Arrests along border dipped sharply under Trump, according to federal data

At sunset, a Customs and Border Patrol agent places floodlights along a levee that ties into a segment of border fence in Hidalgo, Texas.

Federal border and immigration officials said Tuesday that the number of people caught trying to enter the country illegally reached near-historic lows during the government’s 2017 fiscal year, which ended on Sept 30.

Yet the number of unaccompanied minors and families who were apprehended or turned themselves in continues to plague border agents – even amid President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration.

U.S. Border Patrol agents made 310,531 apprehensions while Customs and Border Protection officers recorded 216,370 inadmissible cases, according to year-end statistics. (The federal government defines an “inadmissible” person as a migrant who tries to enter the country legally at a port of entry but is rejected, or a person seeking humanitarian protection under current laws.)

That represents a 24 percent decline since the 2016 fiscal year. The federal government’s fiscal year runs from October to September, and the 2017 numbers include the last three full months of the Obama administration.

Of the 310,531 apprehensions nationwide, about 304,000 occurred on the nation’s southwestern border.

During a conference call with reporters, Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello said that “loopholes” in current law continue to lure unaccompanied minors and family units to the United States. Since at least 2013, the majority of the those immigrants have come from Central America, a trend that continued in 2017. Data show that the Texas-Mexico border continues to be the most popular choice for illegal entry by that group of crossers.

Current law mandates that unaccompanied minors from countries not contiguous with the United States be processed by the federal government and placed in custody or with a temporary guardian, as opposed to being immediately deported. Some lawmakers have said that acts as a magnet for illegal migration because some cases won’t be adjudicated for years due to a backlog in immigration court.

Though the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector dipped to 23,700 in 2017 – a 35 percent drop from 2016 – the sector was the most active compared to other border sectors. That area saw a steady stream of undocumented immigrant families. There were about 49,900 people apprehended as part of family units in that sector, compared to 52,000 in 2016.

Meanwhile the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, saw a 52 percent increase in family unit apprehensions, from 5,664 people to 8,609 people. But the Laredo sector saw about a 50 percent drop, from 1,640 to 865.

Despite the overall dip in apprehensions, Department of Homeland Security officials said the constant stream of illegal crossers shows why a barrier is still needed on the southwestern border. In October, the Trump administration announced that Customs and Border Protection had completed construction of eight border wall prototypes.

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Woman with criminal history accused of setting Galveston man on fire turns herself in

A woman accused of setting a man on fire in Galveston was arrested and charged Monday.

Nancy Allen, 50, turned herself in to Galveston County officials around 8 p.m. Monday.

A man called the Galveston Police Department on the morning of Nov. 28, saying someone had just lit him on fire, officers said.

Officials received the 911 call just before 6 a.m. from a man in the 500 block of 21st Street, according to a news release from police.

Authorities from the Galveston Fire Department and Galveston EMS found the man with burns on his hands and face. Some of this clothing was still on fire, police said.

The victim, whose identity has not been released, was taken to the John Sealy Emergency Room.

He expected to survive, officers said.

Police said they pursued “a solid lead” and knew Allen to be a suspect.

She is in Galveston County jail, charged with aggravated family assault with a weapon, a first-degree felony offense.

Allen’s bond is set at $250,000.

If convicted, she could face five to 99 years in prison and be ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, police said.

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Man’s body found near Seabrook highway

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Officer kills burglary suspect in shootout in La Marque

A La Marque police officer was involved in a deadly shooting Sunday while responding to burglary, officials said.

According to investigators, an armed person threatened a resident just after 10 p.m. inside a home in the 800 block of Retama and ran.

The officer found the gunman in building near the victim’s home and gunfire was exchanged, investigators said.

The suspect was shot at least once and killed.

The shooting is being investigated by the sheriff’s office and the Galveston County district attorney’s office.

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Deputy shoots teenage driver after driver attempts to run deputies over

A Bexar County Sheriff’s Deputy shot a 17-year-old driver several times early Sunday morning. Deputies said the driver attempted to run them over, led them on a chase and crashed into another car.

It started around 5:30 a.m. near Marbach and Loop 1604 when the deputies were flagged down by a driver who told them they were involved in a road rage incident. The victims told police the suspect was driving a black car.

Deputies found the black car they believe was involved in the road rage incident in a dead end road. That’s when deputies said the driver of the black car circled back around and began speeding toward the deputies.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said that the driver struck a patrol vehicle and a deputy, but that the deputy suffered minor injuries. The patrol car, however, was inoperable after the crash.

One of the deputies deployed his stun gun at some point during the confrontation, but Salazar said the stun gun didn’t hit the suspect. The deputy then drew his weapon and shot into the car, striking the driver several times.

Deputies said the driver managed to speed away despite his injuries.

The second deputy caught up to the driver a short distance away and began pursuing the car. Deputies said the driver hit another car head-on, but the crash only disabled the other person’s car and injured the driver, not the suspect’s car.

Salazar said the deputy continued to pursue the car and that the deputy’s car and the suspect’s car collided at Highway 90 and Kriewald., immobilizing both cars.

