Just look at the situation: Thousands of Central American refugee children have been streaming across the Texas border seeking safety from their violent homelands and to reunite with family. They have precipitated what Americans of all political stripes acknowledge to be a humanitarian crisis. Other legitimate worries include border security, the clarity of our immigration laws and the government's effectiveness and commitment in enforcing them.
That last part — the government's effectiveness and commitment, or lack thereof — prompted Gov. Rick Perry to dispatch 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border in what was viewed widely as a partisan political stunt to raise his profile in a potential 2016 presidential candidacy. We share that view of the Guard deployment. But regardless of viewpoint, all would have to agree that Texas' southern border region has become much more militarized of late.
Enter into the tense, militarized situation the arrival of civilian militia groups with their own political or politically exploitable motives. Some of these militias say they were invited by exasperated ranch owners to patrol their property for destructive trespassing migrants — the ranchers' plight deserves attention. Some of these groups are armed because the border is a wide expanse and they can't depend on the Border Patrol to be everywhere.
Some wear masks, which serves the purpose of obscuring their identities from potential retaliatory criminal types but also adds creepiness to the already tense situation. And some militias include "several present during the Bureau of Land Management incident at the Cliven Bundy Ranch in Nevada," according to an online publication, the Conservative Tribune ("Small government, free markets, and traditional values").
Texas congressional Democrats sent Abbott a letter calling upon him to denounce the militias and define the legal limits upon them. They said they were "deeply disturbed" by photos of "armed and masked militia groups" patrolling the border. They called the militias "lawless" and said they "perpetuate the stigma that the border is a war zone."
Abbott, the Republican nominee to succeed Perry as governor, dismissed the letter through a spokeswoman who called it a "partisan political stunt."
We can't ignore that those Democrats had political motives, or that some of their rhetoric went too far. Until the militias commit lawless acts, they should be assumed law-abiding. They tend to know their rights and the limits on those rights, and they know they attract attention and are being watched.
Also, to demand that Abbott denounce militias is to expect him to contradict principles he represents and holds dear — the right to keep and bear arms, the right to organize militias, the right to defend person and property.
But to dismiss the letter was disrespectful and — it could be argued — a dereliction of his responsibility to set the proper tone as the state's chief upholder of the law. While denouncing the militias would have gone too far, asking — not telling, asking — them to go home because they're not needed would have been just plain good law enforcement.
What would it hurt for Abbott to point out, as a kindred spirit, that as much as he appreciates their volunteerism, their presence makes an already militarized situation appear more militarized and unfriendly. They really do make the border seem more like a war zone.
Or he could invite them to do something really useful and humanitarian such as helping gather and distribute donations.
And, at the very least, he could have clarified the limits on what militias are allowed to do — reminding the militias gently what they already know while reassuring the many people who understandably are wary of militias that the situation is under control.
That would have been a proper, apolitical response to legitimate concerns. It would have been a statesmanlike response by someone who might make a fine governor.
Longview News-Journal. Aug. 6, 2014.
Immigrant children, educators should not be targets of protest
Area school superintendents were briefed last week on the possible effects of child immigrants from Central America on Texas schools.
Even after the briefing with the Texas Education Agency, there remained more questions than answers about how many of the young refugees might be in East Texas schools when classes begin later this month, or where they might enroll.
But we're pleased educators are seeking information and making preparations. Their job is education, and they're going to get it done.
Despite the questions, we know many of these children are remaining for now in Texas. That means they must be educated somewhere, and there simply are not enough resources to handle them all in schools along the border. The most sensible solution is to get them in classrooms across the state.
And that's just what will happen.
While educators appear to be thinking this through rationally, that's not the case with all of us. Emotions are running high, and that's a problem because emotions tend to get in the way of rational thought. We've seen emotions take control many times on this issue over the past few months — including from some of our elected leaders.
Some East Texas county governments have even begun passing useless resolutions saying they do not want the immigrants housed within their county lines. It's a topic that could come before Gregg County commissioners, and we hope they have the political courage to resist passing it.
Such a resolution is mere posturing that holds no authority, spreads misinformation and does nothing to solve the problems bringing these immigrants to the U.S. More likely, it inflames passions among those who don't understand such a resolution has no real meaning, who think it's proof officials are "with" them "against" the refugees crossing our southern border.
In the midst of such mean-spiritedness, we have no worries the education professionals of East Texas will do the best they can no matter who is in the classroom or where they came from. We know they will treat all students equally and fairly.
Those dealing emotionally with this issue are another matter, and we worry they might take action not befitting our loving, Christian community. We've seen photographs and videos of some in California protesting immigrants and, frankly, the images are appalling. We do not wish to see such hateful displays in East Texas.
