Author Archives: Gus Bova

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.

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The ‘Sanctuary Cities’ Ban Has Already Reshaped Some Police Department Policies

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo  Michael Stravato

On August 31, as Houstonians were being rescued from their homes amid flooding from Hurricane Harvey, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo reluctantly issued a memo to his 5,200 officers allowing them to ask about immigration status during routine stops. The day before, a federal judge had slammed the brakes on much of Texas’ embattled “sanctuary cities” ban, a law that Acevedo has criticized as interfering with public safety. But the judge greenlighted a provision making it illegal for police chiefs to bar officers from asking about immigration status.

“Right in the middle of our Harvey response, we had to actually send out policy and everything to make sure we were compliant with the law,” Acevedo told the Observer.

Though news of the policy change was lost in the chaos of the storm, and the law’s future remains tied up in the courts, SB 4 quietly upended a progressive policing practice in Texas’ largest city. The San Antonio Police Department was also forced to weaken its pro-immigrant stance.

HPD is the fifth-largest police department in the nation, and Houston is home to an estimated 575,000 undocumented immigrants. Acevedo said the department’s old rule was to only ask about immigration status if there was a direct “nexus to a crime that’s being committed.” He gave an example: If an officer was pursuing a van and saw “30 people pile out,” she might suspect human smuggling and have cause to ask whether the individuals were undocumented. Otherwise, he said officers were forbidden from making immigration inquiries in order to prevent racial profiling and encourage witnesses of crime to come forward.

The department’s new policy broadly allows cops to ask about immigration status, with some boundaries. Officers can’t stop someone or extend detention solely to ask about a person’s immigration status. If an officer learns that someone is undocumented, the policy states, “he may only do one thing: share this information with ICE or other local entities.” The policy makes clear that no one is obligated to answer such questions, and cops cannot hold someone for refusing.

Acevedo is also requiring his officers to file an incident report every time they ask about status. But, as of last week, he said he hadn’t reviewed the data to determine whether more officers are asking. The Observer has requested the records under Texas open records law.

Acevedo thinks most of his officers will have no interest in targeting immigrants. “Will there be some outliers out there that start engaging in trying to be ICE agents? I’m not naive: Of course there’ll be somebody out there,” Acevedo said. “But if they engage in racial profiling or unconstitutional policing, they’re gonna end up being held accountable.”

The San Antonio Police Department also had to rewrite its policy in the wake of the August 30 ruling, according to the San Antonio Express-News. The department previously had a blanket prohibition on asking about immigration status, which it softened to the following: “The enforcement priorities of this department are to protect the public safety, and the priorities do not include asking any person for proof of citizenship or legal residency.”

A spokesperson for SAPD told the Observer that the department isn’t keeping statistics on immigration inquiries.

Activists and law enforcement officials gathered earlier this year to oppose SB 4.  Sam DeGrave

Other police departments have made only minor tweaks, if any, to their department policies because of SB 4. The Austin Police Department didn’t prohibit status inquires before SB 4, but the department did release new guidance to officers in late September. In a press conference, Chief Brian Manley announced that officers would be required to document each time they ask about immigration status. A city of Dallas spokesperson said in September the department was “preparing training materials and updating department policy to reflect the passage of SB 4,” which she said would be released to the media when finalized. (The city didn’t return multiple requests for an update.)

Officials with the cities of El Paso and El Cenizo, both plaintiffs in the lawsuit against SB 4, told the Observer they haven’t had to change their policies.

The “sanctuary cities” ban goes back to court on November 7 in New Orleans, where the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on the constitutionality of the entire law.

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Who’s Defending Texas’ Confederate Monuments?

Who’s Defending Texas’ Confederate Monuments?

Meet the leader of the rifle-wielding, Confederate-flag toting group that calls itself “protectors of all things Texas.”

Robert Beverly, 57, is a jack of many trades. He’s an artist, an Air Force veteran and president of the brevity-challenged outfit This Is Texas Freedom Force, a group that made waves this summer defending Confederate monuments from protesters in major Texas cities.

Armed militia members surround a “mobile command center” near Travis Park.  Gus Bova

This Is Texas Freedom Force is a ragtag coalition of rifle-toting ex-military sorts and other mostly white Texans who favor the Dixie flag and revisionist histories of the Civil War. Its official motto: “Protectors of all things Texas.” Launched in May, the group claims to have an online membership of about 5,000.

In June, the group’s inaugural event drew about 1,000 people to Houston to counter “anti-fascists” who threatened to tear down a statue of Sam Houston. The only problem: The threat was a hoax perpetrated by a fake Twitter account, and the well-armed “#StandWithSam” battalion squared off with an army of none. Even so, Beverly doesn’t regret the action.

“I liked it because I hadn’t felt that patriotism in a very long time,” he told the Observer. “It was different than Trump-getting-into-office patriotism; this was Texas patriots coming together for the first time.”

In the ’80s and ’90s, Beverly was active in Republican politics in Arlington, but he grew disenchanted with the GOP and left for fringier pastures. About six years ago, he joined the Texas State Militia — a hyper-libertarian group with paramilitary ambitions — and in 2014, he broke off to form his own outfit, the “Phoenix Unit.”

