Grassroots Leadership In The News

Oct 6, 2019

Guatemalan Refugee In Austin Fined $300K For Not Leaving U.S.

AUSTIN, TX — As if undertaking the long, arduous journey from Guatemala to Texas with a child in tow, seeking refuge in the United States wasn't stress-inducing enough, a woman taking sanctuary at an Austin church has been fined more than $300,000 by immigration enforcement officials for resisting deportation.

Hilda Ramirez, 31, has been in sanctuary inside the St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 14311 Wells Port Drive, in Austin for nearly two years after receiving an order of deportation from federal immigration officials. It's her second time in sanctuary after a previous eight-month stint from February to October in 2016 before a four-month period when she was allowed freedom of movement as her case was studied. She took refuge in the church again after her request was denied, where she remains to this day. [node:read-more:link]

Oct 3, 2019
Telemundo Austin

Gobernador envía carta con reclamos sobre indigencia a alcalde de Austin

El Gobernador de Texas, Greg Abbott, informó el miércoles del envío de una carta oficial al Alcalde de Austin, Steve Adler, expresando varios reclamos sobre la crisis de la indigencia.

La carta exige que el alcalde y el concejo municipal aborden el tema con prontitud. En la misiva, el gobernador da como plazo el 1 de noviembre para tomar acción en contra la “violencia, jeringas usadas y heces en las calles de Austin que hacen peligrar a los residentes de Texas".

La carta advierte que “si no se implementan reformas significativas, el gobernador dirigirá a todas las agencias estatales correspondientes a cumplir con su responsabilidad de proteger la salud y la seguridad de los tejanos en la jurisdicción de Austin". [node:read-more:link]

Oct 2, 2019
Texas Observer

The Private Prison Industry (Finally) Faces an Uncertain Future

Donald Trump is a private prison kind of guy. America’s two for-profit titans of incarceration—GEO Group and CoreCivic—pitched in $500,000 for his inauguration. Almost immediately after Trump took office, his Justice Department reversed an Obama-era move to partially phase out federal use of the companies, sending their stocks soaring. As of August, a record 55,000 immigrants languished in detention, mostly in for-profit facilities and many in Texas. Yet, somehow, the future looks murkier than ever for the poor prison profiteers.

Here’s a recent sampling of headlines from Seeking Alpha, a news service for investors: “Bank of America stops lending to private prison operators,” “Democrats’ lead in polls highlights political risks,” and “More shun U.S. private prison financing.” [node:read-more:link]

Sep 27, 2019
Texas Observer

Video: ‘Traumatic, Unnecessary’ Arrest of Austin Woman Shows How Cops Can Worsen Mental Health Crises

For criminal justice reformers, the incident shows that police need to be cut from the equation of mental health emergency response. “The footage of Tania Silva’s arrest shows a horrifying, yet common example of everything that goes wrong when law enforcement responds to a mental health crisis,” said Cate Graziani, an organizer with the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership. Calling the arrest “traumatic and unnecessary,” Graziani said APD should have deferred to EMS or the mobile crisis team, and she noted that the presence of an APD mental health officer—meaning a cop who’s taken training in crisis intervention—seemed to make little difference. “Cops are not health workers,” she said, “and no amount of mental health training can guarantee the safety of individuals in crisis who call 911 for help.”

The incident fueled existing discontent with APD’s handling of mental health crises. Despite Austin’s reputation as a progressive beacon, a 2018 city audit found that of the country’s 15 most populous cities, plus Seattle, Austin had the “highest per capita rate of fatal police shootings involving persons believed to be experiencing a mental health crisis.” In a notorious 2016 incident, then-APD officer Geoffrey Freeman shot and killed 17-year-old David Joseph, who was in crisis and naked at the time.  [node:read-more:link]

Sep 18, 2019
Austin-American Statesman

Austin group sues to obtain contract for area migrant detention center

An Austin-based advocacy group is suing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for its contract to operate the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a federal immigration detention facility in Williamson County where more than 500 asylum-seeking women are being detained.

Grassroots Leadership filed the lawsuit last week after ICE had yet to fulfill a public records request the organization filed in June.

Bethany Carson, a Grassroots Leadership immigration policy researcher and organizer, said ICE acknowledged the request but never sent a copy of the contract for the facility it now operates directly with CoreCivic, a for-profit private prison company. Previously, ICE also contracted with Williamson County as part of an intergovernmental agreement, but that expired in late January after Williamson County commissioners voted to end their involvement in the facility operations.

