- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Galveston County Daily News. Oct. 18, 2014.

What if Ebola patients came here?

Sooner or later, a patient with a deadly virus will be brought to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. What should islanders think?

First, let’s get clear about what likely would happen.

As researchers at the Galveston National Laboratory like to say, it’s not going to be news when Ebola arrives on the island. That was news 10 years ago, when the lab opened on the campus of the medical branch. The Ebola virus and many other deadly pathogens have been under study here as a matter of routine. There have been no infections.

To get certified for this kind of research, the national lab had to have provisions for a worst-case scenario. What if researchers were infected? Provisions have been in place for years for providing care for occupational cases.

You can’t really provide care in the kind of protective space suits that researchers wear. How would you do it?

You would limit access to a few doctors and nurses to minimize the risk of spreading the disease. Those caregivers would have impermeable suits with gloves and masks that are tight fitting. The care would be provided in secure, isolated spaces.

The medical branch has space available for those occupational cases - and it has five other rooms in another building available for clinical cases.

Those rooms are sealed off and were designed for cases where the risk of contagion is extremely high.

The most valuable part of this infrastructure is the human infrastructure.

The campus is the home of the National Biocontainment Training Center. People across the nation come to the island to learn the protocols and procedures. This is the place that trains the trainers.

On Friday, there were no plans to bring Ebola patients to the University of Texas Medical Branch. But if the folks at the medical branch had to provide care, they could. And those of us who are their neighbors could be confident that the disease would be contained.

Consider the alternative. What would happen if a person with such a disease showed up at a community hospital in rural Texas and stayed there?

The person might be cared for by good-hearted but ill-prepared people. Health care workers might get infected, and the disease might spread, just as Ebola spread in West Africa.

What’s to stop that from happening in Texas?

The best defense is to get infected people to places like the University of Texas Medical Branch - places that have folks with the expertise to do the job.

The rest of us ought to support them and let them do their jobs.


Amarillo Globe-News. Oct. 15, 2014.

Don’t get hot over screening process

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, who visited Wednesday with the Amarillo Globe-News editorial board, tells the story of a few years ago, during a flight to Asia, of how officials came down the aisle of the airplane, taking each passenger’s temperature on their forehead before allowing passengers to disembark.

Why? Disease control, or more specifically, it was a disease screening process designed to detect individuals who might be carrying a dangerous illness.

Now that the deadly disease known as Ebola has arrived in America, a similar screening process has been or will be implemented in at least five U.S. airports (New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, Atlanta’s

Hartsfield-Jackson, Newark’s Liberty International and Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.)

The U.S. version of the screening process will focus on travelers from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - again, because of Ebola and its origins.

The screening process goes something like this: Travelers will be looked at for signs of illness, questioned about whether they have had contact with anyone with the deadly illness and - yes - have their temperatures taken.

If there are no red flags, travelers will be free to go.

This process sounds harsh, or perhaps even a form of profiling, but public safety calls for these needed security measures.

“I think I would be fine with some sort of reasonable screening,” said Thornberry, who mentioned Ebola is an issue on the campaign trail.

However, even with a screening process, there are no guarantees.

“We need to understand, even if you ban flights from these countries, even if you take everybody’s temperature, it is not going to mean we are safe,” Thornberry said. “People can fly through other countries to get here, they don’t show symptoms for a certain number of days … there is no absolute prevention of Ebola spreading here and elsewhere around the world.

“I think some reasonable restrictions … I would probably be fine with, but we need to not assume that solves the problem, because it doesn’t.”

The congressman is right. There is no fail-safe way to prevent Ebola from spreading, especially since the disease is already here.

However, stepping up security measures (including a screening process at U.S. airports that is a basic step in detection) is not unreasonable.


The Dallas Morning News. Oct. 20, 2014.

In voter ID ruling, justices side with more obstacles at the polls

Could it be that the Supreme Court justices overlooked the elegant simplicity of Texas’ traditional election system? We’re talking about the tried-and-true method in place for years, before the Legislature invented a crisis of voter fraud and imposed a photo ID law that places more obstacles before the voting booth.

If the justices understood the state’s time-tested system, they wouldn’t have bought the argument that it was too close to Election Day to reinstate it, in favor of the relatively new photo ID requirement.

Let’s recall the Texas voting system that was in place before the Republican-controlled Legislature swept it aside in 2011. A registered voter could enter the voting booth by presenting pretty much any ID or document that proved identity, with or without a photo. It might have been a voter registration card or driver’s license. It might have been a library card. It might have been an electric bill, a phone bill or a water bill.

The point was to show election workers who you were and where you lived, so long as it coincided with the name on the voter rolls.

