Austin American-Statesman. January 8, 2023.
Editorial: The border crisis needs solutions, leaders
The bad news at the U.S. border with Mexico keeps getting worse as growing numbers of desperate migrants pile up at ports of entry seeking refuge from violence, persecution and poverty in their home countries.
To hear Gov. Greg Abbott and state and national Republican policymakers tell it, the expanding crisis is the result of President Joe Biden’s “open border” policies. An absurd assertion considering that arrests and expulsions of undocumented migrants by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol have tripled since 2020, with a record 2.7 million such encounters recorded during fiscal year 2022 alone.
The massive influx threatens to overwhelm our broken immigration system, inflicting duress on border cities such as El Paso that struggle mightily and compassionately to help the large numbers of immigrants arriving at their doorsteps every day.
A crisis years in the making
The urgency of the illegal immigration crisis is hardly new. It has festered for well over two decades under Republican and Democratic administrations, with both parties wielding the issue as a cudgel for political gain. For all the urgency, however, Congress has done little to solve anything. Today President Biden will meet with local leaders in El Paso and tout new proposals to address the crisis. The visit marks Biden’s first trip to the border since he was elected, and we hope it prompts a bipartisan commitment in Congress to overhaul our immigration laws.
Solving the nation’s immigration problems won’t be easy. The crush of migrants at the border poses massive financial and logistical challenges for U.S. border and immigration officials who under federal and international law must provide humane conditions for those they detain, and grant hearings to anyone seeking asylum from government violence or persecution in their home countries.
The challenges aren’t unique to the United States. Migration in the 21st century is increasing exponentially across the globe, fueled by wars, climate change, famine and other crises. Long a welcoming beacon for refugees, the United States cannot isolate itself from these trends, nor should it try to do so by building expensive, ineffective border walls or treating desperate humans as casualties it can discard. Federal policymakers must acknowledge the reality that migrants will continue to arrive at the U.S. border in large numbers and prepare to respond humanely and justly.
On Thursday, President Biden announced the U.S. would begin accepting 30,000 migrants a month from four nations in turmoil — Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Immigrants must arrive legally, have an eligible sponsor and pass a vetting process to come to the U.S. for up to two years. But migrants who attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally will be immediately expelled, Biden said. The policy changes immediately drew fire from both camps in the rancorous illegal immigration debate — conservative lawmakers who favor restricting immigration and those on the left who prefer opening up more legal paths to immigration.
Biden’s policy changes attempt to deal with countries fueling the sharpest rise in migration. But historic unlawful migration to the U.S. overall requires a long overdue and urgent response from lawmakers. It requires immediate additional funding for staffing and resources to process asylum claims and to provide humanitarian care for those arriving at ports of entry. Congressional lawmakers should also consider extending from one year to two years the amount of time that border crossers can legally file for asylum, which would give immigration officials space to process a staggering backlog of nearly 1.6 million claims.
In the longer term, federal lawmakers must set aside partisan grievances to pass the comprehensive immigration reform our nation desperately needs. Reforms should provide for additional work visas, expanded citizenship opportunities for law-abiding immigrants and refugees, and the granting of permanent citizenship to those who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents. Most Texans understand that the vast majority of immigrants are hard-working people who contribute to the state’s economy, comprising 21% of the Texas workforce. All members of the Texas congressional delegation should commit to working for reforms that make our state a better place for new migrants and the immigrants who already live here.
Solutions demand good-faith negotiations
We hope that two of the most powerful Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation — Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, who is in line to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee — will use their clout to convince GOP illegal immigration hardliners to work with Democrats to pass reforms. Democrats, too, must work in cooperative fashion. Previous attempts to find agreement have fallen apart when both parties made unreasonable demands.
“I refuse to believe hope is lost,” McCaul said in a written statement to the editorial board last week. McCaul said he is willing to work with Democrats and offer “fresh solutions that America can rally behind.”
