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Texas Grand Jury Resumes Investigation Into Arrest, Death Of Sandra Bland

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — The Texas grand jury looking into the death of Sandra Bland resumed its examination Wednesday, renewing the possibility that the state trooper who arrested the 28-year-old woman could be charged.

The grand jury has already concluded that no felony was committed by the sheriff’s office or jailers in connection with Bland’s death.

Bland was found hanged by a plastic bag in her jail cell three days after she was arrested outside Houston on July 10 during a routine traffic stop.

Special prosecutor Shawn McDonald said the Waller County grand jury met for the fourth time Wednesday morning after reaching no decision last month on whether Brian T. Encinia, the trooper who arrested Bland, should face charges.

McDonald said he couldn’t say whether the grand jury was considering charges against Encinia, but said the panel will likely finish its work by day’s end.

He is one of five Houston-area lawyers appointed as independent special prosecutors to present the case to the grand jury. If there are any indictments, those lawyers will take the case to trial.

Bland’s family and activists have questioned how the traffic stop was conducted and whether Bland, an outspoken online advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement, killed herself. At the time Bland was stopped, she had just accepted a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.

Encinia pulled over Bland for making an improper lane change near the university’s entrance, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. The confrontation that ensued before Bland was arrested and charged with assault was captured on video by a dashboard camera.

Bland was taken to the Waller County jail in nearby Hempstead where, three days later, unable to make $500 bail, she was discovered hanged in her cell. After an autopsy by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston, officials ruled her death a suicide.

Cannon Lambert, an attorney for the Bland family, said they have little hope the grand jury will indict Encinia.

“We would frankly be surprised,” Lambert told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

But Lambert said there’s still a chance the grand jury could charge the trooper.

“We called it a sham before — I’d love to be wrong,” he said, “We always have believed that he acted criminally.”

Lambert said he was hopeful that if the grand jury finishes Wednesday, investigators would finally release records, including a Texas Ranger’s report, that have so far been withheld due to the ongoing investigation.

Bland’s relatives have demanded the records as part of a wrongful death lawsuit they filed in August against the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, jail officials and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Last month, attorneys representing Waller County filed a motion seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Bland took her life because she was distraught that her family members didn’t bail her out of jail.

Following last month’s grand jury meetings, protesters gathered outside the Waller County courthouse and marched in a Houston park to condemn the process and call for the Justice Department to launch an independent investigation.

State lawmakers monitoring the case have asked for calm as the grand jury meets.

©2016 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Demonstrators hold signs of Sandra Bland and Kindra Chapman, both of whom died in custody, during a rally against police violence in New York July 22, 2015. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

 

How Immigration Issues Could Unfold During The 2016 Campaign

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

This year saw new influxes of Central Americans and Cubans on the southern border, Syrian refugees rejected by the leaders of more than 30 states and the president’s executive action on immigration mired in legal challenges.

Next year, those stories are expected to play out amid a presidential campaign in which immigration is already a key issue. A look at what’s ahead in 2016:

Cuban migrants: Will their special status change?

It’s known among Cuban-Americans as “the Cuban exception.” Under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are entitled to special legal status not afforded other immigrants.

But after the U.S. and Cuba announced last December the beginning of a process to normalize relations, some federal lawmakers have questioned whether such protection is still warranted.

Could it end?

That’s still unclear. What’s certain is that Cubans are afraid they could lose special status, and are fleeing the island. Cuban migration to U.S. ports of entry in the fiscal year that ended in September was up 78 percent, to 43,159, compared with 24,278 last fiscal year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Their fears may be justified, but they probably will not lose special status soon. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in the summer that he had no intention of changing the policy, and officials recently reiterated that stance.

The special status granted Cubans may become an issue on the presidential campaign trail, though: Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, who both have Cuban roots, have been asked to address the issue. Cruz has defended the law. Rubio has said it should be amended to prevent migrants from abusing it.

Syrian refugees: Will states win the right to reject them?

After the Nov. 13 terrorist attack in Paris, in which one of the attackers had a Syrian passport and was believed to have possibly fled the country with refugees, governors in Indiana, Texas and more than two dozen other states vowed to prevent Syrian refugees from resettling there.

Federal officials insisted refugees face extensive screening before they arrive in the U.S. and that states do not have the right to bar individuals based on their nationality.

Some Syrian families already en route to Indiana were resettled elsewhere. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued the governor on behalf of the resettlement agency involved. The lawsuit is pending.

In Texas, several Syrian refugee families settled in Dallas and Houston. Texas officials sued the federal agencies and resettlement group involved and sought a court order blocking further Syrian resettlement.

A Dallas federal judge rejected the state’s request for a restraining order barring new arrivals, but the case is pending.

Executive action on immigration: Will the Supreme Court take the case?

Two executive action programs created by President Barack Obama to offer legal status to up to 5 million people remain tangled in challenges: Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents and an extension of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The programs were designed to allow children brought to the country illegally by their parents, or parents of U.S. citizens or residents, to stay in the United States and work legally.

Texas sued to block the programs, joined by a coalition of 25 states, arguing that they create an undue burden on states, such as the cost of issuing immigrants driver’s licenses.

A federal appeals court panel in New Orleans ruled in favor of the states, and federal officials appealed to the Supreme Court, hoping the justices would take the case in time for it to be decided and the programs implemented while Obama is still in office.

Texas attorneys asked for a 30-day extension until Jan. 20 to respond to the federal government’s appeal, citing a heavy workload. Instead, the court set a Dec. 29 deadline for those briefs, expediting the process enough to allow for a hearing in January and, if the court takes the case, a decision by summer.

Central American families: Will we see another crisis on the border like last year?

The numbers of migrant families and children crossing are already up, and February will be a crucial month. That’s when seasonal immigration traditionally picks up along the southern border.

Fall is supposed to be the slow season, but instead there has been a tremendous uptick in unaccompanied children and families caught trying to cross: more than 10,500 children and more than 12,500 family units in October and November, more than twice the number at the same time last year.

Overall, illegal immigration is down compared with recent years, but violence and deteriorating economies are driving this exodus. Most of the children and families are from Central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — although some are also coming from Mexico.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Children play at a shelter for Cuban migrants in the border between Panama and Costa Rica in Paso Canoas, Panama December 23, 2015. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

 

As Migrant Children Surge At Border, Federal Officials Plan For More Shelters

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Federal officials plan to open new shelters in Texas and California this month, adding at least 1,400 beds, after a surge in unaccompanied migrant children crossing the Southwest border this fall.

Last month, more than 5,600 unaccompanied youths were caught at the southern border, mostly from Central America, more than double the number apprehended last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protections figures.

The surge is likely prompted by smugglers taking new routes to the border, economic hardship and the unchecked violence in places such as El Salvador.

Since Oct. 1, there have been 10,588 youths caught at the border, more than double the number in the same period last year.

The increase comes at a normally slow time of year for migrants, and the spike worries officials who struggled to cope last year with a total surge of more than 68,000 children that overwhelmed border shelters and holding areas, especially in Texas.

By law, Border Patrol must turn over unaccompanied youths to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. From there they are sent to shelters until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors.

In addition to the new shelters, which would include 400 beds in California and 1,000 in Texas, the secretary of Health and Human Services has asked the Pentagon to line up 5,000 more beds for the young people. During last year’s surge, the military opened emergency shelters to house the migrants at bases in Oxnard, Calif.; San Antonio and Fort Sill, Okla.

“We’ve notified them that we may need those beds,” said Mark Weber, an agency spokesman, adding that Pentagon officials are checking the availability of shelter beds and it was not clear where they might be.

The health department already expanded from 7,900 to 8,400 youth shelter beds last month “in anticipation of the need,” Weber said, and they are not yet full. But they are working with other agencies to plan and “ensure an effective response to any changes in migration flows,” Weber said.

“We have not run out of capacity. We want to make sure we’re ready if we need it,” he said.

During the summer surge of 2014, Border Patrol converted a warehouse near the border patrol station in McAllen, Texas, into a holding area where youths are kept until they can be placed in shelters.

In the recent wave of migrants, most of the youths came from Guatemala, followed by El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras.

The share from El Salvador has increased as gang violence there has escalated. Last year a two-year truce dissolved between El Salvador’s two largest gangs: 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, both of which originated in Los Angeles.

By the end of this year, the homicide rate in El Salvador — a country of 6.5 million — may exceed 90 per 100,000 people, a level of violence not seen since the country’s bloody 12-year civil war ended in 1992.

