Grassroots Leadership In The News

Jul 24, 2017
Palm Beach Post/Associated Press

Immigrants wept, pleaded for water and pounded on the truck

The tractor-trailer was pitch-black inside, crammed with maybe 90 immigrants or more, and already hot when it left the Texas border town of Laredo for the 150-mile trip north to San Antonio.


The details of the journey were recounted Monday by a survivor who spoke to The Associated Press and in a federal criminal complaint against the driver, James Matthew Bradley, who could face the death penalty over the 10 lives lost.

"After an hour I heard ... people crying and asking for water. I, too, was sweating and people were despairing. That's when I lost consciousness," 27-year-old Adan Lalravegas told the AP from his hospital bed.


In addition to the dead, nearly 20 others rescued from the rig were hospitalized in dire condition, many suffering from extreme dehydration and heatstroke.

A number of those aboard were from Mexico and Guatemala. Many of the immigrants had apparently hired smugglers who brought them across the U.S. border, hid them in safe houses and then put them aboard the tractor-trailer for the ride northward, according to accounts given to investigators. Read more about Immigrants wept, pleaded for water and pounded on the truck

Jul 21, 2017
The Austin Chronicle

Commissioners to Discuss Racial Disparities in County Jail

Grassroots Leadership report indicates detainees of color face inequalities

County Commissioners will hold a work session July 27 to discuss the county's pretrial programs and ways to better address racial disparities at the county jail, a direct response to a report issued July 13 by Grassroots Leadership. The local activist organization used the county's 2015 booking data to conclude that black people face disproportionately longer jail stays and are incarcerated at a higher rate than their white counterparts charged with the same crimes. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that while she's not surprised by the report's findings, she and County Commissioners are taking it "very seriously."


Despite these diversions, minorities are still experiencing higher rates of incarceration. While accounting for only 8% of Travis County's population, black people in 2015 represented 22% of jail bookings. As for days spent in jail, on average, white detainees were locked up for 16.88 days, while black detainees were held an average of 22.53 days. Eckhardt called the report "helpful" and said the county will continue to analyze it. "Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet for institutionalized racism," she said. "We have to acknowledge that sentencing is different for brown and black people and start having really uncomfortable conversations." Eckhardt said the county must question whether or not the pretrial program is improving lives or further entangling people in the criminal justice system.

"We've been asking this from a race neutral standpoint because we thought race neutral would fix it, but it's not working. We need to ask if this is better or worse for defendants of color." Read more about Commissioners to Discuss Racial Disparities in County Jail

Jul 19, 2017
The Huffington Post

Immigrants Appear Unshackled Before Judge In Arizona After Federal Ruling

TUCSON, Ariz. ― Immigrants facing prosecution for crossing the border illegally appeared before a judge without shackles for the first time in years here Tuesday, after a landmark ruling ordered the federal courts in Arizona to stop routinely restraining people who don’t present a security threat.

The ruling applies to anyone facing federal criminal charges in Arizona. But it disproportionately affects Operation Streamline, an immigration-prosecution program that allows judges to group defendants to speed up hearings for those accused of crossing the border illegally.

Some public defenders and immigrant rights groups viewed the change as a positive, if limited, development. Bob Libal, director of the Texas-based group Grassroots Leadership, told HuffPost: “It makes the process seem less overtly dehumanizing. I think it’s a good thing that people aren’t in shackles, and it’s a terrible thing that we’re prosecuting dozens and dozens of people daily for the crime of coming to the country.”


The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling May 31 that it is unconstitutional to indiscriminately force defendants to appear before a federal judge in shackles. Instead, judges have to decide if each individual defendant poses a security risk that would require restraints.

“A presumptively innocent defendant has the right to be treated with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain,” the opinion reads


It’s unclear how the ruling will affect immigrant prosecutions in the future, according to Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.

“We’re waiting for everything to clear,” Lopez told HuffPost. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”

The U.S. District Court for the state of Arizona has until Friday to respond to last week’s ruling ordering the state to stop routinely shackling defendants. The order may change after it does so. Read more about Immigrants Appear Unshackled Before Judge In Arizona After Federal Ruling

Jul 18, 2017

The Jail Where Sandra Bland Died Now Authorized to Detain Undocumented Immigrants

The Waller County (Texas) Jail was recently approved for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) program—despite failing its Texas Commission on Jail Standards inspection.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reached an agreement with Waller County to deputize the sheriff’s office for the controversial immigration enforcement program 287(g). Theprogram authorizes deputies to act on the behalf of ICE to arrest and detain people based on their immigration status. In turn, county officials are given broad powers to jumpstart deportation proceedings for immigrants who otherwise wouldn’t have been on the radar of federal agents.


The Waller County Jail was required to revamp its protocols and provide additional medical care in the wake of Bland’s death. Yet even after those reforms were implemented, major problems continued to persist.

