Grassroots Leadership In The News

Oct 18, 2018
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Report Sheds Light On Austin's 'Criminalization' Of The Homeless

The upshot: An estimated 800 to 900 people a night are forced to sleep on city streets due to lack of shelter space, rendering the their criminalized activities unavoidable and life-sustaining, the report found.

Advocates conclude that Austin can do better in dealing with the issue.

"The city auditor warned the City of Austin about potential constitutional issues with the local ordinances that criminalize homelessness last November," Cate Graziani, criminal justice campaigns coordinator with Grassroots Leadership and co-author of the report. "That same report cited how ineffective the criminal justice system is at directing people to services and housing, and how counterproductive criminalization is for people that need work and a roof over their head."

Graziani echoed her colleagues' call for an end for the trio of anti-homeless ordinances currently on the city books: "The repeal of the three City of Austin ordinances that criminalize people experiencing homelessness, while only one step, would go a long way to addressing the harm people are experiencing.” Read more about Report Sheds Light On Austin's 'Criminalization' Of The Homeless

Oct 17, 2018
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New deal keeps open facility that detains immigrant families

HOUSTON – The U.S. government has quietly reached a new agreement to keep open a 2,400-bed detention facility used to detain immigrant mothers and children, in a lucrative arrangement for a private prison company and the tiny South Texas town where it’s located.

Bob Libal, executive director of the group Grassroots Leadership, said ICE may have wanted to avoid the attention that other detention contracts have gotten. One county in Central Texas this year terminated its agreement with ICE and CoreCivic for a 500-bed facility long protested by Grassroots Leadership and others.

“It’s an agency that tends to play by its own rules,” Libal said. Read more about New deal keeps open facility that detains immigrant families

Oct 12, 2018
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KUT

Austin Ordinance Banning Homeless Camps Challenged In Court

A lawsuit challenging Austin's ban on camping in public places was in court today.

Attorneys representing Gary Bowens, who is chronically homeless, argued in front of Municipal Judge Mitchell Solomon that the city law is unconstitutionally vague and violates the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The hearing comes nearly a month after a federal appeals court struck down a similar law in Boise, Idaho. The City of Houston also faces a similar challenge from the ACLU of Texas.

Homelessness advocates held a press conference ahead of the hearing to highlight a new study from Grassroots Leadership. 

  Read more about Austin Ordinance Banning Homeless Camps Challenged In Court

Oct 9, 2018
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The Marshall Project

Topeka K. Sam joins The Marshall Project’s Board of Directors

Topeka K. Sam, founder and executive director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries, is joining the Board of Directors of The Marshall Project. She is also the co-founder of Hope House NYC—a safe housing space for women and girls—and a founding member of The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

“I am honored and humbled to join The Marshall Project Board of Directors,” said Sam. “The journalism produced by The Marshall Project helps to expose the deep injustices inside the carceral state and highlights the urgent need for criminal justice reform. By publishing voices from inside and outside the system, The Marshall Project has helped to broaden the struggle for justice and fairness. In bringing me onto the Board of Directors as the first formerly incarcerated African-American woman, The Marshall Project is enacting its commitment not only to diversity but to inclusion of a voice that is not heard enough: one directly impacted by prison. I look forward to the work ahead.”

“The Marshall Project is thrilled that Topeka Sam is joining our board of directors,” said Carroll Bogert, president of The Marshall Project. “She will bring a powerful life experience and unique voice to our conversations, and her network among criminal justice reformers is wide and deep. We're honored that she will share those talents with our board.”

In addition to serving on the board of The Marshall Project and Grassroots Leadership, Sam is a Beyond the Bars 2015 Fellow and a 2016 Justice-In-Education Scholar, both from Columbia University; a 2017 Soros Justice Advocacy Fellow working on probation and parole accountability; a 2018 Unlocked Futures Inaugural Cohort Member; a 2018 Opportunity Agenda Communications Institute Fellow; director of #Dignity Campaign for #cut50; and Host of “The Topeka K. Sam Show” on SiriusXM UrbanView.

Since her release from federal prison in May 2015, Sam has worked tirelessly for criminal justice reform, and her initiatives have been covered by Vogue, SalonTV, Vice, and the New York Times. Most recently she has been featured in Glamour Magazine and Black Enterprise for being “the black woman behind the video that led to the Trump clemency of Alice Johnson.” Read more about Topeka K. Sam joins The Marshall Project’s Board of Directors

Oct 3, 2018
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Fort Worth Weekly

Tent City: Tornillo’s refugee camp for kids is mushrooming

“It is huge money,” said Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit working to end private prisons in the United States. “The argument is that you need to house these kids somewhere, but we should have them in foster homes or with family, not these huge facilities which anyone would say is not in the best interest of the children.” 

