- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Houston Chronicle. June 26, 2014.

Continuing crisis: The solution to the border situation is comprehensive immigration reform.

“The first thing I saw was a boy crying. Terrified and sobbing against the window of the holding cell, he couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13. The room was full of other young boys, their curious eyes peering out at us as we walked by. These were the ones who made the trip alone.” - Gov. Rick Perry

“We are talking about large numbers of children, without their parents, who have arrived at our border hungry, thirsty, exhausted, scared and vulnerable. How we treat the children, in particular, is a reflection of our laws and values.” - Jeh Johnson, Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Immediate reactions to the waves of unaccompanied children showing up on our southern border, including Gov. Rick Perry’s poignant description of what he saw this week during a tour of a Border Patrol detention facility, says a lot about who we are as Texans. For many of the governor’s GOP cohorts, the knee-jerk response was to call out the guard, as if an armed military was our first recourse to children so desperate they’ve left their homes and traveled for days across exceedingly dangerous territory to reach what they - and desperate parents who allowed them to leave - expect to be a welcoming promised land.

For state Sen. Dan Patrick, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, the thousands of children throwing themselves on the mercy of this great country was a welcome opportunity to repeat his odious warning about the children as carriers of disease. The irony is that youngsters from Central America are as likely to be vaccinated against childhood diseases as their American counterparts, since a number of American parents have succumbed to the spurious claim that vaccines don’t prevent diseases, they cause them.

For many other Americans, including many Texans, the arrival of the children offered an opportunity to ease their desperate plight. They’ve shipped blankets, food and clothing to the Rio Grande Valley, knowing that these children - who may be human trafficking victims or legitimate refugees under federal law - still need to be housed, fed and clothed, whatever their immigration status might be. The response of these decent, anonymous Americans is, in fact, “a reflection of our laws and values.”

That being said, the sheer number of children at the border has overwhelmed any orderly process for dealing with them. Since the first of the year, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have made their way to this country, primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Many are fleeing gang threats and pervasive violence. Their plight is, in Perry’s words, “a mounting tragedy.”

Johnson’s response to the crisis, as he outlined this week in remarks to the House Committee on Homeland Security, is direct, sensible and humane. He told the committee that he is redirecting both DHS agency personnel and resources from other government agencies; adding processing and housing capacity in Arizona and Texas; building additional detention capacity for adults who cross the border illegally in the Rio Grande Valley with their children; conducting public health screenings; and working with government officials in Guatemala, Honduras and Salvador to address the underlying conditions that seem to be fueling the mass exodus. Johnson also said that DHS and the Justice Department are adding resources to go after the smuggling operations taking advantage of desperate people.

What the DHS secretary laid out is the immediate response. If lawmakers actually are serious about a long-term solution to the border crisis, they should immediately pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, which has languished in the House since the Senate passed its version last year.

Reforming our immigration laws clears up any misunderstanding about how the American system works. It makes clear that recent arrivals will not be able to stay, unless their lives are deemed to be in danger back home.

The Senate bill also increases resources for court proceedings. Quicker court rulings for those applying for asylum or temporary residence make it less likely that children arriving at our doorstep simply fade into the system. And, of course, reform legislation sets up additional security measures and a legal guest-worker program.

“What’s happening along our southern border is a mounting tragedy, its root cause Washington’s failure, diplomatically and strategically, to address our border security and illegal immigration problem,” Perry said in a statement yesterday.

He’s right about Washington’s failure, but he evades placing blame where it belongs. Until his fellow Republicans in the House accept border reality, the crises will continue.


The Monitor of McAllen. June 27, 2014.

Brooks County graveyard controversy of improperly disposed of remains of immigrants

As our region grapples with an unprecedented surge of immigrants entering illegally into South Texas, there also are rising concerns that need to be addressed about improper burials of many immigrants who trekked north into Brooks County and perished there and whose bodies were not correctly interred.

Therefore we are glad that the Texas Rangers have announced they will participate in an inquiry along with Brooks County commissioners to figure out who is responsible for the burials and whether any laws have been broken.

The remains of dozens of unidentified immigrants were found improperly buried at the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias, a Brooks County-owned cemetery. Brooks County commissioners are warranted to be openly angry about the situation, especially as Commissioner Gloria Garza told Christopher Sherman of The Associated Press: “It’s very sad because Brooks County paid for a service for a decent and respectful burial for these migrants.”