“We really have no way of corroborating that a contract exists, which is incredibly troubling,” Carson said. “This is an incredibly nontransparent, unaccountable way of making these agreements to operate immigration detention facilities that we do not want to see proliferate.” [node:read-more:link]

Sep 18, 2019
Houston Chronicle

Houston eliminates daytime juvenile curfew, lowers fines for nighttime violations

City council on Wednesday eliminated Houston’s daytime juvenile curfew, but stopped short of ditching the ordinance altogether despite pleas from advocacy groups who say the restrictions fail to deter crime and can burden young people with criminal records.

The amended ordinance would keep the existing nighttime curfew in effect, but would lower potential fines from $500 to $50. Teens cited under the ordinance also would be diverted to a teen court through the municipal court system.

The nighttime curfew prohibits youngsters aged 10 to 16 from being on the streets without an adult between the hours of 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays, and midnight to 6 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Kids traveling to and from work or a school-, religious- or government-sponsored activity are exempted from the curfew. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 18, 2019
Austin-American Statesman

Hearing at Austin City Council exposes sharp public divide in camping ban debate

Emotions ran high as the public weighed in Wednesday on the Austin City Council’s removal in June of homeless camping bans that now might be resurrected.

More than 150 people addressed the council in a hearing that at times grew heated and exposed wide rifts between those who want the camping bans to return and those who see such bans as criminalizing homelessness.

“This policy is a disaster, an absolute disaster,” Travis County Republican Chair Matt Mackowiak said near the outset of the hearing. “Today you are admitting it.”

Homeless camping has become the most controversial topic in city politics in recent months. Frustrations have grown as encampments that once were hidden have become far more visible with tents lining the streets near the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and under Texas 71 in South Austin. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 18, 2019
Telemundo Austin

Municipio de Austin considera nuevos cambios a ordenanzas sobre la indigencia

Como era de esperarse, la sesión especial realizda el miércoles en el ayuntamiento de Austin, se llevó a cabo a casa llena debido a la expectativa que generaron dos propuestas que modificarían las normas sobre la indigencia.

La reunión tuvo el propósito de añadir algunas restricciones a la modificación de las ordenanzas aprobada en junio, cuando el concejo desechó la prohibición de sentarse, acostarse y acampar en lugares públicos.

El cambio de parecer se debe a las quejas y preocupación de cientos de residentes, quienes culparon a este cambio por el aumento de la presencia y visibilidad de los indigentes. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 14, 2019
Taylor Press

FOIA litigation filed against T. Don Hutto

The T. Don Hutto Detention Center in south Taylor is still open although Williamson County terminated its contract last year in June. Members of Grassroots Leadership, an organization that helps women who are detained at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center, question how the facility is still operational. 

“Why is T. Don Hutto still open? ICE and CoreCivic cannot be allowed to continue to operate this facility with complete impunity,” said Bethany Carson, Immigration Policy Researcher and Organizer for Grassroots Leadership. “We're here to turn the tables and demand that this time ICE show us their papers.”

After more than 10 years of community protest against abuses at the facility, the county chose to end its contract with Immigration and Customs (ICE) and CoreCivic. However, in January ICE made an announcement of a new temporary contract extension with CoreCivic for maintenance of the facility. It is unclear when the temporary contract ends. 


Sep 5, 2019
Austin Chronicle

Council, Community Urge APD to Halt Marijuana Arrests

On Tuesday afternoon (Sept. 3), Austin Police Depart­ment Assistant Chief Troy Gay had the displeasure of being the guy who had to tell everyone in a room packed with citizens, community leaders, and members of City Council's Judicial Committee exactly what they didn't want to hear: "Marijuana is still illegal under both state and federal law."

The veteran cop plainly and courteously laid out the department's stance: "APD has not increased our enforcement efforts, but we continue to cite-and-release and/or arrest as deemed necessary." The discussion of an item first outlined two weeks ago by Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Member Greg Casar waded deeply into the muddy waters of discretionary enforcement for misdemeanor pot charges.

Since July 3, when Travis County Attorney David Escamilla and District Attorney Margaret Mooreannounced that they'd reject all possession charges until law enforcement agencies could use accredited testing to discern whether confiscated cannabis is illicit marijuana or newly legal hemp, APD has continued to cite offenders and – to some degree – make arrests. Casar takes issue with that practice. "It doesn't make any sense to me to arrest someone [if] they're not going to get prosecuted," he told the Chronicle last week, emphasizing that arrests can result in serious life complications – interrupted income, getting your vehicle impounded, and potentially losing your job.

Several citizen speakers at Tuesday's meeting brought up how these impacts are not spread equally among Austin's cannabis users. "When APD makes these arrests, who are they arresting? What does the data show?" asked Annette Price, statewide director for Grassroots Leadership's Texas Advocates for Justice. "The data shows that the majority of these arrests are still people of color." [node:read-more:link]

Aug 24, 2019

How an Austin organization says you can help the crisis along the border

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Conversation, education and action. That is how one Austin organization says people in central Texas can help with the crisis along the border.