The driver was discovered to have a 17-year-old female passenger who suffered minor injuries.

Salazar said the suspect may have been armed, but that they have not completed a search of the vehicle.

“If (the driver) survives he’s facing several serious felony charges,” Salazar said. “At this point we don’t know if it’ll be handled as attempted capital murder or aggravated assault on a public servant, but certainly facing a litany of charges.”

Salazar said the female passenger is not expected to face any charges and that investigators will interview her to determine what led up to the pursuit.

 

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Gorilla escapes barrier into hog exhibit at Houston Zoo, officials say

A Houston Zoo gorilla escaped Saturday into a hog exhibit area, zoo officials said.

The incident was reported around 1 p.m.

Zoo officials said a 28-year-old adult female western lowland gorilla crossed into the Red River hogs area.

The gorillas share a habitat with the hogs, but they are separated by a barrier. Officials have not said how the gorilla go out.

The gorilla was never in a public area, but officials cleared the boardwalk area out of an abundance of caution.

No animals were hurt and officials were able to contain the animal without using a tranquilizer.

The area is back open to the public, except the boardwalk as they continue to move animals around.

The Houston Zoo released the following statement:

A 28-year-old adult female western lowland gorilla became curious about the red river hogs that share the exhibit and moved into an area that was unusual for the gorillas to explore. The gorilla was never outside animal containment, and guests we not in danger at any time. Out of an abundance of caution, the zoo closed the entire African Forest section of the zoo so the response team could to safely reunite her with her troop.

The Houston Zoo’s staff regularly trains for scenarios like this, and acted in accordance with all protocols for a safe and quick resolution.

The gorilla family troop is fully reunited and an investigation is underway to ensure this does not happen in the future.

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Meet the man who took his daughter out of school early for deer season

It’s deer season in Texas, and one local hunter isn’t letting a simple thing like school get in the way of the time-honored tradition.

“I’m always in a good mood and I always want to make people smile,” Jeff Pavlock said.

Pavlock, who lives in Rosenberg, sees himself as just a small-town guy who likes to stay under the radar.

But he has a penchant for social media.

“I would always post a bunch of funny stuff on Facebook. I kept telling everybody: ‘One day, I’m going to make it big,'” Pavlock said.

Mission accomplished!

When Pavlock took his 12-year-old daughter, Kinsley, out of school early this week to go deer hunting, what he wrote on the sheet at school has now gone viral.

“I put down headed to go put the smack down on a monster buck … That’s the way we do it here in Texas,” Pavlock said.

Since he posted it on Facebook, it’s been shared more than 60,000 times!

“I’ve got people from Canada and people messaging me from all over the United States, so I am just living in the moment and enjoying it. I just enjoy making people laugh. My wife is laughing. My whole family is laughing. We think it’s hilarious. I never thought in my life it would blow up on Facebook,” Pavlock said.

Pavlock is sharing the spotlight with his daughter, who takes the sport of deer hunting very seriously.

“She’s a hunting little bugger. She’s made about nine hunts with me so far. We are just waiting on the big one to come out of the woods,” Pavlock said.

 

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: Texas churches need to know they can have guns

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks at a press conference after the state Senate adjourned sine die on Tuesday night, August 15, 2017.

Following the mass shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs last month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said arming congregants could prevent similar tragedies in the future. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick thinks so, too, and wants Paxton to let more churches know that is an option.

Patrick requested Friday that Paxton issue an opinion clarifying whether congregants can bring guns to church and whether churches  are exempt from state fees for creating volunteer security teams. Patrick said in the request that he hoped Paxton could inform more churches “what legal options they have to improve their security.”

Patrick made it clear in his letter to the attorney general that he feels state law allows congregants to bring guns to church unless a sign at the door says otherwise. He also wrote that a recently passed law exempts churches from fees other institutions must pay to form their own security forces.

The law, which went into effect in September, allows churches to have armed volunteer security teams without having to pay certain state fees to license the volunteers — fees that the law’s authors said would be too much of a burden for smaller churches like the one in Sutherland Springs. State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, the measure’s author, said in early November that many churches may not know of the change in law.

“I know many are thankful for the Texan who stopped this attack through the exercise of his Second Amendment rights, but I believe our state laws provide more protection than many Texans realize,” Patrick said in a news release. “That’s why I asked the attorney general to clarify those laws for all Texans.”

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In Texas, you probably won’t get welfare benefits; even if you qualify

Betty Smith, who is currently taking care of 16 kids of which 12 were given to her by CPS but was still deemed ineligible, speaks at a Grand Parents Support group meeting in Houston on Oct. 19, 2017.

Editor’s note: The Texas Tribune and The Guardian, which provides international news for an online, global audience, partnered to examine income inequality and the impact welfare reform in the 1990s has had on state welfare services and benefits today.

HOUSTON — A $733 federal disability check doesn’t stretch far each month when you have more than a dozen children to feed and clothe.

But don’t tell Betty Smith — the mother of four adopted youngsters (ages 10, 14, 16 and 18) and legal guardian of 12 of her grandchildren (ages 10 months to 16 years old) — that life threw her a raw deal.