The beauty of that system was this: If someone stole Grandma’s purse and ID cards, or if - God forbid! - she let her driver’s license expire the year before, she’d still have papers at home she could take to the polls to get a ballot. Grandma would not lose the right to vote on Election Day on a technicality.

What was remarkable about that system was this: Voter fraud at the polls was virtually nonexistent in Texas.

The simplicity of Texas’ traditional voting system gave us confidence that poll workers could quickly reinstate it, after a federal judge in Corpus Christi ruled Oct. 9 to block the new photo ID requirement on grounds that it is unconstitutionally discriminatory.

But an appeals court, fretting about the risk of “voter confusion” if the photo ID system were shelved so close to Election Day, blocked the judge’s order. The Supreme Court rubber-stamped the appeals court’s decision over the weekend. That keeps the photo ID system in place - for now.

Sure, it would have pressed election officials for a mega-dose of effort had the traditional voting system been reinstated just as early voting began Monday. There might have been scattered instances of confusion but maybe no more than the scattered confusion to be expected under the restrictive photo ID provisions.

And which poses the bigger threat to our democracy - a law found to unconstitutionally discriminate against voters or possible confusion about reinstating simpler rules?

In any case, we imagine election officials would have managed to pivot quite well. That would have kept a simple, reasonable system in place until the Supreme Court is able to weigh the full case against the troublesome new voting system.

A scathing dissent

The Supreme Court didn’t comment in upholding an appeals court ruling reinstating photo ID requirements - known as Senate Bill 14 - for the Nov. 4 election. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a seven-page dissent joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Here are excerpts:

“There is little risk that the District Court’s injunction will in fact disrupt Texas’ electoral processes. Texas need only reinstate the voter identification procedures it employed for 10 years (from 2003 to 2013) and in five federal general elections.”

“Any voter confusion or lack of public confidence in Texas’ electoral processes is in this case largely attributable to the State itself.”

“Senate Bill 14 may prevent more than 600,000 registered Texas voters (about 4.5 percent of all registered voters) from voting in person for lack of compliant identification. … A sharply disproportionate percentage of those voters are African-American or Hispanic.”


San Antonio Express-News. Oct. 20, 2014.

Better late than never on TCEQ air quality monitoring

Better late than never.

That underwhelming phrase should be the slogan for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality - at least in regard to its response to monitoring air quality concerns in the Eagle Ford shale.

Finally, the TCEQ is setting up an air monitor in the heart of the Eagle Ford shale play. Unfortunately, it’s just one air monitor when the whole region merits comprehensive observation. As we said, underwhelming.

The monitor will be in Karnes County, although it’s unclear where. In the past, the TCEQ has said it had no plans to monitor air quality in the Eagle Ford across South Texas. But after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff urged action after a series of reports by the Express-News on flaring in the Eagle Ford, the TCEQ is taking some modicum of oversight.

An agency spokesman told the Express-News’ John Tedesco that this monitoring site has been in the works for “well over a year.” Maybe so, but big picture, the TCEQ has shown little interest in air quality concerns in South Texas.

When Peter Bella, the former natural resources director at AACOG, suggested earlier this year the Eagle Ford shale might contribute to rising ozone levels in Bexar County, the TCEQ pushed back against that notion, saying sources were coming from the north and northeast.

The TCEQ also denied AACOG $182,000 in additional funding after Bella mistakenly shared details of a draft report before it was ready for release.

And in March 2013, TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, said responding to complaints in South Texas just wasn’t a priority. The agency responds to complaints within 12 hours in the Barnett Shale in North Texas.

“We can’t do that in the Eagle Ford because it might take hours to get there,” he said. “I kind of hate to say this, but those are lower priority than the ones where there’s hundreds of people living within a short radius.”

Now, TCEQ Chairman Brian Shaw has since clarified that comment, saying it was in regard to odor complaints and not more serious concerns.

But records portray a different picture. As Tedesco reported, TCEQ records show it sometimes took agency investigators days to respond to complaints in the Eagle Ford. This includes nine days to respond to a complaint in La Salle County that the smell of natural gas odor was causing headaches.

The Eagle Ford has been a boon to Texas and this nation, but that is not a pass for such institutional laissez-faire. This air monitoring station in Karnes is welcome, but it’s hardly the comprehensive approach that South Texans deserve.


The Monitor of McAllen. Oct. 19, 2014.

Immigration a humanitarian cause

To look into the eyes of Sister Norma Pimentel and to hear her tell stories of young girls raped as they tried to cross into South Texas during this year’s immigration surge; or stories about women, preparing to be raped on their perilous journey north, tucking morning after pills in their shirts to ward off pregnancies; or stories of parents putting their 12-year-old daughters on birth control for the journey, is to get a horrifying glimpse of what some have endured to get to this country.

