Grassroots Leadership In The News

Jun 12, 2018

Councilman Casar introduces Freedom City Policy ahead of Thursday's meeting

On Tuesday morning, Austin City District Four Councilman Greg Casar, alongside other council members and advocates, discussed the potential of implementing the Freedom City policies in Austin.

Authored by Casar, the Freedom City policies make up items 73 and 74 on the city council agenda for Thursday night and target the racial disparities in arrests and citations issued by Austin police.

At City Hall Tuesday Morning, Casar was joined by members of the groups Grassroots Leadership, Texas Advocates for Justice, Workers Defense Project and United We Dream. [node:read-more:link]

Jun 10, 2018
The University Star

The Dialogues for Activism follows its second year at the LBJ Museum

Following a year of racial tension and contention surrounding immigration, 2018’s continuation of the Dialogues for Activism series began June 8 and tackles topics of social change.

Hosted at the LBJ Museum of San Marcos on the Square, the first day of the three-week series held two dialogues, with the first on DACA, DREAMers and SB4, and the second on immigration and intersectionality. The event welcomed community members, activists, professors and students.

The second session’s panel included Sulma Franco of Grassroots Leadership, Yunuen Alvarado of SCOPE and immigration attorney Leonardo De La Garza, who all shared advice and personal experiences on facing immigration issues. They also mentioned the lack of awareness for the LGBTQ+ community’s struggle in detention centers and in Latin America all-around. [node:read-more:link]

Jun 9, 2018
Community Impact Newsletter

ARCH shelter among Austin’s ‘greatest failures’ in addressing homelessness, downtown leader says

Several community leaders criticized Austin’s response to the growing homeless population during a public safety discussion this week, blaming much of the issue on a lack of adequate services.

Chris Harris with Grassroots Leadership agreed with the notion that the city substantially lacks services; however, he said the police department’s enforcement of “ineffective” ordinances drain city resources that could be put toward solutions. [node:read-more:link]

Jun 8, 2018
New York Daily News

How old laws and Trump's new anti-immigration fervor brought us to this dark day on deportations

Our country has reached a new low. Last week, Pablo Villavicencio, the husband of a U.S. citizen and father of two U.S.-citizen daughters, was detained and placed on a fast-track to deportation while delivering pizza to a military base in Brooklyn.

The two largest for-profit companies, GEO and Core Civica, experienced a boom in their bottom lines since the quota was implemented.

According to Grassroots Leadership, GEO saw an increase in their profits from $41 million in 2007 to $143 million in 2014, a 244% increase. [node:read-more:link]

Jun 8, 2018

City manager asks council to approve Manley as permanent APD chief

Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk is asking city council to confirm interim Police Chief Brian Manley during its meeting next week.

In a press conference Friday, Cronk and Manley both said they'd use that feedback to make improvements to the police force moving forward.

As they made their announcement, some community activists, who have been critical of Austin police in the past, stood behind them. Others, however, say there's still work to be done.

"It's really hard to imagine a shift, a cultural shift, whenever its an individual who's spent decades on the same force," said Rebecca Sanchez of Grassroots Leadership.

Sanchez pointed out that the announcement of Manley's appointment came just one day after a 20-year-old woman with a knife was shot and killed by an Austin police officer, even after APD enacted a new de-escalation policy at the start of the year.

"A person is dead," Sanchez said. "A person is dead. There were a number of people who had a lot more power at their belt and a lot more tools to use than, clearly, she did, in the moment." [node:read-more:link]

Jun 7, 2018
The Daily Beast

Ronal Francisco Romero Died in Agony in ICE Custody. Now His Family Is Preparing to Sue.

According to previously unreported court documents reviewed by The Daily Beast, the mother of an undocumented immigrant who died of bacterial meningitis is preparing for civil action related to his death. On June 4, Honduran native Martina Blasina Romero petitioned a federal judge in the Southern District of Texas to authorize depositions of the people who were held with her son, Ronal Francisco Romero, and know about the health collapse he experienced in his last days.

Advocates have long decried the health care problems associated with the immigration detention system.

