Mon June 23, 2014 6:01 pm By Erica Grieder

Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Brownsville, Texas. 

On June 2nd Barack Obama issued a memorandum announcing the creation of an interagency task force in response to what he called “an urgent humanitarian situation” on America’s southern border--a sudden influx in unaccompanied alien children. Law enforcement officials have apprehended almost 52,000 such children since October of last year. Some 38,000 of them, or about two-thirds, have entered the country in the Rio Grande Valley.

A few days later, the story got a boost when Breitbart Texas published a batch of leaked photos showing hundreds of people, most of them children, who are being held in federal facilities while awaiting legal proceedings—or as Breitbart’s Brandon Darby put it, reasonably enough, a batch of leaked photos showing hundreds of children “warehoused in crowded U.S. cells.” The images hit a nerve, and over the past two weeks the unaccompanied alien children have gained more attention as state and federal officials have been arguing over the causes of the crisis and the appropriate response.

The influx is, by any standard, a complex and rapidly evolving situation. It’s also an emotionally charged and politically contentious one. Thousands of extremely vulnerable children are involved. But so too are many more controversial people: a president whose policies may have spurred this crisis; the saber-rattling Republicans who have been fulminating about our porous border for years; the transnational drug-trafficking organizations that are helping these immigrants cross the border, and are surely aware of the disruption that the influx has caused; the constellation of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies working in the Valley; and, of course, the parents of the children arriving recently, who are surely vulnerable in their own ways but who have either endangered the children in question—or accompanied them as regular, adult aliens.

All of that adds up to a pretty bewildering picture. But after spending the weekend reporting in the Valley, I came away with several conclusions. First of all, the influx of unaccompanied alien children makes a lot more sense if you think about it as part of a surge in illegal immigration from Central America. That surge began a couple of years ago and is due (at least in part) to widespread reports in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador that the United States is not going to enforce immigration law against minors—that’s why so many of the immigrants in question are children. The more lurid and ominous reports about the migrants themselves are exaggerated. The influx is real, though, and markedly different from the illegal immigration that the United States has experienced in recent decades.

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Fri June 20, 2014 4:10 pm By Happy Carlock

[Editor's note: As mentioned, we're going to feature some posts from our talented interns--including the author of this one--on BurkaBlog this summer. --EG]

“Conocer a tus suegros--nunca es fácil." Attorney General Greg Abbott’s first statewide television ad for the general election opens with a close-up of his sister-in-law, Rosie Phalen, discussing a challenge that countless Texas voters have faced: meeting the in-laws.

Nerve-wracking, no doubt. But Abbott apparently made a good impression; he has been married to his wife Cecilia for more than thirty years. And in retrospect, meeting the in-laws might have been easy compared to the assignment Abbott has set for himself this year—winning over Hispanic voters as the Republican gubernatorial nominee. He has made that a concerted effort to do so since launching his campaign last year, and the new ad is part of that effort; it is completely in Spanish, and premiered on Univision on Tuesday, during the World Cup match between Brazil and Mexico.

The goal makes sense. Although Hispanic voters in Texas generally favor Democrats, they have, historically, been more receptive to Republican candidates than Hispanic voters nationwide. And this year’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state senator Wendy Davis, was surprisingly weak in south Texas during the primaries, in March; she lost a number of counties in the Rio Grande Valley to a little-known opponent.

The problem for Abbott is that his outreach comes at a moment when a number of Texas Democrats are accusing Republicans of alienating Hispanic voters with overheated rhetoric on immigration and border security. Both subjects were fiercely discussed during this year’s Republican primaries, and earlier this month, delegates to the Republican Party convention approved significant changes to the immigration plank of the platform. The new version calls for an end to sanctuary cities and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and no longer endorses any kind of guest worker program. Even some Republicans are worried that their party may be going too far. Jason Villalba, a Republican state representative from Dallas, registered his concern in an open letter published last week. "Divisive rhetoric and nativist domestic policy might excite the 5.5%," he wrote, "but the remaining 95% of us understand that we have to do something thoughtful and pragmatic about this complex issue."

Abbott himself has not used such hardline language, and he has quietly pushed back against more divisive attitudes by pointing out that if he is elected his wife, Cecilia, will be the first Latina first lady of Texas. But he has also seemed reluctant to chime in on the contentious policy debates about immigration and border security. His website’s “Issues” section includes no mention of either. At some point, though, he may have to confront them. In a new poll from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune, respondents named immigration and border security as the most important issues facing the state--and with more and more attention being paid to the recent spike in migration from Central American to the Rio Grande Valley, that is unlikely to change. 