Another factor in the rising numbers is the increasing success rate of smugglers who, after crackdowns in Mexico and the U.S. last year, appear to have arranged alternative routes and payoff relationships with Mexican officials, border analysts say.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: ShashiBellamkonda via Flickr

Syrian Refugees Arrive In Texas, Even As State Tries To Block Them

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Several families of Syrian refugees were resettled in Texas and Indiana this week, even as leaders in both states vowed to step up their efforts to halt the wave of incoming refugees.

Gov. Greg Abbott appeared in Washington on Tuesday with fellow Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to tout his proposed State Refugee Security Act, which would require federal officials to notify states 21 days before resettling any families and prohibits resettlement if they fail to assure governors the refugees do not pose a security risk.

“The threats to America’s security are difficult to assess,” Abbott said. “That is why Texas and other states are doing even more to ensure that we safeguard the security of our citizens.”

In the wake of the Paris attacks last month, Abbott was among the first of more than two dozen state leaders to announce his state would no longer accept Syrian refugees due to security concerns. When a refugee relief group balked, the state sued them and federal officials to block 21 Syrian refugees from entering the state.

Texas officials ultimately relented and withdrew their request to block refugees arriving this week, but are still pushing to block future arrivals. The Dallas judge handling the case has told attorneys involved it will likely take weeks to set a hearing.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised Cruz’s proposed legislation Tuesday, saying it “will give states the ability to control the flow of refugees from countries with known terrorist ties. In the meantime, my office will continue our court case, forcing the federal government to provide information on specific refugees that will help us keep Texans safe from international terrorism.”

As state officials fought the case, a Syrian family of six arrived to join relatives in the Dallas area Monday, according to Lucy Carrigan, a spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee, the refugee group sued by the state.

Carrigan said the family was “getting settled in” and not doing interviews Tuesday.

“They are happy to be here,” she said, and, “aware of what is going on.”

Another family of six was resettled in Houston on Monday, and nine more were expected here later this week, according to court filings.

Texas has taken in more refugees than any other state in the last five years, including about 250 Syrian refugees, second only to California.

In Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mike Pence also vowed to stop Syrian refugees from resettling last month, the ACLU of Indiana has sued the state on behalf of a refugee group forced to divert a Syrian family to resettle in Connecticut last month.

But this week, another Syrian family was able to resettle in Indiana, according to a statement posted online Tuesday by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

The family fled Syria three years ago and passed two years of “extensive security checks and personal interviews” before being allowed to enter the U.S., Indianapolis Archbishop Joseph Tobin said in the statement.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Texas governor Greg Abbott is given directions before an interview with CNBC on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in this July 14, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/Files

 

Christian Syrians Are Seeking Asylum

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — When Syrians showed up at a Texas border crossing twice in one week last month amid the national debate about screening Syrian refugees, some immigration officials and lawmakers became alarmed, afraid they might be Muslim terrorists.

Turns out, the first group of Syrians who arrived at the Laredo border crossing on Nov. 17 were Christian families fleeing persecution.

Now the two couples and their four children, as well as a third Christian family who arrived Nov. 20, fear they will not be released or reunited in time for the holidays, attorney Jonathan Ryan told the Los Angeles Times.

“There are some misunderstandings out there — that they attempted to illegally enter the country. They presented themselves at the port of entry. Everybody turned themselves in,” he said. “They did everything right in terms of asking for help. They’ve done everything they can to not only save their own lives but the lives of their families.”

The Department of Homeland Security has released statements saying the Syrians turned themselves in. After the third group arrived Nov. 20, “officers took the group into custody and, as a standard procedure, checked their identities against numerous law enforcement and national security related databases,” according to the department. “Records checks revealed no derogatory information about the individuals.”

Homeland Security officials said no further information would be released due to “privacy issues.”

Texas is among more than two dozen states where, after the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, governors have said they do not want Syrian refugees settled, calling them a potential security risk.

It’s not clear how many Syrian asylum seekers have arrived at the southern border in recent months, as opposed to those attempting to enter the U.S. through other channels. The number of Syrians seeking asylum in the U.S. has risen in recent years.

Syrians filed 104 asylum cases this year as of June, almost twice as many as in 2010, according to immigration court records. In 2014, for the first time in recent years, Syrians were among the top 25 groups granted asylum in the U.S.

The Syrian women who arrived in Laredo last month have been held with their children at one south Texas immigrant detention center, the men at another. They are not allowed to visit or communicate by phone or letters, Ryan said.

The families traveled to the U.S. because they have relatives here and because they had been targeted for being Christian, Ryan said.

“As a group, they are under significant threat. We’re still exploring grounds for the asylum claim,” he said.

On Friday, Ryan met and talked via an Arabic interpreter with the two fathers in the Nov. 17 group and a third Christian Syrian who had arrived Nov. 20 with his wife, child and two other men.

“They seem to be in a state of kind of suspended shock,” Ryan said. “Their lips quiver at the slightest mention of their wives. You can see the pain in their eyes of that separation. They’re willing to undergo every background check, to submit to every step in this process. They’re just asking to be treated like every other immigrant who comes to this country and not be singled out simply because they come from Syria.”

Ryan said that the men seemed unaware of the national attention focused on Syrian migrants, and that they looked “perplexed” when he explained that people were connecting Syrians with the Paris attacks and that “the government thinks you’re a threat.”

The women and children passed asylum interviews, but the families were still denied release Friday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement due to what paperwork listed as “law enforcement interests or potential foreign policy consequences.”

“The question is why are they continuing to be held compared to other families we are seeing released without these additional hurdles,” said Ryan, executive director of RAICES, an immigrant legal advocacy group based in San Antonio.

Homeland Security did not immediately respond Friday to questions about the Syrian families.

Ryan said he was concerned that “we are seeing what happened this time last year: (ICE) generally opposing the release of people based on national origin.”

In February, a federal judge ruled that immigration officials could not categorically oppose the release of Central American immigrant mothers and children based on the argument that that they posed a threat to national security, using their detention to deter further migration.

Ryan said that he hoped to meet with the Syrian men again soon and to make progress in their families’ cases.

“Everybody has one shared hope,” he said. “To be reunited and freed for Christmas.”

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Masa Wawieh, 4, left, and Maram, 8, watch their father, Fouad Wawieh, make tea in a Pomona, Calif., motel where they are staying after arriving from Syria, on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

 

As Syrian Refugees Head To Texas, State Vows To Keep Them Out

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — As a group of Syrian refugees prepares to arrive in Texas, government officials are locked in an intensifying legal battle over whether the families can be blocked from resettling in the state.

The U.S. government and relief groups on Friday asked a federal judge in Texas to reject the state’s efforts to block Syrian refugees.

State attorneys responded by withdrawing their request for a temporary restraining order that would have barred Syrian refugees from arriving next week, but are still seeking an injunction to stop them after that.

Texas is among 30 states whose political leaders have vowed to take a hard line against incoming refugees from Syria, and the first to take the issue to court. The outcome could shape the federal government’s plan to resettle refugees throughout the nation.

Though the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based nonprofit organization, has refused to stop resettling Syrian refugees in Texas, other refugee groups have stopped or remained silent.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a national resettlement organization, in consultation with Refugee Services of Texas, decided that resettling a family of six Syrian refugees in Texas would not be in their best interests due to state officials’ opposition.

Attorneys for the Justice Department and the International Rescue Committee each filed responses with the federal judge in Dallas early Friday after Texas officials sued Wednesday, seeking an injunction to stop the resettlement of half a dozen Syrians in the Dallas area.

There are now more than 21 refugees that the federal government plans to resettle in Dallas or Houston, likely early next week.

Attorneys for the state had argued in their lawsuit that the federal government and the refugee groups left Texas officials “uninformed about refugees that could well pose a security risk to Texans.”

“Members of the federal executive branch have expressed concern regarding this massive expansion of refugees from an area engulfed in fighting with (the Islamic State terror group),” the lawsuit says, while noting that “Texas has the sovereign authority and duty to protect the safety of its residents.”

Justice Department attorneys countered in their filing Friday that Texas officials are trying to exercise “unwarranted veto power over individual federal refugee resettlement decisions” without “showing that these refugees pose any threat, much less an imminent one, to the safety or security of Texas residents or any other Americans.”

“The harm to the national interest as determined by the president, and to the interests of the individual refugee families in question, outweigh (the state’s) speculative and uninformed fears about security,” the filing says.