The organization held a forum on Saturday as part of a way to connect the community with issues they say could be distant to many people not living along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It’s important for us as Texans to be educated on this topic and know exactly what’s going on so we can know how to act,” said Laura Hoyos, an Education Coordinator for Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera.Advocates with the organization aim to raise awareness about social and economic injustice along the border, which is one reason why they hosted the forum. [node:read-more:link]

Aug 21, 2019
The Texas Observer

The Consequence of Trump’s New Family Detention Rules

On Wednesday morning, Trump administration officials announced a final rule that will allow the government to detain migrant children indefinitely in family detention centers while they and their parents await resolution of their asylum cases. Currently, kids may generally be held in such facilities for no longer than 20 days. The final rule will not be published in the Federal Register until Friday, and it won’t take effect for two months. A legal challenge is likely. 

OK—so let’s take about five steps back. 

In the summer of 2014, a wave of Central American minors and families was arriving at our Southern border—a trend that continues through the present. At the time, the Obama administration had virtually no capacity to hold these families. The notorious Hutto family detention facility near Austin had been converted into an all-women lockup five years prior, leaving the feds with nothing but a tiny 96-bed center in Pennsylvania. So, to the dismay of his liberal base, Obama resurrected family detention, launching a short-lived center in New Mexico and two South Texas lockups that remain today: the 830-bed Karnes County Residential Center and the 2,400-bed South Texas Family Residential Center, in Dilley. 

Quickly, stories of abuse and psychological trauma began emanating from the facilities, as some families were held for months on end. Until, in the summer of 2015, a federal judge intervened.  [node:read-more:link]

Aug 21, 2019
Fort Worth Weekly

Border Trauma

Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher and organizer for Grassroots Leadership, a nonprofit trying to eliminate all private for-profit prison firms nationally, said, “Part of what is happening is that private companies are running these places, and they use private services from commissary to medical staff to other necessary people. And all of them have a hand out for a piece of the pie.”

That piece of the pie used to be about $700 per night per minor at the notorious tent city in Tornillo, Texas, run by BFCS, an international nonprofit that is not currently involved in any of the border facilities, a spokesperson for the organization told us. [node:read-more:link]

Aug 15, 2019
Telemundo Austin

Activistas denuncian a APD por incumplimiento de políticas de "Ciudad de Libertad"

La Policía de Austin publicó recientemente su segundo reporte trimestral en conformidad con los requisitos de las resoluciones de "Ciudad de Libertad" el municipio.

Estas políticas tienen la finalidad de limitar el uso de perfiles raciales en la aplicación de la ley, el contacto con las agencias de inmigración, además de dar discreción a los oficiales para emitir citatorios y no arrestar por ofensas menores.

El reporte incluye cifras de los arrestos realizados por la corporación y su contacto con la población entre abril y junio. Según el informe, APD realizó 84 arrestos, 21 menos que el primer trimestre del año.

Doce o el 35% de los detenidos fue de origen hispano, y 14 o el 41% de raza negra.

Las cifras alarmaron a algunos activistas.

“No bajó el perfil racial, no bajó el hecho de que la comunidad afroamericana es arrestada cuatro veces más que otra raza de la población en Austin”, dijo Alicia Torres, representante de Grassroots Leadership.

El informe también menciona siete instancias en que el departamento contacto a ICE para indagar sobre los antecedentes de ciertos individuos.

“Esto lo que nos dice es que el perfil racial sigue siendo parte de la actividad diaria del departamento de policía de Austin”, agregó Torres. [node:read-more:link]

Aug 14, 2019

Immigration Hardliners Will Run Texas’ New Domestic Terrorism Task Force

The task force will be led by the state’s top Republicans, including Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton. All of them have championed a surge of state police troopers at the border that has burned through more than $2 billion over the last five years, according to the Texas Observer. All three of them also supported Senate Bill 4, a 2017 state law that bans so-called sanctuary policies that limit cooperation between immigration authorities and local law enforcement. 

More recently, they backed a state-led effort to remove thousands of naturalized immigrants from the voter rolls, contending without evidence that unauthorized immigrants might be casting illegal ballots. Multiple lawsuits forced Abbott’s administration to abandon the purge. 

The fact that backers of the 2017 anti-sanctuary law are part of the mix is particularly concerning, said Claudia Muñoz of the criminal justice reform group Grassroots Leadership. Abbott should instead investigate how the law “has contributed to the culture of hate and how it can be repealed as quickly as possible,” she said. 