At the Houston protest, Beverly brought along the Phoenix Unit’s “mobile command center” — a large trailer for transporting weapons and medical supplies. His apparent security know-how earned him the invitation to lead This Is Texas Freedom Force. Since then, the group has cropped up in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas to defend Confederate monuments and patrol anti-Trump demonstrations.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups, hasn’t analyzed This Is Texas Freedom Force, but it has closely followed the “patriot” movement and militias for years.

Historically, such groups increase under Democratic presidents and fade away under Republican ones, but that trend is breaking under Trump, said Ryan Lenz, an analyst with SPLC. “These groups don’t seem to feel their job is any less now,” he said. “In fact, they’ve chosen to stay around to provide security for the ascendant alt-right or extremist organizations across the country.”

In early July, This Is Texas Freedom Force showed up in Austin to guard a “1776 Freedom March” held by the alt-right “Proud Boys.” The next day they policed an “impeachment march” to ensure the anti-Trump gathering did not “get out of hand,” according to the group’s website.

A month later, the group filled half of San Antonio’s Travis Park with Confederate flag-waving supporters, many wielding semi-automatic rifles, to oppose the proposed removal of the park’s 40-foot Confederate monument. (The city removed it a few weeks later.)

This Is Texas Freedom Force president Robert Beverly (right) and vice president Brandon ‘Milkbone’ Burkhart mourn the removal of Dallas’ Robert E. Lee statue in September.  Texas Freedom Force/Facebook

The group gravitates toward the “Lost Cause” theory of the Confederacy, which erroneously holds that slavery was a minor factor in the Civil War.

“The whole crux of it was Lincoln didn’t want to lose [tax dollars],” said Beverly. “Slavery then came in as a political issue after the war was started.”

Beverly insists his cause is not racist. The group has a few black and Latino members, and on social media, it regularly denounces white nationalists and forbids them from attending its events. But he has a way of veering off message.

In August, he told the San Antonio Current he thinks black people are “too damn lazy,” “on drugs” and “don’t want to work.” (Beverly told the Observer that his comments were directed at young people of all races, not just black people).

Nationally, the SPLC categorizes at least one militia group — the III% Security Force — as an Islamophobic hate group. Several members of This Is Texas Freedom Force also belong to III%.

“In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of cross-pollination on the radical right,” said Lenz. “One thing we’ve seen is the militia movement taking on a larger presence in the anti-Muslim world.”

Beverly insists This Is Texas Freedom Force isn’t “one of those fringe groups.”

“I’m not on some mission to destroy the world,” he said. “I just want to hang on to what I have.”

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ICE Detained a Pregnant Rape Survivor for Six Months, Records Show

Joe Corley Detention Center in Conroe, Texas  Joe Corley Detention Center/Facebook

Carolina Ramirez had spent three weeks locked up in a prison-like detention center north of Houston when she discovered she was pregnant. It had taken the 23-year-old two months to travel from El Salvador to Texas, a difficult journey during which her smuggler raped her multiple times. Now, she was carrying his child. Ramirez desperately wanted out. Her mental health was deteriorating, and she wasn’t ready for an impending court date. But it would be six months before she was finally released.

Documents obtained by the Observer show Ramirez, who requested a pseudonym, repeatedly asked Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for parole on medical grounds so she could stay with family in Missouri as her case advanced. Federal policy encourages release of pregnant women and her attorney, Raul Tovar, was sure officials would let her go. Instead, immigration agents kept Ramirez locked up in the Joe Corley Detention Center, a for-profit facility that’s been the site of a hunger strike and rape allegations. Advocates say Ramirez’s story is part of a troubling trend of prolonged detention of pregnant women in ICE custody.

In September, seven organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, accusing the agency of “failure to abide by its own policy against detaining pregnant women.” The complaint includes stories from 10 pregnant women who were locked up in recent months, including Ramirez. The women reported bad food, nausea, vomiting, depression and inability to get specialized care. In the last year, at least five women have miscarried in detention, according to the Huffington Post.

Multiple Obama-era ICE directives, the latest in 2016, prohibit detaining pregnant women absent “extraordinary circumstances” due to their “particular needs and vulnerabilities.” Under that guidance, pregnant women who arrived at the border were typically assigned a court date and released within days. But advocates say these directives are increasingly ignored under Trump.

“Suddenly, starting in July or August, we started to hear of more and more cases [of pregnant women in detention],” said Katharina Obser of the Women’s Refugee Commission, a national organization. And some advocates noted a change as early as last November.

Jennifer Elzea, an ICE spokesperson, wouldn’t confirm whether Obama’s 2016 directive is still in effect, saying release decisions are made based on the “individual facts and circumstances of the case.” Elzea also provided statistics: 525 pregnant women were detained since October of last year, with 33 in detention as of September 13. Elzea said she couldn’t provide complete figures for the previous year and didn’t provide a month-by-month breakdown, making it impossible to identify a trend.

Ramirez spent six months of her pregnancy locked up in the Joe Corley Detention Center, a 1,500-bed facility surrounded by razor-wire fencing on a dead-end road in Conroe. Until two years ago, it was an all-male facility. Owned and operated by the for-profit prison corporation GEO Group, the center holds detainees at three levels of security concern, including men who are violent offenders. (The groups are housed separately according to gender and security level, said Houston ICE spokesperson Gregory Palmore.)