  Read more about Tent City: Tornillo’s refugee camp for kids is mushrooming

Sep 21, 2018
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Fox 7 Austin

Protestors pressure Sheriff Sally Hernandez to fight harder against SB4

Mijente's rallying cry is not something we're allowed to say or show on TV.  Basically Spanish slang for "'expletive' immigration enforcement."  

So we will leave that out of the story because some think it is inappropriate.

"Ripping families apart is beyond inappropriate.  People having their lives destroyed because of a traffic violation...there are no words for that," said Rebecca Sanchez with Austin group "Grassroots Leadership."

They joined Mijente at Friday's march and rally from the Travis County Jail to the Federal Courthouse.

Much of the rally was directed at Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez.  

They feel she's not doing enough to combat Senate Bill 4 and honoring ICE detainer requests. "We know that this is a very rogue agency so for her to accept them at their word feels a little bit like she isn't pushing as hard as she could be," Sanchez said. Read more about Protestors pressure Sheriff Sally Hernandez to fight harder against SB4

Sep 19, 2018
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Austin Wants To Know What It Should Do To Improve Police Oversight

Chris Harris, an analyst with the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, testified against the contract, but said that he respected Council's ability to listen to citizens.

“We see that the community has a much better opportunity to actually get its wishes fulfilled by the Council,” said Harris. “You also have, obviously post-Ferguson, a lot more community engagement on issues of police oversight and brutality.”

Harris now serves on the Police Oversight Advisory Working Group, a collection of police officers, union members and citizens that's gathering input to help inform any oversight reform by Council. The working group's preliminary recommendations include allowing people to file police complaints online and bolstering data reporting on policing. Read more about Austin Wants To Know What It Should Do To Improve Police Oversight

Sep 15, 2018
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NBC News

The crackdown on sanctuary cities gives birth to 'freedom cities'

The city's actions go around measures and laws put into effect by the state of Texas and the Trump administration that direct local police to comply with federal immigration detention and enforcement measures.

Austin's declaration was the latest mark of progress for the broader "freedom cities" movement — a decentralized collection of dozens of local and national civil rights, immigrant rights and progressive groups that have banded together to fight anti-sanctuary policies.

Smaller groups like Local Progress, Grassroots Leadership and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration have been instrumental in leading grass-roots efforts to expand publicity and awareness for the campaign. And larger groups, most prominently the ACLU, have been working with local lawmakers across the U.S. not only on immigrant protections but on counteracting racial disparities in arrests and incarceration, pushing for the passage of proposals similar to Austin’s. Read more about The crackdown on sanctuary cities gives birth to 'freedom cities'

Sep 7, 2018
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Austin Chronicle

A New Jail for Travis County?

County moves forward with new women's building despite vote to delay and community outcry

Lauren Johnson knows what it's like to be booked into Travis County Jail and to feel the world spinning as her freedom, her community, and her privacy disappear. She knows what it's like for her pregnant body to ache on a thin jail mattress and to give birth with a guard at her hospital room door. And what it's like to hand over custody of her firstborn child just 48 hours later. She knows what it's like to relapse years later and to return to jail, leaving behind three kids, missing every birthday and every holiday, and losing her identity as the glue that held everyone together. And she knows what it's like to get out again, to get clean again, and to spend the rest of her life trying to fix the system.

"Incarceration doesn't create an environment for people to recover," Johnson says from her office at the American Civil Liberties Union. "None of the solutions to the criminal justice system live inside the criminal justice system. It's all about having access to treatment, mental health services, employment, housing. Crime is a symptom of the problem; it is not our problem."

Johnson focuses her ACLU work on statewide legislation but has recently been caught up in a contentious local issue: whether or not Travis County should build a new women's jail. The planned project is just the first part of a $620 million correctional campus overhaul. Johnson cycled in and out of the jail about four times over the course of a decade, and says the county's plans – and the community's pushback – have left her feeling "split in half." Women are left behind in every area of the criminal justice system, so she is attracted to the idea of giving them a "nice, new, shiny thing." But she also understands the advocates who want the county to delay the new building (which would have the capacity to incarcerate more women) until it reduces the female jail population. Read more about A New Jail for Travis County?

