Texas Groups Unveil Reports on Conditions of Immigrant Detention

December 8th Protest at Polk County Detention Center to Call for Prison’s Closure

Texas organizations have just released reports detailing inhumane conditions at two privately operated immigrant detention centers in Texas. Texas has more immigrant detention beds than any other state.

The reports – detailing conditions at the Houston Processing Center and Polk County Secure Adult Detention Facility in Livingston – are part of a national “Expose and Close” campaign to highlight conditions at ten of the nation’s worst immigrant detention facilities that exemplify the egregious problems inherent throughout the system. The Campaign is calling for immediate closure of these facilities. The reports are available here.

President Barack Obama made promises to reform the immigration detention system in 2009, however, the reality on the ground has not changed say activists. Immigrants in detention continue to be denied basic needs, such as contact with lawyers and loved ones, inadequate food and hygiene, and access to fresh air and sunlight. They continue to receive inadequate medical care and endure racial slurs and discriminatory treatment by prison staff.

“At the Polk County facility, we witnessed horrific conditions,” said Texans United for Families member Sam Vong. “ICE must shut down this facility as a first step towards reducing its detained population.”

Texans United for Families and Grassroots Leadership also announced that they will hold a protest on Saturday, December 8th, at the Polk County Detention Facility in Livingston, Texas in commemoration of International Human Rights Day calling on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to close the detention center.

At Polk, detained men eat, sleep, and use the bathroom all in one room. The cells are dreary, lack natural lighting, and do not offer privacy. Neither meaningful programming nor legal services exist at Polk. One man detained at Polk told members of Texans United for Families, “This isn’t a good place; I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

In response to the report, Congressman Lloyd Doggett issued a statement saying “The many problems identified at these facilities show the need to reform the detention system by uniting families in community-based settings.”

The Polk County Detention Facility is operated by private prison corporation Community Education Centers (CEC) while Houston Processing Center is operated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CEC has recently come under criticism for operating violent and abusive half-way houses in New Jersey.

“While immigrants suffer under prolonged detention at Polk County and the Houston Processing Center, private prison corporations are getting rich,” said Bob Libal, Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership. “It doesn’t have to be this way. ICE should prioritize release of immigrants in community support programs that are far more humane, less costly, and are effective at ensuring immigrants are able to appear at their hearings.”

Isenberg Center Takes Up Defense of Oregon Man to Stop Deportation

The story of Dallas immigration advocate Ralph Isenberg’s efforts to stop the deportation of a 20-year-old Oregon man is rated as a “Top Five” story today by the editors of the Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon. Here’s how the editors summarize the story:

In a attempt to stop a 20-year-old Happy Valley man’s deportation, immigration advocates from around the nation assembled in Clackamas County on Monday, The Oregonian reports. Edson Barrera Gonzalez was arrested last year after giving his financially struggling parents unauthorized discounts and ringing up false returns at the Macy’s where he worked.

Due to these charges, Gonzalez, who illegally immigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of six, has been detained in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Tacoma, Wash.

Gonzalez’s advocates argue that, since he and his family have paid restitution, he should not be treated as a felon. In the latest move to prevent his deportation, Gonzalez filed for bench probation, which would put him under the court’s jurisdiction, and a judge stop his deportation by reducing his crime to a misdemeanor.

Meanwhile on Monday, ABC affiliate KATU went to the Clackamas County courthouse, southeast of Portland, OR to cover the arrival of Rev. Peter Johnson of the Isenberg Center for Immigration Empowerment (ICIE). Rev. Johnson, a longtime associate of Isenberg’s and a former colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr. traveled from Texas to help press the legal case for downgrading Barrera Gonzalez’ legal status from felony to misdemeanor. The legal change in status would likely help Barrera avoid imminent deportation. Video of the courthouse report is archived at the ICIE website.