In 2014, more than 180 detainees took part in a hunger strike at the facility over poor food and telephone access, according to an internal ICE review. A Salvadoran man has alleged he was raped twice at the facility in late 2013 and called “stupid” by an ICE official when he reported it. And, in April 2016, the Women’s Refugee Commission toured the facility and criticized conditions in a report released last week.

In that jail-like setting, Ramirez discovered on February 17 that she was pregnant, records show. Ramirez requested to be released by ICE, but the agency said she had to pass an initial screening first. Ramirez failed the interview in late February, but her attorney challenged the results, and two months later, the decision was reversed without explanation. Meanwhile, she stopped eating, began sleeping excessively and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, according to medical records.

When her attorney asked ICE to release Ramirez again in early May, the government refused for a new reason: Ramirez had entered the country illegally before.

immigrants, migrants, refugees
Photo of Border Patrol agent in McAllen in 2016. Ramirez was apprehended by Border Patrol in late January near Falfurrias, where she was left by a second smuggler.  Jen Reel

In 2014, Ramirez had come to the U.S. without documentation and was detained in Cameron County. While in detention, according to her parole request, she learned her mother had suddenly died back home, leaving her 12-year-old niece with no one to care for her. Ramirez abandoned her legal case and returned to El Salvador to take care of her niece, who then migrated to Missouri a year later. Ramirez’s father and five siblings all live in Missouri, and being alone in El Salvador left her an easy target for the gangs, said Tovar.

In late April, ICE surprised Tovar by saying they couldn’t release Ramirez because of her previous entry. Again, he disputed the decision, and after another two months, Ramirez was released in July without explanation — when she was more than seven months pregnant.

In total, Ramirez’ detention likely cost U.S. taxpayers about $22,000.

Now, Ramirez is finally with her family in Missouri, and Tovar said they’re working to find her a new lawyer in the area. She’s due to give birth any day now.

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Dallas, Houston Protests Planned as Confederate Monuments Under Fire in Texas

A protest is planned at the Spirit of the Confederacy statue in downtown Houston.

After a white supremacist allegedly drove a car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville last Saturday, killing activist Heather Heyer, calls for the removal of Confederate statues have spiked across the country — and Texas is no exception.

Protesters clashed in San Antonio last weekend, and demonstrations are planned this Saturday in Dallas and Houston. Over the past week, officials in five of the state’s biggest cities took steps toward removing or renaming Confederate memorials.

Texas hosts 178 public memorials to the Confederacy, more than any state other than Virginia. Many were erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy long after the Civil War ended.

“The monuments are easy to understand; they were placed there by people who were trying to send a message that they wanted white supremacy to either be the law of the land or the practice in the land,” said Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston, who announced a proposal Monday to remove the city’s monuments.

“Dallas has a violent and vicious history of racism,” Kingston said. “Getting rid of them would be a symbolic stance saying we’re not that city anymore.”

The Confederate War Memorial in downtown Dallas, dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1896, features statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Johnston and Jefferson Davis.  Wikimedia Commons

Dallas has at least five Confederate memorials, including the Confederate War Memorial, which features a towering 60-foot marble and granite pillar topped by the likeness of an anonymous soldier. Mayor Mike Rawlings also proposed a commission this week to study the matter.

Those proposals face opposition from former Dallas City Council member Sandra Crenshaw, who told CBS-DFW that she thinks the statues should stay up. “We don’t want America to think that all African Americans are supportive of this,” Crenshaw said.

A protest billed as “Dallas Against White Supremacy” is set to draw thousands to the war memorial on Saturday. Follow Observer civil rights reporter Michael Barajas for live coverage Saturday.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner called Tuesday for an inventory and study of the city’s Confederate monuments.

The city will also be the site of protest Saturday, when demonstrators will gather in Sam Houston Park for an event titled “Destroy the Confederacy.” On Facebook, organizers advised activists “NOT to bring children.”

The Spirit of the Confederacy statue in downtown Houston.  Iván Abrego/flickr

Sam Houston Park contains the Spirit of the Confederacy monument, a bronze statue of an angel holding a palm branch and sword above a plaque reading: “To all heroes of the South who fought for the principles of states’ rights.” In North Carolina, protesters physically removed a Confederate statue earlier this week.

“We always have enough officers on hand to ensure the safety of everybody involved, and not just the safety of persons but the safety of property,” Jodi Silva, a spokesperson with the Houston Police Department, told the Observer. “At none of the assemblies in the past have people destroyed property.” Follow Observer writer John Savage, who will be covering the Houston protest.

In San Antonio, two city council members have submitted a request to consider removing a 40-foot Confederate statue from Travis Park. A militia-like group called This Is Texas Freedom Force is threatening to recall them and any other members who vote to remove it.

In Austin and El Paso, city officials made moves this week to rename roads named for Robert E. Lee. And at the statewide level, Representative Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, brought the fight to the Capitol — which hosts at least 12 Confederate symbols.

Children of the Confederacy
A plaque in the hall that rings the Capitol’s main rotunda. It declares the Civil War was not fought over slavery. Representative Eric Johnson has called for its removal.  Kelsey Jukam

“I cannot think of a better time than the present to discuss the removal of all Confederate iconography from the Texas Capitol Complex,” wrote Johnson in a letter Wednesday to the State Preservation Board. “… The Confederacy exemplified treason against the United States and white supremacy.”

