AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Following the bang of the gavel to commence the beginning of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee hearing, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee gave no opening remarks or explanation as to the work the committee would conduct Thursday. Instead, she opened her phone to play the shrill staccato of rapid gunfire that came from a semi-automatic rifle on May 24 in the halls of Robb Elementary School.
“I wanted, however, the very first sound to be in this hearing gunfire — even before we offered instructions, directions, email — gunfire,” the Texas Democrat said. “The reason is because imagine the whole litany of gunfire in America, through weapons of war, there was no notice. There was no information given, there were no signals no instructions about emails or anything else that might have saved our children. It was gunfire.”
In some of the most excruciating accounts to date of the horrors that unfolded when a gunman murdered 19 children and two teachers in a small Texas town, the family of a victim in the Uvalde massacre and community members shared gut-wrenching remarks to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning. The committee billed the hearing as focused on “bipartisan solutions for gun violence.”
Witnesses included Faith Mata, whose little sister Tess was one of the 21 people killed during the May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary. Dr. Roy Guerrero, Uvalde’s sole pediatrician, is also on the witness list. Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, will speak about the existing gun laws in the Lone Star State, advocating for what he calls “common sense” gun reform.
Monitoring the US House Judiciary Committee this morning, titled “examining #Uvalde: the search for bipartisan solutions to gun violence.” Texas Sen. @RolandForTexas is in DC to advocate for his constituents, after the May 24 mass school shooting killed 19 children & 2 teachers.— Monica Madden (@themonicamadden) December 15, 2022
One day after the 10-year anniversary of the deadliest mass school shooting in history in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, survivor Nicole Melchionno also recounted her traumatic experience as a then-second grader to the Judiciary Committee.
“How do we continue to allow this? I have grown up in a world where the unimaginable happens over and over again. Uncovering trauma over and over again,” she said.
Faith Mata, older sister to Tess Mata — one of the 19 children killed in Uvalde — told lawmakers about how she begged her parents for a sibling most of her life. Once Tess was born, their family “became whole.” She recounted the fear and anxiety her family experienced when they learned of an active shooter situation at Tess’ school on May 24, praying that her sister would be okay.
Eight and a half agonizing hours later, the Mata family found out Tess did not survive.
“Our life has changed forever. It has darkened because our light has left,” Mata said. “The little, little human who once made this family whole is no longer with us. Tess will never get to experience of life we had prayed she would live… and we will never know how scared she was in her last moments in that classroom.”
Mata sat strongly next to Uvalde pediatrician Dr. Roy Guerrero as he revealed the gruesome details of the bodies he treated at the hospital that day.
Through his phone, Guerrero played the sounds that were excluded from the released and leaked video from May 24 at Robb Elementary — sharing the chilling screams of surviving children as they ran to safety in a panic.
“I’m a gun owner, I believe in the Second Amendment. But I’m also a doctor and I deal with facts over emotion,” he said. “What’s it going to take to change your minds?”
Asked by Jackson Lee to describe the state of the children he treated when they arrived at the hospital, Guerrero used the word “mutilated.”
“A child that I wouldn’t have recognized unless I saw pictures from before, from the award ceremony, because this child was headless. Ripped apart. The other child had a chest wound so large, you could probably put your hand through it,” he said. “These were devastating injuries that no one could have survived.”
Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, reminded national lawmakers that the police response to Robb Elementary was “the worst” in America’s history.
Nearly 400 law enforcement officers were on scene that day and took more than 77 minutes to breach the classroom and take down the gunman. This was despite 911 calls from students inside — indicating that it was an active shooter situation, not a barricaded subject. The latter would prove to be paramount in the failed miscommunication amongst officers about the situation, leading to fatal situations as victims bled out during the critical window for possible medical intervention.
“It was a system failure. It was communication failure. It was cowardice,” Gutierrez said.
In his most excruciating testimony to date, the state senator described video and audio he has heard detailing the uncoordinated response from officers that day.
“A child was dragged out of the hallway, her face was gone. Hallways and classrooms and blood like no horror movie you’ve ever seen,” he said. “Off-camera, you could hear grown men throwing up from the sight of the horror or perhaps the failure that they had caused.”
Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee began her remarks by citing a common policy concern of Democrats, which their party hasn’t been able to get across the finish line even with control of Congress and the White House, calling for a ban on AR-15-style weapons.
She said without a ban on such weapons, “more people will die.”
“If we’re not going to ban them, then law enforcement must be trained to confront these weapons of war. Yes, we must train law enforcement like warriors in a battle on the combat field,” Jackson Lee said.
GOP Arizona Congressman Andy Biggs denounced this philosophy, redirecting focus on mental health and common underlying issues noted in studies of the criminals who commit mass shootings.