It puts into perspective the callousness of an attitude that ignores these horrors and dehumanizes these people as nothing more than lawbreakers because of their desire to better their lives - or to flee for safety in native lands that are wracked with violence. And it underscores the troubling political calculus by our government intent not on dealing with a humanitarian crisis, but minimizing harm to their respective political parties.

While almost everyone agrees that the United States must first secure its border and then pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, the details of that reform remain murky and far from enough consensus to act. Meanwhile, immigrants continue to come through our southern border and we have a moral responsbility and imperative to treat them with dignity and respect, particularly after what they have been through. As a nation, we need to be better at this than has been the case.

There was the father who came with his 10-year-old son and felt compelled to offer a confession, of sorts, to Sister Norma. During their journey, he told her, they befriended two teenage girls who were no older than 15. As their bus was traveling through Tampico, Mexico, it was stopped by gun-toting men who he believed were members of a drug cartel. They boarded the bus and ordered all the Central Americans off the bus, taking them to a stash house.

“When we got to the stash house, they took the girls to another room and they raped them in that room because they were screaming and yelling - and we never saw those girls again. We never saw them again,” the man told Sister Norma.

A suspected cartel member also put a gun to the head of his 10-year-old son. “They said ‘Call your family and get us more money or I’m going to kill your son right now,’ he said. ‘And they clicked the gun.’” The gun did not go off. “‘I don’t know if it was God that saved him or it was the fact that they were just threatening him,’” he told her. The man and his son were released several days later when his family sent additional money. But the memory of those girls has haunted him ever since, Sister Norma said.

“This is just one story and there are many others. But that one really hurts so much to remember,” Sister Norma told us.

Stories like these policymakers should hear and these stories should be part of the equation when they forge a solution to an immigration problem that we all acknowledge exists.

Over centuries, the international community has developed a common law concept called safe harbor, a concept based on the fundamental principle that a ship out at sea that is caught in a storm should be able to seek safe harbor from the storm without concern over who controls that harbor.

To develop immigration reform without acknowledging the storm of violence and other threats in Central America is to ignore the international principle of safe harbor.

“There is a courage that is needed on both political parties to recognize that certainly we can do better as a country than we have been in order to address these changing conditions that have affected so many immigrant families. They live in fear,” Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville tells us.

“Most people don’t want to leave their home country because people love the place where they were born. It would have to be extreme conditions to force someone to leave the place they love,” Flores said.

While Sister Norma spent the summer aiding the surge of immigrants crossing our border, those who brave rape or the unpredictable drug cartels are seeking safe harbor and escaping poverty, drugs, gang violence and unspeakable horrors in their homelands, the bishop traveled to Central America and met with immigrants and local leaders there.

People such as the bishop and the sister have become experts on this humanitarian component of immigration and we should listen to their advice.

Sister Norma’s organization, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, of which she is executive director, mobilized an army of volunteers to help these immigrants - 250,000 have come through South Texas this past year, including 60,000 unaccompanied children.

The journeys of these people average 16.4 days, with much of it on foot. Most of them are women and children, ages 3 to 10, with very few older than 45. They endure unconscionable, unspeakable acts in which rape and violence are expected and they endure harsh conditions during their trips, for which they pay $5,000 to $8,000 apiece. For many, it’s their family’s life savings.

Catholic Charities have helped over 8,000 immigrants since the beginning of June - mostly women with small children - in the parish hall of McAllen’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church. They’re offered a hot meal, clean clothes, a bath, a place to rest and hugs. This is just a fraction of those apprehended, but there have been days when they have helped 400 immigrants inside the church’s small and dated parish hall.

From this mantle of experience, Sister Norma raises some fundamental questions that we agree should be answered: Why hasn’t the federal government done more to address the humanitarian component of this problem? And where is the Red Cross, an agency trained and funded to handle such humanitarian crises?

In lieu of this help, volunteers from every religious denomination have come from California, Maryland, New York, Florida and throughout Texas to offer help. Some volunteers come for a week or a weekend at a time. Some use their vacation time from work to do so and they pay for their travel and lodging just to offer help here. Some spend their days sorting usable items at the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley in Pharr, which is the collection site for drop-off donations.

Their methods are improvised, selfless and courageous, but they work.

One immigrant from Guatemala spoke a dialect no one understood - possibly Mam or the Mayan language of K’iche.’ Sister Norma said they couldn’t tell her that she had to give her sick daughter medicine several times a day. So they bought her a disposable cellphone and had the woman’s husband call her to remind her every time she needed to give the child medicine. Then they put her on a bus and hoped the battery would last until they got to her destination.