Texas’ 1861 “declaration of causes” makes clear the state seceded to maintain slavery, which it called “mutually beneficial to both bond and free.”

Governor Greg Abbott responded Wednesday, arguing the monuments should stay.

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Hundreds Clash over Confederate Monument in San Antonio

A group of protesters wave Confederate flags in defense of a monument in Travis Park.  Gus Bova

About 500 people converged on a San Antonio park in the blistering heat Saturday — some to call for the removal of a 118-year-old Confederate monument and others to defend it. The two groups held rallies on opposite sides of the downtown Travis Park for about five hours, and one person was reportedly arrested.

Jonathan David-Jones, organizer with SATX4.

“The truth is the Confederacy fought for slavery, so when you have Confederate monuments in public spaces, that’s a symbol of hate and fear,” said Jonathan David-Jones, an organizer with the Black Lives Matter-esque group SATX4. “For a lot of us, it’s disgusting. They can put [the statue] in the garbage can for all I care — or in one of those Confederate guys’ houses.”

The statue, which has stirred controversy in the city for years, is a 40-foot high obelisk topped with an anonymous Confederate soldier that was erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1899. An inscription reads: “Lest we forget our Confederate dead.”

On July 4, SATX4 led a rally calling for the statue’s removal, and later that month, two City Council members — William Shaw and Robert Treviño — submitted a request for the city to consider relocating the statue to a museum. Their request calls the monument a reminder of the “second-class citizen status attributed to people of color — part of the cult of The Lost Cause.”

The 40-foot statue of the anonymous Confederate soldier in San Antonio.  Gus Bova

But hundreds of people, many armed with semi-automatic rifles, came out Saturday to defend the monument — led by a group called This Is Texas Freedom Force. The event coincided with the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where at least one person died and nearly 20 others were injured Saturday after a person drove a car through a street of counter-protesters.

“Our motto is ‘protectors of all things Texas’; we are big proponents of Texas history and preserving it,” said the group’s vice president, Brandon Burkhart, aka ‘Milkbone’, who said he was formerly a Republican Party precinct chairman in Bexar County.

Burkhart said the group launched in mid-May and now has an online membership of about 5,000. Their rally Saturday was guarded by heavily armed activists wearing fatigues and body armor who turned away multiple journalists who tried to enter.

“At any type of rally we hold, we always encourage people to bring their rifles,” Burkhart said. “The opposition gets way out of hand and people get hurt, so we want to make sure people can defend themselves.”

Burkhart said the group’s members testified before the San Antonio City Council in support of the statue, and planned to launch recall campaigns against members who voted to remove it. He also claimed his group was responsible for Senate Bill 112, filed last month during the special session by Brandon Creighton, a GOP senator from Conroe, which would prevent the removal of Confederate monuments — along with any statute on public property that is at least 40 years old — throughout the state. The bill was not referred to a committee.

Armed militia members surround a “mobile command center” near Travis Park.  Gus Bova

This Is Texas Freedom Force was joined Saturday by militia groups, descendants of Confederate veterans groups and the so-called Proud Boys, an alt-right group that recently marched at a “freedom rally” in Austin. Attendees carried Texas, Confederate and American flags — organizers specifically forbade “KKK, Skin Head or racist flags” at the rally.

Lamar Russell, a member of the organizing group and the Alamo Militia, performed two hip-hop songs with pro-gun rights lyrics while waving a Confederate flag. Russell, who is black, told the Observer his family served in the Confederacy.

Joseph Gonzalez, who wants to keep the monument in place, held a sign reading “Tejano Mexicans fought with Confederates.” A San Antonio native, he argued the South did not secede over slavery or racism, but rather over taxes. “Most Tejanos here probably have a family member who fought in the Confederate army,” he said.

The state of Texas’ 1861 “declaration of causes” makes clear the state seceded to maintain slavery, which it called “mutually beneficial to both bond and free.”

On the other side of the park, masked “antifascist” activists armed with sticks and shields squared off with police as activists gave speeches and the group occasionally chanted: “Show me what democracy looks like,” and “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist U.S.A.”


At Travis Park in San Antonio, dueling rallies continue over the fate of a Confederate monument.

Posted by The Texas Observer on Saturday, August 12, 2017

Denise Hernandez, an activist with the group Maestranza, read a statement sent to her by Representative Diego Bernal, a former San Antonio city councilman whose state House district includes the park. “We are better off because the Confederacy lost,” wrote Bernal. “Whatever value keeping the statue in the park provides (I don’t believe there is much), is far outweighed by what we gain by removing it.”

A previous effort to remove the statue in 2015 failed, in part due to opposition from then-Mayor Ivy Taylor, the city’s first black mayor. Some activists said they were hopeful the new mayor, Ron Nirenberg, would be more supportive.

Three other council members signed onto the July 31 request by Shaw and Treviño, totaling five out of 10 members who support it.

“We’ve got council members still on the fence, so we have to be out here harnessing momentum,” said Mike Lowe of SATX4. Lowe led the crowd into the street for a march that was swiftly surrounded by police. Lowe and other activists said the police seemed unduly concerned with their unarmed demonstration.

