Grassroots Leadership In The News

Aug 25, 2020
Community Impact

Millions in Austin Police Department cuts ignite city’s experiment in reimagining public safety

Austin’s police department will have much less money this year after City Council voted Aug. 13 to remove roughly $150 million from the police budget for fiscal year 2020-21, a reduction of about 35% from City Manager Spencer Cronk’s original July proposal.

The move, which marked the most dramatic police budget cut in memory, reinvested some funds into community programs and reassigned some typical police functions to separate departments. Austin is the only major Texas city to make such a cut to its police budget.

City Council’s unanimous budget approval, which included cutting 150 vacant sworn police officer positions, followed not only 12 hours of public testimony and debate the day prior but also 2 1/2 months of compounding pressure from the community to significantly reduce the budget and reform the department.

Apr 10, 2020
Austin Chronicle

Council Recap: (A Little More) Help Is On Its Way

At its meeting Thursday, April 9, City Council approved unanimously $15 million of relief for low-income Austinites thrown into financial turmoil by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money is intended primarily for people left behind by federal relief packages, or who simply need more help than those efforts will provide. The resolution authorizes City Manager Spencer Cronk to expand existing contracts with the city’s nonprofit partners to distribute the aid.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from our communities that people need help now,” said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who introduced the resolution in collaboration with Council Member Greg Casar. The goal is to get those in need relief with a focus on “equity and expediency,” Garza added, and the best way to do that is through existing social service contracts.

Earlier in the week, the city’s economic forecasters projected the Austin metro area could lose more than 260,000 jobs during the COVID-19 economic downturn. The workers hardest hit will be in the food and hospitality industries.

How the aid will be distributed, and to which nonprofits, is still being worked out. At Thursday's meeting, Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden said her office would release more information on the application process today April 10. APH plans to begin disbursing the money in the Relief in a State of Emergency (RISE) fund by April 20, in time to help people pay rent on May 1.

A Friday morning press release said APH would be working with the city’s Equity Office to “ensure funds are provided to community-based organizations providing services to our marginalized communities.” Social service providers should email for more information. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 27, 2020
The Dallas Examiner

Civil rights leaders call for COVID-19 protections in Texas jails

HOUSTON – The ACLU of Texas and a coalition of civil rights leaders sent almost 500 letters last week to criminal justice officials urging them to take public health experts’ advice and release individuals who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19 from county jails. Specifically, the focus is placed on communities in jails with populations identified by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as vulnerable, as well as people currently in pretrial detention.

“More than 60,000 people will sleep in jail cells in Texas tonight. Many of them have not been found guilty and are only there because they can’t pay cash bail,” said Sarah Labowitz, policy director for the ACLU of Texas. “Health experts agree that reducing incarcerated populations and protecting vulnerable groups is part of a smart response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re calling on criminal justice officials to do their part to prevent a public health crisis in jails and prisons.” [node:read-more:link]

Mar 26, 2020
Business Insider

Chaos reigns at ICE detention centers amid fear that coronavirus is ‘spreading like wildfire’

As the coronavirus infection rate explodes in the U.S., immigration advocates, lawyers and detainees paint a picture of "chaos" and a situation spiraling rapidly out of control in ICE detention centers, threatening the lives of more than 37,000 detainees in immigration jails across the country.

On Tuesday, ICE announced that an immigrant held at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, NJ became the agency's first detainee to test positive for COVID-19, and stated that it is "suspending intake at the facility."

Even though there is only one confirmed case of COVID-19 among detainees, advocates say the disease is likely "spreading like wildfire" in multiple locations, forcing ICE personnel to stay at home while a lack of testing, ineffective quarantines, crowding and denial of basic hygienic needs, all put detainees at heightened risk.

The crisis is manifesting in numerous ways, from quarantining whole dormitories, to guards firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesting detainees.

In the South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall, Texas, operated by private prison firm Geo Group, "people are being teargassed reportedly because they were refusing to go back into their dorms to be locked up alongside people who were experiencing symptoms," Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher at Grassroots Leadership, told Insider. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 26, 2020

As Coronavirus Infections Spread, So Have Clashes Between ICE Detainees and Guards

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, so have confrontations between detainees and guards at Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities across the country, the latest in Louisiana and Texas.

The battles come as four people — two correctional officers and two detainees — tested positive for COVID-19 at New Jersey detention facilities.