That’s more than our lawmakers in Washington can say they have done. They have abdicated their duties because of harsh political winds. President Barack Obama, who himself on June 2 called this a “humanitarian crisis,” and Congress have repeatedly put off adequately addressing the issue and reforming immigration or securing funding to help immigrants until after the Nov. 4 elections.

Border Patrol officials, we are told, recognized a surge in immigrants in South Texas last winter yet failed to alert the public or even tell Congress until the spring, at which point agents were already overwhelmed. Despite a summer of the intense glare of the nation, lawmakers still failed to deliver any appreciable help.

Perhaps if they heard Sister Norma’s stories, and knew what these people have endured there would be more urgency for policymakers to help.

And while the symptoms of this crisis have abated as summer has turned to fall - a time when migration typically increases - the problems that drove this crisis to begin with go unaddressed.

Therefore, we call on policymakers at the federal, state and local levels to do the following:

- Acknowledge, as Obama did, that we have a “humanitarian” problem and consider these immigrants refugees eligible for asylum. A pledge by Obama earlier this month to grant 4,000 of these immigrant children from Central America refugee status does little for the thousands of others. There must be a way to include more into an asylum program, just as all Cubans who make it to our shores are automatically granted asylum.

- Provide funding to deal with the humanitarian component of this issue until we can address the more complex immigration component. This would include reimbursement to local governments, such as the City of McAllen, Hidalgo and Cameron counties, for the extraordinary support role they have played in helping such groups as Catholic Charities, which opened several shelters across the Rio Grande Valley region.

- Use what has happened in McAllen as a model for other communities. As Hidalgo County Health Director Eddie Olivarez told us: “We should all be proud at how McAllen has handled this. We showed the nation and the world that we care about these people.”

- Help to address the problems in these people’s troubled homelands of Central America. The region has become a gateway for drug smuggling and all its related problems, including forced induction of Central American youth into cartel-controlled gangs or cartel-controlled prostitution, where those who don’t join are reported to be skinned alive. This must go beyond the notion of just throwing money at these countries. We must develop a level of support and cooperation that we had with Colombia in the 1980s and Mexico over the past decade to fix the problem for future generations. Perhaps introduce a NAFTA-like program for Central American countries to encourage and support their economic development and to help enable them to provide for their own citizens. This would include a stronger law enforcement and legal component.

- Acknowledge our immigrant heritage and the notion that we are a nation of immigrants. It is far too easy to demonize these people who only seek refuge. By taking away the stigma of this issue, our national conversation about how to lawfully deal with immigrants can truly begin. “The purpose of immigration reform is that we should be able to know who is here and for law enforcement to be able to distinguish who is here and who is innocent and here trying to support their families and from those who are here with criminal intentions. Now, there is no way to distinguish one from another because they are all living in the shadows,” Bishop Flores rightly pointed out.

- Insist that our government, with all its intelligence apparatus, do a better job of anticipating such surges, preparing for them and being more transparent with the public.

- Spend more money building infrastructures to accommodate these immigrants in better facilities. Unlike previous years when those trying to enter illegally into our country attempt to do so without being caught, these women and children immigrants have openly given themselves up to authorities hoping to be given safe refuge in our country. Instead, they have been housed and held in inhumane and jail-like conditions measuring 5-square-feet per person, far less than the 20-square-feet that law requires. And thousands of the unaccompanied children were held beyond the 72-hour hold period before they were turned over the Health and Human Services, as required by law, because Border Patrol were unable to process them quickly.

- Confer more authority to frontline workers to allow them to make common-sense solutions that come with these unique situations. Foremost, the sanctity of families must be kept together. We heard from Sister Norma, for example, of a grandmother who was separated from the granddaughter that she had raised as her own and brought to the United States to reunite her with her mother. The little girl called her “Momma,” in fact, but Border Patrol, adhering to the strict definition of “unaccompanied minors,” according to the 2008 anti-human-trafficking law, forced the separation upon learning that the woman was the girl’s grandmother, not her mother. Sister Norma went to the Border Patrol station in McAllen to look for the girl, at the urging of the grandmother, but the girl had been flown elsewhere. Whether they were ever reunited is unknown.

- We call on the Department of Homeland Security for better transparency with regards to the numbers of immigrants apprehended are how they are being treated and adjudicated.

- Finally, we beseech the president to come to the Valley and meet with local officials and gain a personal understanding of this situation. If he needs political cover, let the visit happen after the November election, but not much beyond that lest he use the 2016 presidential election as another excuse.

We are mindful that all these things that we are calling upon policymakers to do have little to do with immigration and more to do with the humanitarian side of this critical national equation.

But we believe strongly that the symptoms of this terrible illness must be addressed simultaneously as we address the main problem itself: the issue of immigration reform.



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