Such a nod to bipartisanship stands in welcome contrast to Abbott’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and political stunts that use immigrants as pawns in his cruel theater. The governor has called the immigrant influx “an invasion.” Last week he touted that he’d ordered more razor wire installed along the border and bussed another 100 migrants to Washington, where they were left in the cold outside Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence. In a tweet, Abbott bragged that he has bused 16,500 migrants out-of-state. He did not mention the cost to Texas taxpayers — at least $13 million. At a time when America needs smart leadership on immigration, Abbott’s political stunts solve nothing, compound human suffering and inflame our nation’s dangerous culture wars.
America’s immigration problem has been years in the making, and we won’t solve it overnight. But the people we elect to lead can’t squander yet another opportunity. They must work together to create a more fair, humane, smart and efficient system that benefits all.
Dallas Morning News. January 7, 2023.
Editorial: Maternal deaths are far too high in Texas
And our Legislature could do something about it.
Good health outcomes are forged by access to care. It’s no surprise that Texas, a state that has the highest number of uninsured residents in the country, also has abysmal maternal death rates.
The latest biennial report by the state’s Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee released last month details how 90% of maternal deaths analyzed might have been preventable.
The preliminary report analyzed a cohort of maternal deaths that occurred in 2019. Most trends from previous reports persist, while Black women and those without insurance continue to suffer most.
Texas lawmakers are set to return to the Legislature next week; maternal health care must be at the top of their list. Last session, the state Senate refused to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage to 12 months, instead opting to revise the House’s bill to six months against policy recommendation of the maternal health review committee.
That was a major error in judgment. Data outlined in the report demonstrates that some 27% of pregnancy-related deaths occurred up to one year postpartum. The need for care doesn’t end after six months.
The report shows that our region, along with South Texas, had the highest rates of severe maternal morbidity in the state.
Extension of Medicaid in this case will not solve every maternal health problem, but it will go a long way toward addressing other health disparities that can exacerbate those struggles.
Legislators also need to provide funds for postpartum mental health screening, according to the committee.
The report also found that inadequate health care training often contributes to preventable deaths. The committee recommended implementing statewide education initiatives through the Department of State Health Services.
None of these recommendations are quick fixes, but they are serious policy recommendations that need attention in this upcoming session.
A mother’s health always affects the well-being of her children and family. Maternal death is tragic. Sometimes that reality is not preventable. But in many cases, it is. Texas is leaving too many women in a precarious, but preventable, circumstance because of short-sighted legislation.
Federal dollars are laying on the table. For the sake of Texas families, we need our lawmakers to push past ideology and accept them.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. January 3, 2023.
Editorial: AG Paxton’s request for gender changes on driver’s licenses poses privacy issues
Once again, it looks as if Ken Paxton and his office have taken the attorney general’s role too far, this time infringing on the privacy rights of nearly 5% of Texans.
In June, employees at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) received a bizarre request straight from Paxton’s office: to gather a list of people who had changed their gender on their driver’s license the last two years, according to The Washington Post.
Thanks to a public records request, the publication reported the chief of the DPS driver’s license division emailed colleagues: “Need total number of changes from male to female and female to male for the last 24 months, broken down by month.”
More than 16,000 gender changes on Texas driver’s licenses popped up, though DPS does not know for sure if some are duplicates or errors, or why a change was made. In essence, this doesn’t necessarily mean over 16,000 Texans now identify as transgender.
There are several problems with this inquisition, which we presume is related to Paxton’s earlier inquest into how many children are seeking sex-change treatment in Texas — though we don’t know for sure.
It takes considerable effort to change your gender on your driver’s license. According to Travis County’s law library, an individual must first bring a court order or change the gender on their birth certificate. To do that, they need a court order. To retrieve a court order, they must have a letter from a mental health professional that states a diagnosis and that “granting a change of gender/sex marker is in your best interest” as well as additional documents.