On Monday, migrants clashed with guards over a lack of safe conditions and demanded to be released from the South Texas Processing Center in Pearsall, attorneys and family members said. The melee led to a standoff and the guards shot pepper spray at the detainees, which ended with nine of the migrants now held for disciplinary charges. The migrants had raised concerns about the lack of screening measures for new arrivals to the complex, operated by the Florida-based GEO Group under a contract with ICE. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 25, 2020
The Eagle

Migrants say COVID-19 fears led to disturbance in Texas immigration detention center

The fright and anxiety over the spread of COVID-19 in Texas breached the walls of an immigration detention center this week and led to what immigration attorneys, detainees and their family members described as a disturbance inside the complex that officers in the facility met with pepper spray.

They said the incident happened Monday after detainees in the South Texas Processing Center in Pearsall raised concerns about the lack of screening measures for new arrivals to the complex, which is operated by the Florida-based GEO Group under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Everyone is panicking,” an asylum seeker who has been detained at the facility for about three months said in a phone interview. “We don’t have anything. We don’t have disinfectants; they are not taking any precautions.” [node:read-more:link]

Mar 25, 2020
Texas Tribune

Migrants say COVID-19 fears led to disturbance in Texas immigration detention center

The fright and anxiety over the spread of COVID-19 in Texas breached the walls of an immigration detention center this week and led to what immigration attorneys, detainees and their family members described as a disturbance inside the complex that officers in the facility met with pepper spray.

They said the incident happened Monday after detainees in the South Texas Processing Center in Pearsall raised concerns about the lack of screening measures for new arrivals to the complex, which is operated by the Florida-based GEO Group under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Everyone is panicking,” an asylum seeker who has been detained at the facility for about three months said in a phone interview. “We don’t have anything. We don’t have disinfectants; they are not taking any precautions.” [node:read-more:link]

Mar 25, 2020
Telemundo Austin

Activistas preocupados por riesgo de contagio de COVID-19 en reclusorios de inmigración

Varios activistas y defensores de los inmigrantes expresaron creciente inquietud sobre el riesgo de contagio en los centros de detención de inmigración.

“Para poder evadir el virus tenemos que tener una buena nutrición, practicar el aislamiento social y tener acceso al cuidado médico”, dijo María Reza, representante de Grassroots Leadership.

Sin embargo, la Agencia de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas informó que tomas las medidas correspondientes:

"La salud, el bienestar y la seguridad de los detenidos del Servicio de Inmigración y Control de Aduanas (ICE) de los EE. UU. es una de las principales prioridades de la agencia. Desde el inicio de los informes de COVID-19, los epidemiólogos de ICE han estado rastreando el brote, actualizando periódicamente los protocolos de prevención y control de infecciones y emitiendo orientación al personal del ICEC (Servicio de Salud de ICE) para la detección y el manejo de la exposición potencial entre los detenidos. Actualmente, no hay detenidos bajo custodia del Centro Residencial T. Don Hutto con diagnóstico confirmado de COVID-19.

ICE continúa incorporando la guía de COVID-19 del Centro para el Control y Prevencion de Enfermedades que se basa en los protocolos ya establecidos de monitoreo y manejo de enfermedades infecciosas actualmente en uso por la agencia. Además, ICE está trabajando activamente con socios de salud estatales y locales para determinar si algún detenido requiere pruebas o monitoreo adicionales para combatir la propagación del virus". [node:read-more:link]

Mar 24, 2020

Advocates Urge DOJ to Stop Migrant Prosecutions During COVID-19 Pandemic

Criminal justice organization Grassroots Leadership, along with civil rights group Mijente and over 150 immigration, civil rights and faith-based advocacy groups, on March 24 sent a joint letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr asking for immediate immigration policy changes in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. According to an emailed statement from Mijente, the groups asked the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to halt the arrests, referrals and criminal prosecution of migrants, to close “Operation Streamline” courts, and to drop existing charges in all districts. 