“I’ve been blessed,” the 60-year-old Houston resident says in a conversation punctuated by thank-yous to Jesus.

The cancer diagnosis nine years ago that knocked her out of work? Now in remission, Smith says. Her ex-husband? “He normally tries to help” with the bills. And those dozen grandchildren? “They’re good to see another day” and better off with Smith than they would be in the state’s reeling foster care system, she says.

That’s not to say Smith would refuse help from the state of Texas. It’s just that she can’t figure out how to get it and why she’s been rejected.

“I tried three times — went over there three times. Still couldn’t get it,” the weary-eyed grandmother recently explained to a room with a half-dozen other women in similar, if not less extreme circumstances. “They give you 12 of your grandkids but refuse to help you?”

With nods, headshakes and “mmm hmmms,” Smith’s fellow Grandparent Support Group members indicated they understood her frustration. They had felt it, too.

The grandparents gather every third Thursday in a southwest Houston community center to discuss the challenges of stepping in when their sons and daughters can’t raise their own children. Picking at plates heaped with salad, fruit and fried chicken, several grandparents shared stories of frustration when it came to getting government welfare assistance. Those interactions with bureaucracy left them feeling that state rules for distributing federal aid — including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF) — are incredibly harsh, and sometimes applied arbitrarily or incorrectly.

Social workers and advocates for poor families suggest that perception is a reality.

“We have to fight,” said Deborah Dickerson, president and founder of the six-year-old Grandparent Support Group. The 62-year-old confronted that bureaucracy 12 years ago while raising four grandchildren of her own. The state rejected her TANF application, she said, because she made $7 per month more than the income limit.

“My pride wouldn’t let me come back,” Dickerson told the other grandparents in the white-walled room. “I was so humiliated, and just confused. I’m not going to beg.”

Over more than two decades, Texas’ rolls of cash assistance recipients under its TANF program have steadily shrunk. Fewer Texans are qualifying for cash assistance, freeing up millions in federal dollars that state lawmakers have shifted to core state programs, like Child Protective Services, or to help cover costs at facilities like mental health state hospitals, that also serve middle- and upper-income Texans. But Texas’ poverty rate has largely remained consistent in that time, and requirements have gotten stricter for the few Texans who do qualify for TANF cash assistance, which totals $188 each month for a single parent or caretaker with two children.

What’s more, experts say, the acronym-laden bureaucracy guarding the state’s safety net makes it difficult to access those benefits, even for Texans who fit the requirements. Sometimes officials at the Health and Human Services Commission, the high-turnover agency that administers the TANF program, do not inform qualified applicants about their options, social workers and advocates told The Texas Tribune. Other times, inexperienced state workers don’t seem to know their own rules, they added.

“The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and the right hand is taking advantage,” said Nicole Washington, a case manager at Methodist Children’s Home in Houston,which offers foster care and “family preservation” services.

Asked about the confusion, Christine Mann, a Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman, pointed to improvements at the agency. She said it recently reminded staffers about policies for handling TANF applications from non-parent caretakers, and it’s making other changes to its system. That includes updating an eligibility handbook and staff training.

As grandparent caretakers, the women in Dickerson’s group have more than one avenue to apply for TANF benefits.

A Texas program gives certain grandparents a one-time $1,000 payment for taking care of grandchildren. But assets like cars, retirement savings and Social Security benefits make it harder for some older adults to qualify. The state rejects grandparents who made more than twice the federal poverty level or have more than $1,000 in resources.

Grandparents and other “kinship” caregivers might qualify for “child-only” benefits. In those cases, state payments apply only to the children and not to the adult, and the caretaker could  draw assistance for the kids even if their monthly incomes eclipse limits for those applying for family-wide benefits.

But the state frequently counts kinship caregivers’ income against them, policy experts and advocates say, leaving some who should qualify for benefits empty handed.

That doesn’t happen for kinship families applying for Medicaid, which operates under similar rules, said said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning policy organization. But bureaucratic glitches leave the same family unable to draw TANF benefits.

“This has been going on for years,” Cooper said. “We’ve been talking to [the agency] for years.”

Mann said agency policy prohibits such denials for kinship caregivers.

Unclear is whether the confusion lies solely with state workers or in the design of benefits applications, which critics say could be clearer.

“People I’m dealing with at HHSC seem to care about this population, but it’s one of those bureaucracy things — changing a form is an epic event,” said Katherine Barillas, director of child welfare policy at One Voice Texas, a network of private and nonprofit organizations in Houston.

Mann, the spokeswoman, said her agency plans to give staffers more help in deciding eligibility by upgrading its processing system. The new system will automatically re-determine eligibility when a kinship caretaker eclipses income limits — a change from the current manual process.

As for Smith’s case, Mann said she would need more personal information about the grandmother to know whether the agency properly rejected her application.

In the meantime, Smith is trying to make do. “I just do what I got to do, and I pray,” she said.

Smith is proud of her grandkids. One grandson is now starting football. Her 11th-grader is a talented amateur hairstylist and could become a beautician.

Smith is thinking about pursuing full-fledged adoptions to ensure stability for her grandkids.

