Bowers and the participating institutions for making yesterday the first of many successful Texas Girls in STEM Days.

 

Image courtesy of Representative Bower’s office.

LGBTQ Persecution in the Child Welfare System

This week the U.S. Supreme Court took on the case of whether taxpayer-funded agencies can use religion to discriminate. Two years ago, the city of Philadelphia rightfully decided to cut ties with Catholic Social Services (CSS) after a report detailed that they were openly prohibiting same-sex couples from fostering children. CSS and a number of foster parents sued the city, claiming it violated their first amendment rights to religious freedom. Now the case will be heard by the SCOTUS.

 

Texas has its own sordid history passing legislation that codifies discrimination in the child welfare arena under the guise of religious freedom. In 2017, Republican State Representative James Frank filed and ultimately passed HB 3859. HB 3859 allows faith-based organizations to deny foster children home placements and healthcare services and to refuse capable, deserving parents from fostering if they violate the organization’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Following a chorus of outcries from LBGTQ organizations and foster care system employees, House Democrats put up a strong fight on the floor in opposition to this bill. 

 

Texas has an infamously overcrowded and understaffed foster care system, a problem that is found across the country. Between 400,000 to 500,000 children live in foster care in the United States, many in derelict facilities. It is extremely difficult to find capable, loving, willing adults to foster each and every child in need. The thought of allowing state-affiliated agencies to prohibit loving foster parents from offering homes to children in desperate need of stability is tremendously upsetting. 

 

Religious organizations are not required to partner with the state. Therefore, to receive taxpayer funding, organizations should at the very least adhere to common-sense anti-discriminatory federal regulations.

 

Unfortunately, the conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court may very well use their majority to defend regressive, discriminatory foster cases, claiming they are in fact “expanding religious freedoms.” Ruling in favor of CSS would loosen anti-discriminatory policies at the expense of real children in need of loving homes. 

 

We cannot afford to backslide from our already limited LGBTQ protections.

 

Photo courtesy of NBC News.

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.