It’s sad on so many levels and only compounds our confounding immigration crisis here that is at epic proportions and has the eyes of the nation, and world, upon our region right now.

The deaths of these immigrants are proof that no matter how treacherous or hazardous the journey, these immigrants will continue to enter our country illegally and to pursue a northward trajectory in search of better lives. We all know the dangerous vast brush lands that lie to the north near the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias. Yet so many risk their lives to illegally skirt around it. The lands there are fraught with poisonous snakes, little shade, no water and can become so hot in summer months that one can dehydrate and die of hyperthermia within hours.

Whatever the circumstances of the deaths of these migrants - likely between 2005 and 2009, experts say - we can all agree that the respectful thing is not to dump their remains into garbage and body bags. Worse: sometimes multiple bodies were placed in one single bag.

We appreciate the efforts of Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist who has led a team that has exhumed graves there.

After meeting with Baker and Rangers, state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said: “I remain concerned with the manner in which the bodies were buried and will continue working with officials to determine the proper course of action.”

We agree and hope respectful action is taken.


Austin American-Statesman. June 30, 2014.

Hobby Lobby decision lays foundation for confusion

Is a corporation a person? And does it have the right to religious beliefs? According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the answer to both questions is yes.

The answers are disappointing and have the potential to open the floodgates to litigation, in addition to having the immediate effect of limited access to contraception for women employed by corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties that cite exemptions under the guise of religious liberty.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that closely held, for-profit companies can claim a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act requirement that mandates they provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives to their employees.

By affirming that corporations have the same rights as individuals, the court gives the heads of corporations more rights than their employees. It also blurs the lines and sets the stage for confusion for future church vs. state cases.

In the latest of a string of court rulings involving the contentious Affordable Care Act, the court was asked to decide whether the ACA regulations applied to two separate companies under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, understanding that RFRA requires the federal government meet a demanding standard when it imposes burdens on religious beliefs.

The case arose when the owners of two companies objected to the ACA requirement that insurance plans must cover a full suite of contraception coverage. The Greens, a Southern Baptist family, own the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, and the Hahns, a Mennonite family, own Conestoga Wood Specialties. They both argued that being forced to cover contraceptives violates their religious liberty. The two families argued that their businesses should be entitled to protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which until now has applied only to individuals. We believe that RFRA should have applied to individuals, and not to corporations.

Prior to reaching the Supreme Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled that Conestoga Wood Specialties, which makes wood cabinets, could not invoke the 1993 RFRA law because “for-profit, secular corporations cannot engage in religious exercise.” Dishearteningly, the Supreme Court did not come to the same conclusion.

Instead, in examining the questions before it, the Supreme Court ruled that the requirement to cover contraception violates the RFRA because it mandated that businesses “engage in conduct that seriously violates their sincere religious belief that life begins at conception.”

The court’s ruling gives businesses a license to use their personal beliefs as a reason to deny people, in particular women, access to basic medical services already approved by the FDA. The fight for equal coverage for women’s health care has been long, and this ruling undermines that progress.

The court decision addresses only the contraceptive mandate “and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.”

That’s not enough. Contraceptions, vaccines and blood transfusions are not the only medical services where a corporation might choose to take a religious stance.

In her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questions what this means to employers with religiously grounded objections to antidepressants and medications derived from pigs such as anesthesia. Her concern was that the court has not given enough guidance for lower courts bound by this decision. She makes an excellent point.

“The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield,” wrote Ginsburg. We agree.

Yet we, as perhaps many others, find some comfort in the court’s willingness to add that its decision does not “provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”

The decision, some legal experts have argued, could mean a significant setback for gay, civil and women’s rights. Corporations could even potentially refuse to deny employment to women or minorities based on religious beliefs.

The family owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties certainly have a prerogative to run their businesses in accordance to their Christian beliefs; however, they shouldn’t be allowed to operate above federal law. And despite the justices’ attempt to narrow the decision to focus solely on contraception, that focus effectively chooses one faith over another - something the Constitution expressly forbids.

For those who share the religious convictions of the business owners, the decision may not seem so harmful. But consider the alternative - being asked to give up rights to preventative care and medicine based on someone else’s beliefs, rather than your own.