“I don’t want to let them down,” she said.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and One Voice Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Texas reform advocates want to close all state-run youth lockups

With a conviction and multiple arrests stemming from recent sexual misconduct cases at a Texas lockup for minors, juvenile justice reform advocates are calling for state leadership to close all state-run secure facilities for youths.

On Thursday, advocates from multiple reform groups sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, asking them to create a joint legislative committee that will evaluate the Texas Juvenile Justice Department and shut down the state’s five lockups. The call comes after a department memo obtained by the Dallas Morning News highlighted recent allegations of sexual misconduct at the Gainesville State School.

“Texas taxpayers are currently footing the bill for a costly, defective model that does not does not promote public safety and is inhumane,” the advocates wrote in the letter. “There is only one solution: the remaining state secure facilities must be closed.”

The letter was cosigned by directors of Texas Appleseed, Texans Care for Children, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union. Spokesmen for Patrick and Straus did not respond to emails Thursday evening.

TJJD declined to comment on the letter, but a Wednesday memo from the department’s executive director to state leadership addressed the issue.

The current scandal surrounds the conviction of one male guard, Samuel Wright, and the arrest of three women at the facility in Gainesville, a rural area about 75 miles north of Dallas. Wright was sentenced to 10 years in prison this July for improper sexual activity with a youth in custody, according to the memo. The women were arrested within the past three months on allegations of having sexual relationships with committed minors.

A fourth female guard was investigated on similar allegations, but a grand jury declined to indict her. The Wednesday memo also highlighted a 2016 case where a psychologist at the lockup was suspended after being found to have emailed pornography to his work computer so he could encourage a minor to masturbate in front of him.

“As much as we loathe that these events happened at all, I believe the facts of these cases show that oversight mechanisms put in place by legislative reforms of the past decade are working,” said TJJD Executive Director David Reilly in the memo. “The perpetrators were caught and prosecuted because dedicated staff helped flag this improper activity and document the events. In other cases, youth accessed the Incident Reporting Center (IRC) hotline, allowing our criminal investigators to build a case.”

The state’s juvenile justice system has repeatedly been embroiled in sexual and physical abuse scandals that span back to the 1970s, according to the advocates’ letter. In 2007, when the media reported system-wide abuse, multiple reforms were enacted by the legislature and county judges opted out of committing minors to state custody, causing populations at state-run correctional facilities for youth to plummet, according to a 2015 report on juvenile justice reforms.

The number of state youth lockups has dwindled from 12 to 5 since then, according to the Dallas Morning News, and now the reform advocates want to close the rest, saying the state lockups are an “outmoded and ineffective model of youth rehabilitation.”

In the department memo, Reilly points to new efforts to prevent sexual abuse, including a stronger “never alone” policy that, starting Dec. 1, will require that multiple people be present while transporting youths in custody or have guard wear body cameras if that’s not feasible. The department is also going to reinstate monthly overtime pay, which had been stopped last year amid budget cuts.

The department has correlated the issues of low pay and morale combined with high stress and turnover with the abuse in the department. Keeping employees has been a reported struggle — the Gainesville facility had a turnover rate last fiscal year of more than 50 percent, the memo said.

“Let me be clear: low pay, high turnover, job stress and staffing shortages do not cause employees to become more sexually deviant,” wrote Reilly, reaffirming the agency’s zero-tolerance policy on abuse. “However, low staffing levels create opportunities for misconduct that could otherwise be prevented.”

Texas Appleseed’s Deborah Fowler, an author of the advocacy letter, said in response to the department’s memo that attempting to fix the facilities is futile.

“We need to focus on continuing the reforms that started in 2007 and have since stalled by closing the remaining facilities and putting hard earned taxpayer dollars into treatment proven to work closer to home,” she said.

Disclosure: Texas Appleseed has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Man exposes himself at tanning salon, League City police search for his identity

A man walked right into a tanning salon, exposed himself to an employee and walked right back out.

The flashing happened off South Egret Bay Boulevard in League City last Monday.

Police have released a surveillance photo of the man.

He’s described as a Hispanic man, between 5-foot ten inches to 6-feet tall, with dark, curly hair.

He was wearing glasses at the time.

If you recognize him, call League City police.

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Free Press Summer Festival is changing its name to this

The Free Press Summer Festival is getting a remix.

Festival organizers announced the festival will change its name to the In Bloom Music Festival. The date will change as well.

The In Bloom Music Fest will take place March 24-25, 2018, in Eleanor Tinsley Park with more than 50 music performances on four stages.

“As we enter the 10th anniversary of this incredible festival that our dedicated fans have made their annual Houston tradition, we are excited to announce a new name and a new time of year, while returning to our incredible location, Eleanor Tinsley Park,” founding partner Jagi Katial said. “We are always looking to improve the experience for the fans, and after the last few years of challenges with Mother Nature, moving our dates to the spring made sense.”

General admission and VIP pre-sale tickets are available now ahead of the lineup release next month.

Visit www.inbloomfestival.com for more information.

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Assault charge against Johnny Manziel dismissed

Prosecutors in Dallas have dismissed a 2016 misdemeanor domestic assault charge against Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel.

