State of Texas: Tension, questions of legality shape immigration bill debate

dfwnewsa | October 28, 2023 | 1 | politics , Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas House passed border security legislation early Thursday morning after tension among Democrats and Republicans in the Texas House reached a boiling point Wednesday evening amid debate.

The House approved HB 4, which would create a Class B misdemeanor for anyone to enter Texas illegally. House Democrats filed dozens of amendments to the bill. With 47 amendments filed, Republican House members pushed through a motion to cut off additional amendments to the bill.

Rep. Cody Harris, R-Palestine, filed the motion. Rep. Armando Walle,D-Houston, voiced his frustration to Harris. Several lawmakers gathered around the two men, as Walle spoke loudly and forcefully.

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“Y’all don’t understand the (*expletive*) that y’all do hurts our community. It hurts us personally, bro,” Walle said. “It hurts, it hurts us to our (*expletive*) core and y’all don’t understand that y’all don’t live in our (*expletive*) skin.”

Amid the tense moments on the floor, the House stood at ease shortly before 7 p.m.

Debate on the legislation started again shortly after 9:30 p.m., with House members taking up the first amendment.

The legislation would allow state law enforcement to arrest people who enter the state illegally and put them in jail for up to six months. That power is currently limited to federal law enforcement.

“This bill, once passed, will empower more of our law enforcement officers to step up and help our border help our troopers make sure that we are physically repelling illegal immigrants,” State Rep. Ellen Troxclair, R-Lakeway, said.

During a committee hearing on the bill last week, opponents argued HB 4 is unconstitutional and goes against federal law.

Currently, only federal law enforcement officers have the authority to arrest and deport migrants. State officials can arrest immigrants for trespassing on private property in Texas, but not for crossing the border right now.

Additionally, state fiscal analysts predict if it becomes law, this new criminal offense “may result in additional demands upon state correctional resources.”

Staffing challenges pose security risk at TDCJ, report says

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is still operating at “critical staffing levels” due to ongoing hiring and retention issues, according to TDCJ’s September self-evaluation report submitted to the Sunset Advisory Commission in preparation for next year’s review cycle during the 89th Legislative Session.

TDCJ told KXAN progress has been made in recent months, but staffing continues to be one of its top priorities.

“Continued low staffing levels present greater security risks for those working within the facilities and, in turn, for the public,” the report states.

As TDCJ works towards addressing its consistent staffing shortages and high turnover rate, the self-evaluation report projects Texas’ inmate population will continue increasing during the next several years.

According to the report, TDCJ’s inmate population had grown to 125,000 in December 2022, an increase of around 7,000 from earlier the same year. Currently, TDCJ inmate data shows that number has grown to nearly 130,000.

With agency-wide staffing shortages and a growing inmate population, KXAN looked at Office of Inspector General reports from 2020 through 2022 to see how the number of investigations and crimes within TDCJ compare year-over-year.

In FY22, the criminal investigations division of OIG worked nearly 2,400 cases related to crimes against persons, deadly weapons and deaths in custody.

The OIG reports show calls for service, criminal investigations and contraband offenses all significantly increased from 2020 to 2022.

“The introduction of contraband is an obstacle to the successful confinement of inmates. There has been a 60% increase in the number of cell phones found over the past two years and a 120% increase in contraband in the past five years,” the report states.

The OIG report states it has identified several complex criminal enterprises responsible for the growing contraband cases.

Drone drops, mail, and employee or visitor smuggling are among the various means the items are being introduced, according to the OIG report.

The self-evaluation report submitted to the Sunset Advisory Commission comes after multiple efforts from state policymakers and the Texas Legislature within the last two years aimed at addressing the ongoing staffing shortfalls.

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“A critical challenge for TDCJ has been securing and retaining qualified employees and correctional staff to meet the agency’s mission,” the report states.

In April 2022, state leaders approved a 15% salary increase for correctional officers, followed by approval from the 88th Texas Legislature for salaries and budget increases agency-wide.

