Analysis Politics

Shades of Blue in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, as Wendy Davis Launches Her Campaign

Andrea Grimes

South Texas' Rio Grande Valley came into the spotlight this summer during the state legislature's battle over an omnibus anti-choice bill, but for the people who call it home, politics are much more complicated than "red" or "blue."

Read more of Andrea Grimes’ reporting from the Rio Grande Valley here.

The owners of the brand-new Beef O’Brady’s in McAllen, Texas, have transformed the former bank space into a sports bar, with massive projection screens that cover the top half of a two-story ceiling, surrounding patrons with 360 degrees of big-screen sports and beer advertisements. The effect is much more Times Square than Texas border town.

On this Thursday evening in early October, the Texas Longhorns are set to play an unusual weeknight game against Iowa State. But the booze-swilling crowd at Beef O’Brady’s isn’t here to see if Longhorns coach Mack Brown can do what he’s paid more than $5 million a year to do—which is to say, win football games. They’re crammed into a private party room in the back corner with their own big screen TV, dipping into gargantuan bowls of chips and salsa and watching an empty podium 500 miles away over a Texas Tribune live video feed.

These Hidalgo County Democrats, like thousands of their party-affiliated Texans that night, are waiting to hear from Wendy Davis, the state senator representing Fort Worth who made national headlines in July when she spent 13 hours filibustering an omnibus anti-choice bill in the state’s capitol. Members of the press, from Univision to local television affiliates to the McAllen Monitor, line the back of the room. Candidates for local offices and judgeships avail themselves of the opportunity to get their names out, dropping full-color campaign cards on tables and shaking hands. A young woman from Reynosa, the Mexican city just across the border from McAllen, solicits interest from her fellow young Democrats in splitting a massive hunk of Beef O Brady’s “molten” chocolate cake. Everyone’s in.

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Davis takes the stage to an eruption of applause, then a swift round of hushes. No one wants to miss the words they’re so anxious to hear. Finally, halfway into her “Texas story” speech about her journey from teen motherhood to Harvard lawyer to state senator, Davis says, “I’m proud to announce my candidacy to be the 48th governor of the great state of Texas.”

Everyone is grinning, made rapt by the appearance of, at last, a Texas Democrat with the star power to match her policy smarts. This particular Davis announcement party is a combined event sponsored by the Hidalgo County Texas Young Democrats and Battleground Texas, the monied organizing group that has set its sights on turning Texas blue despite national naysayers and intimidating odds, given Texas’ strong Tea Party showing in recent years. Naturally, there’s an email sign-up list at the door alongside a pile of stickers.

Of course, Hidalgo County, like much of South Texas, already runs blue, though in a different shade than that of its Democratic counterparts in Austin, Houston, Dallas, and even San Antonio. Predominantly Hispanic and deeply Catholic, the Rio Grande Valley is much like a small town spread across four counties and nearly 5,000 square miles, where “Democrat” doesn’t always mean pro-choice or pro-marriage equality, and where running on a winning ticket can be as much about who a candidate went to high school with as promises made on the campaign trail. It is geographically beautiful—the phrase “big Texas sky” doesn’t do it justice—and populated by folks who take Texas hospitality to the next level.

But at the bar, residents tell me they feel both forgotten and taken for granted by more geographically central, and economically enfranchised, parts of the state. The four counties that make up the Lower Rio Grande Valley—Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy, and Starr—are among the very poorest in the state. In the Valley, over 2,000 colonias, patchwork developments of hand-built homes and trailers sitting on land that often has little or no access to sewer, water, electricity, or drainage services, abut McMansion-style subdivisions, sorghum fields, and new highway construction. McAllen and Brownsville, the largest city in the Valley, were last year ranked the two poorest cities in the United States.

So perhaps the line that the Beef O’Brady’s crowd is really waiting for, the line that they didn’t expect, isn’t Davis’ official gubernatorial announcement, but a line that came later in her speech:

“Until every child from Longview to Lubbock to McAllen to Mesquite makes it to a stage like this, and gets their diploma, and knows that nothing will wash out the road to their future dreams, we will keep going.”

The McAllen name-drop sends the party room into another frenzy of applause, and the grins get even bigger. After Davis walks offstage and the live feed is cut, a Battleground Texas representative gathers everyone in the room for a group photo with their new red, white, and light blue “Wendy Davis for Governor” signs, excitedly reminding each other, “We all saw today that Wendy Davis mentioned McAllen! That was amazing!”

A half-hour later, during a post-speech debriefing over a Bud Light, as the Longhorns eke toward a 31-30 victory over Iowa, Hidalgo County native Kathryn Hearn, who works for Planned Parenthood in the Valley, lays it out straight: “We’re so used to fighting for crumbs, here.”

A day before Davis’ gubernatorial announcement, a different group of Rio Grande Valley residents are gathered for a decidedly less celebratory purpose in a decidedly less boozy locale: the brightly painted sanctuary of the Immaculate Conception Mission in the middle of one of Hidalgo County’s nearly 1,000 colonias, a couple of miles outside the McAllen city limits. This neighborhood is called Lopezville, and its residents are looking for a permanent home, hoping to be officially annexed into the municipality of San Juan. Then, they might be able to convince a bureaucrat to install some street lights, or round up the stray dogs that roam the neighborhood.