“This is a longstanding and persistent issue,” said Bob Libal, who heads the anti-detention group Grassroots Leadership. “This is an agency that increasingly is not interested in the health and welfare of people in its custody and it’s also an entity that has expanded so rapidly over the last 15 years that providing even the most basic of safety for people who are in its custody is something that is difficult.” [node:read-more:link]

Jun 6, 2018
Fort Worth Weekly

Tightening the Screws

While former President Barack Obama deported an unprecedented number of undocumented immigrants during his eight years in office, Donald Trump appears bent not just on deportation but on treating that population with malice and contempt.

“Illegal” isn’t actually the right word to describe undocumented aliens – it is not a criminal offense to be in the United States without documentation. “It’s a civil violation, not a criminal offense,” explained Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a Texas nonprofit fighting to end the use of private prisons in the United States. Civil violations generally result in tickets or fines. Undocumented aliens can be deported as well, but they are not criminals. Thus there is no criminal record connected with a civil violation.

“What is happening now,” Libal said, “is that asylum seekers are being pushed back, pushed away when they try to seek asylum, leaving them the only option of trying to cross the border illegally. When they do, they are arrested under the unauthorized entry statute, which allows them to be separated from their children. This is a choice that Jeff Sessions is making. There is little or no precedent for using criminal prosecution as a blunt instrument against children and their moms or dads. Other administrations have done a lot of bad things, but up until now, we have not ripped kids from their parents in order to prosecute those parents.”

While unauthorized entry is only a misdemeanor — despite being used as a way to instill fear into tens of thousands of people — unauthorized reentry is a felony, punishable by up to two years in federal prison. 

“People caught reentering after they’ve been deported do an average of 14 months in prison before they are sent to a civil detention center for deportation,” Libal said. “That applies only to those with no criminal history. If you are caught reentering or being here after being deported and have criminal charges, well, those enhancements can bring that up to 20 years.” [node:read-more:link]

Jun 5, 2018
Austin American-Statesman

Austin commission asks for more info on ordinances targeting homeless

Austin is beginning to weigh changes to a trio of ordinances that primarily target the city’s homeless population, including laws that crack down on panhandling, public camping and loitering in parts of downtown.

The city’s Public Safety Commission in a split vote Monday night directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to get more input from Austin police and the public on how changes to the ordinances would affect the homeless population, including laws that ban panhandling downtown from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., outlaw camping in public spaces and prohibit sitting or lying down for longer than 30 minutes while not waiting for a bus or using a city bench.

Homeless rights advocates, including Chris Harris with the nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, say the laws criminalize people for “simply trying to exist.” [node:read-more:link]

Jun 1, 2018
Austin American-Statesman

Texas groups push back against family separation policy at the border

Jessika and her two young sons fled the reach of MS-13 gang members in El Salvador for the U.S.

On the other end of their more than 2,000-mile journey, Jessika and her boys, 4 and 10, were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in South Texas in March. They requested asylum because they feared they could be killed if they stayed in El Salvador.

The new policy of criminally prosecuting parents is unprecedented, said Sofia Casini, immigration programs coordinator at Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based civil and human rights nonprofit organization. In addition, immigrants have been turned away at the border and prevented from asking for asylum in at least two ports of entry, both in Texas, according to accounts shared by immigrant advocates, Casini said.

“They’re being pushed back, they’re being absolutely denied this ability to say, ‘I have a fear for my life and I need help,’” said Casini, who also runs an immigration crisis hotline and surveys detention facility conditions in the Austin area. “It not only puts them in extreme danger from the gangs along Reynosa and along the border … it also literally forces them to cross in another manner to try to get in.”

It’s “abominable” to prosecute parents as smugglers, Casini said.

“I don’t believe a single person in this administration believes that those parents are smuggling their children,” she said. “This administration is well aware that these people are seeking asylum … and they’re trying to dismantle the asylum process, and they’re trying to discredit these families.”


May 18, 2018
The Austin Chronicle

Council: Knocked Down and Drug Out

Though much of the community has coalesced around Brian Manley being appointed permanent chief of police, some activists appear determined to open a conversation about how Manley's administration may operate. Last week, the Austin Justice Coalition, criminal justice group Just Liberty, and the Austin Community Law Center released a list of changes they would like to see as proof of Manley's commitment to leading APD "into a new era of policing."