Sep 7, 2018
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Austin Chronicle

Manley on Misdemeanors

Police chief outlines timeline for amending policy for discretionary arrests

Austin Police Chief Brian Manley wrote to the mayor and City Council on Friday regarding discretionary arrests for nonviolent misdemeanors, and racial disparities in those arrests, essentially to say "We're working on it." On the former, the chief said APD has met twice with a stakeholder group (that includes members of Measure ATX, the Texas Fair Defense ProjectGrassroots Leadership, and more), and plans to complete policy updates some time this month. The latter is something Manley expects to get covered later this fall, with APD submitting to Council a first quarterly report on the issue in January. Manley also said he expects to present to Council APD's plan for ensuring the constitutional and legal rights of detainees or arrestees who may be affected by Senate Bill 4 on Monday, Oct. 1. Read more about Manley on Misdemeanors

Sep 7, 2018
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The Orange County Register

For immigrant families without biological parents, separation might be permanent

“Grandma Rosy” is back home now, in El Salvador, living alone, without the 12-year-old granddaughter she is raising.

Earlier this year the pair spent a month traveling on foot and by bus to get to the United States to seek asylum. But last month the grandmother was deported. The girl, meanwhile, spent about two months in custody as part of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, and was later released to a relative.

Their story has a twist: While you’ve heard a lot about immigrant children who remain in the United States and separated from their parents, the grandmother and granddaughter are part of another group – non-parental families who’ve also been separated at the border.

 

Most of these non-parent families haven’t been covered much in the media. And it’s unclear exactly how many people are in their situation, nor is it known how many of the nearly 500 immigrant children who remain in federal custody arrived in the United States with people who are not their biological parents.

Advocates say only that they know of numerous cases of grandparents, older siblings, aunts and other family members who are guardians of children they tried to bring into the country, and who have either been deported and blocked from reunification or remain in detention. Read more about For immigrant families without biological parents, separation might be permanent

Sep 7, 2018
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Vice

Trump Is Still Desperately Trying to Keep Migrant Children Locked Up

Under a new proposed rule, the administration would be allowed to keep kids in detention for months or even years.

Just two months after the Trump administration stopped separating immigrant children from their parents at the southern border, the government Thursday announced its next plan for families who enter the US seeking asylum: long-term family detention, which is currently illegal.

Under current law, immigrant children cannot be detained for longer than 20 days. But the government has proposed a new rule that would allow it to hold kids with their parents in lockdown facilities throughout the duration of their immigration proceedings—which typically take months, and can even span years.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said such prolonged family detention was necessary to deter illegal immigration, and to allow “the federal government to enforce immigration laws as passed by Congress.”

“Today, legal loopholes significantly hinder the Department’s ability to appropriately detain and promptly remove family units that have no legal basis to remain in the country,” she said in an emailed statement. Read more about Trump Is Still Desperately Trying to Keep Migrant Children Locked Up

Sep 6, 2018
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Victoria Advocate

Have courage to stand for basic human rights

I recently had the opportunity of helping in a small way with the separated families at the Port Isabel Detention Center in the Rio Grande Valley. When I heard there was a need for attorney volunteers, I contacted my daughter Abigail, who is a staffer in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Congressman Filemon Vela. With their help, I was eventually connected with a nonprofit group out of Austin called Grassroots Leadership.

They were involved in connecting the detained mothers at Port Isabel with attorneys to do interviews and also to represent them in their “credible fear” hearings for their asylum claims.

During the course of two days, I interviewed about 15 women, all from Guatemala and Honduras, except one from Romania.

As I interviewed the women, I was struck most by their demeanors. They were all lovely women who did not seem angry at all, but very sad. They answered my questions fine, until I asked about their children. At that point, each one of them teared up while they explained who their children were, how they had been separated and where they thought they were being held.

The mothers’ stories as to why they were seeking asylum were heart breaking. One mother was repeatedly raped by gangs simply because she was a woman who owned her own business. Law enforcement wouldn’t help because of their corruption and cooperation with the drug lords. Read more about Have courage to stand for basic human rights

Sep 4, 2018
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Stateman

Del Valle residents concerned about Bastrop sheriff traffic operations

Concern among Hispanics in Del Valle mounted last week after Bastrop County Sheriff Maurice Cook announced that his office would be ramping up patrols over the holiday weekend.

It reminded them of June 23, when deputies conducted a traffic operation in the Stony Point neighborhood in Del Valle that resulted in 16 people sent to immigration authorities for deportation proceedings. The community activist group Grassroots Leadership issued a statement on Facebook asking for volunteers to “stand guard and keep an eye out” for indications of traffic operations targeting immigrant drivers.

No such traffic operations, or traffic checkpoints, occurred in the Del Valle area, the activist group said Monday.