A quick glance at the comments posted at the KATU website confirms that ICIE is taking a courageous stand in behalf of the young man. Documents shared with the Texas Civil Rights Review tell the story of a family who hit upon hard times and made some bad choices. According to the documents, Barrera, who worked as a cashier at a major department store, attempted to compensate for his mother’s unemployment by selling merchandise to his parents at steep discounts. When then 19-year-old Barrera was caught by store security, he readily admitted to everything and agreed to pay damages.

Although Barrera pleaded guilty to felony charges, he was given penalties more consistent with a misdemeanor offense, argue his ICIE advocates. Because of the irregular immigration status of the family, Barrera’s original 10-day sentence has turned into a lengthy detention by immigration authorities. In detention, Barrera has reportedly maintained a good record of conduct and has become active in helping with detention programs.

Isenberg, who says he has been in frequent contact with the Barrera Gonzalez family by telephone, tells the Texas Civil Rights Review that the family has learned a hard lesson and deserves a second chance. To break up the family by deporting the son is too cruel a punishment say ICIE advocates.

“You can’t have justice without mercy,” says Rev. Johnson in the KATU courthouse report. Meanwhile, Isenberg has offered full financial restitution for the theft. The department store attorney says the company would be agreeable to a downgrade of charges to misdemeanor status. And Barrera has offered to do community service, including talking to youth about the temptations of bad choices. –gm

The Land Grabs and the Carelessness of Fracking

By Nick Braune…

I am new to this issue and it has some technical sides, but I’ve learned enough about fracking lately to be concerned.

“Fracking” is short for hydraulic fracturing. A narrow hole is drilled deep down into the ground.  According to the website for the excellent documentary “Gasland,” produced by Josh Fox, drilling can go down 8,000 feet, 24 football fields down. Then a mix of water, sand and chemicals is repeatedly shot down the hole, with very high pressure, cracking open the hard shale and rock and releasing treasured natural gas.

Although across the country there is opposition to it, and although some areas have stopped fracking because it ruins the land and the water and causes mini earthquakes, it’s rampant in Texas. Remember when candidate Perry bragged about the Texas economy? — Well, fracking did contribute to that little boost in employment.  You can see signs of fracking driving from McAllen to San Antonio; it’s all over the state. (Incidentally, have you noticed all the ads recently for “clean,” “natural” gas?  These ads alone make me suspicious.)

The “Gasland” documentary received a 2011 Academy Award nomination.  One famous scene features a fellow in rural Pennsylvania where fracking is happening.  He showed the camera team that if he turned on his kitchen faucet for water, there would also be gas and chemicals coming out.  He held a lighter to the faucet and it looked like a flaming torch coming out — that’s how much gas and chemicals were in his water!  Matt Damon also is planning a film about the fracking craze, “The Promised Land.”

According to the “Gasland” website, in 2005 a Bush/Cheney energy bill created what’s called the “Halliburton loophole,” preventing environmentalists from objecting to fracking on the basis of the Clean Water Act, and exempting companies from disclosing the chemicals used in the process.  Now there is a speculative rush all over the country to get into it; the riches being promised by natural gas fracking are causing quite a burstable investment bubble.

A Reuters report (October 3) on gas “land grab” practices interviewed a couple in Arlington Texas who did not want to sell drilling rights to Chesapeake Energy Corporation — the couple opposed fracking.  (Watch how Gov. Perry’s Texas really respects property rights.)  The couple was pressured and offered money but would not sell, so Chesapeake went to a Texas state agency, got what is called an “exception,” and drilled under them anyhow.  The couple received no money.  Reuters investigated and found that Chesapeake has asked Texas for 1,628 such exceptions.  The state agency has turned down only five exception requests and granted all the rest.  And Exxon-Mobil has received about 800 such exceptions. 

I emailed Alyssa Burgin, an environmentalist who watches land and water issues and directs the Texas Drought Project, and I asked if the Reuter’s article was exaggerating about “land grab” practices. She agreed with the article.