AJC Founder Chas Moore said he and his colleagues had hoped to raise a number of these issues at the first community forum to vet Manley, held Monday, May 7, but that the forum's moderator declined to present their questions. And Grassroots Leadership's Chris Har­ris reported complaints that questions had been altered or otherwise softened. The next public engagement is scheduled for tonight (Thursday), May 17, at the KLRU Studio, and will feature community members asking Manley their questions directly – good news for Harris, Moore, and company. [node:read-more:link]

May 17, 2018
North Austin Patch

Live Stream: Brian Manley Makes His Case For Permanent Chief Post

The public is invited to attend a community forum Thursday evening to listen to interim Police Chief Brian Manley make his case in pursuing the role of permanent chief for the Austin Police Department. 

Manley has been serving as interim police chief since November 2016 when former chief Art Acevedo accepted the top cop job in Houston. He's scheduled to give a talk at tonight's forum as well as listen to questions and comments from attendees.

As a result of that single-candidate status, Grassroots Leadership, United We Dream, and Workers Defense Project said that, at minimum, Manley should make clear where he stands on "...the most important policing issues facing the Austin community," according to a press advisory. One of those issues to which advocates seek answers is related to reducing arrests and keeping residents safe from deportation, Grassroots Leadership officials said.

"Interim Police Chief Manley must commit to a plan to reduce the number of arrests for low-level offenses that could otherwise result in citation," Holly Kirby, criminal justice programs director at Grassroots Leadership, said in a prepared statement. "This is already in line with current state law and there is much more that our progressive city can do." [node:read-more:link]

May 14, 2018

ICE Is Keeping People in Immigration Jails for Longer and Longer

When you think of detention, you might get the sense that it’s something temporary, like after-school detention. But when it comes to immigration, the word “detention” can mean being locked up for eight years.

In 2015, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials detained an average of 28,168 detainees per day. The average person spent 34.4 days in detention, according to a Department of Justice report.

An estimated 62% of all ICE immigration detention beds are operated by for-profit prison corporations, according to Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit group that believes “no one should profit from the imprisonment of human beings.” [node:read-more:link]

May 3, 2018
Austin American-Statesman

‘People’s tribunal’ to review alleged abuses at Taylor detention center

An advocacy group that helped an asylum seeker gain her release from an immigrant detention center in Taylor plans to put officials “on trial” Saturday, when alleged abuses at the facility will be aired during an unofficial hearing outside the center.

Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody and the Williamson County Commissioners were invited to the hearing “for their role in the abuse through maintenance of the T. Don Hutto contract and oversight for the facility and crimes committed by CoreCivic employees and ICE officials,” according to a news release from Grassroots Leadership, a local advocacy group.

If no local officials attend the tribunal Saturday, someone will stand in to represent them, said Bethany Carson, a researcher for Grassroots Leadership.

The two-hour event comes after representatives from GrassRoots Leadership and other community members asked Williamson County Commissioners at meetings this spring to address issues at the detention center. The county commissioners never put the item on their agenda, the Grassroots Leadership news release said.

The group has previously asked Chody to investigate sexual assault allegations at the facility, which houses female asylum seekers. Chody has said he referred the issue to the FBI.

In March, GrassRoots Leadership helped Laura Monterrosa — an asylum seeker from El Salvador who has alleged a female guard at the facility sexually assaulted her — gain her release from the center. [node:read-more:link]

Apr 30, 2018
Houston Public Media

Brian Manley Is The Sole Finalist To Lead The Austin Police Department Permanently

Manley’s investigation of a series of bombings in Austin last month garnered praise from city officials and amplified calls for him to take over on a permanent basis. News of the nomination was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman

But Chris Harris, a campaigns coordinator for the criminal justice reform group Grassroots Leadership, said residents of the city’s East Side – especially people of color – saw law enforcement’s handling of the bomb investigation differently.

“It definitely starts with how Anthony House was portrayed initially,” he said, “and I think there are still questions about how that impacted the investigation.”

House died March 2 when a bomb exploded on his porch. Police initially thought his death was an isolated event and that it was possible he made the bomb himself and accidentally set it off.

Harris called it “odd” that Cronk asked for community input after naming Manley the sole finalist. 

Grassroots Leadership and other groups have urged the city to take its time in appointing a new chief and to open up the vetting process to the public. Harris told KUT last month the city should seek public comment on Manley’s hire.

