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Lawmakers decry perilous federal lockups for migrant kids

CLINT — Lawmakers on Friday were calling for swift change after reports this week of more than 250 infants, children and teens being held inside a windowless Border Patrol station, struggling to care for each other with inadequate food, water and sanitation.

It’s a scene that is being repeated at other immigration facilities overwhelmed with too many migrant children and nowhere to put them.

“This facility wasn’t even on our radar before we came down here,” said law professor Warren Binford, a member of the team that interviewed dozens of children this week detained in Clint, about a half-hour drive from El Paso. Fifteen children had the flu, another 10 were quarantined.

At another Border Patrol station in McAllen, attorney Toby Gialluca said all the children she talked to last week were very sick with high fevers, coughing and wearing soiled clothes crusted with mucus and dirt after their long trip north.

“Everyone is sick. Everyone. They’re using their clothes to wipe mucus off the children, wipe vomit off the children. Most of the little children are not fully clothed,” she said.

Gialluca said migrant teens in McAllen told her they were offered frozen ham sandwiches and rotten food.

At both detention facilities, the children told attorneys that guards instructed girls as young as 8 to care for the babies and toddlers.

State and federal elected officials Friday demanded change about conditions at Clint, McAllen and other Border Patrol stations.

Oregon’s Sen. Jeff Merkley pushed the Department of Homeland Security to publish a remediation plan “to immediately end these abuses.” He gave them a deadline of July 12, tweeting: “Children are being held in appalling and unacceptable conditions. Detained children are being left to care for each other — including, in one case, a two-year-old who was left with no diapers. @DHSgov needs to tell us what their plan is to fix this, NOW.”

Republican Congressman Will Hurd, whose district includes Clint, said the tragic conditions “further demonstrates the immediate need to reform asylum laws and provide supplemental funding to address the humanitarian crisis at our border.”

His Democratic counterpart, Congresswoman Veronica Escobar of El Paso, said she has already asked the Customs and Border Protection commissioner for a “full accounting” of the situation.

And Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand blamed the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the nation’s immigration system.

“This is a dark moment for our country, and history will not be kind to the perpetrators of this cruelty,” Gillibrand said. “All Americans should be alarmed and demand an end to this immediately.”

Border Patrol stations are designed to hold people for less than three days, but some children held in Clint and McAllen have been in there for weeks. Legally, migrants under 18 should be moved into Office of Refugee Resettlement care within 72 hours.

But federal officials have said they have hit a breaking point. That’s in part because over the last year, migrant children have been staying longer in federal custody than in the past, leading to a shortage of beds in facilities designed for longer-term stays.

The lawyers inspected the Border Patrol facilities as part of a Clinton-era legal agreement known as the Flores settlement that governs detention conditions for migrant children and families.

In an emailed statement Friday, Customs and Border Protection said the agency leverages its limited resources to provide “the best care possible to those in our custody, especially children.”

The statement said “our short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this crisis.”

In addition, the agency said all allegations of civil rights abuses or mistreatment are taken seriously and investigated.

Earlier this week, acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders urged Congress to pass a $4.6 billion emergency funding package that includes nearly $3 billion to care for unaccompanied migrant children.

He said Customs and Border Protection stations are holding 15,000 people — more than three times their maximum capacity of 4,000.


Local
United Way throws community baby shower as volunteers paint, repair nonprofits

Pam Kelly looked over baby bibs set out Friday for people to take for free.

“They are so cute,” Kelly told United Way volunteer LaDelle Kay.

Kelly, who lives in Longview, had arrived on behalf of a friend Friday morning at a community baby shower the Greater Longview United Way organized as part of its annual Day of Action.

United Way Executive Director Donna Sharp said 25 to 30 people showed up at the United Way office in Longview to receive about 200 donated items — from diapers, wipes and lotion to onesies and teething rings — in the group’s first community baby shower.

“We distributed all but a couple packages of baby wipes,” Sharp said.

Kelly said she was there to gather goodies for a friend who is expecting her first child and said she learned about the event through social media.

The Day of Action included other activities for United Way projects, too, as about 30 volunteers fanned out to work at Longview Community Ministries, DOORS (Developing Opportunities Realizing Success), Pathstones Counseling Center and Martin House Children’s Advocacy Center.

Eight volunteers from Eastman Chemical Co. in Longview gathered behind Longview Community Ministries to paint six benches and poles on a pavilion.

Two Eastman employees said they were volunteering for Day of Action for the first time: materials engineer Jazmin Valencia and contractor specialist Abraham Avila.