ACLU attorneys who filed separately on behalf of the refugee group called the Texas lawsuit “utterly meritless.”

On Friday afternoon, Texas attorneys withdrew their request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Syrian refugees from moving into the state until next Wednesday.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that action was taken after federal officials “provided additional requested information regarding the first group of refugees set to arrive in Texas.”

The state is still seeking an injunction barring resettlement of further Syrian refugees until the court determines that federal officials and the refugee group, “are complying with their statutory and contractual duties to consult with Texas in advance of placing refugees.”

Attorneys for the state have asked the judge for a hearing by next Wednesday.

“Texas shouldn’t have to go to court to require Washington to comply with federal law regarding its duties to consult with Texas in advance,” Paxton said Friday.

The lead attorney for the refugee group said his organization was pleased the state withdrew its request.

“We are glad these new Texans can make their way home and look forward to prevailing in this case,” said Cecilia Wang, a San Francisco-based ACLU attorney.

A spokeswoman for the International Rescue Committee said the Syrian family of six had arrived in New York on Friday.

“They’re very happy to be here, very grateful to be here,” spokeswoman Lucy Carrigan said, calling them, “a wonderful, brave, resilient family who have been through extraordinarily difficult experiences.”

She said the family is aware of the lawsuit, but still glad to be in the U.S.

“They came here seeking safety and they feel like they’re now at peace in the United States,” Carrigan said.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Syrian refugees walk at Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, November 1, 2015. REUTERS/ Muhammad Hamed

 

4 Crew Members Dead After Helicopter Crash At Fort Hood

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — Four crew members on an Army helicopter were killed when it crashed Monday evening at Fort Hood in central Texas, officials said.

The UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter went down sometime after 5:49 p.m. in the northeastern part of the massive Army post.

Emergency crews conducted “an extensive search” and reported that all four crew members were found dead.

A statement released early Tuesday said the crew had been assigned to Division West, First Army and were on a routine training mission. The names of the crew members will be released after their families have been notified, the statement said.

The cause of the crash remained unknown.

Located between Dallas and San Antonio, Fort Hood is one of the Army’s largest posts, with a population of about 218,000 and its own businesses, parks, schools and churches. It is home to the 1st Cavalry Division and the West Division of the First Army as well as other units, including the Headquarters Command III Corps, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 3rd Air Support Operations Group.

Monday’s incident was the latest crash this year at U.S. military installations.

In May, two Marines aboard a MV-22 Osprey died after it experienced a “hard landing mishap” at Hawaii’s Bellows Air Force Station. In March, 11 service members were killed when their Black Hawk helicopter aborted its training mission due to bad weather and then crashed off the coast of the Florida Panhandle.

Photo: Texas Military Forces fly over Fort Hood. Texas Military Forces/Flickr

More Central Americans Fleeing Violence To Enter US, Suggesting Another Major Surge

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — The number of families illegally crossing the southern U.S. border has more than doubled over the same period last fall, prompting concern about a new surge of migrants from Central America.

Many more unaccompanied children are also crossing, with 4,476 apprehended in September — an 85 percent increase over that month in 2014, according to new Border Patrol data.

“If that trend even continues a little bit, if things start to go up in February as they usually do, we could be looking at things getting really high, and by spring, you’re seeing an emergency,” said Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group.

Marsha Catron, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, says the agency is “closely monitoring this situation,” though the increase “is not entirely inconsistent with historical trends for these months.”

The concern among immigration officials and advocates is that the situation is building up to a repeat of the unprecedented influx on the southern border in 2014, when more than 68,000 unaccompanied children and as many families crossed illegally, mainly into Texas.

Texas’ Rio Grande Valley has been the epicenter of both the earlier and the latest influx. In 2014, the region saw 77 percent more unaccompanied children and more than four times as many families caught crossing compared with the previous year. The number of families who crossed this September was 5,273, more than twice the number seen in September 2014.

One likely factor in the rising numbers is the increasing success rate of smugglers who, after crackdowns in Mexico and the U.S. last year, appear to have arranged alternative smuggling routes and payoff relationships with Mexican officials, border analysts say.

A bigger component is thought to be a recent explosion of violence in El Salvador, which has long been plagued by gang warfare. Last year a two-year truce dissolved between the two largest gangs: 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, both of which originated in Los Angeles. That drove homicides above even previously troubling levels.

During the first 10 months of this year, El Salvador reported nearly 5,500 homicides, according to a congressional report last month. That’s more than any other country not at war, according to Elizabeth Kennedy, a San Diego State University social scientist who has worked with migrants.

By the end of this year, the homicide rate in El Salvador — a country of 6.5 million people — may exceed 90 per 100,000, a level of violence, including massacres and killings of police, not seen since the country’s bloody 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.

Kennedy said conditions also remain poor in Guatemala and Honduras — two other originators of illegal migration to the U.S. — but El Salvador is worse.

“El Salvador is hemorrhaging people,” Isacson said.

The number of unaccompanied children from El Salvador apprehended at the border more than doubled to 1,433 this September compared with last year.

The one-month peak in the child and family migration surge came in June 2014, when 16,330 families and 10,620 unaccompanied children crossed into the U.S. State and federal authorities cracked down the following month, sending in National Guard troops and opening massive family detention centers.

By September of 2014, the number apprehended at the border plummeted: Families dropped to 2,301 that month; children to 2,426.

As the numbers dipped, Sister Norma Pimentel considered closing a humanitarian center operated by Sacred Heart Catholic Church in the most heavily affected town, McAllen, last winter. Then the number of migrants started to climb again this spring, with nearly 800 staying overnight in July — three times as many as at the peak of last year’s summer surge. Instead of closing, Pimentel decided to expand.

Last year’s surge of illegal immigration was driven, in part, by rumors that migrant families would be granted permission to remain in the U.S. legally. Many immigrants eagerly surrendered to authorities at the border, thinking it was a step toward residency.

U.S. officials launched a public information campaign across Central America to make it clear there was no such program. Yet hundreds of immigrant families caught crossing between July and September this year told immigration officials they believed they would be permitted to stay and collect public benefits, according to records released last month to the House Judiciary Committee.

But Catron says those are not the only reasons migrants are coming.

“One internal report that summarizes results of interviews, where migrants are explicitly questioned about pull factors, is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the situation,” she said. “Both pull and push factors contribute to migration and apprehension levels. As we have consistently acknowledged, poverty and violence in Central America continue to exist as push factors.”

On one recent day, Sacred Heart saw a hundred migrants arrive seeking help. “The reason they are coming is how things are at home,” Pimentel said.

She noted that the increased apprehensions of families and unaccompanied children come at a time when Mexico is apprehending even more migrants than is the U.S.

“We’re seeing more and more indications that this is a refugee crisis, and it needs to be treated as such,” said Kennedy, who interviewed immigrant women, mostly mothers, for a new United Nations report released last month that documented a thirteenfold increase in asylum seekers within Mexico and Central America since 2008, and a nearly fivefold jump in the U.S.

“The violence being perpetrated by organized, transnational criminal groups in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and certain parts of Mexico has become pervasive,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said recently, likening the situation in Central America to the Syrian refugee crisis.

The recent uptick in illegal immigration into the U.S. belies a larger trend. The total number of immigrants crossing the southern border has actually decreased for decades, and for the fiscal year that just ended, it may fall below 300,000 for the first time since 1971.

Catron noted that the number of apprehensions on the southern border had reached a historic low, including 42 percent fewer families and unaccompanied children caught compared with the previous fiscal year.

In one indication that smugglers may be playing a role in the September spike, 410 families and unaccompanied children were caught crossing into the remote Big Bend area in western Texas, compared with 23 last year. There were 475 in a rural stretch of desert near Yuma, Ariz., compared with 72 last year.

“The fact that more remote sectors are seeing increases may mean they’re turning to areas where they don’t need to deal with Border Patrol,” Isacson said.

Photo: Volunteers receive an orientation at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas, where undocumented women and children gathered in July 2014. More than 7,000 immigrant children have been ordered deported without appearing in court since large numbers of minors from Central America began illegally crossing the U.S. border in 2013, federal statistics show. (Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Can Texas Districts Require Proof That Home-Schooled Kids Are Learning?

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — Laura and Michael McIntyre have home-schooled their nine children in this state with few regulations about the educational approach. But after relatives complained that the children never seemed to be studying and one said there was no need to study because they were “going to be raptured,” school authorities stepped in.