“A black man, unarmed, nothing but a megaphone, is perceived as more violent than Bubba over there with the AR-15, a MAGA hat and a Confederate flag,” Lowe said through a megaphone in front of a line of officers. He then kicked off a chant: “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?”

The crowd was largely dispersed by 6 p.m. A request for more information regarding the arrest reported by organizers was not immediately returned by the San Antonio Police Department.

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Law Enforcement Increasingly Opposed to Abbott’s Agenda

First responders and local officials gathered at the Capitol Wednesday.  Ignacio Martinez

On Wednesday, the resistance to the governor’s special session agenda wore cowboy hats and badges. Dozens of law enforcement and emergency personnel filled the Capitol’s outdoor rotunda to oppose measures they say would underfund essential public services.

The legislation, which would limit cites and counties’ ability to raise property taxes without elections, joins a growing list of measures that have driven a wedge between Republican leadership and a typically loyal constituency: law enforcement. Sheriffs and chiefs from across the state have turned out to oppose an anti-union bill, the so-called bathroom bill and the “sanctuary cities” ban this year at the Capitol.

“Every year we see officers killed in the line of duty, and without the ability for cities to properly fund us, we’re always going to be behind the curve,” said Gary Johnson, vice president of the Texas Police Chiefs Association. Johnson, the police chief of Roanoke, was joined in opposition by representatives from several law enforcement, firefighter and EMS groups.

Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 4 would both require cities and counties to hold elections if they wish to raise property taxes by more than 6 percent. Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick call the legislation “property tax relief,” but critics say it’s a “revenue cap” that would make it more difficult for local government to provide basic services. SB 1 already passed the Senate, and the House could take it up on Saturday.

Sheriff, property taxes, cop, capitol
Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback.  Gus Bova

Jackson County Sheriff Andy Louderback, legislative director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, said the bills would worsen understaffing in urban areas and exacerbate a shortage of mental health facilities. “Let’s protect our citizens; let’s find good government in this process and work together for the good of all Texans,” he urged.

Critics also note the bills wouldn’t affect school districts, which levy the vast majority of property taxes in response to years of state funding cuts. “Why are we focused on cities and counties when the solution is to fix the school finance system?” Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, told the Austin American-Statesman.

In late July, the Senate passed legislation that would ban public employees from voluntarily having union dues withheld from their paychecks. “It disgusts me,” said Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday.

A few days earlier, the Senate also passed the so-called bathroom bill despite a critical press conference held by law enforcement leaders. “It may be great political theater, but it is bad on public safety,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters.

Both bills are stalled in the House, and the special session ends August 16.

During the regular session, Texas’ “sanctuary cities” ban became law despite repeated rebukes from big-city police chiefs and sheriffs, who said the measure would undermine trust with immigrant communities. Acevedo announced in April that sexual assault reporting among Hispanics in Houston had decreased by more than 40 percent compared to the same time last year.

A White House spokesman has characterized the story as “fake news” and stated that President Trump believes it is nothing more than a “witch hunt”.

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Texas’ War on Local Control is Part of National Trend

Local progress, Capitol, protest
Attendees of the Local Progress convention gather outside the Capitol.  Gus Bova

Local officials in Texas’ big cities are awfully isolated these days. The Texas Legislature is attacking local control with the kind of zeal it usually reserves for criminals, and the governor has even refused to meet with some urban mayors. But the fight between red states and blue cities isn’t unique to the Lone Star State.

Last weekend, elected officials from around the country converged in Austin to share war stories and plot resistance against hostile state governments. The convening was hosted by Local Progress, a network of progressive city and county leaders, and consisted of panels, strategy sessions and a march around the Capitol.

“Nearly 150 elected officials gathered to say that city officials will no longer put up with our work being erased by regressive state legislatures,” said Austin City Council member Greg Casar outside the Capitol Friday.

At the conference, elected officials compared notes about how badly their states were steamrolling them. In one workshop, David Stout, an El Paso County Commissioner, said he felt the Lone Star State was at the forefront, but North Carolina and Florida representatives said they felt the same.

“Texas is getting up there, but state interference is increasingly a national phenomenon,” said Brian Beach, legal director for the Partnership for Working Families. “Governor Abbott has shown, I think, a willingness to pursue some of the more extreme versions. … But unfortunately, even if he succeeded, Texas would not be alone in adopting those more extreme measures.”

Ben Sargent

The agenda of the special session of the Texas Legislature, now underway, includes a raft of legislation that would pre-empt cities and counties from establishing their own policies. The measures target everything from property taxes to bathrooms to trees.

The state’s most infamous pre-emption measure is its “sanctuary cities” ban, set to go into effect September 1, but even that legislation isn’t as unusual as Texans might think.

Three other states — Georgia, Indiana and Mississippi — all passed “sanctuary” legislation this year, and at least 21 bills were filed in states around the country, according to Michael Bare, a policy analyst with Grassroots Change, a nonprofit that tracks pre-emption legislation. They were part of at least 140 total pre-emption bills filed this year, Bare said.

“These laws, which are corporate-backed state power grabs, are happening in places all over the country,” said Michael Alfano, campaign manager at the Campaign to Defend Local Control.

Pre-emption is a decades-old strategy, Alfano said, but state lawmakers have increasingly adopted it to push back against progressive local policies. Alfano and others at the conference said the approach has been manufactured by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful organization that works with corporations to shop legislation to conservative state legislators.

