AUSTIN (Nexstar) — On Monday, U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) released pictures taken inside of a migration facility since the recent surge at the Texas-Mexico border. The pictures from inside the Donna facility in Hidalgo County showed children and teens being held in overcrowded conditions.
The pictures are similar to images from 2019 that sparked concern over how the Trump administration handled children who came across the border.
The facility in Donna is run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It was not designed for children. Cuellar said he released the photos in part to highlight the challenges facing CBP, and also because the Biden administration refused media access to that location, citing the pandemic and privacy concerns.
The following day, the administration released its own video from inside the Donna facility showing children sleeping on mats on the floor and play areas. The video also shows children wearing masks and receiving health screenings.
Media was invited inside a facility at Carrizo Springs for the first time since the recent migration surge on Wednesday. White House officials and five members of Congress, including Cuellar, were also invited. Video from a photojournalist allowed inside shows children playing soccer and basketball, classrooms, a medical clinic and stacks of new clothes and personal hygiene supplies.
The Department of Health and Human Services runs the Carrizo Springs facility. It’s equipped to provide medical and other support services while case managers work to reunite children and teens with relatives.
“They got health care, they got legal services, they got education, they got a place in sleep, a place to take a shower, a place to play around,” Cuellar said after touring the facility. “And I want to thank the Biden administration for providing this type of facility. Because once the kids come over here, we got to take care of them.”
Cuellar points out that these children are in the final stages of their time at the facility. Next, they will be matched with relatives and be able to leave, but not before they have two negative COVID tests. More than 100 children at the facility tested positive for COVID-19.
On Friday, a delegation of Republican U.S. Senators visited south Texas to get a closer look at conditions along the border. Texas Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz led the delegation. The senators blame President Joe Biden’s policies for creating the migration surge.
“The Border Patrol and Health and Human Services and non-governmental organizations that are struggling to deal with this flood of humanity tell us they cannot get ahead of this flood of humanity without policy changes in Washington,” Cornyn said after the tour.
State lawmakers are also weighing in on the situation at the border. Earlier in the week, a group of six Republican State Senators visited the border facility at Carrizo Springs and took a helicopter tour of the Rio Grande Valley with the Texas Department of Public Safety.
State Senator Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) was among the visiting lawmakers. As is the case with Republicans in Washington, Kolkhorst blames President Biden’s policies for the current problems.
“You can pinpoint it to the presidential election, when you started to see that take off,” Kolkhorst said. “Under the Trump administration, they did have a rule which was called ‘A Stay in Mexico.’ So you had to stay in Mexico until you could get, you know, the proper hearing and so forth. And so, this has had a big influx when that rule was removed.”
Border control is a federal issue, so state lawmakers do not have control over the rules and regulations at the border. However, Kolkhorst is concerned about the issues new border laws may create, such as human trafficking or a strain on Texas’ resources.
“The messaging back to the other countries needs to be that this isn’t just an open border, because again, what you do to those children along the way, and what we’re doing is we’re enriching a lot of human traffickers,” Kolkhorst said.
“We will have, at this pace currently, somewhere between two and four million people cross the Texas border,” Kolkhorst said. “That is a startling number.”
George Floyd Act draws support and opposition at Capitol
More than 70 civil rights and social justice groups rallied Thursday in support of the George Floyd Act outside the Texas Capitol.
Inside the Capitol, Texas lawmakers heard testimony for House Bill 88, filed by House Democrats.
If passed, the George Floyd Act would ban chokeholds by police officers, end arrests on Class C misdemeanors that typically are fine-only and non-jailable, create a duty to intervene, render aid and identify while eliminating a duty to arrest on minor charges and remove qualified immunity.
It’s one of the most-watched bills this session, and that interest was evident in the crowd at the rally, and those who came to testify. The hearing lasted several hours, going well into the evening.