The county jail came under investigation in March after a female prisoner alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a man who was also incarcerated in the jail. The man was performing cleaning duties for the jail at the time of the alleged incident. County officials later acknowledged that the inmate was never authorized to take on those duties in the first place.

The jail later failed its inspection with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, state documents show. Jail staff was found non-compliant in three separate areas, including violations for not keeping male and female inmates separate at all times, unless under direct supervision.

Within days of both the assault and the failed inspection, ICE officials formally approved Waller County’s application to join 287(g).


Texas activists are now concerned that the program’s loaded background doesn’t help Waller County’s already strained relations between police and people of color. Despite all that the community has been through, particularly after Bland’s death, it’s unclear whether officials have learned their lesson, says Bob Libal, executive director of the Texas-based civil rights groupGrassroots Leadership.

“What 287(g) does is literally turn local police into deportation agents,” Libal added. “That’s obviously profoundly disturbing and certainly seeds distrust with law enforcement.” Read more about The Jail Where Sandra Bland Died Now Authorized to Detain Undocumented Immigrants

Jul 14, 2017
Austin Monitor

African-Americans spend more time in Travis County jail for same offenses as whites

Travis County has a long way to go before its criminal justice system matches its progressive reputation, according to a report released Thursday by a local advocacy group.

African-Americans booked into the county jail spend more time behind bars than whites charged with the same crime, said the analysis by Grassroots Leadership, a community organizing group that focuses largely on immigrant rights and reforming the criminal justice system.


At a press conference held in front of the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center, speakers from a variety of organizations described the findings of the report as evidence of persistent racism in the local criminal justice system.

“While class inequality, and the inability to pay bail, undoubtedly feeds into these numbers, racial discrimination must also be an important factor, if not the primary (factor),” said Chris Harris, a data analyst for Grassroots Leadership who compiled the data in the report.

The report included eight demands of elected officials and law enforcement, including ending arrests for low-level traffic offenses, such as driving with an invalid license, ending arrests for possession of less than four ounces of marijuana and assigning inmates defense counsel within 48 hours of arrest.

The group also urged the county to develop a “more robust” pretrial diversion program in which people are offered the chance to avoid prosecution in exchange for meeting certain requirements, such as counseling.


Finally, Grassroots demands that the county compile and report data on the jail population and that it establish a “criminal justice community oversight group with decision-making authority led by those most impacted by over-policing and incarceration.”

The speakers implored the public to put pressure on elected officials and hold those who fail to act accountable in elections.

“We’re going to show up to these ballot boxes like we show up to the club,” quipped Lewis Conway Jr., an organizer with Grassroots Leadership involved with the Texas Advocates for Justice program, which seeks to engage formerly incarcerated people in the political process.

Texas allows those convicted of felonies to vote once they have completed their sentence, including probation. However, many people with criminal records assume that they never regain the right to vote, Conway Jr. explained in an interview. Part of his job is getting people to understand when their voting rights are restored and, more importantly, convincing them that their vote matters.

“Voting is power; organizing is power,” he said. “You don’t win because you’re right; you win because you’re strong. And that’s our problem right now. We’re not strong politically.” Read more about African-Americans spend more time in Travis County jail for same offenses as whites

Jul 14, 2017

Nuevo reporte refleja desigualdades en la cárcel del condado Travis

Un nuevo reporte indica que el tiempo de estadía en la Cárcel del Condado Travis no solo depende de la gravedad del delito, sino también de la raza.

Según el informe, presentado el jueves por Grassroots Leadership, una organización del activismo local, ciertos grupos raciales y étnicos permanecen más tiempo en la cárcel. En el caso de la comunidad inmigrante, esto podría significar un mayor riesgo de deportación.

"La gente inmigrante, la gente afroamericana dentro de esta comunidad, aunque estén arrestados por lo mismo que una persona angloamericana acaban en la cárcel más tiempo", dijo el concejal Gregorio Casar, quien también añadió no estar sorprendido por las conclusiones del análisis. “Este reporte enseña en números lo que ya sabemos en la comunidad", dijo Casar.

Al resaltar la disparidad, los activistas buscan generar un cambio en las políticas de la ciudad, el condado, la cárcel y el sistema judicial. “Ahorita tenemos que cambiar la manera como manejamos las cárceles y como manejamos la policía para tener un sistema que trata a la gente igual y que no importa de donde venga", afirmó Casar. Read more about Nuevo reporte refleja desigualdades en la cárcel del condado Travis

Jul 14, 2017
The Austin Chronicle

Narrowly Evading Deportation Over July Fourth Weekend

Thursday, June 29, began like any other day for the Guerrero family. Martin Guer­rero Alvarado, the patriarch, left early for work at his construction firm. His daughter Alicia hopped in her car a half-hour later, and went off to her internship at theGrassroots Leadership office in East Austin, 45 minutes outside her family's home in Dripping Springs.