The right to such changes could and should be debated in the public sphere, in the medical professions and courtrooms, but even if changes seem unnecessary to Paxton, that does not give his office the green light to go on a witch hunt.
Another troubling aspect of this search is that Paxton’s office skipped going through normal channels, such as the DPS’s general counsel, and just went right to the driver’s license division staff. Additionally, when the Washington Post tried to make a request to Paxton’s office for the records it exchanged with DPS, the attorney general’s staff said no such records existed.
“Marisol Bernal-Leon, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, later emailed that the office ‘has reviewed its files and has no information responsive to your request’ for either records,” The Post reported. It’s one of the story’s most damning lines — this clearly happened, and the attorney general is playing games to hide it.
Paxton’s not only slithering around the DPS office, aiming his search at staff members without decision-making authority, but his office is suggesting no such exchange of information occurred.
A targeted search of a particular demographic, in this case, gender change, is a clear violation of privacy for the individual and should be of no concern to the state, particularly for those who are 18 and over.
Was Paxton’s search related to state officials’ previous concerns for children receiving life-altering sex-change treatments? With this information, did Paxton aim to seek reform in the court system for driver’s license changes or lobby the legislation? We just don’t know, because his office has denied the entire debacle even happened. As far as we know, no attempt to differentiate between minors and adults was specified in the AG’s original request.
Sex-change treatments and gender changes may be a mystery to Paxton’s office, and while protecting teenagers from making decisions they might later regret is important, a search like this including adults and teenagers alike is unlawful and frankly, none of the AG’s business.
This is sneaky, an abuse of power, and hardly transparent — a trifecta that one could even say is grossly hypocritical. This is not the first time his office has been accused of refusing to honor records requests, and it’s disheartening at best, unlawful at worst, to see this practice continue. If the AG’s office is on a targeted witch hunt, at least be honest about it. Furthermore, the attempt to amass information about a specific demographic is a violation of privacy and beneath the attorney general’s office.
Houston Chronicle. January 4, 2023.
Editorial: Fentanyl crisis isn’t a talking point. It’s life or death.
Here’s how you die: Sitting on a couch and leaning over a coffee table in your living room, you barely have time to sit up straight after inhaling lines of cocaine laid out on a mirror, coke that you weren’t aware was laced with fentanyl. Before your friend can reach for a cell phone to call 911, your blood pressure plummets and your breathing slows. You don’t realize it, but fluid is filling your lungs. Lacking oxygen, your fingertips and lips are turning blue, and your brain is beginning to malfunction. As your heart rate drops, blood seeps from your nose and mouth, along with a white foam. You stop breathing and slip into cardiac arrest.
You have become not only an immeasurable tragedy for family and friends, but also a cold statistic. In 2021, drug overdoses in the United States surpassed 107,000, the highest ever. Two-thirds of the deaths involved synthetic opioid-related drug overdose. An intensively addictive opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, fentanyl claims more American lives each year than car crashes, gun violence or suicides. It’s now the leading cause of death for people ages 18 to 49, according to a Washington Post analysis.
It’s not only recreational drug users or hardcore addicts who are dying from fentanyl overdoses. Fentanyl can be pressed into oxycodone tablets, Valium or other legal drugs. As the Drug Enforcement Administration has warned, those who overdose may have assumed they were taking counterfeit prescription pills that are “easily accessible and often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms.” They had no idea that when they tossed down a fentanyl-laced tablet, they were ingesting a substance that would kill them with the speed of cyanide.
As the Chronicle has reported, Texas is now one of eight states that experienced more overdoses during the first half of 2021 than in either six-month period in 2020. The latest public data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that reported overdose deaths in Texas involving fentanyl increased 399% in the last two fiscal years. That’s 333 Texans in 2019, compared to 1,662 in fiscal year 2021. The Chronicle also noted that the Texas numbers are likely to be higher, since data from smaller counties can be unreliable.