The letter states:

We call on the Department of Justice to immediately enact the following changes in all districts:

1. Work with CBP, ICE, and U.S. Marshals to end arrests and criminal referrals for unauthorized entry (8 USC 1325) and unauthorized reentry (8 USC 1326);

2. Decline all new criminal prosecutions for unauthorized entry (8 USC 1325) and unauthorized reentry (8 USC 1326);

3. Immediately halt Operation Streamline magistrate courts at the southern border;

4. Drop all charges for unauthorized entry (8 USC 1325) and unauthorized reentry (8 USC 1326) and prioritize release of those currently being held on such charges; and

5. Agree to re-sentence people held in BOP or private prisons on entry or reentry offenses.

Claudia Muñoz, acting co-Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership, said in a statement that it would be a grave mistake for the DOJ to avoid taking necessary precautions right away. “Criminal charging and locking up migrants is always dangerous. In a time of a pandemic, it is not only dangerous, it also may be deadly,” she said. “Reducing the number of people who are unnecessarily locked up is a pressing public health issue, and these recommendations will go a long way towards that goal.” [node:read-more:link]

Mar 20, 2020
Austin Chronicle

Social Justice Advocates Call for Big Moves to Ease the Blow of Coronavirus

Advocates from a large number of local social justice and advocacy organizations are calling on city and county leaders to step up and help those most marginalized in the community amid the escalating coronavirus outbreak.

In a letter sent on Monday, March 16, to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, City Council, the Travis County Commissioners Court, and other officials, the advocates offered an extensive and comprehensive list of demands that target public education; welfare; housing; worker, immigrant, and disability rights; medical services; child­ care; elder care; law enforcement; courts; and jails.

Among their recommendations, the groups urged city officials to take a "firm stance" on social distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19 – limiting operations and hours of businesses like bars and restaurants to keep those most susceptible among us safe, as the city and county announced on Tuesday. "We know from other major cities that Austin's community outbreaks are more likely to occur within our most vulnerable populations," said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Employees Association, during a (virtual) press conference Monday morning. "Given that we face an unprecedented situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, community advocates believe it warrants an unprecedented, swift, and necessary response from local and county authorities with the power to save and protect as many of the most vulnerable people as possible."

With ICUs already at limited capacity, Xie expects critical care transports to increase and urges local leaders to ensure patient treatment supplies like respirators, IV medication pumps, updated ventilators, and portable ultrasound units are well stocked – equipment that hasn't been available to EMS, she said. On Tuesday, Austin Interim Public Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott – who is filling that post while also continuing to serve as EMS medical director – told reporters the city and county are working to ensure "adequate training, adequate personal protective equipment, and adequate access to testing" to EMS and other first responders.

Release for the Prisoners

The crisis is especially daunting for those in overcrowded jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers, the groups stress. "We know that medical care is less than adequate and there are many deaths in these facilities every year, and in times of crisis, conditions of confinement only worsen," said Claudia Muñoz, acting executive co-director at Grassroots Leadership. Immigrants should receive health care regardless of status and be protected from interaction with ICE and CBP when accessing those services, she said. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 20, 2020
Austin-American Statesman

Fearing coronavirus spread, advocates urge ICE to release detainees

Texas immigrant advocates are calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to release detainees, especially medically vulnerable immigrants, from detention facilities to await their hearings in a safe place as the new coronavirus continues to spread.

“These detention facilities often provide substandard medical care, and that’s under the best of circumstances,” said Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways, which provides legal help to low-income immigrants throughout Central Texas. “To keep vulnerable people, most of whom have no criminal history, locked up in close quarters without access to treatment or testing for the virus is inhumane.”

She said she hopes the government moves soon to release at-risk detainees to family members or others who can maintain social distance until the crisis passes.

ICE officials last week said there are no detainees with confirmed cases of COVID-19; however, a medical staffer at Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey on Thursday tested positive for the coronavirus. The agency has temporarily suspended social visitation in all of its detention facilities, including the 31 in Texas. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 18, 2020
Austin Monitor

Homeless advocates organize against petition to reinstate anti-camping laws

The coalition of community groups that pushed for the city to decriminalize homelessness last summer has organized opposition to a petition drive that seeks to reverse the ordinance change via referendum.

The Homes Not Handcuffs Coalition, which includes the Texas ACLU, Front Steps and the Austin Lawyers Guild among its members, is mounting a public education campaign against Save Austin Now’s petition drive. The petition drive, which was launched last month, seeks to reinstate the previous ban on homeless camping; reinstate the no-sit/no-lie ordinance with an extension of the prohibited area to include the University of Texas campus; and ban panhandling citywide from 7 p.m.-7 a.m.

Homes Not Handcuffs had planned to hold a press conference on March 9, but that event was canceled as attention turned to the city’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Chris Harris, a campaign coordinator for Texas Appleseed, said the coalition feels the city should direct resources to placing those experiencing homelessness into housing rather than punishing them.

