Grassroots Leadership In The News

Nov 16, 2018

Council approves labor contract with police after a year without one

The agreement sets out the pay for officers over the next four years. A 1 percent pay raise will go into effect next year, and then tick up by 2 percent every year after that. The department can also now hire officers based on more than simply a written exam – including an oral interview.

“I’m hard on the police department here and that’s only because I want them to be the best,” said Chris Harris, a data analyst with Grassroots Leadership who was part of a group of activists who sat down with police during negotiations. “We don’t have the perfect police department, but I think we damn sure have the best in the state of Texas.”


Nov 9, 2018
Austin Chronicle

Walk-In Walk-Out: County commissioners change course on substance abuse treatment funding

On Oct. 23, Travis County commissioners voted to send $125,000 to Integral Care's existing substance abuse initiatives, a seemingly positive move for a county with only one inpatient detox facility, lengthy treatment wait times, and decreasing investment in addiction efforts. But the way the county handled the decision has blindsided one of its community partners.

The funding request originated during the annual budget public hearing, which County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has described as letting "the taxpayers who are footing the bill" speak directly to the court. Local nonprofit Grassroots Leadership asked commissioners to send $450,000 to supplement a planned 24-hour opioid walk-in center so that the facility could treat people using all substances, not just opiates. This was part of ongoing discussions about a new $97 million women's jail and Grassroots' encouragement of jail diversion. [node:read-more:link]

Nov 2, 2018
Austin Chronicle

Hutto Trouble Again: Detained mother requests release, fearing daughter’s safety

Immigration advocates are calling for the release of Melvin Griselda Cruz Lopez, an asylum seeker from El Salvador, from the T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor. Lopez, who lived in the U.S. for a more than a decade before the threat of deportation, was separated from her 5-year-old daughter, Samantha, after her abusive ex-partner (and daughter's father) called Immigration and Customs Enforcement on her. Lopez now fears for her daughter's life, as that partner is her only active guardian. He has kept the girl isolated from her family nearby.

Lopez is an ideal candidate for a U visa, which protects survivors of domestic violence, but she never filed a police report out of fear of deportation, a worry that eventually materialized, underscoring the vulnerability of undocumented immigrants – especially women. Sofia Casini with Grassroots Leadership says the group has mounted a petition campaign to release Lopez, as public pressure is one of the most effective tools in attracting ICE's attention: "It's critical to remind ICE that the community is watching and holding them accountable."


Nov 1, 2018

APD officers change what they do when asking about immigration

If an APD officer wants to ask for someone's immigration status, that officer must notify the person that they don't need to answer. 

Grassroots Leadership was one of the community groups pushing city council to require the APD change. Alicia Torres from Grassroots Leadership says it will allow them to hold APD accountable in their dealings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the organization responsible for deporting people in America illegally. 

"We're actually going to be able to see how much the city collaborates with ICE," said Torres.

Grassroots Leadership staff tell KXAN most people deported by ICE in Texas get into the system after they're detained by police. 

"If you're choosing to ask someone about their immigration status. Why? What prompted you to do it? To make sure it's not because I have an accent or I'm brown," said Torres. 


Oct 31, 2018

Police implement revised "cite and release" policy

On Nov. 1, the Austin Police Department will implement a new "cite and release” policy

Before, the department had 11 factors that qualify for arrests. They've trimmed that list down to four factors, meaning there are now fewer reasons to arrest someone. The four remaining factors include an imminent threat to public safety and severely disorderly conduct.  

"It's important for police to exercise their citation option to make sure people aren’t unnecessarily brought into the justice system, especially for things that the public at large does not consider public safety concerns,” said Chris Harris, data analyst for Grassroots Leadership.

The changes were a result of several stakeholder groups meeting with the department. [node:read-more:link]

Oct 25, 2018
The Washington Post

Pew survey: It’s getting harder to be Latino in America

Bob Libal, who leads a Texas-based community organization that opposes raids, detentions and deportations, said reports of arrests at courthouses and outside school buildings have left Latinos feeling as though their community is under “huge assault.”