“We’re here today fighting for the George Floyd Act to make sure that we are not losing another Black life to politics, to white supremacy and to also archaic laws that protect the officers, not just the communities they’re serving,” Jamarr Brown with Black Austin Democrats said at the rally.
“It’s not just Black people that are advocating for this. There’s white folks, there are brown folks, because all of our communities have been harmed in negative ways by the police. And that’s why we’re seeing that sign of unity across the state,” Brown added.
Rep. James Talarico, one of the Democratic co-authors of the bill, said the police reforms included in the bill are common-sense legislation.
“Dealing with things like qualified immunity, certain tactics that police officers use,” Talarico said.
Inside the hearing, lawmakers heard testimony from lawmakers, some of the same community activists that were at the rally and George Floyd’s friend, Travis Cains.
“Let’s stop these public lynchings,” Cains said. “I didn’t see my little brother die… I saw him get murdered.”
Even with emotional stories though, the bill has become a partisan issue.
“I’m a big supporter of certainly fairness, but I think that our police officers and law enforcement officers have have been unfairly targeted through this discussion,” Republican State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham said Thursday.
Other House and Senate Republicans showed hesitation after law enforcement agencies raised alarms during the hearing, too.
The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas testified against the bill, criticizing the text for not including any real training for officers that could enact change.
But another group, the Texas Police Chiefs Association, said it only had a problem with one section of the bill.
“We support the creation of a best-practice model regarding use of force, it’s my personal and professional opinion that every agency operating in the state of Texas should absolutely have a use-of-force policy. We also support the inclusion of a duty to intervene. We also fully support the inclusion of de-escalation throughout police encounters,” President of the TPCA Chief Stan Standridge testified. “We even support corroborated testimony, because professional agencies are already doing this.”
The one section they disagree with: removing qualified immunity.
“Qualified immunity allows [officers] to respond to incidents without pause, make critical, split-second decisions and rely heavily on facts or circumstances that are often still developing upon arrival,” Stanridge said, adding removing this legal protection could lead to a mass exodus of thousands of officers across the state.
But, he reiterated his support for other sections of the bill and said this session is the time for reform.
“Now is the time to make substantive change. We just need to be careful stewards of said change,” Stanridge said.
Talarico is hopeful his cohorts across the aisle are able to make agreeable amendments to the bill so it can make it to the governor’s desk to become law.
“I always hold out hope that our colleagues will see the light and will do the right thing. And I never, I never, you know, I never give up on that hope,” Talarico said.
Vaccine expansion brings concerns for people still waiting
Every single adult in Texas will be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine starting Monday, and seniors 80 and older will be able to get it with or without an appointment, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The state also plans to launch a brand new vaccine registration website next week.
DSHS announced Tuesday it is able to do this now because of an increase in the vaccine supply. DSHS added that the state has made “great progress in vaccinating priority groups” and it wants to continue to do so.
“As eligibility opens up, we are asking providers to continue to prioritize people who are the most at risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death – such as older adults,” explained Imelda Garcia, DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious disease services and the chair of the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.
DSHS estimated the expanded eligibility will allow another 8-10 million Texans to get a shot, but those shots won’t be immediately available.
“We still expect that we’ll see demand, you know, exceeding supply for at least several weeks into the future,” DSHS media relations director Chris Van Deusen said Tuesday. “We’ve heard from our federal partners that we should be seeing more vaccine supply starting next week, and really throughout the month of April.”
The eligibility expansion means Coy Branscum, of Dripping Springs, will qualify for a shot next week.
“Knowing that I finally get to do that is really exciting,” Branscum said. “Just thinking about it makes me feel overjoyed, just being able to like, be a part of the solution.”
But for Laurie Shouse, of Elgin, who is already eligible, the announcement left her worried she might be passed up.
“If we open up the state to everybody, where does that leave those of us who haven’t been able to get our vaccine yet? It’s a problem,” Shouse, who has an autoimmune disease, said.