In Harris County, where fatal drug overdoses increased 52% from 2019 to 2021, fentanyl kills more than one person every day, according to data compiled by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. Deaths involving fentanyl increased by 341% in the same period, from 104 to 459.
So, what do we do about a nationwide crisis, one that seeps into our own neighborhoods? How do we respond to the most serious drug crisis in U.S. history?
From a Washington perspective, it’s necessary to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. The Obama administration dismantled crucial programs to monitor drug use, just as fentanyl began flooding the market. Things got worse under his successor.
President Donald Trump was obsessed with a border wall, an $11 billion boondoggle that would have done little if anything to stop the flood of fentanyl coming into the country at legal border crossings. As the Washington Post reported recently, a 2017 document produced by the Drug Enforcement Administration devoted four pages to synthetic opioids but ignored the fact that Mexican cartels, not China as Trump insisted, had begun to manufacture fentanyl and traffic it into the United States. For the cartels, primarily the Sinaloa and Jalisco organizations, fentanyl has become a cheap and easy billion-dollar business.
Trump tried to eliminate the drug czar’s office entirely and then appointed a 23-year-old campaign worker as deputy chief of staff – to nobody. Last year, former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram became the first Senate-confirmed DEA administrator since 2015. That’s not a record that reflects a government addressing a serious social crisis.
Congress has a job to do. Instead of obsessing about Hunter Biden or the January 6 congressional committee, lawmakers need to fund new detection technology that, if deployed, could help thwart fentanyl smuggling in trucks and vehicles at border crossings. They need to make sure, as well, that drug-enforcement agencies are fully staffed.
Also on the supply side, the Biden administration must work to enlist Mexico’s assistance. Since taking office in 2018, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has backed away – foolishly, we believe – from cooperative efforts. He also has basically ignored systemic problems with his nation’s weak judicial system, a boon to the fentanyl-rich cartels.
On the demand side, Congress and the White House need to make sure that those Americans abusing opioids, whether in cities or small towns, have access to treatment. The Department of Health and Human Services should accelerate efforts to make treatment with methadone more accessible.
With the Texas Legislature descending on Austin in a few weeks, we could hope that lawmakers would persuade Gov. Greg Abbott to halt his own border boondoggle, the billion-dollar-plus Operation Lone Star that does little to thwart undocumented immigration and even less to stem the flow of dangerous drugs. We would like to think they could persuade him to stop spending our money on busing desperate migrants to so-called “sanctuary cities.”
Of course, neither of those outcomes is going to happen, although we were pleased to see that Abbott now says he supports decriminalizing testing strips that would help users determine whether fentanyl is in the drugs they buy. As we wrote recently, harm-reduction advocates say the testing strips, cheap and easy to use, could make an immediate difference on the streets.
“I was not in favor of it last session,” Abbott acknowledged. Arguing in the past that the testing strips encouraged drug use, he changed his mind, the Texas Tribune reported, after visiting University of Houston researchers who have developed a vaccine that could potentially inoculate people against the effects of synthetic opioids.
“There’s going to be a movement across the state to make sure we do everything that we can to protect people from dying from fentanyl, and I think test strips will be one of those ways,” the governor said.
Before that can happen, though, lawmakers need to clarify state law, since the strips are currently considered drug paraphernalia, along with pipes and used needles.
Abbott also said he wanted to make Narcan, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, more readily available across the state. For now, it’s too expensive for cities and counties to use it.
Locally, education is key – in schools, among youth groups, around the dinner table at home. Young people from middle school upward need to be aware of the fentanyl risk.
“I really think moving forward, it’s important to both educate individuals about those risks and also provide resources for people. so they can figure out what they’re taking,” said Katharine Neill Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “It’s kind of a harm reduction approach,” she told Yahoo Finance, “but I think that’s something we really, really need to do if we’re going to address the immediate threat of continued overdoses.”