Although staffing and retention issues continue to be TDCJ’s main concern, the agency told KXAN that it is seeing improvements thanks to the efforts from state policymakers and approved legislation during the 88th session.

“These efforts have been effective. We have surpassed last year’s hiring numbers and are seeing fewer staff leave the agency,” according to a TDCJ spokesperson.

Additionally, TDCJ told KXAN it has established several programs to increase recruitment and retention across the state including:

  • Warden Direct Hire Program
  • Mobile Correctional Officer Taskforce
  • Retention Specialists
  • Team of Talent Acquisition Advisors and Uniformed Recruiters
  • Marketing Exposure – social media, billboards, commercials, newspapers, hiring events
  • New Career Center
  • Employee Surveys
  • Career Plans and Career Path Counseling
  • Flexible Work Environments
  • Employee Housing Options
  • Employee Wellness Programming
  • Other benefits: Benefits at a Glance (texas.gov)

Despite the recent legislative efforts and new programs implemented by TDCJ, hiring and turnover continue to be a “major issue,” according to the report.

The turnover rate across TDCJ statewide has increased from 24.8% to 32.5% from 2018 to 2022, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

2022 saw a slight decrease in turnover compared to 2021 (32.8%), according to TWC.

FY22 Texas Department of Criminal Justice turnover and demographic report (Source: Texas Workforce Commission)

Among all state agencies in Texas during FY22, TDCJ had the second highest turnover rate behind its criminal justice counterpart, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

State of Texas: Tension, questions of legality shape immigration bill debate 2
Top five state agencies with the highest turnover rates in Texas (Source: Texas Workforce Commission)

TDCJ currently has nearly 300 open positions posted on its website. TDCJ told KXAN the number of open positions has decreased over the last few months.

In an effort to address the ongoing staffing shortages, the report states TDCJ is working on reorganizations to further increase salaries for critical positions by deleting positions that can’t be filled, and is asking for continued support from the Texas Legislature.

Can a Texas judge refuse to marry gay couples? Texas Supreme Court to rule

The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments relating to disciplinary action taken against a Waco-area judge who refuses to perform same-sex marriages.

The case tests the authority of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct while pitting LGBTQ+ rights against the discretion granted to elected officials on religious grounds.

In 2019, the Commission issued a warning to McClennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley for her refusal to perform marriages for same-sex couples, claiming her conduct shows an inability to uphold her oath of impartiality.

The state’s attorney described instances in which Hensley’s clerks would greet gay couples seeking to be married, turn them away, and provide them a list of other judges who would serve them.

“She has chosen to discriminate between some folks in the state of Texas in favor of other people. And it flies in the face of impartiality,” attorney Douglas Lang argued to the court Monday morning.

Hensley asserts state religious freedom laws allow her to hold her sincere religious convictions while acting as an elected judge.

“In this case, we have a judge who’s made it clear that her convictions, her religious beliefs, her conscience says that she believes a marriage is between a man and a woman, and that there are other judges available to perform same sex marriages,” President of Texas Values Jonathan Saenz told Nexstar. “She shouldn’t individually be forced to do that and the State Commission on Judicial Conduct should not be punishing her.”

Hensley’s legal team is seeking to prevent the Commission from taking further action against her while allowing her to continue her practice without the requirement of marrying gay couples.

Both sides presented brief arguments and fielded questions from the Court on Monday, but they do not expect a resolution until at least June — when this Court’s current term ends.

“The best outcome would be for this judge to not be forced to violate her conscience beliefs, for religious freedom to prevail,” Saenz said. “People shouldn’t be disqualified from being office, they shouldn’t be targeted simply because we have different views on these issues.”

‘Root out this cancer’ – Patrick condemns anti-Semitism in Texas conservative groups

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced his campaign would purchase of $3 million in bonds for Israel this past Monday. The dollar amount matches the $3 million donated to Patrick’s campaign, by Defend Texas Liberty, a political action committee.