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday confirmed Manziel successfully completed requirements of a court agreement that included taking an anger management course and participating in the NFL’s substance abuse program.

PHOTOS: Manziel through the years

The 24-year-old Manziel also had to stay away from former girlfriend Colleen Crowley, who accused him of hitting and threatening her during a January 2016 night out. The case was dismissed Nov. 22.

Cleveland chose Manziel 22nd overall in the 2014 draft. The Browns cut him in March 2016 after two seasons of inconsistent play and off-the-field issues about the former Texas A&M star’s partying and drinking.

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How Texas curtailed traditional welfare without ending poverty

Central Texas Food Bank Social Services Coordinator Eddie Sanchez meets with a client at Central Health Southeast Health and Wellness Center in Austin on Nov. 29, 2017

Editor’s note: The Texas Tribune and The Guardian, which provides international news for an online, global audience, partnered to examine income inequality and the impact welfare reform in the 1990s has had on state welfare services and benefits today. 

Vakesa Townson didn’t plan to fall into poverty.

Married and the mother of two kids, she had lived a comfortable life in North Texas. But after her 17-year marriage ended and she became her family’s main provider, she struggled to make ends meet.

“I needed support,” Townson said. “I felt like I was starting over with nothing.”

A support group and the folks at Catholic Charities of Fort Worth encouraged her to apply for government assistance, including food stamps for groceries and Medicaid for her kids. But she didn’t check the box in her application that would’ve allowed her to apply for cash assistance. Working a part-time job that brought home $200 to $230 a month, she might not have qualified anyway.

Townson’s predicament is not unusual for Texans in need. Poor Texans will often find jobs and work to advance out of poverty but are then disqualified from receiving public benefits well before leaving poverty behind, said Heather Reynolds, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.

“I don’t think that’s what anybody intends to do,” said Reynolds, whose clients are mostly classified as working poor. “It’s just the reality of what we face sometimes.”

Though Texas’ poverty rates have remained mostly consistent, the state has significantly curtailed the amount of traditional welfare it provides to poor Texans through cash assistance over the last two decades, instead putting more of its federal anti-poverty dollars toward funding core state services, plugging budget holes or funding other programs that provide services to residents with higher incomes than those who qualify for cash welfare.

Federal law allows such disbursements, and state officials say those spending choices are spurred in part by a drop in the number of Texans qualifying for cash assistance. But social workers and service providers who help poor Texas families say those decisions result in a porous safety net that complicates the struggles of residents like Townson, who are too poor to make ends meet but make too much to qualify for temporary cash aid from the government.

“There’s this myth that welfare exists,” said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. “In Texas, it doesn’t.”

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To qualify for $290 a month, you can’t make more than $188

Texas’ reduction of its traditional welfare rolls dates to 1996, when Congress reformed welfare and created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which gives Texas hundreds of millions of dollars a year to combat poverty.

At the program’s inception, hundreds of thousands of poor single-parent families and children — a monthly average of 479,000 individuals in 1998 — received cash aid through TANF. But the number of poor residents who receive this help has plummeted. As of July 2017, the latest available count, fewer than 60,000 Texans — most of them children — remained on the welfare rolls, usually receiving a few hundred dollars a month at most.

Welfare reform was designed to reduce the number of people on welfare by emphasizing temporary assistance and getting people into work. But the drop in the state’s welfare enrollment isn’t necessarily the result of a concerted effort to pull Texans out of poverty. The state’s poverty rate has hovered between 16 and 18 percent for the last decade, and it wasn’t until recent years that Texas saw a larger drop in its poverty rate — currently at 15.6 percent — that was mostly due to rising incomes and not because of more welfare recipients moving out of poverty.

Instead, the number of low-income Texans who can get help has been reduced by caps on how long a family can obtain benefits, which are based on a person’s education or recent work experience, and strict income eligibility rules that make qualifying for cash aid a tall order for even the poorest families, advocates say.

To qualify for a maximum of $290 in monthly cash aid today, a family of three — with one parent and two children — cannot make more than $188 a month, barring a few exceptions. That income eligibility, which is several hundred dollars less than what a family of three can make and still be considered to be living in poverty, has hardly been adjusted since welfare reform.

“It’s been frozen, and 20 years of inflation has meant fewer and fewer people can qualify because it’s so low you really have to be destitute,” Cooper said.

By 2015, only four out every 100 poor families with children in Texas received cash assistance — down from 47 in 1996, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning research institute.

Texas has a long history of regarding welfare as a last resort for needy Texans. Even before federal welfare reform, state lawmakers were working to tighten limits for assistance in Texas. And modest increases to benefits enacted soon after welfare reform were passed because they were approved with little fanfare, appropriations officials said at the time.

Texas’ approach to welfare benefits has pushed it toward the bottom of state rankings for the percentage of households receiving public cash assistance, according to U.S. Census Bureau data dating back a decade. In 2016, Texas ranked last.

That’s despite Texas being home to almost one out of every 10 poor Americans.

“We spend our dollars on anything but poor families”

While the drop in cash assistance has left Texans in need with a less secure safety net, it has freed up hundreds of millions of federal dollars for legislative budget writers.