“The governor should actually listen to communities impacted by white supremacist violence, instead appointing a panel exclusively made up of law enforcement, including people who have actively implemented policies targeting immigrants and people of color,” Muñoz said. [node:read-more:link]

Aug 9, 2019
Austin Chronicle

Don’t Book ’em, Danno: DPS Backs Off on Pot Busts

Texas marijuana users who are caught with under a quarter pound of cannabis are now less likely to have handcuffs slapped on their wrists. Leaders at the Texas Depart­ment of Public Safety have directed its officers to issue citations for misdemeanor pot charges instead of making arrests.

The directive to cite and release came via a July 10 internal DPS memo recently obtained by The Texas Tribune. The missive, addressed from Deputy Director Randall Prince to "All Commissioned Personnel," reiterated the department's commitment to marijuana prohibition in the wake of hemp legalization laws that have made weed cases difficult to prosecute. "Departmental personnel are expected to continue enforcing marijuana related offenses," the memo read. "However, effective immediately, personnel will cite and release for any misdemeanor amount of marijuana, as authorized by Article 14.06 of the Texas Code of Criminal Pro­ced­ure. A citation in these circumstances is only authorized when the suspect resides in the county where the offense occurred." Depending on that county prosecutor's current stance on cannabis, the suspect may still have to face charges in court. [node:read-more:link]

Aug 3, 2019
Austin-American Statesman

10 civil rights groups call on Travis County to drop pending marijuana cases

Ten civil rights groups are calling on Travis County to drop all pending marijuana possession cases in the wake of a decision from the district and county attorneys not to pursue most new cases on that charge.

District Attorney Margaret Moore announced that her office would dismiss 32 felony possession cases filed in the three weeks since June 10, when the Legislature passed a state law legalizing hemp. County Attorney David Escamilla said his office would dismiss 61 misdemeanor cases filed in the same period.

Just like other prosecutors across Texas, Moore and Escamilla have said they will not pursue most marijuana possession cases moving forward because the new law requires them to prove whether a suspected drug is hemp or marijuana, which means conducting a costly test of the substance’s THC content. However, Moore said it’s not her intention to stop prosecuting marijuana cases on a long-term basis. She has not said if or when her office would resume marijuana possession prosecutions. [node:read-more:link]

Jul 31, 2019

Most Democrats Want Border-Crossings Decriminalized, Poll Says

Some 64% of respondents who identified as Democrats voiced support for the proposal, compared to 31% of Republicans. Total support, including by independent and unaffiliated voters, clocked in at 48%, with 32% opposed, 11% expressing no opinion, and 8% saying they didn’t know. 

“It shows that progressive voters want to see bold ideas on immigration that roll back the mass criminalization and deportation that we’ve seen for the last 15 to 20 years,” Bob Libal, the executive director of the Austin-based criminal justice group Grassroots Leadership, told HuffPost. “Reforming the federal criminal justice system also has to include ending these mass prosecutions for simple immigration offenses.” [node:read-more:link]

Jul 29, 2019
Austin Monitor

Council, neighbors plan meetings on how to manage South Austin shelter

Among those who may be feeling less safe in Austin’s current climate are people experiencing homelessness. Earlier this month, a couple was targeted when a lit firework was thrown from a moving vehicle into their tent. The advocacy group Grassroots Leadership posited the violence was a direct result of the heated rhetoric that has surrounded the issue of homelessness since City Council’s June actions. Violence within the homeless community has also been in the local media spotlight in recent weeks.

Petricek said her group still hopes to challenge the city’s decision to purchase the office building, or put enough restrictions on its operations to keep it from creating a setting similar to the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which is located downtown and attracts hundreds of people gathering outside on a daily basis hoping for assistance and shelter. [node:read-more:link]

Jul 17, 2019

Sanctuary Leaders Fight Back Against ICE’s ‘Psychological Violence’ and Steep Fines

Ivan Ramirez, a 13-year-old Guatemalan asylum seeker, says he can’t remember a time in his life when he felt free. Now that the federal government intends to fine his mother more than $300,000, he worries that whatever semblance of safety they have in sanctuary is being threatened.

Ivan and his mother Hilda Ramirez came to the United States fleeing familial violence in 2014. Since then, they have been “under attack” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the elder Ramirez said. They were detained together for almost a year after first arriving in the United States. Since their release from detention, they have been targeted for deportation. Because of ups and downs in their immigration cases, they have been forced to take sanctuary twice in St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas. On July 4, soon after receiving a letter from ICE informing her of a $303,620 fine, Ramirez told Rewire.News she sees these financial penalties as part of a larger pattern of attacks against immigrants in sanctuary. [node:read-more:link]