But a mile into her drive, Alicia noticed that a Hays County Sheriff's deputy had pulled someone over. It caught her eye because the vehicle, she told theChronicle, looked like her father's truck. As she got closer, the 26-year-old graduate student saw her father handcuffed next to his truck.


Guerrero Alvarado expected to be released from the Hays County Jail in San Marcos within 48 hours. After all, a Hays County judge had already waived his bail bond, and all he would need to do, he was told, was make a court appearance and be free to go.

"But that didn't happen," he said. Instead, he was placed on a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hold, though he was in the process of obtaining legal residency. Per department policy, the HCSO had notified the federal agency of his undocumented status – information Guer­rero Alvarado offered, noted HCSO spokesperson Lt. Dennis Gutierrez. (Under the Secure Communities program, ICE automatically gets fingerprints of people who've been arrested or booked, then uses that information to determine whether it will take enforcement action.) ICE requested a detainer, which the HCSO honored.

Immigration rights activists say Guerrero Alvarado's situation is indicative of what will happen once Senate Bill 4 – the anti-immigration legislation signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in May – takes effect Sept. 1. SB 4 would require local law enforcement agencies to comply with otherwise optional ICE detainer requests, as well as letting officers question a person's immigration status when they're detained – like, say, during a traffic stop. Opponents say that last provision of the law codifies racial profiling, and will also lead to hundreds of thousands more immigrants being arrested, detained, and deported from the United States, a country they call home.

"This is the kind of case that we expect to see all the time under SB 4," said Bethany Carson, an immigration policy researcher and organizer at Grassroots Leadership. "Immigrant families have a lot to lose."


But to his family, ICE's timing seemed off. According to detainer policy, an immigrant booked or arrested at a local jail is taken into ICE custody within 48 hours after their detainment, not including weekends or holidays. Since Guerrero Alvarado's bond was waived on Friday, and the Fourth of July fell that following Tuesday, ICE agents should have scheduled his pickup for the morning of Wednesday, July 5.

At least that's what Alicia, her family's immigration attorney, and members of Grassroots Leadership deduced from ICE's own policy. "Monday and Wednesday. It would have been those two days," Alicia said. "We just immediately underwent this shock. We didn't know what to do."

That Saturday, Alicia, her family, and Grassroots Leader­ship held a protest outside of the Hays County Jail, demanding Guerrero Alvarado's release. Grassroots also organized hundreds of calls and emails to Hays County Sheriff Gary Cutler objecting to Guerrero Alvarado's detainer.

A few hours after the protest ended, ICE dropped its hold on Guerrero Alvarado without explanation. Though his release is the "outcome that we hoped for," said Carson, "it still came as a surprise. It's very rare that ICE would release someone after requesting a detainer." Read more about Narrowly Evading Deportation Over July Fourth Weekend

Jul 13, 2017
Austin American-Statesmen

Study: Blacks stay in Travis County Jail twice as long as whites

According to the Grassroots Leadership’s analysis of 2015 jail booking data, African-Americans stayed in the Travis County Jail nearly twice as long as Caucasian inmates on average — and the disparities held when comparing white and black inmates with the same lead charge and total number of charges.

For instance, African-Americans booked on a charge of driving while intoxicated spent almost 15 days in jail on average; whites were generally released within five days. When it comes to felony drug possession charges, blacks spent an average of 50 days in jail, while whites only spent 31.

Overall, African-American inmates spent nearly 23 days on average in the Travis County Jail, almost double the roughly 14 days for Caucasians.

“Blacks are jailed longer on average when charged with crimes of each and every level and degree — even when the number of charges is the same,” said Chris Harris, the data analyst who authored the report for Grassroots Leadership. “Time spent in local jail often has little to do with guilt or innocence as the vast majority of people held in this building have not been convicted.”


The Grassroots Leadership study was released on the second anniversary of Sandra Bland’s death, a high-profile case that shined a spotlight on police and jail practices in the state.

Bland was pulled over in Waller County by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper for failing to signal while switching lanes, but video of the incident showed the traffic stop quickly spun out of control, resulting in a violent arrest. Two days later, she was found dead in her cell at the Waller County Jail. Authorities ruled her death a suicide.


The Grassroots Leadership study shows that some 6,000 bookings into the Travis County Jail in 2015 were for Class C misdemeanors, a class of offense for things like traffic tickets and possession of small amounts of marijuana that would typically include no jail time if convicted. Read more about Study: Blacks stay in Travis County Jail twice as long as whites

Jul 13, 2017
Downtown Austin Patch

Report Highlights Travis County Jail Racial Disparities

A local civil rights organization unveiled a study on Thursday showing dramatic racial disparities in the Travis County Jail in terms of booking and length of confinement.

Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice and immigrant rights group in Austin, released its new report while calling on local officials to reduce incarceration rates and racial disparities. Drawn from 2015 jail data, the study shows "significant and persistent discrepancies" in booking and in the number of days spent in the Travis County Jail by people of color, particularly African Americans, as compared to whites. The data show African Americans experienced significantly longer periods of confinement in jail and were jailed at a much higher rate than white people, officials said.

Titled "Travis County Jail in 2015: Data points to racism and longer confinement of African Americans," the study was unveiled at a noon press conference staged Thursday in front of the Blackwell Thurmond Criminal Justice Center at 509th W. 11th St. The study's release was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the death of Sandra Bland at the Waller County Jail in what began as a simple traffic stop.

The study's author, Chris Harris, said the data show African Americans spent an average of nearly two weeks more in jail compared to whites for bookings that included a felony charge. Findings also showed wide discrepancies for misdemeanor charges and when the disposition resulted in a personal recognizance bond.

The findings showed that African Americans experienced longer periods of confinement at the Travis County Jail despite representing less than 10 percent of the Travis County population in 2015. That year, the group represented just 8 percent of the Travis County population yet represented 22 percent of individuals booked into the Travis County Jail, the study found. Read more about Report Highlights Travis County Jail Racial Disparities

Jul 13, 2017
Fox 7 News

Activists: Blacks spend more time in Travis County jail than whites

The organization Grassroots Leadership obtained Travis County Jail records for the year 2015. In a report, released Thursday, they say African-Americans spend longer times in jail compared to their white counterparts.

“It's not surprising because we all know African-Americans specifically are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, and we are charged more harshly,” said Latresse Cook, with the M.E.L.J Justice Center.

For example,  according to the data, a black person charged with a DWI spends almost 15 days in jail, compared to a little over 5 for a white person on average. “Unfortunately the numbers aren't surprising but they're very important,” said Greg Casar, Austin City Council member. Read more about Activists: Blacks spend more time in Travis County jail than whites

Jul 10, 2017

A Diabetic Migrant Was Taken Into ICE Custody—Then They Trashed Her Medication

Brenda Menjivar Guardado, a 21-year-old from El Salvador, has decided to self-deport from the United States because of the “extremely negligent treatment” she has received for her Type 1 diabetes while detained in Texas.

While migrating to the United States, Guardado properly managed her condition until she was detained in early June at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, after presenting herself at the border as an asylum seeker. Once in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at Hutto, a privately run detention center with a history of alleged mistreatment, her medication was thrown away.

She received a different medication in detention, which advocates say was not effective. Guardado’s glucose levels spiked to 452—the normal range is between 90 and 100—according to a statement from Grassroots Leadership, a Texas-based immigrant rights organization. “When she demanded appropriate medication, like she had received previously, Hutto officials told her to drink more water and stated she should go back to El Salvador if she wanted better medical care,” Grassroots Leadership reported.


American Gateways was made aware of Guardado’s health concerns when Guardado approached Whitney Drake, a staff attorney with the organization, which provides weekly legal education and workshops at three area detention centers, including Hutto. Women in these facilities are encouraged to discuss with attorneys any possible human rights abuses. Guardado shared with Drake that she was experiencing what could only be described as “life-threatening symptoms” related to her improper care, including rapid weight loss, blurred vision, and difficulty breathing. When Guardado was 13, she entered a diabetic coma, and according to advocates, she was fearful her in-custody symptoms indicated she would enter another.

American Gateways filed a request to have Guardado immediately released on grounds of medical emergency. The request was denied. She then withdrew her Credible Fear application, the first step in the asylum process, so she could be deported more quickly. Advocates said Guardado fears for her life in El Salvador, but has chosen to self-deport because it’s the only way she is certain to access the medical care she requires.

... Read more about A Diabetic Migrant Was Taken Into ICE Custody—Then They Trashed Her Medication

Jul 1, 2017

Hays County man released after ICE detainer issue

What started out as a traffic stop and an ICE detainer issue ended with a Hays County father reunited with his family after hundreds protested for his release.

A rally held was outside the Hays County Sheriff's Department Saturday morning in efforts to free Martin Guerrero. He was pulled over Thursday, June 29, for rolling through a stop sign. When the officer learned that Guerrero had no driver's license, only a Mexico ID, he was arrested.

“I have neighbors who have been stopped, were asked for an ID, did not have one and were not arrested, weren’t even given a citation,” his daughter Alicia Guerrero said.

Plans were made to transfer him to an ICE detention center Sunday morning.

Protestors stood outside the jail Saturday afternoon, demanding for his release after a Hays County Judge had already waived his bond.

Hours later, the ICE hold was dropped, Guerrero received a warning, and he was let go.

His family says they are "thankful beyond belief."