The Supreme Court has already chosen to uphold the ACA as legal. They should not undermine their own ruling by carving out special exceptions. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties’ stance prohibits the rights to health care services provided under the ACA, especially when considering there are many benefits for the use of contraceptives that go beyond birth control, including preventing infertility and lowering the risks of endometrial and ovarian cancers.

Rather than clarify constitutional rules on the separation of church and state, the nation’s highest court has instead only muddied the waters - likely for decades to come.


Fort Worth Star-Telegram. June 24, 2014.

TDCJ takes a small step to address the heat problems in state problems

The extreme heat inside Texas prison units during the summer - sometimes reaching as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit - has been an issue for years, with little reaction or show of concern coming from state officials and authorities within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of state penitentiaries are not air-conditioned. Of the 109 prison units, housing more than 150,000 inmates, only 19 (medical and special needs facilities) have climate control for prisoners’ living areas.

A report by the Human Rights Clinic at The University of Texas School of Law last month documented at least 14 heat-related deaths in the system since 2007.

As a result, several lawsuits have been filed against TDCJ, including one by correctional officers, alleging that conditions inside the mostly metal and concrete prisons violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Just this month, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of four inmates who, among other things, allege that their metal bunks are so hot they sleep on the concrete floors, The Associated Press reported.

This year TDCJ is installing cooling systems in seven units (three transfer facilities and four state jails), but officials are quick to say it has nothing to do with lawsuits or the growing criticism about the heat problem.

The wire service said that the cooling devices are similar to those used on the sidelines of football games played in the heat. Each unit consists of “a large fan inside about 6-foot-by-6-foot box. Water from a hose behind the $1,800 device flows over coils that cool the air pushed by the fan.”

That’s not an ideal situation, but it likely offers some relief for prisoners who have access to the cooler air.

Regardless of why the prison system made that move, it was at least a step in the right direction in addressing a deplorable condition. But it is far from being enough.

It’s estimated that it will cost $55 million to air-condition state prison facilities, an amount the Legislature is not likely to allocate anytime soon.

This ought to be a state priority. If lawmakers don’t address it soon, Texas could spend a lot more on lawsuits than air conditioning.


Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. June 27, 2014.

Planning for desalination now will help meet our future needs

The Texas Legislature is addressing water desalination in the way it should - years before the water purification process becomes mandatory for the state.

Water already is in short supply in 2014, so start planning desalination now. Why wait until Texas gets dangerously close to running out of water to begin dealing with the matter?

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Interim Committee to Study Water Desalination heard testimony about costs and other details of desalination from water experts at a recent hearing.

The joint committee, which includes five state senators and seven House members, will have public hearings throughout the state in weeks to come.

Desalination is removing salt and impurities from seawater or brackish groundwater to make it usable for human consumption.

Texas has more than 26 million people and is projected to have more than 46 million by 2060.

After years of drought, water supplies are getting scarce in many parts of the state. Lubbock and other cities have drought restrictions in place.

If that’s the circumstance now, what will it be like in the year 2060, with 20 million more thirsty Texans than we have now?

Members of the joint committee were told municipal water demands likely will increase by more than 70 percent over the current need in 2060.

The weather in Texas is not going to support the water demands of the future, testified Steve Lyons, a meteorologist in charge of the Weather Forecast Office in San Angelo and an adjunct professor of tropical and marine weather at Texas A&M; University.

Desalination will be a necessity to generate water for the needs of the Lone Star State.

San Antonio is building a desalination plant, according to Gregorio Flores III, vice president of public affairs at the San Antonio Water System.

The estimated cost of desalinating 1,000 gallons of water is $3.49, he said. That’s probably less than most people would expect.

The average family uses about 6,500 gallons a month, which means about $22 more per month.

Cities such as Houston or Corpus Christi could easily use nearby seawater for desalination, but questions remain about the process and costs: Would pipelines have to be built between the Gulf Coast and other Texas cities? How many places in Texas could desalinate salty groundwater?

Private industries in America historically have found the cheapest and most efficient ways to solve problems. Competitive businesses may be able to lower the costs of desalination even more.

The problems of Texas’ future water needs are clear, and it’s that obvious desalination will have to be part of the solution.

The Legislature is working to make it possible to have the desalination technology and infrastructure in place when it is needed. That farsightedness is going to be vital some day in the not-too-distant future.

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