Burgin said, when “landmen” approach landowners they often lie. “Landmen lie about how much money owners will receive, and about how clean they will leave the land. Worse, even when people clearly own both surface and minerals, landowners are told that they had better sign, or the companies will drill right next door, horizontally burrow under, and get their oil or gas anyway — so they ‘might as well sign.’”

Fracking is mean business, from beginning to end.     [This article first appeared in “Reflection and Change” in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, 10-7-12, but let me add here the following paragraphs as a postscript.] 

I also asked Alyssa Burgin a follow-up question about water issues, which I know she follows.  I had attended a presentation she helped organize in Corpus Christi, but had arrived late and didn’t quite understand if franking was a water-issue problem because it uses too much water or because it poisons the water somehow.  Her answer was interesting:

“There are two issues with water. First, I will address ‘produced’ water, the water that is used to frack and then either left in open pits or hauled away to who knows where. They use seven to ten million gallons of water per frack per hole in the Eagle Ford. That water is polluted with a laundry list of toxins–benzene, toluene, and a couple of hundred more chemicals, many of which are “proprietary,” and thus not revealed to the public. Some drillers say they can clean up the water to make it potable. Not possible. Even if there were a way to remove all the chemicals, in South Texas, there is so much uranium below ground that the water becomes radioactive. Now, the areas where they are fracking are among some of the most active farming areas–corn, cotton, alfalfa. Most of those crops died in this year’s drought, and it was not unusual to see dead corn next to fracking fields. The drillers compare their water use to water acreage used for agriculture in this state. But the agricultural water used returns to the hydrological cycle through trans-evaporation. The produced water does not.  

“And additionally, the second issue–there are some recorded incidents of contamination of wells and underground water resources from fracking. The industry says this is not true, but that is because they literally pay people to shut up; their legal awards to the victims require a gag order. No joke. You can drive through areas in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania where every single house has a big water tank in the yard, furnished by the same exact company. Clearly they are getting water as a result of an agreement with the drillers.  Unfortunately, because of short-sighted Texas law, and because we have a patchwork of water regs that vary from county to county, we have almost no way of determining how much of our water is gone. Forever.”

A Grassroots Leadership Report on Operation Streamline

By Nick Braune…

Back in 2005 a very profitable federal policy started up, Operation Streamline — for whom it is profitable would be worth exploring. It was a bad immigration enforcement change.

Historically, there has always been “unauthorized entry” into this country by people leaving poorer countries and looking for work. This is not surprising, this being the famous “nation of immigrants,” for goodness sakes. To be out of sorts with your paperwork, to be “undocumented,” was always a civil offense, a compliance issue, not a criminal offense. But in 2005 that changed considerably with Operation Streamline.

Back in 2005 the Bush crowd, and all their Republican and Democratic Party politician friends, were yelling about illegal immigration hurting the economy and even about “Arab terrorists” sneaking in from Mexico. At that time the “Minutemen” got plenty of press coverage, posing for pictures as they leaned against their pickups. (Minutemen groups were silly and miniscule, but the press liked them, and wacky Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, the anti-immigrant “populists,” praised their “patriotism.”) In 2005 Representative Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin was pushing his hate bill, HR 4437, which would almost make it a felony to talk to an undocumented worker. It nearly passed. That was the crazy year Operation Streamline started.

During the hoopla and hate climate of 2005, in Del Rio Texas — it’s a small, sleepy town about halfway between Brownsville and El Paso — the Border Patrol announced the new policy, a policy which they now use all along the Mexican border, except in California where there is opposition to it. (The Del Rio Operation Streamline started as a policy toward Central American immigrants, not Mexicans, but courts later felt that was discriminatory and so now Streamline targets Mexicans too.)

The Streamline policy runs undocumented civil offenders into court on criminal charges. Since 2005, many thousands of immigrants have been picked up (their wrists and legs shackled) and “streamlined” before magistrates. These immigrants, in assembly-line justice, immediately plead guilty and then are sent back to Mexico or Central America with a severe warning that they now have a criminal record and that a further pickup will bring surefire time behind bars. (If they hesitate to plead guilty, they are told they must wait in jail until a trial can be arranged. So, they all plead guilty.)