Still, the community says they continue to live in fear as Sept 1 approaches, putting the "show me your papers" bill into law.

"Unfortunately many sheriffs in Texas do honor these requests, but they don't have to. Not only does it have the impact of breaking up families and communities, it also has an impact of putting the county at risk for being sued,” Grassroots Leadership Executive Director Bob Libal said.

Last week, two court hearings took place in San Antonio and here in Austin to discuss the constitutionality of SB4, and if it's appropriate for the State to file a case on a law that hasn't gone into effect yet, and therefore hasn't been violated. Read more about Hays County man released after ICE detainer issue

Jun 6, 2017

Legislature chooses savings over rights in prison contract

The Wyoming Department of Corrections recently signed a contract with CoreCivic to house prisoners if the state penitentiary becomes uninhabitable; a future that seems all but certain with the consistent dilly dallying of the Wyoming Legislature and its inability to meet any of the state’s problems head on. A new contract will be entered into this year with CoreCivic, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. CoreCivic is the name Corrections Corporation of America has chosen in an apparent effort to reorganize and leave its shameful past behind.


In August the Department of Justice announced that it will be phasing out the use of private prisons after a scathing report from the inspector general’s office. This report found substandard living conditions, inadequate medical care and high rates of violence at prisons run by private companies including 14 prisons run by CoreCivic. In the early 1980’s, CoreCivic was the first company in the country to run for-profit prisons and, according to a recent report by Grassroots Leadership, a group that advocates against private prisons, one of the founders of Core Civic stated that they sold incarceration just “like you were selling cars or real estate or hamburgers.”


In 2013 Grassroots Leadership issued a report about CoreCivic’s celebration of its 30th anniversary in business. Entitled The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About 30 Years of Corrections Corporation of America the report outlined the corporations infamous history. 

According to Grassroots Leadership the report looks at many areas of concern: “As well as unearthing notable scandals and violations that have taken place over the company’s last three decades, this report charts several other key areas in which CoreCivic has left a dubious legacy. From controversial economic and political ties to operational cost-cutting and depressing labor practices, CoreCivic’s drastic efforts to maximize profits only serve to demonstrate the fundamental reasons why the for-profit prison industry is at odds with the goals of reducing incarceration rates and raising correctional standards.”

Grassroots selected a few of the more egregious issues in CoreCivic’s history to present its concerns about the use of private prisons for incarceration. CoreCivic purchased the Lake Erie Correctional Institution in 2011 and a year into its administration state audits found “staff mismanagement, widespread violence, delays in medical treatment, and unacceptable living conditions including a lack of access to toilet facilities with prisoners forced to defecate in plastic containers and bags.” The prison was often overcrowded and prisoners were forced to sleep on mattresses on the floors or were triple-bunked. Medical care was delayed and chronically ill prisoners were not treated with standard medical protocols.


According to the Grassroots Leadership report staff misconduct is prevalent and well documented in CoreCivic’s facilities with allegations of violence, sexual abuse, incompetence and mistreatment being regular complaints.  Officers have been found stealing prisoners’ money, selling drugs to prisoners and taking bribes. CoreCivic staff officers have been fired for urinating and placing fecal matter in prisoners’ drinks and food and for sexually abusing female prisoners.

The Grassroots Leadership reports that lack of expertise and training have resulted in numerous escapes and mistaken releases and CoreCivic’s security policies have received heavy criticism. Improper staffing and officer assistance was involved in some of the escapes. Poor conditions, understaffing, and inadequate response have led to riots at CoreCivic’s facilities. A riot in 2004 At Crowley County Correctional Facility resulted in a $600,000 settlement for prisoners who allegedly suffered retribution and abuse. After the riot, prisoners were assaulted by staff, forced to lie in sewage, left outside all night in handcuffs and forced to relieve themselves in their clothes as they were gassed and harassed by staff. Even prisoners who had not participated in the riot were punished. According to the Wyoming Department of Corrections, Wyoming inmates were housed in this private prison at the time of the riots.

Grassroots Leadership goes on to report that lack of adequate medical care has been a continuing problem for CoreCivic. In 1988 a complaint was filed over the death of a 23 year old from pregnancy complications. CoreCivic settled this lawsuit with the family for $100,000. Other lawsuits followed. For example, a death resulted from failure to provide prescribed medication; the inmate ran out of medication, repeatedly asked for a new prescription, and died a day before he was to be released. This case was settled by CoreCivic in 2004 for an undisclosed amount.

Numerous prisoners have suffered under Core Civic’s profit-making schemes and the Grassroots Leaders report lists numerous incidents. In 2003, Estelle Richardson died in a CoreCivic facility in Nashville, Tennessee.  According to the autopsy, Richardson had four broken ribs, a cracked skull, and internal organ injuries consistent with her head and body being slammed on a hard surface. CoreCivic settled this case for about $2 million dollars.