“My good heart,” Valencia said with a laugh. “I’m enjoying it, learning how to paint.”

Avila said, “I feel like I am accomplishing something. A lot of people don’t have the time to do it. I have the time.”

Their efforts drew appreciation from Robin Fruia, executive director of Longview Community Ministries, which provides monthly food boxes and financial help to needy families.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “They give us a huge donation of time and supplies and hours of work every year.”

As Kelly placed diapers, baby wipes, baby wash and an electric outlet protector into a large shopping bag, she said she planned to ask about volunteering for the United Way.

And a second baby shower and collective drive are scheduled for this fall, Sharp said.

She said the shower is planned in conjunction with a softball tournament Oct. 12 at Lear Park.


Local
Dean calls recent legislative session success, credits House speaker

State Rep. Jay Dean deemed the 86th legislative session a success and credited House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s leadership during Dean’s update Friday to the Longview-Greggton Rotary Club.

From reforms in school finance and property tax relief to stabilizing teacher retirement, the Republican representing Gregg and Upshur counties credited House leadership, and specifically Bonnen, for using his quarter-century of experience in the Legislature to accomplish lawmakers’ biggest goals.

“Our new speaker was unbelievable,” Dean said. “He went into this session using that experience and that know how to (get people to work) together and keep the governor and lieutenant governor next to him in trying to get the major issues done, and I congratulate him. He did a wonderful job.”

During his Friday address, Dean touched on a number of bills that were passed and then signed by Gov. Greg Abbott into law or that didn’t leave the Legislature but he believes will require more discussion and action when lawmakers meet again in 2021.

House Bill 3 increased the state’s share of school funding from 38 percent to 45 percent, providing a boost to public schools that had seen the state slowly shirk from what was once a 50-50 funding share years ago, he said. The bill also lowers property tax rates by about 8 cents per $100 valuation next year and about 13 cents with an additional 2.5 percent tax compression in 2021.

Teachers will get an average pay raise of about $4,000, and that will be based on their years of experience, whether they teach in schools of more economically disadvantaged students and the level of difficulty in the courses that they teach, he said.

“They could literally end up making $36,000 more per year above the standard base if they fit into one of those criteria, and God knows we have that in this region,” Dean said adding that every school district in Gregg and Upshur counties will get an increase in funding. “I think you’ll see some pretty happy teachers here.”

Senate Bill 2, also signed into law, gives property taxpayers real-time notice on the tax rate-setting process and increases financial disclosures from school, cities, counties, districts and other taxing entities. It also expands opportunities to protest and appeal property value appraisals, he said.

The measure also lowers the tax rollback trigger from 8 percent to 3.5 percent but also provides some exceptions to ensure that local governments are able to do everything that they need to do, Dean said.

The budget reached $250.7 billion for all state funds, Dean said. That’s about a 15 percent increase from the spending plan adopted in the 85th legislative session two years ago, but the newest budget accomplishes many of the state’s major opportunities and has a lot of one-time expenses, he said.

“I want to warn you right now,” Dean told Rotarians. “Please don’t expect to open your property tax bill and see savings of several thousand dollars. This is going to be some relief, but this is going to be a gradual thing over the next several years, but you will see some relief.”

Dean also praised passage of House Bill 2088, which increases options for the safe disposal of opioids, and House Bill 3052, which is as an amendment on Senate Bill 683, which increases the ability of the State Board of Pharmacy to shut down non-operating pharmacies that act as “pill mills.”

House Bill 3203, also signed by Abbott, will allow Upshur County voters to decide if they want to create an additional emergency service district.

The idea for the bill arose after Dean learned that the Diana and Ore City communities were sending about $300,000 yearly in tax money to support emergency services but were seeing only $62,000 in services returned to their communities, he said.

Other bills that were signed into law included House Bill 1177, which protects gun owners during mandatory emergency evacuations; Senate Bill 18, which protects First Amendment rights on college campuses; and House Bill 234, which protects lemonade stands — a bill created after police in Overton shut down a stand set up by two young girls, he said.

“Now, you can go into a neighborhood (and) have a lemonade stand,” Dean said. “Life’s good.”


House Democrats unveil $4.5B border measure

WASHINGTON — House Democrats unveiled a $4.5 billion measure Friday to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis at the southern border and the government’s responsibility to care for tens of thousands of migrant refugees seeking safety in the U.S. under its asylum laws.

The measure is scheduled for a floor vote next week as the House and Senate are scrambling to wrap up action on the must-do measure before agencies caring for the influx of migrants — already stretched to the limit — run out of money.