“States became one-stop shops,” said Alfano. “They can come in at the state level and take power away from local officials.” And with the GOP increasingly in control of state legislatures, the path for pre-emption is clearer than ever.

In Missouri and Iowa this year, governors signed laws that would undo minimum wage increases passed by cities, catapulting workers back into poverty. Last year, Ohio managed to pre-empt wage hikes before Cleveland could pass one, and Arizona signed a law to deprive cities of essential funding if they’re found in conflict with any state laws.

“People don’t fully realize how much is at stake with pre-emption, and how much it affects their daily lives,” said Alfano, who noted the laws also affect environmental regulation, the predatory loan industry and broadband.

Yet even as states win many battles over local control, the gathering remained hopeful.

Megan Green, a St. Louis alderwoman, told the Observer that a “save the raise” campaign is underway to preserve her city’s $10 minimum wage. The campaign aims to pressure businesses into voluntarily keeping the wage, and to boycott those who don’t. And a county judge recently threw out Ohio’s minimum wage pre-emption on a technicality.

Austin City Council member Greg Casar speaks against SB 4 during the regular session.  Sam DeGrave

In Texas, the lawsuit against Senate Bill 4 continues to grow, with Cameron County voting to join last month and activists continuing to pressure Fort Worth officials. “We hope to see more of that, cities banding together to challenge state interference,” said Beach.

A federal judge is currently considering a motion to enjoin the law.

And even if SB 4 takes effect, Casar told the Observer city councils and police chiefs could still resist it during implementation.

“It’s going to be up to cities to implement this vague law in the end … to interpret the gray areas,” he said.

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Trump’s New Immigration Lockup Draws Local Opposition in Conroe

Demonstrators protest the construction of a 1,000-bed detention center outside the Montgomery County Commissioners Court in Conroe on July 25, 2017.  John Miller

The people of Conroe are getting a new, 1,000-bed immigrant detention center whether they like it or not. The GEO Group Inc., one of the largest private prison corporations in the nation, has already broken ground at the site of what will be the first new Trump-era immigration lockup. “It’s going ahead; I don’t think I have any say-so,” said Toby Powell, Conroe’s 76-year-old mayor.

In April, the federal government awarded GEO a contract to build and operate the $110 million facility, which the company says will earn $44 million in annual revenue. GEO promises to bring nearly 340 jobs to Conroe, a city of 82,000 tucked in the pines just north of Houston. Conroe already hosts an even larger immigrant detention center and a mental health facility, both run by GEO.

But Powell is not impressed. “The majority are $20,000-a-year jobs, which are right at the poverty line, if not below,” he said. It’s true the city will get some new property taxes, “but by the time you think about the burden upon your infrastructure with the low-paying jobs, it’s pretty well gonna wash out.”

GEO spokesperson Pablo Paez said the jobs will come with “average annual salaries ranging from $28,000 to $50,000.”

Private prison corporations usually locate their detention centers and jails in poor, isolated and economically depressed towns — places like Pearsall and Dilley in South Texas, or Taylor outside of Austin. Conroe, on the other hand, is booming. Last year, it was the fastest-growing city in the nation.

In 2013, the city christened a large technology park, and residents can also commute to Exxon’s new campus in The Woodlands for work.

When the idea for the new detention center was first floated in 2013, the editorial board of the Conroe Courier wrote, “It’s not the type of growth Conroe residents should want.” They quipped: “What will Conroe become? Con-vict-roe?”

The future site of the Montgomery County ICE detention center in Conroe.  Bethany Carson

For the mayor, becoming “Con-vict-roe” is a public safety matter as well. “We don’t know the detainees they’re going to have,” Powell said. “They may be MS-13 groups. … So we could have a mixture of a lot of different types of people coming [for visitation], which I’m fearful for the safety and security of my city.”

Gregory Palmore, spokesperson for the Houston Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office, said the facility will hold immigrants waiting for their cases to resolve or those awaiting deportation. “Individuals with varying criminality are also housed in ICE detention centers and placed in pods based on their level of criminality,” he said.

There’s likely nothing the mayor or residents of Conroe can do to stop the facility. The contract is between GEO and ICE, and Conroe already issued the necessary building permit, which Powell claims he was powerless to stop.

Perhaps the only hope is a dramatic outcome in an ongoing GEO-related lawsuit.

The Campaign Legal Center filed suit in June to obtain documents it thinks will show GEO violated federal law by donating to Trump’s campaign despite being a government contractor. The company gave $225,000 to a Trump super PAC through multiple donations, starting about eight months before the company won the Conroe federal contract.

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Small Government Crusader Wants $35 Million to Fix a Battleship in His District

Briscoe Cain
Representative Briscoe Cain  Courtesy

During the regular session, Representative Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, voted against funding for Texas’ struggling public schools. He also helped tank a measure aimed at ending “lunch shaming” of school children, tried to defund a center dedicated to racial health disparities and blocked funds for sex reassignment surgeries in state prisons, even though the state doesn’t pay for such procedures.

Yet the only bill Cain has filed for the upcoming special session, House Bill 118, is a request for $35 million to fix up a rusty, 105-year-old battleship. (Cain also filed two congratulatory resolutions.)