In the CoreCivic Hutto facility built in 1997 as a for-profit medium security prison in Taylor, Texas, immigrant families from Central America, Africa, Iraq, and Eastern Europe were housed when it was changed from a prison to a detention center for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to the report, the detainee families, including children, were dressed in prison scrubs, housed in cells, and forced to adhere to strict prison schedules. CoreCivic employee Donald Charles Dunn was found guilty of sexually abusing at least 8 female immigrant detainees while transporting them from the facility. These stories and many others tell the tale of who Corrections Corporation of America was and who CoreCivic very likely will be. Read more about Legislature chooses savings over rights in prison contract

Jun 1, 2017
The Austin Monitor

Here's what we learned about requests from ICE to pick up Travis County inmates

Drunken driving. Property theft. Possession of a controlled substance.

These are some of the crimes for which the Travis County Sheriff’s Office did not honor requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain suspected undocumented immigrants past their sentences or dispositions.

Records obtained by KUT News show that while Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s policy regarding ICE detainers is largely being applied as laid out, in a couple of cases it was applied inconsistently, specifically when it concerned reoffenders.

On February 1, Hernandez’s policy went into effect: She would honor ICE detainer requests only if someone had been charged with murder, aggravated sexual assault or human trafficking, or had been convicted of these crimes in the past. She also maintained the ability to assess requests on a case-by-case basis. Later, the sheriff expanded her policy to include crimes committed against children and the elderly.

In a second case, an 18-year-old man was accused of organized criminal activity. Travis County declined the ICE detainer request placed on him, and he was released from jail on a personal recognizance bond, or no-cost bond.

A month later, in April, he was again booked into the Travis County Jail, this time on a home burglary charge. Travis County honored a second ICE detainer request placed on the man and he was released to federal immigration agents. Dark said the man’s escalating criminal activity might explain the decision to turn him over to ICE – but when she spoke with KUT she did not have the notes in front of her from the captain who made the decision.

Bob Libal, executive director of the immigrants’ rights group Grassroots Leadership, said he’s concerned by these inconsistencies.

“I do think that it raises concerns if the policy is not being followed,” he said.

“It’s really disappointing to hear,” said Amy Fischer, policy director at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, when told about the few inconsistencies in the application of Hernandez’s policy. “She’s gained a lot of political brownie points as someone who’s claiming to stand up for the immigrant community, and it shows that when push comes to shove that she’s laying down to the federal government.”


While Hernandez’s policy states that she maintains the right to assess ICE detainers on a case-by-case basis, most of the charges for which people were released to ICE fell below the threshold Hernandez set in her policy. They included charges of DUI, home burglary, domestic violence, manufacture and delivery of a drug, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and sexual abuse of a child.

An oft-overlooked portion of Hernandez’s policy is the consideration of criminal history. In the case that someone committed one of the three violent felonies she set – murder, aggravated sexual assault and human trafficking – the ICE detainer placed on them would be honored.


Libal with Grassroots Leadership and Fischer with RAICES said they were concerned from the beginning to learn that Hernandez’s policy included the intent to honor any ICE detainers.

“Obviously, it’s good news that we have a dramatic reduction in the number of immigration detainers in our community,” Libal said. “But it doesn’t solve many of the issues that were raised by (detainers), including constitutional issues. It doesn’t matter what the criminal charge is. The sheriff is agreeing to honor a detainer that does not come with any backing of a warrant.” Read more about Here's what we learned about requests from ICE to pick up Travis County inmates

May 31, 2017
The Associated Press

Texas immigration lockdowns holding some families too long

 Afghan asylum seeker Samira Hakimi and her family members — three of them young children — have spent six months inside a Texas immigration lockdown, even though state lawmakers adjourned this week without passing legislation to circumvent federal rules on housing minors at such facilities.

The proposals that died in the legislative session would have licensed the immigrant detention facilities as childcare providers to avoid a requirement stipulating minors can be held no longer than 20 days.

Immigrant welfare advocates celebrated the failure of the bills, which they said would have caused further physical and psychological harm to children. Still, the federal government continues to hold some families long past the allotted time.

“The failure of the bill as good of news as that is doesn’t seem to have done these families any good,” said Cristina Parker, immigration programs coordinator for the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership.


Denise Gilman, director of the University of Texas immigration law clinic, said the prolonged detentions are a clear violation of the law.

One bill, conceived by lobbyists for the for-profit prison company GEO Group, would have allowed the state’s health department to waive minimum childcare licensing standards for GEO’s 832-bed facility and a 2,400-bed one operated by another private prison company.


But fellow Republican state Rep. Byron Cook, who heads the powerful Texas House State Affairs Committee, declined to hold a vote on the proposal because he said “there was a lot of anguish” about it. Pediatricians and child welfare advocates were among dozens of people in a hearing to decry the bill, claiming it indeed served to prolong detention, harming children physically and psychologically.