Please do not misunderstand. We are not suggesting everyone must agree on this or any issue. Nor are we arguing against protests. We only ask that such not be done in the faces of children seeking education, nor at the schools where administrators and teachers are simply doing their jobs. That causes more harm than good.
Many forebears of today's Americans came here fleeing violence as much as they did seeking freedom. This will always be a part of who we are as Americans.
To refuse to be a place of refuge for these young people fundamentally changes what the United States stands for, and we should not allow that to happen.
Killeen Daily Herald. Aug. 10, 2014.
Resolutions on immigration issue accomplish little
Last month Bell County commissioners took a stand on the immigration crisis. Now a Killeen councilman is asking his colleagues to do the same.
Jonathan Okray, who was elected to a second term in May, drafted a proposed resolution earlier this month and sent it to the mayor, city manager and fellow council members. The resolution calls for the city to refuse any federal directive or request to permit or establish any facilities to house, detain or process immigrants who come to the United States illegally.
The Temple City Council passed a similar resolution last week, urging the federal government to enforce border security and opposing unfunded mandates regarding housing of immigrants.
In his proposed resolution, Okray noted a large influx of immigrant children would have a major impact on the Killeen school district — including educational funding, school resources, campus security and health safety.
However, the Killeen area has seen no such influx of immigrants. Nor has the city received any requests for aid, according to city spokeswoman Hilary Shine.
Granted, the Obama administration recently stated that 47,000 unaccompanied child immigrants had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border so far this year — a legitimate concern for border communities.
But now the border crisis seems to be easing.
The Department of Homeland Security reported earlier month that fewer unaccompanied children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in July than in the previous two months. The number of arrests totaled 5,500 last month, barely half of the totals for May and June. The decline has caused authorities to close some of the temporary shelters set up to handle the surge.
Given that context, the likelihood that Killeen, Temple or Bell County will be called upon to establish their own shelters seems remote — at least for the foreseeable future.
No doubt, Okray is responding to concerns of many in the community. His proposal cites the federal government's failure "to protect the homeland" and contends "Texas has the right and obligation to protect its citizens." Both themes are frequently touted by political conservatives in the area.
But aside from drawing the community into a complicated and contentious national issue, what does his proposed resolution achieve?
For one thing, the sentiment behind the resolution is not universally shared by the city's residents.
Former Killeen Mayor Raul Villaronga, president of League of United Latin American Citizens Council 4535, called the proposal "a stupid idea," especially in a city with such a diverse population made up of immigrants. He urged doing something to provide solutions instead of causing more problems.
And the resolution could cause the city legal problems if council members approve it at their Aug. 19 meeting.
Last month, an Austin-based nonprofit group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development challenging a similar resolution passed by the League City council. The complaint alleges the resolution, and others like it, violates the Fair Housing and Civil Rights acts.
But the biggest question may be whether the resolution is even worth the paper it's printed on. As Bell County Judge Jon Burrows acknowledged when commissioners passed their resolution last month, the county court has no authority over immigration policy.
Ditto for the Killeen City Council.
The influx of Central American immigrants — particularly children — is a humanitarian crisis that must be addressed. Solutions must balance border protection and adherence to immigration law with humane treatment of immigrants taken into custody.
If and when the influx becomes an issue for communities here in Bell County, that would be the opportune time to discuss reasonable actions and solutions.
But for now, passing a resolution precluding action by the city is the equivalent of throwing up a roadblock on a highway that has no traffic.
Houston Chronicle. Aug. 9, 2014.
A constitutional right: The right to abortion was reaffirmed 22 years ago, yet Texas is close to eliminating that right
Anyone depressed over the unlikely prospect of ever seeing a fresh perspective on the set-in-stone abortion debate should take a look at an opinion rendered earlier this month by a federal district judge in Alabama in a case involving Planned Parenthood. The judge's ruling is unlikely to change minds, but it does offer a thoughtful and compelling rationale for protecting women's right to choose.
The judge, Myron H. Thompson, declared unconstitutional Alabama's requirement that doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The law, which would have shut down three of the state's five remaining abortion clinics, mirrors the stringent set of requirements the Texas Legislature approved in 2013.
"There is so much to say about this remarkable 172-page opinion that it's hard to know where to begin," Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times wrote in a recent column focusing on the Alabama judge's ruling. Greenhouse began where the judge ended: "The right to an abortion is a constitutional right like any other."
In his ruling Thompson drew a parallel between the individual's right to keep a gun at home for self-defense and a woman's right to reproductive freedom. What would happen, he pondered, if the state regulated sellers of firearms and ammunition so stringently that there were only two vendors left? "The defenders of this law would be called upon to do a heck of a lot of explaining," the judge wrote, "and rightly so in the face of an effect so severe."