“If we don’t take the opportunity to get whomever will be the next chief to be on record as supporting policies that reflect the values of the community,” Harris said, “then we’ve lost an extremely valuable opportunity to ensure we improve our police force.” [node:read-more:link]

Apr 26, 2018
Huffington Post

Jeff Sessions Wants To Make The Justice Department More Like ICE

"But others who work within the system see Sessions’ efforts to double down on immigration enforcement as a strain on the limited resources of federal judiciary. The cost to prosecute people whom Border Patrol or ICE would likely deport anyway topped $1 billion annually for incarceration alone, according to a 2012 analysis published by Austin-based advocacy group Grassroots leadership. That figure doesn’t include all the other resources that DOJ has to muster to make these cases happen: judges, public defenders, prosecutors and U.S. Marshals." [node:read-more:link]

Apr 24, 2018
Community Impact News

After one year, fair chance hiring ordinance leaves room for improvement

"Lewis Conway Jr., criminal justice organizer at the Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, said that this campaign has been inadequate.

He pointed to the video, which was posted on YouTube in February 2017 and as of April 2 had been viewed 212 times.

Conway, who served eight years in prison and 12 on parole for voluntary manslaughter, campaigned on behalf of the ordinance.

'As a formerly incarcerated person, employment was probably the most important thing in my life, especially when it’s a condition of parole,' he said.

...“This [ordinance] is an opportunity to put people back into the cycle of life,” Conway said." [node:read-more:link]

Apr 20, 2018
Austin Chronicle

Beside the Point: Get Off Your Butt

"On April 3, in advance of that initial recommended deadline, a coalition of advocates including the Texas Fair Defense Project and Grassroots Leadership held a press conference to request that Council commit to a full repeal – and it was there that Grassroots organizer Chris Harris announced that the city had punted on the OCA's recommended deadline. The city has a team working to assess its overall effort to address the issue, but the coalition would rather not wait. 'We call on our city today to repeal these ordinances," Harris said, "and stop the criminalization of homelessness."'

..."Coalition member Roni Chelben, who works with the Gathering Ground Theatre, a theatre troupe of people experiencing homelessness, told me that the missed deadline made the coalition fear Council is backing away from the issue. 'It's a matter of pressure,' she said. 'Nobody's interested in doing anything about it, because it's a complicated issue.' She questioned why the city would wait for a holistic look at the city's efforts on homelessness before taking action to remove ordinances that are having a demonstrable effect on people's ability to survive right now." [node:read-more:link]

Apr 19, 2018

Without Final Rules In Place, Austin Closes Two Fair Chance Hiring Complaints

"Conway said ensuring someone with a felony record gets a fair shot amounts to a civil right. A five-year study by the Indiana Department of Correction concluded that education and employment were “the most important predictors of recidivism.”

'At the basic root of why this law is important is because it literally saves lives,' he said. 'When people are not allowed to be employed, they’re going to do what they have to do to feed their kids. They’re going to do what’s necessary to put a roof over their heads. When people go in and out of prison that process can be interrupted with employment.”' [node:read-more:link]

Apr 18, 2018
Ahora Si

Tú puedes brindarle apoyo a las detenidas de este centro de detención

"La organización pro inmigrante Grassroots Leadership está invitando a las personas a que se unan como voluntarios para su programa de visitas en el Centro Residencial T. Don Hutto, de Taylor.

El programa de visitas a Hutto comenzó en el 2010 y, según Sofía Casini, quien es la cordinadora de programas migratorios para Grassroots Leadership, entrenan a alrededor de 200 voluntarios al año para que vayan a visitar a las mujeres detenidas." [node:read-more:link]

Apr 16, 2018

How Trump moved the Mexican border north

'“This wasn’t behind closed doors in the middle of the night. This was very much in the community, out in front, for anyone to see,' Sofia Casini, a coordinator at the Austin non-profit Grassroots Leadership, told me. The organization directs a hotline for immigrant families. Before the February raids, the hotline got a couple calls a day; during the operation, she says, it received more than 1,000 calls. 'The vast majority of callers were asking if their kids would be taken away, where they could go and not go, if they should pick their kids up from school,' Cassini said." [node:read-more:link]