Welfare reform set Texas up to receive federal anti-poverty funds in the form of block grants, meant to give state governments more flexibility in how they spent those dollars. That spending had to fit within four broad categories: to assist needy families so children can be cared for in their homes or the homes of their relatives; to reduce dependency on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage; to prevent or reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and to encourage two-parent families.

With declining welfare rolls, lawmakers have used federal TANF dollars to cover a range of expenses, including core state functions like Child Protective Services.

Of the more than $520 million in federal TANF funds that state legislators appropriated for each of the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, more than $358 million was earmarked for the Department of Family and Protective Services, which includes CPS. TANF dollars will make up approximately 17.5 percent of the agency’s entire budget for the 2018-19 budget years.

The current state budget also uses TANF funding to prop up the budgets for early childhood intervention services and mental health state hospitals. Another $3 million a year will go toward the Alternatives to Abortion program. The Texas Education Agency will also receive almost $4 million a year in TANF dollars for “school improvement and support programs.”

“We spend our TANF dollars on anything but poor families,” said Will Francis, government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Those spending decisions will likely perpetuate a negative trend in the share of total TANF dollars Texas spends on basic assistance to poor families, which dropped from 59 percent in 1997 to about 7 percent in 2014, according to spending data collected by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

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State budget writers push back against the notion that the Legislature chooses to spend less on cash assistance for poor Texans.

Texas’ spending on cash aid depends completely on the number of people who qualify and sign up for benefits, they argue. And that drop has freed up more money to spend on other state needs, said state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican and the Senate’s chief budget writer.

“The good thing about block grants is that we are able to provide benefits to everyone who qualifies and allocate the remaining funds to address important needs such as Child Protective Services,” Nelson said in a statement. “These are appropriate uses of TANF funds, and they are an essential part of our effort to better protect endangered children.”

Advocates for low-income Texans don’t argue that these aren’t worthy causes. But they say they’re just not the best use for dollars meant to combat poverty in the state.

“It’s this $500 million-a-year piggy bank,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, a nonprofit that oversees a statewide network of food banks. “It’s totally taken away from meaningful services… It leaves very little to cash assistance or employment and training that could help people get out of poverty.”

Where should the money go?

Once TANF dollars are used to fund critical services like CPS, it’s tough to advocate for a change that will create a hole in the budget and put the delivery of other human services in a bind, Cole said.

In 2016, TANF ranked as the state’s ninth-biggest federal funding source.

Others have gone farther in their characterizations of the state’s TANF spending priorities. During a 2013 U.S. House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, referred to TANF as a “slush fund” that states use to fund services they were or should have been funding themselves and questioned whether states have been given “too much flexibility” under welfare reform.

Not all those who are helping low-income Texans make ends meet oppose the state’s TANF spending priorities. Some nonprofit providers underlined the importance of flexibility and allowing states to be nimble with federal resources in ways that can best serve local communities. Others pointed out that some of the services funded through TANF dollars back up a “holistic approach” to addressing the needs of poor Texans.

“I do think that there are some great strategies that are funded with TANF dollars that impact vulnerable populations,” said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank, which helps low-income Texans sign up for public benefits.

But Cooper added he sees the “temptation” the state’s spending flexibility presents at a time when poor Texans “could use more dollars to gap-fill” their needs. He echoed other providers who expressed reservations about the state’s wide discretion with disbursements.

“What we need to make sure is that that money actually gets to nonprofit and government providers who will actually use it to improve outcomes for those living in poverty,” said Reynolds of Catholic Charities of Fort Worth. “And I do think there has been the temptation to use it to help with other budget crunches and we need to make sure to stay away from that.”

Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities and Feeding Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Texas parents wait in limbo as policymakers struggle to save Children’s Health Insurance Program

Patients wait to be seen at the People's Community Clinic in Austin, on Nov. 8, 2010.

It’s been two months since inaction in Congress put health insurance for more than Texas 400,000 children in jeopardy, and for people like Raquel Cruz, the uncertainty is taking a toll.

“To remove insurance from hardworking people that need it and that use it is just —,” Cruz said, pausing as she sobbed. “It’s just not fair.”

Cruz, a single mother of three who lives in the Rio Grande Valley, has relied on the now-threatened Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover her children’s health care for more than 10 years. With two children currently benefiting from CHIP including a daughter about to go to college, Cruz fears what losing the program would mean for her family.

If the state shuts down CHIP, children will be redirected to the federal government’s health care marketplace. Cruz said premiums on the marketplace are too expensive for her budget, but she may have no choice.

“I’m going to be forced to look into the market and then possibly even get a second job, which will take me away from that time with my children,” Cruz said. “As a single mother, the whole load is on me.”

CHIP expired Sept. 30 after Congress failed to renew funding for the program that provides health insurance to millions of children in the country. Since then, low- and middle-income parents like Cruz have been anxiously wondering if Congress will renew the program before their children lose their benefits. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission predicts state coffers can keep the program afloat until January.

In the absence of congressional renewal, the state has acted to assuage parents’ worries. The Health and Human Services Commission submitted a request Nov. 16 with the federal government for an extra $90 million to support CHIP in Texas until February.

Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the commission, said in a statement to the Tribune that it is confident that Texas will receive the federal funds. Extra funds have already been granted to maintain CHIP in several states and Washington, D.C.

The commission needs confirmation for the extra $90 million by Dec. 9, or else it will have to start shutting down the program. State law requires the commission to notify parents about a month before they lose coverage, meaning it would have to send out letters on Dec. 22 — three days before Christmas.

The extra $90 million could keep the program alive in Texas long enough for Congress to renew federal CHIP funding, said Adriana Kohler, senior health policy associate at the nonpartisan Texans Care for Children.

The U.S. House passed a bill with a provision to fund CHIP with only Republican support earlier this month, tossing the issue to the Senate. Democrats voted against the bill because it would have taken funding from Medicaid.

“It’s the first time it’s been a partisan issue on the House side,” said U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston. “I’m hoping the Senate will come up with something we can be all together for.”

Green, who serves on the House Energy and Commerce committee and is a key player for health care issues, said he and his colleagues in both parties recognize the dire consequences of not renewing CHIP, adding that the program has garnered so much bipartisan support in the past that he thinks “the Senate will go back and do the reauthorization.”

Around Capitol Hill, advocates are pushing for the issue to be attached to the end-of-year spending bill required to prevent a government shutdown. A spokesperson for the House committee said there are “ongoing” bipartisan and bicameral negotiations. While Green said there are always deadlines, he was unclear about when the last straw is.

That’s a lot of conditionals, Kohler said, for Texas parents who need to know if they can arrange appointments and treatments for their children for next year.

“Many families might fall through the cracks. There might be a lot of missed appointments, missed medication,” Kohler said. “At the end of the day, this is harming kids that rely on this program.”

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Harris County man wanted for 2006 murder arrested in Mexico

A Harris County man at the top of the U.S. Marshal’s most-wanted list has been arrested.

Officials say William Greer, now 51, killed his girlfriend, Tammy Esquivel, on Dec. 19, 2006, after an argument.

Three days after her murder, Cleveland police found Greer wandering in the streets.

He confessed to the murder, but at that time police had no evidence that a murder had actually happened, so Greer was released.

After that, Greer fled the country, investigators said.

But investigators never stopped looking for him.

This week, Greer was arrested in Mexico, ending an 11-year manhunt.

Officials with the U.S. Marshal’s Office said Greer will be extradited to the United States as soon as possible.

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Members of street gang linked to series of burglaries of Apple products, police say

Authorities said through an extensive investigation, they have identified 15 members of the criminal street gang “Hot Boyz” as being responsible for up to 26 burglaries in which Apple products were stolen.

Police said they became aware of a series of burglaries in the Montrose area in which the businesses were cased prior to the burglaries, and only Apple iMac computers were stolen.

Officers said they learned of an additional 114 burglaries that fit the same description in the Heights area.

Through surveillance videos from the businesses, authorities said they found that even though most of the thieves broke into the businesses wearing masks, or with their faces covered, some of them wore the same clothing during the crime as when they cased the business hours earlier.

Police said they observed as many as seven suspects involved in one burglary and multiple vehicles that served as lookouts.

The Houston Police Department Robbery Division, Central Tactical Unit, Precinct 1 Constables, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and FBI jointly investigated and identified 15 members of the gang Hot Boyz believed to be responsible for the crimes.

Officials said the Central Tactical unit has charged four of the alleged gang members and the Precinct 1 Constables Office has charged four of the alleged gang members related to the burglaries and organized criminal activity.

Those charged were identified as Keltrin Stephens, 20, Tyrique Davis, 19, Devonta Smith, 20, Le’Trell Stephens, 19, Gregory Sutton, Janorris Black and Marquez Carroll.

Police said it was discovered during interrogations that the stolen iMacs were sold for approximately $500 to $1,000 to an unidentified Middle Eastern man in an organized crime ring.

Police said in total, the suspects have been linked to 26 burglaries, three aggravated robberies and a theft in the Houston Heights, Montrose and Upper Kirby area.

Officials said the cases are still being investigated.

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Arrest expected soon after Galveston man set on fire, police say

A man called the Galveston Police Department on Tuesday morning, saying someone had just lit him on fire, officers said.

Officials received the 911 call just before 6 a.m., from a man in the 500 block of 21st Street, according to a news release from police.

When authorities from the Galveston Fire Department and Galveston EMS arrived, they found the man with burns on his hands and face. Some of this clothing was still on fire, police said.
The victim was taken to the John Sealy Emergency Room. The man is expected to survive, officers said.

Police are pursuing what they called “a solid lead,” and they know the person who will soon face charges, officers said.

“The most likely charge in this case would be aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, a first-degree felony in the state of Texas, which carries a punishment of five to 99 years in prison with a $10,000 fine,” police said in the release.

Officers expect to release more information once charges are handed down.