“At this point it’s about community education and making sure folks understand that these laws that were in place before didn’t make us safer, and with them being repealed there’s no evidence of any increase in crime, and it’s more important to spend our limited resources to house folks rather police, ticket, arrest and jail folks for these issues,” he said. “What’s being proposed won’t actually help with homelessness but will drive it underground again at great cost to our city and most marginalized community members.” [node:read-more:link]

Mar 18, 2020
Austin Chronicle

Criminal Justice Advocates and Officials at Odds Over Pandemic Precautions

The coronavirus crisis has evoked a range of ideas over how best to respond to changing circumstances and increasing risks. On the local law enforcement front – still in campaign season – criminal justice reform advocates and public officials have gotten crossways.

The advocates are publicly pressing for quicker or more extensive action, and the officials respond, thanks for your help – we’ve already been acting, as quickly as we can.

Early this week, Workers Defense Project director (and District Attorney candidate) José Garza sent a letter to a number of public officials – Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and the County Commissioners, Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council, judges Brenda Kennedy (District Court) and Sherry Statman (Municipal Court), District Attorney Margaret Moore, County Attorney David Escamilla, and Sheriff Sally Hernandez. Garza cited “the spread of COVID-19” and requested that the officials act “to implement critical changes to how criminal justice is administered in Travis County.”

The changes listed by Garza included: ending arrests for misdemeanors and state jail felonies (with exceptions for public safety); jail release for all inmates (except for public safety); guarantee safe attorney access and adequate health care, and related measures. Garza added, “I want to be clear: most of the policies I am asking the County and City to implement are things we should do irrespective of the threat from COVID-19.”

Garza’s list of requests was about a page in length. Later that Monday* [Correction: posted Friday, March 13; see below], a nine-page list of “demands” was released by a smorgasbord of activist organizations (Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Fair Defense Project, Garza’s Workers Defense Project, and many others) and a couple dozen local activists. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 17, 2020
Austin Monitor

Coalition demands swift city, county COVID-19 response

A coalition of area advocacy organizations hosted a press conference Monday stressing the importance of providing effective solutions to the most vulnerable populations in our communities.

The organizations, which include Grassroots Leadership, Workers Defense Project, Austin EMS Association, Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, Youth Rise Texas, Community of Color United for Racial Justice, and Texas Fair Defense Project, said the COVID-19 pandemic “warrants an unprecedented, swift and necessary response” from local authorities.

The accompanying letter was addressed to the Austin mayor and City Council, the Travis County judge and commissioners, Sheriff Sally Hernandez, District Attorney Margaret Moore, County Attorney David Escamilla, and the district and county court at law judges.

In particular, the city and county should focus on immigrant communities, imprisoned people, the elderly, unsheltered people and people with disabilities. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 16, 2020
Austin Chronicle

Advocates Call on City, County to Protect Most Vulnerable During COVID-19 Outbreak

In a letter addressed to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and the City Council, the Travis County Commissioners Court, and other officials, the groups offer a comprehensive list of demands that target public education, welfare, housing, worker, immigrant, and disability rights, medical services, childcare, elder care, law enforcement, courts, and jails. (The complete list of demands is included below this post; the full letter can be viewed here.)

Among their recommendations, the groups urge city officials to take a “firm stance” on social distancing to help slow the spread of COVID-19 – not only banning public gatherings (as the city has done for 250 or more people) but following the lead of New York and Chicago by limiting operations and hours of business like bars and restaurants to keep those most susceptible among us safe.

“We know from other major cities that Austin’s community outbreaks are more likely to occur within our most vulnerable populations,” said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Employees Association, during a (virtual) press conference Monday morning, March 16. “Given that we face an unprecedented situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, community advocates believe it warrants an unprecedented, swift, and necessary response from local and county authorities with the power to save and protect as many of the most vulnerable people as possible.” [node:read-more:link]

Mar 10, 2020
Texas Observer

Following a Protest, ICE Moves Asylum-Seekers For the Second Time in Two Weeks

More than 100 asylum-seekers were transferred last week from the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, to Louisiana, where judges deny asylum at much higher rates. Advocates view the move as retaliation for a protest late last month over poor health conditions at the Texas facility; that action, they believe, also resulted in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) moving 47 different women to a Laredo detention center. 

ICE confirmed in a statement to the Observer that “approximately” 120 detainees, all women, were sent to detention facilities in Louisiana last Tuesday. ICE said that transfers are “undertaken as needed for a variety of reasons.” “There is nothing unusual about the transfer of individuals in custody from one location to another,” the statement said. 