The El Paso school district ordered the McIntyres to prove that their children were being properly educated. The couple filed suit, claiming that their “constitutional educational liberty interests” have been violated, said their lawyer, Chad Baruch.

The widely watched case reached the Texas Supreme Court on Monday. The outcome could have a far-reaching impact on the future of home-schooling in a state where 300,000 children participate, more than in any other, according to the Texas Home School Coalition.

At issue is whether Texas school districts have the authority to require that home-schooled children are actually learning.

“Part of the reason you’re seeing this case is that question isn’t settled,” said Rachel Coleman, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Responsible Home Education. “Especially if parents home-school for religious reasons.”

“It’s sort of a mantra among home-schooling communities that you’re preparing your child for heaven, not Harvard,” said Coleman, also an instructor at Indiana University Bloomington.

Texas and 10 other states do not require home-schooling parents to register with the school district or state, or provide assessments on their children’s education.

Home-schooled students in Texas don’t have to take standardized tests, learn a specific curriculum or be instructed by certified teachers. Texas requires only that home-schooling include five subjects: good citizenship, math, reading, spelling and grammar.

“There is a pretty clear legislative intent to steer clear of these schools” when it comes to regulation, Baruch said during oral arguments before the high court.

About half of the states in the country require home-schooling parents to provide some form of assessment of their child, typically standardized tests or portfolios of their work.

Some also give parents the option of declaring their home class a “private school” as a way to primarily avoid the assessment requirement, Coleman said. California allows parents to create their own home-based private schools, maintaining records of their course of study.

A district official initially sent the McIntyres a letter asking what they were teaching their children, and gave them a form to sign concerning the curriculum. The official told them to either sign the form or submit their curriculum for review, Baruch said.

“The McIntyres interpreted it as requiring them to use a particular curriculum,” Baruch said. The family did not respond to the district, which filed truancy charges. The charges were later dropped.

Laura McIntyre said she used the “A Beka” curriculum, published by Pensacola Christian College, according to court documents. But Justice Paul Green noted Monday that the family didn’t give school officials any proof of that.

“We don’t know if the curriculum that was being used was adequate or not,” Green said.

S. Anthony Safi, an attorney for the school district, said an earlier case established that although Texas doesn’t regulate home-schooling, the state requires that “the education be bona fide, in good faith, not a sham or subterfuge.”

The official who met with the McIntyres and their relatives “received very disturbing information from the grandparents,” Safi said during oral argument Monday, noting that the couple’s 17-year-old daughter ran away because she wanted to go to school.

An uncle told authorities he never saw the children doing much besides singing and playing instruments.

Jeremy Newman, public policy director at the Lubbock nonprofit Texas Home School Coalition, said that even if the parents lose, the case is likely to have little impact.

“A lot of people would say we’re the most home-school-friendly state in the country,” he said, “We do not believe the case is going to change the law for home-schoolers at all.”

Newman said requiring home-school parents to submit their children’s test scores to school officials “would be too intrusive.”

Coleman disagrees. Whatever the outcome of the McIntyre case, she said, it highlights problems with existing state laws concerning oversight of home-schooling. Her group wants to require home-school parents to submit annual test scores or portfolios of their children’s work to school officials for review.

“We need a way to evaluate each year that children are learning,” Coleman said. “Is their right to an education being met?”

Photo: Under some states, children who are homeschooled could spend all day watching Big Bird and not face any penalties. Then again, they could actually be learning something if they did that. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

Nondiscrimination Ordinance Puts Houston At The Center Of Latest LGBT Rights Battle

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — Mayor Annise Parker won re-election here — twice — by taking on some of the city’s most basic municipal problems: the water system, street repairs, homelessness.

But when Parker pushed aggressively for Houston to adopt nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender people, the mayor’s support was tested and the fourth-largest city in the country found itself at the center of a national debate over LGBT rights.

Parker, the first openly lesbian mayor of a major U.S. city and a moderate, admittedly wonkish, politician, has made Tuesday’s citywide vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance a deeply personal battle.

“It is my life that is being discussed,” Parker said before the City Council approved the nondiscrimination law last year by an 11-6 vote.”… The debate is about me.”

Parker’s position emboldened critics, including conservative pastors and pro athletes, who successfully pushed to have the law put to a vote. The outcome could send a signal to other cities and states considering similar protections — which in the wake of this year’s Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage have replaced that issue as a priority with LGBT activists.

A loss could derail Parker’s political career.

“It’s unfortunate that we have a mayor who’s willing to put her personal agenda above the law,” said Jared Woodfill, a former Republican county chairman who was among those who sued and petitioned to get the measure on the ballot.

Proposition 1, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, would consolidate existing bans on discrimination based on race, sex, religion and other categories in employment, housing and public accommodations, extending protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Texas is one of 28 states without statewide nondiscrimination protections, although major cities have adopted policies, including Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio. Of the 22 other states, 17 bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations, and soon New York will too.

“If we win here,” Woodfill said, “I think it will be an opportunity to defeat these types of ordinances when they pop up.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have endorsed the ordinance. A White House spokesman said in a statement that the president and vice president were “confident that the citizens of Houston will vote in favor of fairness and equality.”

Parker remains resolute.

“It is personal, and it’s not only personal because of sexual orientation,” she said, noting that the ordinance also would affect her adopted son and daughters, who are African-American and mixed race.

Parker, 59, began her political career as a gay activist, but in city government she’s known largely for her ability to harness Houston’s bureaucracy. She has led a relatively conventional life with her wife and children in a historic house in the gentrified Montrose neighborhood, working for 20 years in the oil and gas business, then a dozen years for the city as comptroller and on the council.

Along the way, she championed a frontier meritocracy mentality that, in a city as diverse as Houston, anyone can succeed. Losing now would turn her narrative of triumph “into a sob story,” said Sean Theriault, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.

“If this loses, it’s got to be the end of her political life,” he said.

And it may fail.

Early voting ended Friday, and polls by Houston TV stations found the ordinance’s supporters have a slight lead, but about a fifth of voters remain undecided.

Robert Stein, a political scientist at Parker’s alma mater, Rice University, said turnout has been particularly high in African-American and white conservative precincts inclined to oppose the ordinance, targeted by an opposition campaign that includes powerful conservative pastors.

The ballot measure could be in trouble, he said.

Paul Simpson, chairman of the surrounding county’s Republican Party, which has rallied to block the ordinance, called it “unnecessary, discriminatory and intrusive.”

“There’s not this vast problem of discrimination in Houston,” he said, and Parker “is one of the main proofs. No one worried about her orientation when she was first elected…. This is hardly a legacy for her last term.”

Opponents contend the “bathroom ordinance” poses a public safety threat because it would allow transgender women into women’s restrooms, infringe on religious liberty and prompt a slew of lawsuits against small businesses and the city.

“Do you know what lurks behind this door?” asked fliers distributed by an opponent in front of City Hall last week. “If Houston Mayor Annise Parker has her way and her controversial Proposition 1 passes, it could be a man dressed as a woman or worse.”

The mayor was prepared.

“I knew it was going to be an ugly, divisive campaign,” said Parker, who faced death threats and had her tires slashed as an activist in the 1980s. “It’s the same people who have been organizing against the LGBT community for decades.”

But Parker antagonized many when city attorneys tried to subpoena sermons by five pastors who sued to block the ordinance, sparking a national outcry over religious liberties. The lawsuit eventually reached the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled in July that the city had to repeal the ordinance or let voters decide.

The Rev. Ed Young at Houston’s Second Baptist, one of the nation’s largest churches, recently urged his congregation to vote against the ordinance because “it will carry our city… further down the road of being totally, in my opinion, secular and godless.”

Even former Houston Astros star Lance Berkman has jumped into the fray, appearing in ads against the ordinance, saying he wanted to protect his wife and four daughters from threats, including being forced to share bathrooms with “troubled men.”

Parker, an Astros fan since childhood, responded forcefully.

“Lance Berkman played in St. Louis. Guess his girls didn’t go to his games! SL has a non-discrimination ordinance,” Parker tweeted. “Then Lance Berkman went to Dallas. Oops. Dallas amended its Charter to clarify gender identity protections. Can you spell hypocrite?”

Last week, Parker pledged $50,000 in matching donations in addition to $50,000 she already gave the HERO campaign, and remained hopeful that voters would back the ordinance. Blocked from seeking re-election because of term limits, Parker has not ruled out running for statewide office in 2018.