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Wed June 18, 2014 4:23 pm By Annie Melton

[Editor's note: starting this afternoon, we're going to have occasional posts on BurkaBlog from our talented summer interns, including the author of this post, Annie Melton. --EG]

Temperatures are rising, and so is the pressure on Brad Livingston, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Earlier today he was named as a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, Edwards Law, and the University of Texas School of Law’s Civil Rights Clinic on behalf of elderly and disabled inmates serving time in TDCJ’s Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota.

The lawsuit raises an issue that I covered in more detail last month: Because TDCJ units are not air-conditioned, they can become a harmful environment for inmates who are unable to escape the heat during Texas’s grueling summers. Pack’s metal walls and stainless steel tables can become so hot to the touch that inmates have resorted to wrapping themselves in damp towels and lying on the concrete floors. 

The problem is not a new one, but the issue has gained more attention in recent months. The lawsuit filed today comes in the wake of an April report from UT’s Civil Rights Clinic on the subject, several previous wrongful death lawsuits filed on behalf of the families of inmates who died from heat-related illnesses, and complaints from correctional officers who work long shifts in the same stifling conditions. 

TDCJ has yet to announce any reforms in response, though, and at a press conference this morning announcing the lawsuit, attorneys were angry as they pointed this out.

“It has become painfully clear that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its leadership — Brad Livingston, [TDCJ medical director] Lanette Linthicum — is perfectly content to wait out the storm,” said Jeff Edwards, lead counsel on the lawsuit. “That’s not acceptable.” 

The lawsuit filed today is the first filed on behalf of inmates currently living in the prison, rather than on behalf of the families of inmates who have died. According to the lawsuit, because of Pack’s status as a geriatric unit, it houses a large population of elderly and disabled inmates who are particularly susceptible to the heat — yet despite filing grievances and seeking treatment from medical staff, they have found little relief. All of that being the case, the lawsuit argues that forcing inmates to live in such extreme heat amounts violates the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments, as well as, in the case of disabled prisoners, the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The plaintiffs represented are David Bailey, who suffers from asthma, hypertension, and symptoms from a traumatic brain injury that are similar to Parkinson’s disease; Marvin Yates, who suffers from hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; Keith Cole, who suffers from diabetes and hypertension; and Nicholas Diaz, who was born with scoliosis and Morquio Syndrome and uses a wheelchair.

“I don’t know if I will make it this summer,” said Yates, who is 69 years old, in a statement. “The heat and humidity are so bad inside I have trouble breathing.”

In addition to Livingston, the defendants named were Roberto Herrera, the warden of the unit in question, and TDCJ itself. In the past, Livingston has said that temps inside TDCJ units can rise to match those of the outdoors, and that no policy exists to address conditions in the dorms where inmates spend the majority of their time.

Attorneys today scoffed at this response. According to state law, the lawsuit notes, the executive director of TDCJ is responsible for protecting the constitutional rights of people held in custody. And as Edwards added, even Guantanamo has air-conditioning.  

“TDCJ knows,” Edwards said. “Extreme heat presents a risk of serious and substantial injury to elderly inmates.” He continued: “And either they don’t care, or they don’t think the citizens of Texas care. This case is about telling them, once and for all, that we all care, that we all have an obligation and a duty to protect people.”

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Wed June 18, 2014 12:00 pm By Paul Burka

As I have written several times before, I am very concerned about the idea of a "surge" along the Texas-Mexico border. My main reason is this: It is a bad idea to have a paramilitary operation that includes a large number of private citizens. That is what is going to happen if there is a surge. There is going to be a horde of armed folks showing up with guns to play soldier. I can't think of a more dangerous situation. The border is a dangerous place to begin with. A surge only makes it worse.

Rick Perry should return to Texas and address this problem. A letter signed by state leaders in support of a surge is not a fix. An armed vigilante force is not a fix. A letter from the tea party is not a fix. I'm not sure that there is a fix, but this plan isn't it. There is no doubt that the situation on the border is serious. It is both a humanitarian and a demographic crisis. But it can't be fixed by politicians playing politics during an election season in an attempt to throw red meat to the base. That's not leadership--and the situation will suffer because of it.

(AP Image / Alicia A. Caldwell )

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Fri June 13, 2014 10:16 am By Paul Burka

I'm stunned that Rick Perry allowed himself to be drawn into a discussion of homosexuality in an appearance before the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, in the nation's most gay-friendly city. I thought he was far too seasoned a politician to make that kind of blunder. Apparently not. Here's what Perry said:

"I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that. And I look at the homosexual issue in the same way."

Perhaps this should not come as a suprise because it reflects the thinking of the Texas Republican Party at large, which recently adopted a party platform that supports the legality of gay-conversion therapy. That platform reads, "We recognize the legitimacy and value of counseling which offers reparative therapy and treatment to patients who are seeking escape from the homosexual lifestyle. No laws or executive orders shall be imposed to limit or restrict access to this type of therapy."

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