“This affirms the fact that the state does not have the ability to license the facilities at all,” Parker said.

The U.S. government began the long-term detention of families in 2014, responding to an influx of women and children seeking asylum from record gang violence in Central America — but by the following year a federal judge ruled against holding kids in locked facilities unlicensed as childcare providers beyond 20 days. Then Texas attempted to license the facilities, but a state judge ruled they weren’t fit to be licensed.


Fischer, Parker and Gilman all said that at this point, even 20-day stays violated the law — because the 2015 court ruling ordered that except in times of immigration surges, three days is the maximum allowed detention for children. Currently, border crossers are at a low.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not comment on the prolonged detention of the Hakimis or other families, but said that “ICE makes determinations on a case-by-case basis considering all the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current guidelines and legal mandates.” Read more about Texas immigration lockdowns holding some families too long

May 19, 2017
The VT Digger

Prisoners in Pennsylvania is not the solution


Vermont inmates are now going to Pennsylvania. That’s good news … or is it? Vermont recently signed a three-year contract with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to house Vermont inmates.

Let us not forget, too, the transportation of the inmates from Baldwin, Michigan, to Pennsylvania. There was areport by Grassroots Leadership in conjunction with Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform in 2013, in which an inmate describes the transportation process: “John, (who preferred we did not use his real name) was transferred to a private prison in Kentucky in 2006, said he had no clue what was happening when officers came into his Vermont cell in the middle of the night, told him to get up and grab his things, and refused to answer when asked where he was going. Shackled to the person next to him, he endured the 36-hour bus ride, still without any idea where he would end up …” The transport process sounds like an awful process, filled with inhumane treatment; in my view the only transport for these men should be back to Vermont. Other men soiled themselves because they could only use the facilities when allowed, even in emergencies. The report went on to state: “The transfer to Kentucky stripped John of access to rehabilitative programs, which simply did not exist at the private prison in Kentucky. Now out of prison and back in Vermont, John regularly advocates for prisoners’ rights, and said, ‘This practice of transferring inmates out-of-state is horrendous. You’re taking people who, whatever support network they may have, is gone. The truth of the matter is [that as an incarcerated person] you’re alone. You’re isolated.’”

Vermont is not only promoting this kind of treatment, in the transfer of inmates, but is continuously allowing inmates to be warehoused with little or no opportunity to work on programs that help them with the reintegration process. Read more about Prisoners in Pennsylvania is not the solution

May 10, 2017
The San Antonio Current

Will Texas Lawmakers License "Baby Jails" For Asylum-Seeking Families?

This week, Texas lawmakers advanced a bill crafted by for-profit prison interests that would license lockups for asylum-seeking immigrant families as child care providers.

Senate Bill 1018, which would lower state standards for two South Texas immigrant detention centers so they can qualify as Texas-approved "family residential centers," passed its first hurdle in the Texas Senate on Tuesday with a 20-11 vote along party lines. Immigrant rights advocates opposed to it say it's just the state's latest attempt to help keep the family lockups open as federal court orders threaten to shutter them. Democratic lawmakers fighting the bill say it would license "baby jails." 


The feds' last foray into family detention was at the infamous T. Don Hutto detention center in central Texas that was run by CCA. There, immigration lawyers and human rights activists complained of children dressed in prison-like jumpsuits and kept in small cells for 14 hours a day. A legal challenge by the ACLU ultimately forced the feds to pull children out of Hutto in 2009, citing a longstanding legal settlement that was supposed to bar the feds from ever again holding immigrant kids in a prison-like environment. 

Which is why lawyers challenged the practice of holding kids at Dilley and Karnes, sometimes for months. A year after they opened, a federal judge in California delivered a pair of court rulings that unambiguously condemned the practice of child detention, writing that the government hadn't provided "any competent evidence" to support its argument for jailing asylum-seeking families as a default measure. As part of her ruling, the judge said the feds couldn’t hold kids in facilities that aren’t licensed to house or care for children.

Advocacy groups like Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, which has criticized the conditions immigrants are housed in at Dilley and Karnes, thought the courts were on the verge of forcing an end to family detention. After all, when dealing with complaints over facilities like Hutto, the Texas Department of Family Protective Services had previously insisted it had no oversight role over private prison-run immigrant detention centers that house children in Texas and couldn't license them or hold them to a higher standard. 


Grassroots had to sue to force Texas child welfare officials to even hold apublic hearing on the matter, which did not go particularly well for the agency. Child welfare experts, immigrant rights advocates, former immigrant detainees and even a woman born behind barbed wire in a Japanese internment camp condemned the practice of family detention and insisted state licensing would only enable a practice that's destructive to healthy child development. Mothers spoke of being separated from their children for extended periods of time and inadequate medical care. Mental health experts who'd visited the facilities spoke of children losing weight, shedding hair and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression in lockup. Social workers claimed they'd been reprimanded by private prison staff for trying to help suffering mothers or children navigate the facility's grievance process. 