“In a city as diverse as Houston, a city that has elected me nine times as an out lesbian…. I just can’t fathom that this would not pass,” she said.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Ed Schipul via Flickr

Kentucky Clerk Against Same-Sex Marriage: ‘I Hope They Don’t Sue Me’

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, county clerks across the country with religious objections have found themselves at the forefront of a political battle.

Some of the most outspoken against enforcing the ruling have been clerks in Kentucky, including the one for Casey County. That would be the aptly named Casey Davis, 42, a Republican based in the county seat of Liberty. Casey County, in central Kentucky, has a population of about 16,000.

In a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times shortly before he closed his office Thursday ahead of the July 4 holiday, Davis explained his opposition to same-sex marriage and offered a possible solution that would recognize religious rights while still providing licenses.

How many years have you been clerk, and what did you do before that?

It’s been four years. I was a deputy in the circuit clerk’s office for eight years; before that I worked in a steel cord factory making steel for radial tires.

What is your religious affiliation, and why did that lead you to object to issuing same-sex marriage licenses?

I’m Separate Baptist. I believe that when the Lord said that man was to fall in love and cleave to his wife, that’s what he meant. I believe that First Chapter of Romans exclusively says homosexuality is not the right way to conduct ourselves.

But lay all that aside: It’s against nature. Nature’s law will ultimately trump man’s law…. I don’t think that my conscience, my belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, can possibly ever, ever allow me to see that differently. The oath that I took says that I’m to do this job to the best of my ability, so help me God.

But the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, right?

The powers that be have tried to redefine it, but you cannot redefine the Bible. If the federal government, state government, local government would be logical in their thinking, they really have no right to anything to do with marriage.

How did your office respond to the ruling?

Friday I was out of town, so we didn’t do anything until I came back in. On Monday, we didn’t issue any marriage licenses.

Did couples apply? What did you tell them?

I had one person come in and ask about it, then there were some other folks who called to ask about it. They were all opposite-sex couples and they were all very supportive of this. They said, “We don’t mind the drive [to Casey County], stick to what you know is right.”

We had same-sex couples call. They said I was going to do it or they were going to sue me. I said, “I’m sorry, but this is how it is, I apologize.” They can go to another county. Getting a marriage license is not their entire goal. They want me to issue one.

I had a homosexual man saying he was coming here to get a marriage license and I said, “Look man, I’m willing to drive you to another county.” That wasn’t what he wanted either: He wanted my name on it.

Do you usually issue a lot of marriage licenses?

We had 29 marriage licenses last year in Casey County. It’s not a rushing business here.

What have Kentucky officials told you to do?

I have pleaded with the governor since Monday to give me the same opportunity that he gave [Democratic Kentucky Attorney General] Jack Conway a year ago. He has not even cared enough to reply. Maybe he doesn’t see the way that I’m being discriminated against, and all the other clerks that believe like I believe.

Jack Conway said, for the fact of his conscience, he could not defend Kentucky’s marriage law, so our own Gov. Steve Beshear hired private counsel to defend the law for him. Why is it that Jack Conway’s rights are any more important than Casey Davis’ and the other county clerks who feel the same way I do? I didn’t want this, I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t wake up saying I want to inject turmoil into my life and hear what a bigot I am every day.

How have people reacted to your position?

If you could see the emails, the threats. I did an interview with MSNBC last night and afterward, there was a post online saying the way to handle this was to take me out and hang me. I had one woman come in and call me a horse’s behind. She left real quick.

I wish that person had in my heart what I have in mine. We can live in this world together and disagree. But they need to recognize my rights same as I’m expected to recognize theirs. Why can’t people be sympathetic to both sides of this?

Have you been sued?

I don’t have any reason to sue anybody, and I hope they don’t sue me.

Why not resign?

When I ran for this job, I was passionate about it. When I was first elected, 3,017 people elected me.

My plea to the people who want me out and gone is this: Let democracy do what it’s designed to do. When the voters decide that a person is no longer fit for a job, they vote somebody else in. Don’t have the government force me out or send me to jail.

Are you willing to go to jail rather than issue same-sex marriage licenses?

I’m willing to give my life for it. There are millions of people in this country who died for my rights. If I don’t fight for it, those veterans died in vain. The threats I’m receiving won’t change my mind on this. If they died for me, I can live for them.

What’s going on in the nation is to me something I have to take care of here, and if I don’t take care of here, I can’t look my children in the eye anymore. We’re all in this together. I know there are clerks who feel just exactly like I do and they’re left not knowing what to do.

I have always given my children this advice: When you’re away from me and don’t know what to do, stand still. That is the best way for me to handle this at this time. There is a solution to this if there is a willingness.

When you contacted the governor, you proposed creating an online state system for issuing marriage licenses. Would that resolve the conflict for you and other clerks with religious objections?

That’s the most simple solution to this problem. Everything else is available online; why can’t marriage licenses be available online?

In the technological age we live in, that needs to be a choice. That would take it out of the hands of an individual and stop that problem. And to be clear, I don’t want online issuance of marriage licenses just for gay couples; I want it for everyone. Making a difference for one couple versus another, that’s not what I’m out to do.

Photo: Fox 56 WDKY screengrab via YouTube

Texas Will Give Legal Help To Officials Who Refuse Same-Sex Couples On Religious Beliefs

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — The Texas attorney general told local county clerks and other officials that if they refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples or perform weddings because they conflict with their religious beliefs the state will help them fight their case if they face lawsuits.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement and a nonbinding legal opinion on Sunday saying religious freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment “may allow accommodation of their religious objections to issuing same-sex marriage licenses.”

Clerks who refuse to license same-sex couples “may well face litigation and/or a fine,” Paxton wrote. “But numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs, in many cases on a pro-bono basis, and I will do everything I can from this office to be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights.”

Paxton’s opinion was echoed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who issued a directive Friday to state agency heads to protect the religious liberties of all Texans.

“In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, the law’s promise of religious liberty will be tested by some who seek to silence and marginalize those whose conscience will not allow them to participate in or endorse marriages that are incompatible with their religious beliefs,” Abbott noted. “As government officials, we have a constitutional duty to preserve, protect and defend the religious liberty of every Texan.”

Officials in Texas’s 254 counties who issue marriage licenses and officiate at marriages are relatively autonomous, so the state response was a nonbinding directive. It was unclear Monday what county officials would do. Some in the urban Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio areas married same-sex couples after the opinion was issued Friday while others balked.

Paxton’s opinion came in response to a request last week from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party Republican, who had asked whether county clerks, judges, and justices of the peace who wanted to refuse same-sex couples could shield themselves from lawsuits by invoking a “pastor protection act” recently passed by the state’s Republican-dominated legislature.

Paxton wrote that such officials may “claim that the government cannot force them to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies over their religious objections, when other authorized individuals have no objection, because it is not the least restrictive means of the government ensuring the ceremonies occur.”

He called the Supreme Court justices an “activist court” that “ignored the text and spirit of the Constitution to manufacture a right that simply does not exist” and encouraged local officials not to “weaken our resolve to protect religious liberty and return to democratic self-government in the face of judicial activists attempting to tell us how to live.”

Paxton said “hundreds” of Texas officials were seeking guidance on how to reconcile their religious beliefs with their oath to uphold the law.

“In recognizing a new constitutional right in 2015, the Supreme Court did not diminish, overrule, or call into question the rights of religious liberty that formed the first freedom in the Bill of Rights in 1791. This newly minted federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage can and should peaceably coexist with longstanding constitutional and statutory rights, including the rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech,” he wrote.

“Texas must speak with one voice against this lawlessness, and act on multiple levels to further protect religious liberties for all Texans, but most immediately do anything we can to help our county clerks and public officials who now are forced with defending their religious beliefs against the court’s ruling,” Paxton wrote.

On Monday, the conservative Liberty Institute based in Plano, Texas, applauded Paxton and offered to advise local officials “who may have questions about their conscience rights in light of the Supreme Court’s recent marriage decision. Liberty Institute has already had inquiries from individual government officials and is advising them on their rights and next actions.”

Liberty Institute President and Chief Executive Kelly Shackelford noted that, “Even Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion recognizes the First Amendment provides proper protection for religious organizations and persons who adhere to traditional beliefs concerning marriage.

“We are hearing stories of employees being threatened and that is wrong. When there is a question of conscience, Liberty Institute stands ready, willing and able to come alongside government employees and defend their religious liberty.”