Cain, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, is a member of the tea party-aligned House Freedom Caucus, a strident anti-spending faction that is loathed by most other members of the House. The group torpedoed dozens of bills in this year’s regular session, and it pushed the year’s most extreme measures on immigration and abortion.

Nothing against the ship, the USS Texas, which sits in the Houston Ship Channel, is the only surviving American vessel that was deployed in both world wars. And it needs to be removed to land if it’s to survive long-term.

USS Texas docked in the Houston Ship Channel  Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Cain’s bill would use state funding to “repair, restore, and present to the public in a permanent dry berth the Battleship ‘Texas.’”

But the state already authorized $25 million in bonds back in 2007 to do just that, but unforeseen problems made the project too costly and it was scrapped in 2012. Through the years, the projected cost of dry berthing the ship has ranged from $30 million to more than $80 million. And Cain’s proposal is guaranteed to cost more than simply disposing of the dreadnaught.

When it comes to an important project in his district, Cain’s fiscal conservatism apparently ends at the water’s edge.

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Five New Laws that Will Likely Get Texas Sued (Or Already Have)

Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick  Sam DeGrave

Infighting, red-meat politics and parliamentary revenge characterized this year’s Texas Legislature. Amid the fray, legislators failed to reauthorize basic state agencies such as the Texas Medical Board, which is why Texans now face the gloomy fate of another 30-day session beginning next week.

With all the dysfunction, you might conclude the Lege is simply incompetent, but it turns out they’re still aces at one thing: provoking lawsuits.

In 140 days, the Lege passed at least five bills that the state will likely be (or already is) defending in court at the taxpayers’ expense. Courts have already ruled repeatedly against Texas in recent years over voter ID, redistricting and abortion access.

“Why don’t we just stop passing unconstitutional bills?,” asked an exasperated Representative Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, on the House floor in May. Texans should be asking their lawmakers the same question, and wondering how much this list might grow during the upcoming special session.

‘Sanctuary Cities’ Ban

One of the session’s most controversial bills, the “sanctuary cities” ban, has already gone to court. The law, set to go into effect September 1, will allow police to question the immigration status of anyone being detained — not just arrested — and threatens to jail elected officials who limit cooperation with federal immigration agents.

A growing list of cities and counties are suing the state over the law, which had its first day in court on June 26 in San Antonio. U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia has yet to issue a ruling, but the law’s critics are hopeful he will block the law from going into effect. They argue the law runs afoul of the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, as well as the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause.

Eventually, attorneys say the law will likely end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fetal Remains Requirement, Partial Ban on Second-Trimester Abortions

Less than one year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck two major provisions from Texas’ House Bill 2, state lawmakers passed another sweeping anti-abortion law that is likely to face court challenges.

Advocates on both sides are already predicting lawsuits against SB 8, and the Center for Reproductive Rights has “vowed to fight” the law. The group, which successfully challenged HB 2 at the Supreme Court, identifies two provisions in particular as unconstitutional: the requirement that fetal remains be buried or cremated and the ban on the most common form of second-trimester abortions.

A federal judge has already blocked state regulations requiring fetal burials in Texas earlier this year, and similar bans on second-trimester abortions have been blocked in four states.

Religious Refusal for Child Welfare Providers

HB 3859, which Abbott signed into law in June, prohibits the state from taking any “adverse actions” against child welfare providers acting on “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Legal experts say the broadly written law would allow foster parents and organizations to refuse to place children with same-sex or non-Christian foster or adoptive parents.

Critics say the law will also give foster parents and organizations license to refuse vaccines, deny contraception or send children to anti-LGBT conversion therapy.

Civil rights groups say they will be contacting foster or adoptive children and families about the law so they can report discrimination. A lawsuit against Texas will likely be filed after the law takes effect on September 1, and once a potential plaintiff’s rights have been violated.

Straight-Ticket Voting Ban

HB 25 will abolish “straight-ticket” voting, the “one-punch” option used by more than 60 percent of Texas voters to simultaneously vote for all the candidates of a single political party. The bill was signed into law on June 1, and no suit has been filed yet.

During debate on the House floor, Democratic lawmakers said the bill would create longer voting lines and disproportionately impact voters of color, the disabled, the elderly and voters in large cities. Some promised a lawsuit.

“This bill hasn’t been vetted,” said Representative Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, during debate in May. “We don’t know how much it will cost; we don’t know if it will violate the Voting Rights Act of 1964. What we do know is that federal courts have ruled recently that laws passed by Texas discriminated against African-American and Hispanic voters.”

Voter ID

In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed one of the most strict voter ID laws in the nation, Senate Bill 14. Federal courts have ruled that the law discriminates against minorities. This session, Abbott made an emergency priority of SB 5, a bill to loosen some restrictions of the original law, which he signed on June 1.

SB 5 aims to protect Texas in court and keep the state from being returned to “preclearance” — a Voting Rights Act designation that requires states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing voting laws. Trump’s Department of Justice has weighed in, arguing the new law “eradicates any discriminatory effect or intent in SB 14.”

But opposition attorneys argue SB 5 doesn’t sufficiently address the discrimination and both laws should be erased. The case continues to play out in a Corpus Christi federal court.