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Earlier this month, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan called on Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to give back the donation, after news reports that leaders of Defend Texas Liberty hosted Nick Fuentes, a political commentator known for his white supremacist and anti-Semitic views.

Texas Tribune reporter Robert Downen broke the story of Fuentes’ visit, including photos of Fuentes leaving the office of a consulting firm owned by Jonathan Stickland, who at the time was president of Defend Texas Liberty.

“We got a tip that Nick Fuentes may be on site, and I got up at 3 a.m. drove to Fort Worth,” Dowen said.

Dowen and his photographer observed Fuentes enter a building that houses the headquarters of Stickland’s consulting firm around 11:00 a.m. Fuentes was at the building for approximately 6 and half hours.

Downen also reported that he saw chair of the GOP party, Matt Rinaldi, entering and staying in the building for 45 minutes while Fuentes was inside. According to Downen’s reporting, Rinaldi condemned Fuentes and said he would never meet with him. Rinaldi claimed he was borrowing a conference room at the building and had no idea Fuentes was in the building.

“We’ve asked Defend Texas Liberty and its leaders—at this point—dozens of times probably for any kind of clarification,” Downen said. “We’ve not received anything.”

After news of the meeting with Fuentes became public, Defend Texas Liberty named a new president, and removed Stickland’s name from its website.

The news of Fuentes’ visit was met with uproar amongst many Texas politicians. House Speaker Dade Phelan called for Patrick and other officials to return contributions received from Defend Texas Liberty.

“The donors to Defend Texas Liberty PAC, Texans for Strong Borders, and any other organization affiliated with Pale Horse Strategies and its corrupting web of influence, should request an immediate return of any funds donated,” said Phelan in a press release on Monday.

Patrick did not return funds that he received from Defend Texas Liberty, but did contribute the same amount of money towards buying Israel bonds.

“My campaign is purchasing $3 million in bonds for Israel,” Patrick said in Monday’s press release. “Israel needs our help now in the fight against terrorism.”

While the move seemed altruistic, Downen pointed out that the money is being invested and is essentially “gaining interest” off the money.

Patrick also denounced Fuentes and strictly discouraged any involvement with him or others who hold similar views.

“There is simply no place in Texas politics where the views of Nick Fuentes and his kind are acceptable or will be tolerated,” said Patrick in a press release. “I am equally appalled about what I am learning about the anti-Semitic activities among some in Texas who call themselves conservatives and Republicans.”

“Every Republican group in the state, no matter how small or how large, including our State Party, needs to root out this cancer,” Patrick’s statement added.

Downen said the response to statements from Patrick and Texas GOP leaders has been lukewarm.

“It’s been kind of a mixed bag between people who have said, you know, this is a good first step but also hasn’t gone far enough,” Downen said.

“They’ve put out statements condemning anti Semitism, you know, saying Fuentes is himself reprehensible but never connecting the dots between who was hosting Fuentes. And I think that that kind of puts the GOP, Texas GOP, specifically Matt Rinaldi in a difficult spot, because these are people that have been his allies, you know, for years and years and years,” Downen added.

More children, less child care in Central Texas as relief funds end

In December 2019, after years of being a teacher and school counselor, Maria Dominguez decided to open Cielito Lindo, a home-based Spanish immersion child care center in north Austin.

“I decided it was time for me to follow my dream,” Dominguez said. “I had invested all my savings in opening my home-based care.”

  • State of Texas: Tension, questions of legality shape immigration bill debate 3
  • State of Texas: Tension, questions of legality shape immigration bill debate 4
  • State of Texas: Tension, questions of legality shape immigration bill debate 5

Just months after Cielito Lindo opened, the COVID-19 pandemic started and Dominquez said she was in a state of unknown until she was able to get assistance through the child care federal relief fund.