Fifty-three people were arrested between Friday and Monday for crimes ranging from possession of marijuana to driving while intoxicated, according to jail booking records. One was detained for deportation proceedings through Immigration and Customs Enforcement after being charged with driving without a license. Read more about Del Valle residents concerned about Bastrop sheriff traffic operations

Aug 30, 2018
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Rewire.News

Advocates Want to Know Why ICE Hasn’t Reunited These Separated Families

Advocates told Rewire.News that some of these children remain purposely separated from the adults they migrated with because they are legal guardians, not "parents."

Immigration officials deported 54-year-old “Grandma Rosy,” as she’s being called by advocates, on August 16 after separating her from her 12-year-old granddaughter “Cindy” (a pseudonym) on May 7.

Rosy, whose name is withheld for safety reasons, and her granddaughter were fleeing gang violence in El Salvador. The grandmother’s own daughter was disappeared by local gangs and presumed killed, her attorney told Rewire.News. Rosy searched for her daughter for months, to no avail. This is how Rosy came to be Cindy’s legal guardian. But when gangs began recruiting Cindy to run errands for them and be a lookout during drug deals, Rosy knew it was time to leave.

“They threatened Cindy’s life. They pointed a gun at her and threatened to harm her. They said they were going to take Cindy from Rosy. They demanded money. Rosy went to the police, but they didn’t do anything,” her attorney, Lizbeth Mateo, told Rewire.News. “The police actually told Rosy that if she didn’t pay, she would end up killed. She had no choice but to leave. She told me that she already lost one child and she wasn’t going to lose another.”

Mateo said that her deportation was unlawful “on multiple levels.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) repeatedly asked Rosy to give up the legal rights to her granddaughter while she was in detention, Mateo said, which suggests that ICE knew she had rights over her granddaughter and that she should have been protected by a recent preliminary injunction. Issued by a California judge, the injunction required the government to reunite parents with their children by July 26, and ordered the government to stop deporting parents without their children unless the parent “affirmatively, knowingly, and voluntarily” agreed to be deported alone.

“She refused to sign her rights away and ICE kept trying, every couple of weeks they would ask her the same thing,” Mateo told Rewire.News in a phone interview prior to Rosy’s deportation. “How can someone like Rosy not qualify for reunification and be told they’re not the parent, and then get pressured to sign away their rights to their child?” Read more about Advocates Want to Know Why ICE Hasn’t Reunited These Separated Families

Aug 30, 2018
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Stateman

Del Valle residents grow anxious over Bastrop sheriff’s weekend patrols

Del Valle residents are on edge after learning about the Bastrop County sheriff’s office’s plans to increase traffic patrols over Labor Day weekend.

On Thursday afternoon, after learning about the operation from an unnamed source within the sheriff’s office, the Austin-based community activist group Grassroots Leadership made a Facebook post saying that Bastrop Sheriff Maurice Cook “was planning to conduct another traffic checkpoint in the Del Valle area over the holiday weekend” — similar to one conducted on June 23 in the Stony Point neighborhood that resulted in 16 people sent to immigration authorities for deportation proceedings.

Two hours later after Grassroots Leadership’s post, the sheriff’s office issued a statement on Facebook announcing that the department will be increasing its “traffic patrol presence in order to identify unsafe drivers and vehicles being operated in an unlawful manner” over the holiday weekend.

The post does not say whether the traffic patrols will be focusing on any particular area of the county as had happened during the June 23 operation, when deputies focused on the heavily-Latino Stony Point neighborhood, according to a sheriff’s memo. Cook has denied accusations that the operation targeted immigrants and described it as a routine law enforcement tactic. Read more about Del Valle residents grow anxious over Bastrop sheriff’s weekend patrols

Aug 30, 2018
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Texas Observer

How Texas Cops Turn Mental Health Crises into Deportations

Two recent cases in Central Texas illustrate how police aggression and the “sanctuary cities” ban have built a nasty pipeline to deportation.

Janelie Rodriguez’s family had already decided: If she had another bad episode, they’d call 911 and have her taken to the hospital. One night last October, it happened. Rodriguez, a 25-year-old who suffers from intermittent psychosis, was struck with paranoid hallucinations; she began hurling wild accusations at her brother in an increasingly heated argument. Her family — five siblings, her mom and stepdad — knew she needed medication, but she often stubbornly refused treatment. Eventually, her little sister made the call for help — but help is not what they got.

“We were thinking we would get professional support to calm her down,” said Rodriguez’s 19-year-old brother, Alexis. “But instead, it was police.”