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Texas Lawmaker Files Bill to Repeal SB 4 During Special Session

State Representative Ramón Romero, D-Fort Worth, speaks at the center of the SB 4 protest in the Capitol rotunda.  Sam DeGrave

On Monday morning, about two hours after Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation permitting lawmakers to file bills for the upcoming special session, Representative Ramón Romero filed a proposal to repeal Senate Bill 4, the “sanctuary cities” ban.

“My hope is that representatives, as they’ve gone home and done their research, maybe they understand we rushed to pass SB 4 without understanding its full extent, and the economic impact it’s going to have on our state,” Romero told the Observer.

Romero, a Fort Worth Democrat, said he thinks the state will face boycotts similar to those Arizona once faced over its own “show me your papers” law. At least one group — the American Immigration Lawyers Association — has already pulled its yearly convention from Texas.

Debate during the regular session, Romero said, focused on racial profiling more than other impacts of the law, such as making the Latino community — documented and not — more vulnerable to crimes.

Last week, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that a group of teenagers told police they carried out a string of robberies that targeted Hispanics “because they’ve got money and they don’t call the police.” A taco vendor was killed when intervening in one of the robberies, police said.

Critics of SB 4 say the law further discourages immigrants from reporting crimes to the police, and evidence from Houston and Austin already bolsters their claims. “There are times I literally can’t sleep at night from the thoughts of what has already begun to happen,” Romero said.

The 30-day special legislative session begins next Tuesday, and lawmakers are tasked with addressing a laundry list of conservative priorities set by the governor — none of which include repealing SB 4.

The “sanctuary cities” ban, signed into law by Abbott in May, is set to take effect September 1, but several cities in the state are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop it.

Romero himself doesn’t think his measure, known as House Bill 53, is likely to become law, but he hopes it will at least get a committee hearing.

“I didn’t file the bill just so that I could file a bill,” he said. “I hope we at least entertain discussions that we haven’t had enough. … And if people want to come out and testify again in the hundreds as they did before, then I think that [lawmakers] should listen to those folks again.”

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Attorneys Who Halted Trump’s Travel Ban Will Take on Senate Bill 4

Deputy Legal Director of the Immigrants Rights Project Lee Gelernt (left) and ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero speaking outside a Brooklyn courthouse after successfully blocking Trump’s travel ban.  ACLU

On a cold January evening, Lee Gelernt emerged to a cheering crowd outside a Brooklyn courthouse after winning the first legal challenge against Trump’s travel ban. Now, the New York City-based civil rights attorney finds himself deployed to Texas.

To tackle Senate Bill 4 — the “sanctuary cities” ban that critics say will encourage racial profiling and tear immigrant families apart — the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is sending Gelernt and four other attorneys who successfully fought the travel ban to the Lone Star State.

“SB 4 and the travel ban cases raise different technical legal issues, but both arise in, and are part of, an unfortunate anti-immigrant climate,” Gelernt told the Observer. “Both laws rest on incorrect and pernicious stereotypes.”  

Gelernt said the ACLU is devoting national resources to fighting the state law “because of the national importance, given that states around the country are talking about similar laws.”

The state of Texas is facing at least three lawsuits over SB 4, which is set to go into effect September 1. The law will allow police to question the immigration status of anyone being detained — not just arrested — and threatens to jail elected officials who limit cooperation with federal immigration agents.

On Monday, the ACLU filed the first motion for an injunction of SB 4 in an attempt to stop the law from going into effect as the battle over its constitutionality plays out. All three suits claim the law violates the constitutional rights of immigrants and Latinos, as well as elected officials who want to protect those groups.

“We have always defended the constitutional rights of immigrants,” said Edgar Saldivar, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas. “We believe SB 4 is unconstitutional for various reasons … and we hope that parts, if not all of it, will be stopped before September 1.”

A man wearing a cutout of President Donald Trump’s face dances at the SB 4 protest outside of the Capitol.  Sam DeGrave

The ACLU joined the legal battle against SB 4 in late May, becoming co-counsel on a lawsuit brought by the tiny border town of El Cenizo. The city of San Antonio and El Paso County have also filed suits, with counsel from other civil rights organizations. The city of Austin has joined the San Antonio suit.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed his own pre-emptive lawsuit in May in an attempt to have the law declared constitutional — a move that the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund called “frivolous.”

A spokesperson for Paxton told the Observer the agency “does not comment on ongoing litigation.”

A key argument against Trump’s travel ban, which has been struck down by two appeals courts and now likely heads to the Supreme Court, could also be applied to SB 4. Judges have repeatedly held that Trump’s campaign remarks about Muslims reveal the ban’s discriminatory intent.

Victory: ACLU Attorney Lee Gelernt

WATCH: Deputy Legal Director of the Immigrants Rights Project Lee Gelernt coming out of the court where the ACLU argued to block Trump's unconstitutional Muslim ban. "The judge saw through what the government was doing and gave us what we wanted which was to block the Trump order."

Posted by ACLU Nationwide on Saturday, January 28, 2017

Attorney Jose Garza, with the El Paso lawsuit, said he plans to use Representative Matt Rinaldi’s decision to report protesters at the Capitol to immigration agents to show discriminatory intent in court.

For now, though, the ACLU hasn’t included that argument in the El Cenizo suit.

“Our current motion does not hinge on statements made by legislators, but that could come later,” Gelernt said. “We think that SB 4 is unconstitutional regardless of the intent behind the law.”

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