Bethany Carson, an immigration researcher and organizer for the advocacy nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, sees it differently. Carson said that the women—who she believes are Cameroonian—will now face tougher courts in Louisiana. The success rate for asylum claims by Cameroonians is around 80 percent nationwide. In the last fiscal year, more than 500 people from Cameroon, which faces ongoing political violence, received asylum. But according to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, judges in New Orleans deny asylum to nearly 85 percent of all people who apply. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 6, 2020
Democracy Now!

Cameroonian Asylum Seekers Transferred After Protesting Conditions in ICE Custody

In immigration news, 150 women from Cameroon who have been imprisoned for months in a for-profit ICE detention center in Texas have been transferred to other remote immigration jails, in apparent retaliation for their protests over indefinite detention and dangerous conditions.

In a letter sent to the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership last month headlined “A Cry for Help,” the Cameroonian women complained of medical neglect at the T. Don Hutto immigration jail, writing, “Some of our sisters are sick and not being well treated. Others are running mad due to trauma and stress. … The medical department is very rude to us, they tell us we’re pretending to be sick even when someone is in serious pain.”

The Cameroonian asylum seekers also say they’re being discriminated against, writing, “Almost all the white women we came in with and even others who came after us have been released on parole and bond but we’ve been denied both parole and bond.” Advocates fear the women now face possible deportation in retaliation for speaking out against the conditions in T. Don Hutto. The facility has for years been plagued by allegations of abuse. [node:read-more:link]

Mar 6, 2020

Advocates Decry Criminalization Of Austin Homeless Population

AUSTIN, TX — Advocates for the homeless population in Austin had scheduled a Monday press conference to decry municipal efforts to "re-criminalize" the homeless in dealing with the problem of people living on the streets.

On Sunday, organizers of the "Homes Not Handcuffs" initiative announced a postponement of the press conference: "Because of conflicting events scheduled due to the cancelation of SXSW and the rapidly developing coronavirus emergency, we are postponing tomorrow's Homes Not Handcuffs press conference and will reschedule it in the near future," officials wrote in an emailed update.

Coalition members from several of Austin's largest grassroots organizations — including the ACLU, Grassroots Leadership, Texas Appleseed, the Austin Lawyers Guild, University United Methodist Church, Front Steps, and the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance — had scheduled the gathering to voice their opposition to a petition calling for punitive action against the homeless in Austin, officials said in a press advisory. They are joined on a letter by over two dozen local, state and national service, religious, community, legal and advocacy organizations, organizers added [node:read-more:link]

Mar 2, 2020

'This is retaliation': ICE transfers Cameroonian women asylum-seekers after protest

More than 40 Cameroonian women—all of them asylum-seekers—were transferred more than 200 miles away because they protested conditions at the facility where they were being detained.

The T. Don Hutto Residential Center is a detention center in Taylor, Texas, that has been dogged by allegations of human rights abuses, including medical neglect. The facility detains roughly 500 asylum-seeking women. The Austin, Texas-based organization Grassroots Leadership has a visitation program inside Hutto, which gives organizers like Bethany Carson a direct line to women detained at the facility.  

According to Carson, women inside the facility reported to Grassroots Leadership that there are “more than 300 women from Cameroon” detained at Hutto, marking a rapid demographic shift for the facility, which previously primarily detained Central American women. Detained women told Carson that on Feb. 24, a large group of Cameroonian women performed a sit-in in front of Hutto’s medical clinic to protest the conditions in which they are being held, which include prolonged detention and a lack of medical services.   [node:read-more:link]

Mar 2, 2020
Texas Observer

Following a Protest, ICE Transfers Dozens of Asylum Seekers to an Isolated Laredo Facility

In retaliation for protesting poor medical treatment, dozens of women detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, which houses asylum seekers, were suddenly transferred to a facility in Laredo last week. The move follows reports from immigration advocacy group Grassroots Leadership that those involved in the protest were barred from having visitors, including legal aid providers and members of the community. 

In a statement, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed that 80 detainees held an “impromptu ‘sit-down’ protest” last Monday. “The detainees told facility staff they would continue their protest until they were released from custody; however, those actions compromised security protocols at the facility and blocked access to services including visitation, court, and the dining area,” an ICE spokesperson said. 

According to ICE, facility staff told detainees that they may be transferred if they did not comply with requests to clear “critical pathways.” The agency confirmed that 47 women were ultimately moved to the Laredo Detention Center.   [node:read-more:link]