Dan Quinn, spokesman for Texas Freedom Network, a liberal, Austin-based watchdog, called Paxton’s opinion “shocking, even by Texas standards.”

“What’s next? Will public employees have the right to refuse to do their jobs when they don’t share the same faith as couples who come before them? Will Christian judges be able to refuse to marry Hindus or Buddhists? Will a justice of the peace who is Muslim be able to deny services to Jews? Will Catholic clerks be able to refuse to issue a license to couples that include someone who has previously divorced? What about officials who belong to sects that preach white supremacy? Will they be able to refuse to issue marriage licenses to or marry interracial couples?” Quinn wrote.

Neel Lane, a San Antonio attorney for the same-sex couples who challenged Texas’ gay marriage ban, said Paxton’s message was a carefully worded call to arms for the religious right.

“The people the citizens look to to enforce their rights are thwarting them on completely frivolous grounds,” Lane said, “What they’re really doing is encouraging right-wing county officials to breach their duties. Whether county officials take up that invitation will be interesting to see. If they do, they’re going to end up paying a lot of attorneys fees because they have no legal grounds.”

Lane noted that after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, school officials were not allowed to resist integration based on their religious beliefs. Employees whose religious beliefs conflict with issuing other licenses — a conservative Muslim, for instance, who doesn’t believe women should drive — are not allowed to refuse to issue them, he said.

“Issuing a marriage license is no different than issuing a hunting license, a fishing license or a driver’s license. It’s a basic function of governance, and you don’t have a right to withhold it based on the individual employee’s religious beliefs,” Lane said.

Lane said he had already been contacted by some couples who were turned away last week and planned to attempt to obtain licenses again Monday, including a pair in Tyler, the Smith County seat, about 95 miles east of Dallas.

D. Karen Wilkerson, 64, said she and fiancee Jolie Smith, 52, contacted Lane after they were turned away by the Smith County clerk Friday.

“We’re waiting — our vows are ready, our clothes are ready, our friends are ready,” said Wilkerson, who is retired after working in advertising and as a marriage counselor.

The clerk turned them away because she did not have updated forms, refused to alter them as other counties did or accept an update, Wilkerson said.

Their attorney filed a writ in federal court Friday that would force Smith County to comply. They planned to return to the clerk’s office Monday to try again. If the clerk still refused, they plan to ask a federal judge for an emergency hearing on their writ.

“They’re just absolutely adamant that they’re not going to do this,” said Wilkerson, a Democratic organizer who expected local conservative tea party Republicans to refuse.

Wilkerson said she was appalled but not surprised to see Paxton encouraging such behavior.

“Has he not read the Sedition Act?” she said.

The couple could drive to Dallas to get married, but they said that’s not an option.

“Both of us raised kids here, we want to be married in Smith County because that’s where we live,” Wilkerson said.

Smith, a local business owner, added, “I have deep roots in east Texas. I love Texas and I love my home and a lot of people I love are in Smith County and we want them to do what’s right. My bet is half the county clerks in Texas will see the writing on the wall and say it’s my obligation.”

When Wilkerson and Smith showed up at the Smith County clerk’s office Monday, they found a sign saying staff were in a meeting “while we test our system to accommodate the new forms.”

Wilkerson took a photo of the sign, posted it on Facebook, and kept waiting.

At about 9:30 a.m. Central time, Wilkerson posted a photo of her new marriage license and a triumphant note: “we got it!”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: George Olcott via Flickr

Texas Reels, Braces For More Flooding

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — Across the state, Texans took stock of the damage wrought by a week of punishing storms while they braced for more flooding.
The floodwaters touched city and country. About 40 miles northeast of Houston, ranchers used an airboat to corral and feed a herd of about 500 cattle stranded when flooding Saturday along the Trinity River turned their pasture into an island outside the city of Liberty.

“That’s about $1 million in cows,” said Tom Branch, Liberty County emergency management director. “They’ve been trying to get them out of there for days.”

In Houston, fans fled a baseball game between the Astros and the Chicago White Sox when water started pouring through the dome-shaped roof of Minute Maid Park.

“The entire roof, especially our section, it was like a waterfall,” said Sam Alford, 26.

In Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood, residents were salvaging what they could from homes inundated with water from nearby Brays Bayou. Jennifer and Warren Liao were working their way through their ruined brick ranch house at 9 p.m. after watching a tow truck haul away their flooded cars.

They had been in New York, attending their youngest daughter’s graduation from Columbia University, on Monday when their home flooded. A foot of water poured in, destroying seven of their three children’s string instruments and three pianos, including a Steinway with ivory keys.

They managed to save their son’s cello, but had to throw out almost everything else _ a washer, dryer, George Foreman grill and another daughter’s diploma.

They have flood insurance, mandated by their mortgage, but it doesn’t cover everything. “Today the adjuster came. We maxed out already,” Jennifer Liao said.

The storms that started during the Memorial Day weekend have 33 killed people, with 6 victims in Oklahoma and 27 in Texas.

Hays County officials in central Texas reported that two women’s bodies had been found there Saturday after flooding on the Blanco River.

Officials have found several bodies from a nine-member group whose vacation house was swept away overnight Saturday, including retired Corpus Christi dentist Ralph Carey, 73; daughter Michelle Charba, 43; and family friend Andrew McComb, 6, whose father was the lone survivor.

With the forecast calling for more rain, Texans prepared for more floods.

“They say in the month of May, the rainfall has been enough to cover the entire state 8 inches,” Warren Liao said as he and his wife stood on the porch watching the latest downpour.

One thing was certain, Jennifer Liao said as they left to stay at a friend’s house. “It’s not over yet.”

(Staff writer Katie Shepherd in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Cody Ogle, with TxDot, a one side of the roadblock on FM 730 in Boyd, Texas, with the West Fork of the Trinity River flowing over the road behind him on Saturday, May 30, 2015. (Paul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)

Rain Spreads Havoc Across Houston

By Molly-Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

HOUSTON — The Tuckers thought they were prepared.

The couple knew they lived in a flood-prone area: the Meyerland neighborhood, near Brays Bayou. That’s why, when they built their two-story brick home 27 years ago, they elevated it three feet, higher than the 100-year flood plain, and invested in a generator which they placed even higher in the back yard.

It didn’t flood during tropical storms or even Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“We always thought, boy, were we smart to build the house up,” said Jeff Tucker, a 68-year-old corporate lawyer who’s now retired.

But on Tuesday an overnight storm sent a foot of water gushing into their home. Family photos, Persian rugs, their new Lexus, even the generator — all left soaked.

“It looked,” Margaret Tucker said, “like we had a house in a lake.”

More than 11 inches of rain transformed their neighborhood and others in Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, into a disaster zone and those caught off-guard sheltered where they could overnight: in offices, the Galleria mall, an ice rink and even the Toyota Center, where about 1,000 Houston Rockets fans got stuck after a game. Highways were blocked. Public transportation shut down. Schools closed.

At least four people in the Houston area were killed, hundreds of cars flooded and at least 4,000 homes damaged overnight. One elderly couple was still missing late Tuesday after the fire rescue boat saving them capsized in Braes Bayou. The devastation in the Bayou City raised the death toll from weekend storms to 9 in Texas and 6 in Oklahoma.

Along the Blanco River in central Texas, the storms killed at least two, left 13 missing, 70 homes destroyed and about 1,400 damaged, according to Hays County Commissioner Will Conley.

Among the missing was a group of eight who disappeared after flood waters ripped their vacation home from its foundation, washed it downriver and slammed it into a bridge in Wemberley, about 40 miles southwest of Austin.

Jonathan McComb, 36, of Corpus Christi, was able to escape from the damaged home with a collapsed lung and broken bones and was listed in good condition at San Antonio’s Brooke Army Medical Center.

But his wife and two children, ages 6 and 4, remained missing, along with friends Randy and Michelle Charba, their 4-year-old son and Michelle Charba’s parents, Ralph and Sue Carey, all from Corpus Christi.

“These are great, great families that are affected by this. Three generations of one family are missing right now _ the grandparents, parents and a young child who plays with my grandchildren,” said Bill Pettus, a friend of the Careys in Corpus Christi.

Also killed was 18-year-old Alyssa Ramirez, student council president at Devine High School southwest of San Antonio, who officials said drowned after she became stranded Sunday in floodwater while driving home from her senior prom.

President Barack Obama said he had assured Texas Gov. Greg Abbott that he could count on help from the federal government as the state recovers from the floods.