Van Deusen said vaccine providers were directed to continue prioritizing Texans in Phases 1A, 1B and 1C, as well as educators. He said some areas of the state worked through those lists faster than others.
“We want to make sure they have the flexibility to open up further,” Van Deusen said. “But we’re asking those providers continue to prioritize, you know, those people who are 50 and older who had those underlying conditions so that they’re protected from COVID-19.”
People who are 80 and older will get moved to the front of the line for getting the vaccine. All they have to do is show up at any vaccine provider and they can immediately get vaccinated.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Texas Medical Association President Dr. Diana Fite said. “But this is just such a big step forward.”
DSHS will launch a website next week to register for the vaccine to get a shot through a public health provider. DSHS officials did not say which day next week, but one would assume that the registration process will likely open on or before March 29, when all adults become eligible.
“The public will be able to enroll in the Texas Public Health Vaccine Scheduler to identify upcoming vaccine clinics hosted by DSHS or a participating local health department and be notified when new clinics and appointments become available,” DSHS said in its release.
It added that Texans can continue to look for other providers through the DSHS Vaccine Information page.
DSHS says online registration will be the best option for most people, but it will also open up a toll-free number to help people who might not have internet access make an appointment or find a provider.
DSHS said that Texas has administered 9.3 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine statewide. That includes more than 6 million first doses of the vaccine. Of those, more than 3 million are fully vaccinated.
“This is actually going a little faster than we thought,” TMA’s Fite said. “We didn’t quite think it would be opened up this early.”
“The sooner we can get this under control, the better,” she added.
Most vaccines are authorized for people 18 years old and older, but the FDA has authorized the Pfizer vaccine people 16 and older.
President Joe Biden announced on March 11 that he was directing the states to make the COVID-19 vaccine available to all adults by May 1. The move by Texas beats that federal target by more than a month.
“By July the Fourth there’s a good chance your families and friends will be able to get together in your backyard or your neighborhood and have a cookout or a barbecue and celebrate Independence Day,” Biden said.
Error unexpectedly ends election integrity hearing
On Thursday, more than 200 people, including former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke, signed up to testify before the Texas House Elections Committee about a proposal to further tighten voting rules in the state.
But an error by the committee chair, Rep. Briscoe Cain, forced the hearing to abruptly end before a single member of the public could speak for or against House Bill 6.
Cain, a Republican from Deer Park, failed to set a time for the committee to reconvene after lunch. In doing so, Cain committed a procedural error that could have doomed the bill further on in the legislative process.
He said the discussion of the bill will be rescheduled.
“Please forgive me for my error,” Cain said. “On behalf of the committee, I want to extend my sincerest gratitude to all for traveling here today.”
Cain is the author of HB 6, which has the backing of Gov. Greg Abbott. Abbott listed election integrity as one of his legislative priorities last month.
The bill would, among other things, require someone assisting a voter with a mail-in ballot to provide identification and a reason for helping that person with their ballot. It would also block public officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot applications to voters.
“It is voter suppression,” said state Rep. John Bucy, a Williamson County Democrat who sits on the committee. “It’s going to punish assistants who make honest mistakes on filling out information. Now, it’s asking for more information.”
Other bills filed in the Texas Legislature would ban extended voting hours and drive-thru voting.
O’Rourke spoke out after the hearing against the attempts to limit voting options.
“You have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning than you do participating in voter fraud,” he said.
Though cases of voter fraud are extremely rare, political experts say the fraud fight in Texas is more about partisanship than proof.
“It looks a lot like the more familiar efforts by the Republican majority to preserve their majority status by shaping what the electorate looks like,” Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, said.
Cain bucked a Texas Legislature tradition by not allowing Rep. Nicole Collier, who is not on the Election Committee, to ask questions of the bill author. Committee chairs often allow high-ranking members of the legislature to join committee hearings.
Collier happens to also be the chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. No Black lawmakers sit on the Elections Committee.