“One of the things that has become clear is that any arrest can lead to a deportation,” Libal said. [node:read-more:link]

Oct 18, 2018

Report Sheds Light On Austin's 'Criminalization' Of The Homeless

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

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

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

Graziani echoed her colleagues' call for an end for the trio of anti-homeless ordinances currently on the city books: "The repeal of the three City of Austin ordinances that criminalize people experiencing homelessness, while only one step, would go a long way to addressing the harm people are experiencing.” [node:read-more:link]

Oct 17, 2018

New deal keeps open facility that detains immigrant families

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

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

“It’s an agency that tends to play by its own rules,” Libal said. [node:read-more:link]

Oct 12, 2018

Austin Ordinance Banning Homeless Camps Challenged In Court

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

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

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

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


Oct 9, 2018
The Marshall Project

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

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

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

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

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

Since her release from federal prison in May 2015, Sam has worked tirelessly for criminal justice reform, and her initiatives have been covered by Vogue, SalonTV, Vice, and the New York Times. Most recently she has been featured in Glamour Magazine and Black Enterprise for being “the black woman behind the video that led to the Trump clemency of Alice Johnson.” [node:read-more:link]

Sep 21, 2018
Fox 7 Austin

Protestors pressure Sheriff Sally Hernandez to fight harder against SB4

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

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

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

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

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

They feel she's not doing enough to combat Senate Bill 4 and honoring ICE detainer requests. "We know that this is a very rogue agency so for her to accept them at their word feels a little bit like she isn't pushing as hard as she could be," Sanchez said. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 19, 2018

Austin Wants To Know What It Should Do To Improve Police Oversight

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

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

Harris now serves on the Police Oversight Advisory Working Group, a collection of police officers, union members and citizens that's gathering input to help inform any oversight reform by Council. The working group's preliminary recommendations include allowing people to file police complaints online and bolstering data reporting on policing. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 15, 2018
NBC News

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

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

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

Smaller groups like Local Progress, Grassroots Leadership and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration have been instrumental in leading grass-roots efforts to expand publicity and awareness for the campaign. And larger groups, most prominently the ACLU, have been working with local lawmakers across the U.S. not only on immigrant protections but on counteracting racial disparities in arrests and incarceration, pushing for the passage of proposals similar to Austin’s. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 7, 2018
Austin Chronicle

A New Jail for Travis County?

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

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

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

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

Sep 7, 2018
Austin Chronicle

Manley on Misdemeanors

Police chief outlines timeline for amending policy for discretionary arrests

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

Sep 7, 2018
The Orange County Register

For immigrant families without biological parents, separation might be permanent

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

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

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


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

Advocates say only that they know of numerous cases of grandparents, older siblings, aunts and other family members who are guardians of children they tried to bring into the country, and who have either been deported and blocked from reunification or remain in detention. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 7, 2018

Trump Is Still Desperately Trying to Keep Migrant Children Locked Up

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

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

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

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

“Today, legal loopholes significantly hinder the Department’s ability to appropriately detain and promptly remove family units that have no legal basis to remain in the country,” she said in an emailed statement. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 6, 2018
Victoria Advocate

Have courage to stand for basic human rights

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

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

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

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

The mothers’ stories as to why they were seeking asylum were heart breaking. One mother was repeatedly raped by gangs simply because she was a woman who owned her own business. Law enforcement wouldn’t help because of their corruption and cooperation with the drug lords. [node:read-more:link]

Sep 4, 2018

Del Valle residents concerned about Bastrop sheriff traffic operations

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

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

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

Fifty-three people were arrested between Friday and Monday for crimes ranging from possession of marijuana to driving while intoxicated, according to jail booking records. One was detained for deportation proceedings through Immigration and Customs Enforcement after being charged with driving without a license. [node:read-more:link]