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Dominguez told KXAN the relief fund not only helped her pay rent, bills, and teacher salaries, but it also allowed her, for the first time, to pay herself for all the work she was doing.

With assistance from the federal relief fund, Dominquez said she was able to staff three full-time caregivers and had 15 children enrolled with more on a waiting list.

State of Texas: Tension, questions of legality shape immigration bill debate 6
Image of Maria Dominguez teaching children at her home-based Spanish immersion preschool Cielito Lindo. (Courtesy: Maria Dominguez)

However, when Dominguez learned earlier this year that the last of the federal funds providing Cielito Lindo the financial stability to continue operating were ending, she was faced with a difficult decision.

“I needed to make a decision whether or not I was going to stay open, or I was going to close. It had been very hard to find quality educators and staff,” Dominguez said. “I really didn’t want to close I really didn’t want to.”

As a parent of two with no more financial assistance, Dominguez said it financially “wasn’t working out” so she had to shut down her home-based child care center.

KXAN spoke to Cody Summerville, executive director of the Texas Association for the Education of Young Children, or TXAEYC, the largest nonprofit membership organization for early childhood professionals, according to Summerville, who said closures such as Cielito Lindo are likely to continue happening as child care facilities use the last of its federal funding.

In August 2023, TXAEYC conducted a survey to learn how the ending of the federal relief funding was going to affect Texas’ child care.

“We wanted to start to gauge how many closures could we anticipate in the coming months, two years, and start to get ahead of it, we need our policymakers to implement solutions to prevent mass closures,” Summerville said.

According to Summerville, the survey yielded over 1800 responses from licensed child care facilities, which revealed teacher shortages, an unproportionate supply of child care in relationship to the population of children, referred to as a “child care desert,” and an alarming amount of potential child care operations closing in the near future as financial assistance comes to an end.

According to the survey:

  • 26% of child care programs reported they are likely to close
  • 31% of child care programs reported they are likely to stay open without additional funding
  • 43% were unsure if they will close or not

“They are closing, we’re not seeing mass closures right now, we’re going to see a trickle of closures over the next month, few months to a year,” Summerville said.

According to data from the Texas Health and Human Services, the population of children under the age of 13 in Central Texas has increased every year from 2012 to 2022, while the number of child care operations has continued to decrease nearly every year during the same timeframe.

In the 10 years from 2012 to 2022, as the population of children has continued to increase, the number of child care operations has significantly dropped.

Source: Texas Health and Human Services

According to the data, over 800 child care operations in Central Texas have voluntarily closed in Central Texas since 2018, and would have provided child care access to nearly 27,000 children.

In Travis County alone, the population of children under the age of 13 reached its 10-year high at more than 232,000, according to HHS data.

Currently, HHS data of active licensed child care operations in Travis County shows a capacity of under 59,000.

“This does not exist in every state, it doesn’t exist in every country, and we have to recognize that this just shouldn’t be our normal way of operating and that we can do better as a state and take care of our young children and families,” Summerville said.

Last Thursday, Austin City Council conducted a public hearing to consider an ordinance amending City Code Title 25 related to definitions and regulations applicable to and triggered by day care, child care, and adult care services.

According to City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes (District 2), who introduced the item in January of this year, the amended ordinance would:

  • Reduce zoning barriers to opening new and expanding existing child care centers;
  • Establish a grant program to secure new centers in child care deserts; and,
  • Loosen parking restrictions to ensure more space is used for child care services.

The proposed permitting would increase land for child care services by 255%, according to the City of Austin Housing and Planning presentation introduced by Fuentes.

State of Texas: Tension, questions of legality shape immigration bill debate 7
Image of proposed land permitting that would increase the accessibility of commercial child care services in Austin. Map from City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes’ presentation.

Additionally, this past regular session lawmakers voted to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to provide tax relief for child care centers.

Child advocates said lawmakers also need to hear from those impacted so they can better understand the struggles among families looking for affordable programs. 

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