“There hasn’t been an honest engagement and search for bipartisan solutions to gun violence, mostly because there’s only one solution for my friends across the aisle and that is to emasculate the Second Amendment and remove guns from legal, lawful, and law-abiding citizens,” Biggs said.
The Congressman referenced a study by psychologist Dr. Peter Langman, which examined 56 school shooters, and found 82% of the study’s sample subjects grew up in either dysfunctional families or without their parents together for a significant portion of their childhood.
“How long can we continue to ignore these findings if we’re really going to search for bipartisan solutions to put a stop to these tragic, tragic events,” he said.
With Republicans set to take back control of the U.S. House in January, Democrats and advocates’ wish lists on gun restrictions are highly unlikely. However, Gutierrez is hopeful he can move the needle in Texas — despite its legislature historically moving to expand gun rights after state mass shootings, rather than restrict them.
“Florida took 23 days after the Parkland shooting to have extreme risk protective orders to raise the minimum age limit to 21. This was in a Republican-controlled body,” he said. “We can do all of those things and more, that are just good common safety gun solutions.”
Gutierrez has already filed three Uvalde-related bills for the upcoming 88th Legislative Session, which begins on Jan. 10.
You can live stream or watch the archived full meeting at this link, here.
Defense bill vote also brings approval of Texas hurricane protection project
Senators in Washington approved the multi-billion dollar National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday night. The huge spending bill included a measure that aims to protect the Texas coast from hurricane damage.
Lawmakers bundled the Water Resources Development Act into the defense bill. The act approved several projects for the Army Corps of Engineers, including the Texas Coastal Spine project, also known as the “Ike Dike.”
The multi-billion dollar plan calls for building floodgates and other barriers to protect areas around Houston and Galveston from storm surges. That area has one of the largest concentrations of refineries in the world.
“The Texas Gulf Coast is home to millions of people and industries that fuel our economy and national security,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said before the Senate vote. “If another hurricane were to wipe out Houston like Hurricane Harvey tried to do, obviously, that’s something that will have an impact not just locally, not just in my state, but across the nation as a whole,” he added.
The act authorized the Ike Dike to move forward, but Congress still has to approve funding. The plan comes with a huge price tag, estimated to top $34 billion. Much of the money will come from the federal government, but state and local governments are also expected to cover significant amounts of the cost.
“I believe that after years of hard work, the Texas Coastal Spine project has begun the long, long road to final construction,” Cornyn said on the Senate floor. “The next step is to secure the funding to begin that lengthy construction process, and I’m eager to work with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to make that happen.”
The defense bill included other items that will likely benefit Texas. The bill includes additional funding to Texas school districts that serve military personnel. It also provides the largest pay raise for troops in two decades, which helps the thousands of military members stationed and living in the state.
Congressman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) had bills that he spearheaded pass as part of the NDAA. He pushed a measure to sanction countries that facilitate illegal distribution of fentanyl into the United States.
“I consider that to be a national security issue, a national security threat,” McCaul said of fentanyl. “The ability to sanction countries like China for this behavior, to strengthen our law enforcement to stop the flow before it enters the United States will protect our younger generation that is primarily affected by this epidemic,” the Congressman added.
McCaul also passed a measure aimed at gathering evidence to help prosecute war crimes in Ukraine, as well as a separate bill to improve cyber diplomacy negotiations. He also led the push for the PEACE through Music Diplomacy Act that passed as part of the NDAA.
The bill authorizes music-related exchange programs facilitated by the Department of State. It encourages partnerships with the private sector to “recognize musicians whose works or performances have advanced peace abroad.”
“It allows us to harness the power of music as an international language across the world to spread our message of freedom and democracy,” McCaul said of the legislation.
Border counties brace for rising numbers of migrants as Title 42 end nears
As El Paso continues to experience a massive influx of migrants crossing the border into the city, local officials brace for more with Title 42 expected to officially lift next week.
El Paso officials are trying to ensure federal funding to avoid a major humanitarian crisis in the region once Title 42 migrant expulsions stop on Dec. 21. Title 42 is a pandemic-era public health policy that allowed the United States to send migrants — including asylum seekers — back to Mexico or their home country.
Already, the number of daily migrant apprehensions is shooting up and nonprofit shelters are full and federal holding facilities are operating at several times their capacity.
In a tweet, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief Peter Jaquez’s said the daily average of encounters over the last three days has been 2,460.
However, the current surge has been building up for weeks. U.S. Customs and Border Protection data relayed to the City of El Paso shows daily apprehensions up in the past three weeks and the average of migrants in federal custody above 4,000 for the past two weeks. Local officials expect the numbers to grow after Dec. 21.