We are, indeed, facing an “immediate threat.” It’s a crisis demanding our response. It is, indeed, a matter of life and death.
San Antonio Express-News. January 6, 2023.
Editorial: Make it difficult for bad cops to get new jobs
A report from the Sunset Advisory Commission on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, coupled with reporting by the San Antonio Express-News, reveals a gaping hole through which police officers behaving badly can hop from one department to the next without detection.
Think of the behavior of former San Antonio police officer Matthew Luckhurst, who allegedly gave a feces sandwich to a homeless man. Fired here, he was recently hired as a reserve officer in Floresville. However, after articles written by Eric Dexheimer of the Hearst Austin Bureau, Luckhurst was released from that role.
The Sunset review of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or TCOLE, found the state’s regulation is “by and large, toothless” and that “Texas’ regulatory approach has resulted in a fragmented, outdated system with inadequate training, lack of statewide standards and inconsistent accountability.”
This raises many questions: Are there cops with equally egregious behavior flying under the radar? Why aren’t agencies speaking with each other during the hiring process? How could the Floresville Police Department hire Luckhurst given his background and reputation in San Antonio? How does the state hold officers and police departments accountable?
Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told us Luckhurst’s hiring boils down to a “lousy background investigation.”
At the very least, Kenney said, the hiring agency should have conducted a follow-up to his employment status. A simple Google search for Luckhurst’s name would have sufficed.
Texas isn’t the only state trying to address the issue of bad cops who hop from department to department. It was revealed in 2019 during an investigation spearheaded by the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Bay Area News Group that more than 80 law enforcement officers working in California that year were convicted criminals, with rap sheets that included everything from animal cruelty to manslaughter.
Luckhurst’s case almost certainly scratches the surface in Texas, given that the commission said TCOLE’s regulation is ineffective but also that TCOLE’s “statute and procedures do not conform to common licensing and regulatory standards.” Since 2012, about 1,400 dishonorably discharged police found new law enforcement work, according to the nonprofit Texas 2036.
Recommendations from the commission include directing TCOLE to work with the Department of Public Safety to subscribe to fingerprint-based criminal background checks for all licensure applicants and licensees; and to explicitly give TCOLE the authority to temporarily suspend a license in cases of imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare and require a timeline for due process hearings.
Bart Terrell, a Texas police officer, agreed with the commission’s findings during public comment at a November meeting and supported license suspension.
“I have personally witnessed employees who have been arrested, convicted, and served sentences, all while continuing to work at a law enforcement agency, as they failed to report the incident,” he told the commission, according to meeting documents. “I also concur that TCOLE should have the authority to temporarily suspend a licensee in case of imminent threat to public safety.”
Samantha Gray, also a Texas police officer, said other state licenses are more regulated.
“I propose that TCOLE be reformed in a manner similar to every other licensing (board) in the state of Texas. Where you can file a complaint and officers can be held accountable under their (license) for misconduct.
“I currently hold a private pilot (license), a Texas insurance agent license, a Texas real estate license and a Texas peace officer license, and peace officers are the only (ones) that do not follow this procedure,” she said in November, according to meeting documents.
The recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Commission, according to Kenney, are “pretty tame and are common sense.”
“I’m surprised they’re not already being done,” he added, explaining the reluctance to report might be attributed to higher-ranking officials wanting to avoid civil litigation by a fired officer.
Lack of accountability ultimately hurts a department’s reputation and the morale of fellow police officers. It also undermines public trust in law enforcement.
This is why it’s necessary for TCOLE to follow through with the recommendation to “create the blue ribbon panel to comprehensively evaluate the regulation of law enforcement in Texas.” Creating a blue ribbon panel was recommended in 2020 but was not adopted.
The blue ribbon panel would focus on three key areas: professional conduct standards; licensee training and education requirements; and ensuring the professionalism of licensees and law enforcement agencies.
State lawmakers should create the panel this session for the good of the public and law enforcement.