Abbott, who traveled to Houston on Tuesday after touring flooded areas of central Texas by air on Monday, has declared disasters in 40 counties, including Houston’s Harris County.

At a briefing, Abbott said family members of one of his staffers were swept away during the “tsunami-style rise” of the Blanco River and remained missing.

“As far as flooding is concerned, this ranks right up there with Allison,” said Abbott, referring to Tropical Storm Allison, which caused 22 deaths in the Houston region in 2001.

At least 750 flooded cars were towed to city impound lots.

Two of the dead were found in their cars, while the other two were washed into Brays Bayou.

“We are investigating some other reports, so that number is likely to grow,” said Michael Walter, a spokesman for the city’s emergency operations center.

On the Tuckers’ street, firefighters rescued several elderly residents, according to Gerald McTigret, 53, who was house sitting.

“They had three rescue boats going house to house,” down the street, he said.

And firefighters were not the only boaters on the street Tuesday.

“There was also a guy with a sailboat,” McTigret said. “He didn’t have the sail up, but it was funny. Things you don’t expect to see!”

Further up the street, Rola Georges, awoke to find several feet of water rushing in.

“My kids were floating on their mattresses,” she said.

Georges and her husband climbed atop the furniture while she called 911. The water was knee deep. A sunken portion of the living room, which holds a pool table, had become a pool of brown water. Her husband saw a snake swim by.

She gave her 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter snacks and told them to stay put on their mattresses.

Georges, 40, spotted a fire department rescue boat outside the window and tried to hail it, to no avail. Instead, her family waited several hours until the floodwaters receded, then climbed down to start cleaning up.

“We tried to rescue some precious memories: photos and videos,” she said later as she stood beside her wedding portrait. “But when you have a house, it’s a home. Every single thing has a special meaning, a memory.”

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A destroyed car is submerged in the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas, after the flood on Tuesday May 26, 2015. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/TNS)

Epic Texas Rainfall Floods Parts Of Houston, Austin, Dallas; Thousands Displaced

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Severe storms pummeled central and southeast Texas late Monday and early Tuesday, the latest devastation from a weekend storm system that spawned tornadoes and widespread flooding in major cities, killed at least eight people in the state and Oklahoma, and displaced thousands of residents.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared disasters in 37 counties where more than 1,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. Austin, Dallas, and Houston all reported flooding, with scores of water rescues and hundreds stranded at a Houston Rockets NBA playoff game.

And even more storms are expected in the central Texas area on Tuesday afternoon.

Many waterways overflowed their banks in the Bayou City and surrounding metro area, the country’s fifth-largest with a population of more than six million.

Interstates 10 and 45 — major arteries through town — both flooded, with some drivers abandoning their cars on the side of the highway. Houston’s Metro mass transit system suspended rail and bus service.

The Houston Independent School District, which serves 215,000 students, canceled classes. City officials activated an emergency operations center and delayed some employee start times, declaring a high-level emergency for the first time since Hurricane Ike in 2008.

The Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management reported hundreds of homes flooded on the west side of the county.

“My people are all stuck in the water. We’re looking at multiple homes flooded already,” said Michael Walter, public information officer at the emergency operations center. “Southwest Houston and northwest Houston got hit really hard. We have a police helicopter up right now in the west because there was extensive flooding and the bayous are out of their banks and flooding neighborhoods.”

Workers tweeted about being stranded at their stores overnight, including the massive Galleria Mall.

Hundreds of Rockets fans also tweeted their frustration at being stranded at Toyota Center after Monday night’s game, where flood warnings were posted on the Jumbotron and an announcer asked those in attendance not to leave because of the storms.

Many stayed until early morning, when breakfast was served by staff, and departed after the flood warning was lifted, assistant general manager Amanda “Mandy” Strudler-Mann said on the center’s Facebook page.

Nick Mercadante, 33, was trapped by the storms at Bellerive Ice Center in the Sharpstown area with about 50 others who had gathered for a hockey league game.

“For a while it was flowing like a river down to the highway, so even the people in trucks didn’t bother leaving because there was nowhere to go,” he said.

They watched reports on a rink television of others stranded at the Rockets game and elsewhere until about 2 a.m., when the cable went out.

At about 6:30 a.m., Mercadante ventured out in his VW GTI, taking first one highway, then another to avoid closures and flooding as he returned to his home in the nearby West University area. It took him about an hour and a half.

“It’s pretty rough,” he said, “There’s certain cross streets that are totally flooded.”

He saw cars flooded, some abandoned under overpasses.

At one point, he drove onto the sidewalk to avoid a flooded street and spotted a man standing in an adjacent yard, shocked by the damage.

“He was just standing outside on the lawn looking confused, taking it all in. His street was definitely flooded,” Mercadante said, “I gave him a wave.”

Although the rains had stopped in Houston by 7 a.m., more storms were expected later in the day. Mercadante planned to stay in.

“It looks OK now, it looks sunny, but you never know the way the weather changes. Hopefully, the worst is past,” he said.

At least four storm-related deaths have been reported in Texas in the latest round of storms: a man whose body was pulled from the Blanco River; a 14-year-old found with his dog in a Dallas-area storm drain; a South Texas high school senior who died Saturday after her car was caught in high water; and a Central Texas man whose mobile home was destroyed by a reported tornado.

The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management also reported four storm-related fatalities during the holiday weekend.

Before sunrise Tuesday, emergency crews used helicopters and boats to help residents evacuate their flooded homes in Webberville, Texas, about 15 miles east of Austin.

Authorities there were also still searching for a dozen people reported missing after a flooded river swept their vacation home off its foundation and down the nearby Blanco River over the weekend.

Authorities just across the border in Mexico were also searching for victims in Ciudad Acuna, where a tornado Monday killed 13 people and left at least five missing. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto was expected to travel to Acuna with other government officials.

Photo: usacetulsa via Flickr

Legal System Overwhelmed After Waco Biker Brawl

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

WACO, Texas — It is perhaps symbolic that the statue of Justice atop the dome crowning the white limestone courthouse here had the scales ripped from her hand in a storm. After a bloody weekend melee between motorcycle gangs left nine people dead, 18 wounded and more than 177 in jail, the criminal justice system is a bit frayed.

Investigators have mountains of evidence to review — 1,000 weapons were recovered from the crime scene — and authorities will probably have to tap other counties to secure enough defense attorneys to represent the accused. Scores of bikers were arrested on suspicion of engaging in organized crime and held in lieu of $1 million bond. A defense attorney and prosecutors wrangled Wednesday over whether one biker could be released even after posting such bail.

On Tuesday night it appeared that Jeff Battey, a 50-year-old north Texas factory worker and member of the Bandidos Motorcycle Club, had been able to make the $1 million bond and would be released.

Instead, the local district attorney met with the county’s two district judges behind closed doors Wednesday and negotiated special release conditions for Battey and any others who post bail. Among the conditions: electronic monitoring, no alcohol and no contact with other gang members.

Battey’s attorney said that his client played no role in the shooting, that he had no criminal record and that the delay in his case highlighted how heavy-handed local legal officials had become since Sunday’s shooting at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco.

“They were surprised somebody could make bond. That just shows that these bonds were used to send a message,” attorney Seth Sutton said.

McLennan County officials have said the local legal system can handle the influx of cases, but some said Wednesday that the jail and courts already appeared overwhelmed and that the situation would only grow more complicated as more of those jailed are released and begin challenging their arrests.

After the shooting, Battey was treated briefly at a hospital before being jailed with bullet fragments still lodged in his right arm, Sutton said, adding that officials had no probable cause to hold him.

“He’s in a lot of pain, and he’s not the only one. Our office has had calls from three others who were wounded with bullet fragments still in their bodies” and remained jailed, Sutton said.

Battey was released before noon Wednesday. Sutton declined to say how much his client paid to a bail bond agent in order to post bail — it’s typically 10 percent in Texas. “He has some family support behind him,” Sutton said.

Sutton has fielded calls from other relatives of those arrested, some of whom waited in line at a jail visitor’s center Wednesday. “We’ve had calls from dozens of people upset their husband, sons — good citizens who work — are in jail and their jobs and businesses are in jeopardy,” he said.

At least eight of those arrested have hired attorneys and had bail reduction hearings set, but not until June, court staffers said, adding late Wednesday that “they’re coming faster than we can process.”

“We’ve got a situation now where we’ve just decided to lock people up for weeks while we sort it out,” Sutton said.