The measure was unveiled as lawmakers and the administration are increasingly unnerved by the crisis and reports of bad living conditions at government-funded shelters .

At the White House, the government’s point man in handling the crisis stressed the need to act and said time is running out.

“We’re going to run out of money in July because the numbers are just so high,” Health and Human Service Secretary Alex Azar said Friday at the White House.

“This is not about gamesmanship,” he said. “This is not about politics. This is not about immigration policy. This is a humanitarian relief package. And it has got to pass. It’s got to pass immediately. We are out of money and we are out of capacity.”

The House measure provides $2.9 billion for refuge and migrant care and assistance by the Department of Health and Human Services, another $1.3 billion for care provided by Department of Homeland Security agencies, and $60 million to reimburse local governments and non-profits who help shelter migrants.

“There are serious humanitarian needs at the border, and we all recognize the clear need to act,” said Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. “This legislation would address the humanitarian crisis in a way that balances the needs at the border with the imperative to hold the administration accountable.”

The House bill is similar to a Senate measure that won a sweeping bipartisan vote in the Appropriations Committee on Thursday. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., promised a Senate vote next week.

House liberals insisted on changes such as additional money for legal help for migrants and a denial of funds for overtime and salaries of immigration agents. House Democrats vow to vote before the Senate, but most Republicans are likely to vote against the measure. Many lawmakers expect that the bipartisan Senate version will generally prevail.

“If I had a vehicle that both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate could vote for and the president has said he would sign, that’s the vehicle we ought to be using,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior member of the Appropriations Committee. “Not something they cook up here.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, praised the House measure for denying funding to the Pentagon for logistical support in handling the crisis.

He said Hispanic lawmakers had a positive meeting with Lowey this week and most of them are expected to support the legislation despite not getting all they wanted.


Local
Jobless rates in Longview area, state hit record lows

The unemployment rate in the three-county Longview area dipped to its lowest level in May since 2000, which is when the Texas Workforce Commission started keeping records, the commission reported Friday.

The rate dropped to 3.1 percent in Gregg, Rusk and Upshur counties — down from the 3.2 percent record set in April and from 3.8 percent a year ago — according to the commission.

The area also outperformed the Texas rate of 3.5 percent in May, which was the lowest since tracking began in 1976.

The lower unemployment rate in the Longview area also coincided with a decline in the civilian labor force to 96,100 people from 96,500 in April, with the number of people between jobs also falling from 3,100 to 3,000, according to the commission.

The mayors of Longview and Kilgore credited a diversifying economy as the region expands beyond the oil and gas industry with the record unemployment rate.

“We are still trending in a great direction,” Longview Mayor Andy Mack said. “It just shows we are really doing good in diversifying our economy and giving people a chance to work.”

Kilgore Mayor Ronnie Spradlin expressed similar views.

“Well, we can assume that the job growth is not energy related as it has been in the past,” he said. “I would think is it primarily due to the diversification that has happened in the East Texas area over the last decade, This is across-the-board prosperity.”

The statewide record low “highlights the competitive strength of our Texas economy and is a testament to the hard work of our Texas employers and skilled workforce,” said Ruth Hughs, TWC chairwoman and commissioner representing employers. “Our economy is thriving across multiple industries, attracting new companies every day, showing Texas is the best state in the nation to do business.”

Private-sector employers added 277,000 jobs over the year, the commission reported. Private annual growth rate was at 2.6 percent in May and has held above 2 percent since October 2017.

Professional and business services led all major industries in May statewide, adding 8,100 jobs. Education and health services added 4,500 during the month while construction brought 3,300 more jobs.

The Midland metropolitan statistical area recorded the lowest unemployment rate among Texas MSAs in May at 1.7 percent followed by Amarillo and Odessa MSAs at 2.1 percent.

McAllen-Edinburg-Mission reported the highest unemployment rate at 5 percent.


Clarification

■ A story on Page 5A Friday about a veterans town hall meeting to discuss a new law that expands health care for veterans mentioned one criteria for veterans to qualify for care outside of the Department of Veterans of Affairs hospitals and clinics. Shannon Arledge of the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport said any one of six criteria may be used to seek care from private providers: if service is unavailable at a VA medical facility; living in a state without a full-service VA medical facility; falling under the “grandfather” provision related to distance eligibility; the VA’s inability to provide care within certain standards; being in the best medical interest of the veteran; and the VA service line not meeting certain quality standards.