Bob Libal, the Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership, a human rights advocacy group, has coauthored a 27-page report, Operation Streamline: Costs and Consequences, and he forwarded me a copy. The report describes how $5.5 billion has been spent since 2005 “turning undocumented immigrants into federal prison inmates,” and enriching private prison corporations.

The report describes companies like Corrections Corporation of America getting rich through conveyor belt justice, which starts in local court rooms. For instance: “In Laredo, Operation Streamline client volumes are such that a Federal Public Defender must provide counsel to 20 to 75 clients in a span of just two hours. On Mondays, that number is regularly at 75, leaving each defendant less than two minutes to meet with an attorney.”

In Tucson, there used to be a procedure where perhaps 70 people together would all plea together, “guilty.” But a judge ruled that it violated the fine rules of criminal procedure, and now they all say it individually: “Guilty,” “Guilty,” “Guilty.” It sounds like Money, Money, Money for Corrections Corporation of America. The report is available online at grassrootsleadership.org.

*** ***

Follow-up. The piece above first appeared in my regular column in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, 9-25-12. In order to publicize the report better, I emailed Bob Libal from Grassroots Leadership and asked him for a quick paragraph highlight of the report for carry-over purposes. He wrote back:

“Our new report explores the impact of Operation Streamline, the immigration enforcement policy that is driving unauthorized border crossers into the criminal justice system instead of the civil immigration system. This policy has overwhelmed border courts, has resulted in a historic shift in prison demographics with Latinos now making up more than 50% of those entering the federal prison system, and has become a $5 billion give-away to private prison interests, all at the expense of tens of thousands of immigrants who are sitting behind bars due to this policy.”

Libal also wanted to remind people in the Rio Grande Valley that because of Streamline, the Criminal Alien Requirement prisons are expanding, and the hated Tent City in Willacy Country (Raymondville) is now one of them.)

Ramsey Muniz: 'The world is not going to let them bury me in the prisons of America'

As supporters of Ramsey Muniz gather today in Houston, we share a recent letter forwarded by his wife, Irma.–gm

Dear Friends:
I share a personal letter sent to me by Ramsey.
–Irma Muniz

Your father has given lectures like you have no idea or thought. He takes me all the way back to when we, the roots of our Chicano cultural, political, and spiritual movement, would speak about freedom, justice, and about having a voice in America’s process like never ever before in our history. I would ask why it was that we, Mexicanos, were the majority of population in the entire South Texas and we would at times not even have one city council or school board member.

The conservative establishment was against me because I was arousing the consciousness of our people like no other in history. Before they knew it, Mexcianos, Chicanos, and Hispanic candidates were stepping forward in the life of democracy like never ever before. That is a history that was created with the help of God. Now we have Latinos, Hispanics, Chicanos, Mexican American U.S. Congressmen and Congresswomen and even Republican women as governors in New Mexico and in Nevada and all because we had a vision that one day we would be the majority and counted in this world. I sought happiness, peace, love, equality, and family love like never ever before and all of that has now gradually come to pass.

Even our young people are going to witness changes in the entire Southwest of the United States like never ever before in our history and they can mark that down because it is going to happen. How do I know? Well, they would have to communicate with the spirits who are in heaven and those spirits only communicate with those that God has chosen.

We will forever keep our hearts open and our souls ready to forgive those who never ever gave me a drink of water for my thirst, a piece of bread for my hunger, or a blanket to cover my body which was naked for days, weeks, and months shackled and chained the entire time.

The world is not going to let them bury me in the prisons of America which is what they desire to do. Otherwise they would be up front seeking my freedom. We do not wish to die in the prisons of America and we are going to do everything possible because my freedom is the freedom for the masses of humanity out there in the so-called free world