“The administration has basically given an announcement that it’s going to be lifted, and so now, you’re seeing another surge,” Congressman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said. “It makes no sense to me,” he added, regarding the plan to lift Title 42 restrictions.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of mostly Texas congressional delegates sent a letter urging President Joe Biden to extend the program.
“We have a crisis at our southern border. Never before in our nation’s history have we experienced this scope and scale of illegal border crossings, and we remain concerned that your administration has not provided sufficient support or resources to the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security who are tasked with maintaining border security,” the group wrote.
Doris Meissner — a senior fellow at a nonpartisan D.C. think-tank, the Migrant Policy Institute — agreed this surge is likely due to migrants understanding that Title 42 is ending.
“If Congress does extend Title 42, it probably would be litigated and found to be illegal because it is a public health measure,” Meissner said of growing GOP calls to extend the public health rule.
Meissner said that extending Title 42 would be a “band-aid” solution.
“The real failing here is Congress’s inability — politically and procedurally — to grapple with immigration reform legislation that would make it possible for the executive branch to actually administer the border,” she said.
She said at a minimum, Congress needs to update the laws to include the nuanced reasons migrants may be seeking legal entry, not just asylum.
“Everybody now is trying to apply for asylum, because it’s the only way that they can get access to the United States,” she said. “We actually do have reasons for people to immigrate legally to the country. But our laws are not in any way, set up or aligned with ways to meet those interests.”
Rep. McCaul, while pushing to extend Title 42, agreed that it’s a temporary approach to the rising numbers of migrants crossing the border.
“If we can’t get this political asylum process under control, we’re going to continue to have this problem at the border,” he said.
McCaul is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and is likely to lead the committee when Republicans take control of the House in January. He said there’s work to be done beyond the border.
“I plan to go down to Mexico and Central America and talk to them about these political asylum agreements that maybe we could enter into with these countries,” McCaul said, referencing his plans to tackle the issue as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee. “That then would actually stop this at its very origin, rather than having to deal with it… when they’re actually in our country.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is rushing additional border agents to El Paso and reassigning officers from customs duties to deal with a new migrant spike in the region, according to Nexstar affiliate, BorderReport.
“(CBP’s) El Paso Sector on the Texas border with Mexico has seen an increase in encounters. In order to process individuals as safely and expeditiously as possible, U.S. Border Patrol agents from Big Bend and CBP officers from the El Paso Field Office are assisting with processing,” CBP said in a statement Monday morning.
Additionally, on Tuesday, Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, called on the federal government to deploy both financial and physical resources to help county and city leaders deal with the surge.
Maternal health report reveals dangers and disparities in Texas pregnancies
When the latest Department of State Health Services report detailing continued dangers and disparities for pregnant women landed on Rep. Shawn Thierry’s desk, she was disheartened but not surprised. She had lived through that data firsthand.
“I nearly lost my life in childbirth from receiving a high block epidural, and I had to yell out to put me under anesthesia,” she recalled.
Heading into her fourth legislative session, the Democrat from Houston is holding that experience close to her heart as she charts her priorities.
The 2022 Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee and Department of State Health Services Joint Biennial Report was released Thursday night, and despite being more than a month and a half overdue, it depicted bad news for the state of Texas health care.
The most recent data available is from 2019, but it reports that 147 Texas women died in connection to pregnancy, leaving nearly 300 children without their mothers. Of those deaths, Black women were affected at twice the rate. The report explicitly cited discrimination as a leading cause of death in 12% of the cases.
“I would go as far to say racism,” said Nakeenya Wilson, a member of the Maternal Health Equity Collaborative and a community advocate on the state review committee. “The way that we build our systems don’t serve everybody the same.”
Those concerns over both timely data collection and racial disparities are the basis for some legislation Rep. Thierry has already filed.
I’m going to be filing what I call a “momnibus” bill,” she said. “We have to tackle this from all fronts.”
Among her requests are a study “to address the issue of why these disparities exist for pregnant Black women,” a cultural competency and implicit bias requirement for healthcare providers, and an extension of state postpartum Medicaid coverage from six months after birth to twelve months.
Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) expressed enthusiastic support for that measure.
“The Texas House will continue its work to further improve care for mothers and families in our state,” he said in a statement to KXAN News Friday. “A top priority for the chamber will be extending critical postpartum coverage for new Texas moms to 12 months. I look forward to my colleagues working with the Senate to get this much needed legislation over the finish line.”
The Texas House passed that same measure in 2021, but it stalled in the Senate.
“I want to make sure that this if there’s any way to prevent this, that we do all that we can, and the data and the report tells us that many of these deaths were preventable,” Rep. Thierry said. “I have an obligation to do this work, because I survived.”