That night, records show, two Hays County sheriff’s deputies and one police officer showed up at the family’s two-story home in Buda, a booming exurb just south of Austin. Their arrival sent Rodriguez into a panic. Just over 5 feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds, she didn’t want the three male cops to touch her, and she tried hiding in a bathroom. The officers ran out of patience within minutes, according to family members. “They went from being patient to like they were about to arrest a criminal on the street, instantly,” said Alexis. “They start circling her, and obviously she freaks out; that’s when they pin her down.”

As the three armed men forcibly restrained her on a bed, police allege that Rodriguez bit the wrist of Buda Police Officer Kevin Oates. A spokesperson for the Hays County Sheriff’s Office, Lieutenant Todd Riffe, said the officers were forced to detain Rodriguez because her family members expressed fear for their safety, and added that Rodriguez’s choice to bite the officer was “not in [their] control.” Rodriguez’s brother told the Observer he wasn’t afraid of his sister, and the whole family agrees the police needlessly escalated the situation. Read more about How Texas Cops Turn Mental Health Crises into Deportations

Aug 29, 2018
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Patch

Greater Austin YWCA Schedules 2nd Annual Fabulous People Party

SOUTH AUSTIN, TEXAS — As most residents would agree, Austin is a fabulous city (except for maybe the traffic) filled with fabulous people. What better way to celebrate than with a party honoring such fabulousness?

If you agree, you're in luck: The 2nd Annual Fabulous People Party staged by the Greater Austin YWCA is scheduled Sept. 13, honoring local leaders who "...have exemplified the YWCA mission to strengthen our communities and work together to eliminate racism and empower women," organizers wrote on the Facebook event page.

That's a pretty heady charge, but candidates (fabulous ones, naturally) abound locally willing to rise to the occasion. This is dramatically illustrated in the finalists for the #NewRadical Award to be honored during the party. The award recognizes a self-identified woman between 18 to 35 years of age and/or an up-and-coming diverse and innovative group of self-identified change-makers demonstrating passion and dedication in eliminating racism and promoting the empowerment of women "...by striving to make history through courage, connection and change," YWCA officials noted.

Yet the event won't be some low-key awards dinner gathering where people pausing to look up from their dry chicken dinners to politely applaud award winners. Oh no. This is a party in the true sense, a community celebration accentuated with a live performance by the Jane Ellen Bryant, named Austin Chronicle's Best New Band 2016-17. Read more about Greater Austin YWCA Schedules 2nd Annual Fabulous People Party

Aug 28, 2018
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Stateman

Heartfelt effort continues to help refugees seeking asylum

Longtime Westlake resident Ann Finch is not for an open border and isn’t sure how the U.S. and Mexico governments should change policy for granting asylum to refugees who cannot return to their homeland. But she is dedicated to helping asylum-seekers after leading a recent mission to distribute 316 “dignity bags” along the Texas-Mexico border.

That effort, Finch said, was the result of news reports that prompted her to attend a protest in June led by the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge mass hearings for asylum seekers in Brownsville. She also met contacts who helped her understand the problem and identify people with the greatest needs.

Upon arriving home, she went to her church and asked for help funding the gift bags, which are filled with items ranging from raisins and crackers to toothbrushes and first aid kits.

“They sure are generous,” Finch said of her Westlake United Methodist Church leaders. “They gave me some money and said, ‘Go do what you need to do.’” Read more about Heartfelt effort continues to help refugees seeking asylum

Aug 28, 2018
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Community Impact

East Austin’s voice reverberates at the City Council dais

City leaders point to shift in budget, policy priorities as representation east of I-35 grows

Today, Austin ranks as the best place to live in America and boasts a thriving job market, rapid development and continued population growth; however, the failure of that success to reach specific corners of town reflects a troubled past that remains more than peripheral for many leaders and longtime residents.

When minorities were coerced by the city government 90 years ago to move east of what is now I-35, it left a distinct seam down the center of Austin. As a result, East Austinites have endured generations of economic and racial disparities.

Amid its success, Austin continues to wrestle with equity. The east side has become a more attractive investment for developers, but gentrification increases. Property values go up, but so do taxes—longtime families are priced out and school enrollment numbers fall.

However, a new East Austin focus has impacted policy and budget priorities now that those east of the dividing interstate highway have a louder voice inside City Hall.

“Since [the city began district-based City Council representation in 2015]there has been an undeniable pivot east,” District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar said. “And an undeniable focus of the City Council away from just issues of the environment and developers toward social justice, equity and trying to create reparations for the past.” Read more about East Austin’s voice reverberates at the City Council dais

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