William A. Smith, a Dallas-based attorney, said the high bonds for those arrested were deterring witnesses from coming forward. Some bikers who were at the scene of the violence but were not arrested are afraid to give their accounts because they’re afraid of being charged as gang members, he said.

“It’s got a lot of folks on edge, and I don’t know that there’s any bail bondsman in Waco, in the county, McLennan, that’s capable or willing of writing” a $1 million bond, Smith said. “So these guys could be in there a long time.”

But McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna said his staff of 27 attorneys could prosecute the Twin Peaks cases in addition to the 3,000 cases that were pending before the shooting. He does not plan to call the state attorney general’s office for assistance. “We can handle it,” Reyna said. “Even in the event I need additional help, I’ve got loads of district attorneys who have offered to help” from across the state, he said.

Reyna defended his decision to charge so many suspects, saying he had probable cause and the $1 million bonds were needed because “you’re talking about securing an individual’s appearance at trial.”

If those arrested are really victims, he said, “I would expect that these ‘victims’ would be very interested in working with law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice” — but so far, that has not been the case, he said.

Prosecutors have 90 days to present a case to a grand jury to indict before those in custody are entitled to reduced bonds, Reyna said.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Waco Police Department via Facebook

Search Efforts Continue As Death Toll For Nepal’s Earthquake Tops 4,600

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

KATHMANDU, Nepal — With the death toll from Nepal’s massive earthquake topping 4,600 on Tuesday, police, soldiers, and a Chinese rescue team searched for signs of another body as construction equipment dug deep into the wreckage of the Budget Hotel in Kathmandu.

Police said about 25 people were in the five-story brick hotel Saturday when the 7.8 quake struck. At least 15 fled to safety, while one was saved from the rubble that day.

Searchers have since recovered nine bodies. On Tuesday, they were still looking for at least one more.

The missing hotel receptionist was a friend of Parwan Yadav, 21, a college student waiting anxiously among the crowd watching the recovery effort.

“In many places, people are missing still,” Yadav said.

Three days after the earthquake struck, the death toll in Nepal reached 4,680 with more than 9,000 people injured, according to a government spokesman. At least 10 of the dead were foreigners, including four Americans.

Scores more were killed in neighboring India and China’s Tibet region.

The quake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest that killed at least 18 climbers and guides. The last of those stranded at camps on the world’s highest mountain have been airlifted to safety, mountaineering groups reported Tuesday.

In an address to the nation, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala said the country would observe three days of mourning for the victims beginning Tuesday.

Koirala said the government would learn from its mistakes and institutionalize disaster management. In the meantime, he said authorities were making maximum use of the country’s limited resources and thanked world leaders for rushing to help them.

Aid has poured into Nepal from more than 15 nations. Rescue teams and army trucks sped past the hotel Tuesday, and helicopters aiding the effort flew overhead.

Much of the recovery, however, still appeared to be hampered by shortages, outages, storms, and the ongoing uncertainty that comes with repeated aftershocks.

About eight million people have been affected by the quake and 1.4 million are in need of food, the United Nations said Tuesday.

A 130-member U.S. disaster response team arrived during the day to assist with the recovery efforts, bringing 45 tons of cargo. The group includes urban search and rescue teams from the counties of Los Angeles and Fairfax, Va.

The United States is providing ten million dollars in humanitarian assistance to Nepal, which now has 16 camps for internally displaced persons in the Kathmandu Valley.

Near the epicenter of the earthquake — in Gorkha, about 90 miles northwest of Kathmandu, the capital — helicopters arrived Tuesday to deliver emergency supplies and carry the injured back to clinics, according to news reports.

Gorkha has become a staging area for those sending rescuers and supplies to remote mountain areas, some reachable only by air after roads were blocked by landslides. At the Katmandu airport, helicopters arrived with both foreign trekkers and local villagers plucked from quake-struck areas.

Another landslide Tuesday in an area north of the capital popular with trekkers left 200 people unaccounted for, including ten Nepalese soldiers, the area’s chief district officer told PahiloPost, a Nepalese-language news site.

The Nepalese government created a hotline Tuesday to route aid where it’s most needed after residents complained they were not receiving relief fast enough.

“There is no power since Saturday afternoon, and we have only received one tarpaulin sheet where 40 families have been cramped for the last three nights,” said Bhumaeshwor Ranjit of Bhaktapur, a town six miles east of the capital, where more than 200 people were reported killed in the earthquake.

His house is among dozens reduced to mounds of bricks and splintered wood in the historic town known for its temples.

“Where is all the relief and aid material we keep hearing the authorities say they have received?” he asked Tuesday while examining earthquake damage to his house. “Looks like we will die from the absence of food and water rather than the earthquake tremors.”

Hospitals serving the injured in Kathmandu and neighboring areas also were starting to worry about shortages.

“Lots of injured people coming here require surgeries, but we are now running short of surgical equipment and medicine,” Dr. Rajendra Koju told state-run radio, speaking of Dhulikhel Hospital, one of the few well-equipped medical facilities east of Kathmandu.

Government officials said they were doing the best they could under difficult circumstances.

Bodha Raj Dahal, 45, works for the country’s social welfare council in Kathmandu, where some of those who fled their homes after the earthquake have camped in tents on the lawn.

On Tuesday, a tanker truck arrived and Dahal supervised the distribution of water to the displaced. He said the government agency also has distributed food to about 1,000 people camped in the gardens.

“We are trying, but how can we manage this problem?” Dahal asked. “We have no choice. We have to manage it.”

Dahal said agency officials have planned to support the encampment for another ten days. But he expects it will last longer than that. The campers have no intention of leaving. And more have been arriving on foot from a mile away, he said, unwilling to stay in their homes in the wake of persistent aftershocks.

Yadav, the college student, pitched a tent Saturday with his 18-year-old twin sisters and classmates, some of whom lost their homes.

Sagar Bhatta, 22, a business student, said his family lost their home in Gorkha. It has been raining there for days, and many people do not have tents and food, he said.

“The government can’t even provide tents — we are managing ourselves,” Yadav said.

He and his sisters were among the better off. Their home was still standing, with no major cracks. They had planned to return there Tuesday. But Yadav, a physics major, said his sisters were alarmed by aftershocks overnight and refused to go back.

Members of his group said they have not received food from the government. Rice and noodles are in short supply, available only at a 50 percent markup, they said. There is no electricity in the camp, so they eat their meals from makeshift cook stoves. Garbage cans were overflowing.

Most nearby businesses were still shuttered — including the Pizza Hut and Ice Cream Bell on Durbar Marg, a tourist thoroughfare still littered in places with broken glass from shattered store windows. Some of the hotels that had opened lost power and by evening did not even have functioning generators.

Standing outside his storefront there, Sri Rajbhandari said he had tried unsuccessfully to reopen. But 18 of his 20 staff members lost their homes in the quake. One employee called to report that his entire village had been leveled.

“They are very desperate. They don’t even have tents there; they are living in open space. The entire village is flattened,” said Rajbhandari, who runs a medical supplies business. “It’s very difficult for the staffs. They’re facing problems with food, problems with water. Water is a big crisis now.”

Rajbhandari said he was unable to find vegetables at the market Tuesday.

“The international community coming here is very important,” he said. “The government alone cannot do it. This type of crisis the government hasn’t faced before.”

Police Sargent Inspector Roshan Shah, who was supervising the Budget Hotel recovery effort, said they had brought in different types of construction equipment, a forensic expert from the Netherlands, and now the Chinese search and rescue team to help find those trapped and killed.

“We tried lots of things and lots of things didn’t work,” Shah said as he stood at the edge of the pit of debris under gray skies threatening rain.

Suddenly, a giant construction shovel stopped — they had found something.

It was not a body. Instead the scoop dropped a backpacker’s bag at the feet of police and soldiers. Recovery workers added it to a stack they plan to return to the embassies of the dead and missing.

Some of the contents spilled out into the dirt: a deck of playing cards, a red Lululemon yoga store bag, a sleeping bag still neatly packed and a Budget Hotel receipt.

As Yadav and others looked on, the shovel went back to work for a few minutes — until a downpour and hailstorm forced police and soldiers to abandon work and seek cover under the remains of the hotel gate.

Sheltering with them, Yadav thought of his sisters and friends back in the now waterlogged tents, and so many others across the country.
“This will be more problems,” he said.

Photo: Sunil Pradhan via NurPhoto/Zuma Press/TNS