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How Breitbart, Trump and Texas Politicians Spun a Tale out of a Border Patrol Agent’s Death

On the night of November 18, two Border Patrol agents lay badly wounded at the bottom of a 14-foot deep culvert near Van Horn, Texas. Thirty-six-year-old El Pasoan Rogelio Martinez died hours later from his injuries. Perhaps, as right-wing news outlets have trumpeted, the pair was attacked by rock-wielding foreign drug smugglers, or maybe, as at least two government officials have suggested, they fell by accident into the drainage tunnel. Federal investigators insist they don’t yet know what occurred that night, but neither lack of facts nor prudence could dissuade the president and top Texas Republicans from seizing on this tragedy for political advantage.

“Border Patrol Officer killed at Southern Border, another badly hurt. We will seek out and bring to justice those responsible. We will, and must, build the Wall!,” tweeted President Donald Trump on the evening of November 19. Trump also stated later that the surviving agent had been “badly beaten.”

That morning, the virulently anti-immigrant site Breitbart had claimed to break the story with a story headlined, “Border Patrol Agent Killed, Another in Serious Condition in Texas.” The story quoted Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the union for Border Patrol agents — which is not a part of the government agency. A few sentences below the unambiguous headline, the Breitbart authors acknowledged that “details on the matter are scarce.”

A few hours later, Texas Senator Ted Cruz seemed to echo the Breitbart story, announcing that the agent had been “killed” and labeling the incident “a stark reminder of the ongoing threat that an unsecure border poses to the safety of our communities and those charged with defending them.” (When asked by reporters about gun control in the wake of the Sutherland Springs shooting, Cruz replied, “We don’t need politics right now.”)

Despite the murkiness of the situation, neither Trump nor Cruz apparently saw a need to defer to federal investigators or wait to see whether a wall would have made any difference.

In one version of events, the agents were savagely beaten with stones, likely by undocumented drug smugglers. “What we know is that Border Patrol Agent Rogilio [sic] Martinez appears to have been ambushed by a group of illegal aliens whom he was tracking,” said Judd, the Border Patrol union official, in a second Breitbart story titled “Illegal Aliens Killed Border Agent by Crushing in His Skull with Rocks, Says NBPC.” Judd continued: “Our agents’ reports from the ground say that he was struck in the head multiple times with a rock or rocks.” That story immediately took off as virtual fact in the right-wing media sphere.

Border Patrol agent Rogelio Martinez  FBI

But that tale hasn’t been backed by federal or county officials, and full autopsy results are still pending. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Border Patrol’s parent agency, said in a November 19 statement that the agents were “responding to activity” and were “injured.” The FBI, which heads the investigation, has only said it’s investigating a “potential assault.”  

Moreover, Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo, who was on the scene that night and is working with the FBI task force, told the Dallas Morning News on November 20 that the evidence he saw was “very consistent with a fall.” He later added it was “very premature” to call the incident an attack or ambush. An anonymous federal official also told the Associated Press that Martinez may have fallen.

Top Texas Republicans, however, weren’t going to let ambiguity get in the way of a good story. The state’s senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn, was marginally more measured than Cruz, telling a radio interviewer that “at least preliminarily” the incident was an “ambush by drug traffickers,” though he added that the details were unconfirmed. Governor Greg Abbott, meanwhile, went even further, introducing the idea that “murder” had occurred. In a press release, he announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of those responsible for Martinez’s “murder,” which Breitbart quickly turned into a story: “Texas Governor Offers $20,000 for Info on ‘Murder’ of Border Patrol Agent.”

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton joined in as well, both sharing inflammatory articles published shortly after the incident. Patrick selected a Fox News article headlined: “Border agent killed, partner injured by illegal immigrants using rocks, report says.” The supposed “report,” the reader finds, is just a quote from a Border Patrol union official given to another media outlet. Paxton chose Breitbart as his own source.

It’s entirely possible that the Breitbart version of events will turn out to be true, but more than a week after the incident became public, the FBI has yet to release any additional information. Jeanette Harper, a spokesperson for the agency’s El Paso field office, told the Observer on Tuesday that the agency is currently looking into tips. She said it would likely be a while before they could say anything further.

The post How Breitbart, Trump and Texas Politicians Spun a Tale out of a Border Patrol Agent’s Death appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Man accused of killing teen with whom he had inappropriate relationship appears in court

A man was arrested in connection with the shooting death of a 14-year-old Harris County girl.

Anthony Valle, 43, is behind bars at Harris County jail four months after Layla Ramos’ untimely death.

Investigators said the two were having an inappropriate relationship that involved drugs and sexual misconduct.

“She began threatening to expose him days before she was killed,” prosecutors said in court Tuesday.

VIDEO: Family of young woman killed in northeast Harris County home speaks

Investigators said they found inconsistencies in Valle’s story after he shot Ramos in July inside his home in Humble. They said Valle first claimed he thought Ramos was an intruder, shot her once and then the gun accidentally went off again when he tripped over her body.

Prosecutor said that according to phone records, Valle and Ramos were together the morning she died. Valle’s phones also uncovered other disturbing evidence.

“These cellphones show he enjoyed looking at simulated father daughter pornography,” prosecutors said.

Valle maintains the shooting was an accident.

There was no record of Valle having a criminal history in Harris County.

His bond is set at $200,000.

 

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