As Greenhouse noted in her column, guns and abortion is a pairing that no judge has previously made. "At its core, each protected right is held by the individual," the judge wrote. "However, neither right can be fully exercised without the assistance of someone else. The right to abortion cannot be exercised without a medical professional, and the right to keep and bear arms means little if there is no one from whom to acquire the handgun or ammunition."
Neither Alabama nor Texas is going to regulate firearms dealers until they're driven out of business, and yet that's exactly what's happening in Texas and elsewhere when it comes to abortion. Twenty-two years after the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to abortion, Texas in particular is close to eliminating that right, in the name of women's health and safety.
In Austin earlier this month, challengers to the Texas law were in federal court seeking to block enforcement of new building and equipment standards so strict that the state's remaining abortion clinics are likely to shut down. In 2012, there were 41 abortion clinics in Texas; now there are fewer than 20.
Supporters of the Texas requirements argue, as in Alabama and elsewhere, that the stringent standards are intended to protect patients and to improve quality of care. Lawmakers, however, have been pretty transparent about their real motive: They seek to end abortion.
The new rules have, in fact, reduced the number of abortions in Texas. According to a recent study by Texas researchers and national reproductive health experts, the number dropped 13 percent in the last year. The study found that about 9,200 fewer abortions occurred since the rules went into effect in November. That's good news; the "safe, legal and rare" mantra is still valid. The bad news is that the decrease in the number of abortions does not eliminate the need or demand for them. It's likely that women are going out of state or to Mexico for either abortions or abortion pills, or they're resorting out of desperation to self-induced abortions.
In addition, with abortion clinics limited to a few large cities, many Texas women in this large state have less access to women's health resources and family planning information. Since lawmakers launched their crusade against Planned Parenthood in 2011, the state has lost 76 women's health clinics, a third of them Planned Parenthood clinics. The clinics do more than just provide abortions.
A decision in the Texas case is expected by the end of the month. Regardless of how the court rules, a Republican-dominated state government will continue efforts to eviscerate a woman's right to an abortion. In the face of those determined efforts to limit women's reproductive freedom, it's going to take, in the words of columnist Greenhouse, "smart and gutsy judges" who are willing to treat abortion as what it is, "a right like any other."
The Dallas Morning News. Aug. 7, 2014.
Lawmakers get it wrong with West legislation
This newspaper has called for common-sense rules since the April 17, 2013, explosion in West — most of them regarding the handling and storage of ammonium nitrate, the hazardous chemical behind the blast. For example, we support the idea of warehouse operators adopting industry best practices to avoid the kinds of lapses that contributed to West's disaster.
But voluntary practices alone can't substitute for the mandatory safeguards that the Texas Legislature still must enact to reduce ammonium nitrate's significant dangers. So we are concerned that lawmakers went overboard last week and weakened a bill designed to make warehouse owners more legally accountable for lax practices.
Legislators might be lulled by a friendly industry advocate who calmly counsels, "Heh, heh, now, let's not get carried away with this bill." But what they need always to keep foremost in mind are the horrific images from West.
Remember the towering flames from the West Fertilizer Co. warehouse in the seconds before roughly 30 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in a towering mushroom cloud, killing 15 people. The giant crater surrounded by tons of twisted metal. The apartment building reduced to splinters. The two schools rattled so violently that their roofs collapsed. The nursing home whose residents huddled in fear as windows and ceilings imploded. Hundreds of acres of wreckage.
Legislators also should recall the rubble just two months ago after an ammonium nitrate warehouse fire in the middle of Athens, in East Texas. Industry best practices don't include placing storage facilities in the middle of population centers. The Athens disaster was one more example of why mandatory safety requirements are necessary.
Legislators have heard from lobbyists about proposed laws, but how many West officials got a chance to testify? None.
With that slanted input as a road map, members of the House Homeland Security Committee weakened a month-old draft bill — removing proposed penalties for lax storage and handling practices as well as curtailing the State Fire Marshal Office's inspection authority. The new draft also would postpone the date for any meaningful rules to take effect until 2016. Further revisions call for forming a committee of government and industry representatives to develop a best-practices approach.
No wonder the revised draft won effusive praise from Donnie Dippel, president of the Texas Ag Industries Association. The registered lobbyist exclaimed: "We really appreciate you taking the fire code out. We really appreciate you taking the penalties out."
In other words, keep it voluntary.
Voluntary compliance leaves the option not to comply. That's exactly the option chosen in West Fertilizer's case. If the memory of a mushroom cloud over a devastated Texas town isn't enough to jar legislators into action, what will it take?