Then last December, a Travis County judge blocked DFPS from licensing the child lockups, ruling that the state can't arbitrarily lower its standards in order to cover a couple of private prison facilities. 

So lobbyists with the GEO Group, which operates the Karnes detention center, decided to try another route. As the Associated Press reported last month, the company helped draft the proposal now snaking through the Texas Legislature that would give DFPS the authority to license the detention centers. Its supporters argue it's a way to ensure families aren't separated in detention; Democrats arguing against the measure in the Senate Tuesday called it a "vendor bill." 

If the bill passes a third reading in the Senate, it moves on to the state House. Still, it's unclear whether lawmakers will have enough time to send the measure to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk before the fast-approaching end of the session on May 29.

But to Grassroots executive director Bob Libal, whose group sued the state over the licensing issue, the episode constitutes just another state attempt to help private prison corporations keep alive the controversial practice of family detention.

"The push to license the family jails has never been about protecting children, but about protecting the profits of private prison companies," Libal said in a prepared statement last month. "The state should stand up to these interests and for the rights of children and reject these unjust bills." Read more about Will Texas Lawmakers License "Baby Jails" For Asylum-Seeking Families?

May 10, 2017

Texas Senate Passes 'Baby Jail' Bill Backed by Prison Company

Senate Bill 1018 was advanced with a wide margin of 20-11 votes along party lines, with all the Senate Republicans voting in favor.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday passed a new bill written by the GEO group, the second-largest private prison company in the U.S., that legitimizes the existence of immigrant family detention centers as child care facilities.

The bill’s passage comes amid a slew of anti-immigrant ordinances passed by state lawmakers.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a group that opposes mass incarceration told the Texas Observer, “It’s outrageous that the Texas Senate just passed a bill bought and paid for by private prison corporations whose sole purpose is to detain immigrant children for longer."

Senate Bill 1018 was advanced with a wide margin of 20-11 votes along party lines, with all the Senate Republicans voting in favor. Three out of four people who approved the bill were GEO members, according to America's Voice, a grassroots nonprofit organization.

The federal government uses these sub-standard family detention centers to hold women and children seeking asylum, and who are often fleeing violence in Central America. According to the federal court rulings, the centers can hold children for few weeks but the new bill would allow the detention centers to hold women and children for the duration of their asylum cases. Read more about Texas Senate Passes 'Baby Jail' Bill Backed by Prison Company

May 8, 2017

Gov. Abbott Signs 'Sanctuary City' Ban: 'Texans Expect Us to Keep Them Safe'

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a "sanctuary cities" ban into law on Facebook Live Sunday night. 


Abbott designated the ban as an emergency item in January and signed the bill four days after both chambers of the state legislature gave their final approval. 

The passage is a big win for Abbott and Republicans, who advocate for stricter immigration laws.  They have tried to pass a limit on immigration every session since 2011. 


It will ban cities, counties and universities from prohibiting their local law enforcement officers from asking about immigration status and enforcing immigration law. 

It will create a criminal charge for police chiefs, county sheriffs and constables who violate the ban, and will charge local jurisdictions up to $25,000 for each day they violate the law. 

The law will also allow police officers to ask about a person's immigration status during any legal detention, which includes traffic stops. 


Those who support the ban say it is necessary to keep criminal immigrants off Texas streets. They argue that if officers do not turn over unauthorized immigrants they could go on to commit more serious crimes. 

Critics, however, view the matter differently.

"It seems fitting that Greg Abbott would sign this disgraceful bill on the internet on a Sunday night, far from the press and the public," Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, said.  Read more about Gov. Abbott Signs 'Sanctuary City' Ban: 'Texans Expect Us to Keep Them Safe'

May 7, 2017
The Austin American Statesman

Dozens protest law banning sanctuary cities at Governor's Mansion

About 100 people gathered in protest outside the Governor’s Mansion Sunday night after Gov. Greg Abbott on Facebook Live signed into law a controversial bill that will ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” where officials decline to enforce federal immigration policies.


Protestors carried banners and balloons and lit candles, vowing to defeat the law, which will impose penalties on law enforcement officials who do not comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies.


Representatives from the United We Dream national nonprofit, the University Leadership Initiative, Grassroots Leadership and the Workers Defense Project are all in attendance at protests Sunday night.

Abbott’s office gave little advance warning of the highly anticipated signing, which ensured that protesters could not disrupt it.

The five-minute Facebook Live video had been viewed tens of thousands of times as of Sunday evening. Read more about Dozens protest law banning sanctuary cities at Governor's Mansion