On a whiteboard, Texas Organizing Project (TOP) community organizer Ruben Garza makes a list, in Spanish and English, of the issues this handful of Lopezville residents, gathered on a hot Wednesday afternoon, hope to address: luzes, casas abandonados, perros, drainage.

At the meeting, a woman not five feet tall and waving a bulky clipboard wrangles everyone who walks through the door, even this reporter, into filling out an attendance sheet with their name and contact information. This is 74-year-old Josefa Gonzales.

“Too much people are scared to come over here,” she tells me later, but she is committed to doing what it takes to convince city officials to annex Lopezville. “I do this for my community,” she says. “I do this for myself.”

Cities are often reluctant to claim colonias, the TOP organizers say, because officials don’t want to be responsible for providing basic infrastructure like water, drainage, electricity, or even paved roads to people they believe can’t or won’t pay for them. Implicit in this reluctance is a more insidious belief: that people who live in colonias don’t deserve basic services, a not-so-low-level disdain that colonia residents are all too aware of.

Speaking in Spanish to emphatic nods from his fellow residents, Lopezville resident Pedro Garcia talks about feeling less than human in the eyes of politicians and city officials. He passes out bottles of water and offers Wal-Mart brand granola bars to his neighbors, many of whom, like Josefa Gonzales, have lived here for decades and are working with TOP to mobilize toward getting the infrastructural services that most Texans take for granted.

Gonzales says her children are always trying to convince her to move away, but she believes she shouldn’t have to do so, and neither should her neighbors. “I like my house,” she says. “I like it here. I’m working here in my community.”

But progress is slow. After the church meeting, I walk the block with another organizer, Amber Arriaga, who jokingly flips her hair when she describes herself as “such a Valley girl.” At seven-months pregnant, she doesn’t do as much canvassing as she used to, and Wednesdays are slow days anyway because it’s everybody’s church evening, but she wants to show me the street lights in the next neighborhood over, which ends at the intersection just outside Josefa Gonzales’ home at the edge of Lopezville. In the daytime, Gonzales can squint and see the new solar street light from her house, but at night it does nothing to illuminate her dark street.

The conditions of Lopezville homes vary widely lot by lot, depending on how much and how often residents can afford to keep them up. Some homes, with paved driveways, flower planters, and uniform exteriors of clapboard or brick, would pass in any middle-American neighborhood. Others are patchworks of plywood and corrugated siding, expanded room by room over the years.

Progress is so slow, in fact, that when colonia residents do get their streetlights, after hard-fought battles with and beside state and county officials and state legislators, they make the newspaper. Arriaga says she has seen first-hand the difference that mobilized residents can make in their own neighborhoods, which is why the first question she and her fellow TOP workers ask when they knock on a door is: “If you could change anything in your community, what would it be?”

But there is much standing between an organizer like Arriaga, or a neighborhood advocate like Josefa Gonzales, and someone on the other side the porch or threshold. For residents of the Rio Grande Valley there is, says Arriaga, a deep, sometimes generations-deep, feeling of being “forgotten.”

Earlier that Wednesday morning at TOP headquarters—a manufactured home-turned-office that shares a bumpy, gravel-covered plot of land with other community outreach organizations like LUPE and Proyecto Azteca—Arriaga tells me that when “basic necessities aren’t being met” year after year, it can be hard to convince people that their efforts will pay off—until they do.

“When they see the little wins, they see that if they could do that, things can get resolved,” says Arriaga. But for people in the Valley, change can be an uphill battle, particularly when the starting point is just getting a city or county official to listen to an argument for a paved road or a reliable drainage ditch so residents can access their homes when it rains.

For example, as part of TOP, Arriaga’s been particularly focused on educating residents about the Affordable Care Act, leading workshops and block-walking in the community hoping to enroll her fellow Valley residents.

“We want to see people getting health-care coverage,” says Arriaga. However, she says, they often respond, “But we don’t have lights.”

This is one of the many political challenges in the Valley: How can organizers energize a voting base that has been historically disenfranchised, despite the advances of the Chicano and Latino movements in the Civil Rights era, and mobilize a constituency that is often focused on day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month survival? Part of the answer has been to cultivate community leaders from the ground up, educating people like 26-year-old Mallory De La Rosa in the best ways to navigate the often frustrating world of local politics and bureaucracy.

De La Rosa, who stops by the TOP offices after the Lopezville community meeting, says she’s here because Amber Arriaga, relentless in her canvassing, knocked on her door one day and recognized her as a high school classmate. De La Rosa and her husband—her high school sweetheart—live in Pharr, a neighbor city to McAllen, with De La Rosa’s elderly aunt, whom she cares for full-time.

Like a lot of young people from the Valley, De La Rosa left for a time, living in North Carolina while her husband was serving in the military, but they’ve both returned, taking over the payments on De La Rosa’s aunt’s house. De La Rosa says she, like so many people who come into contact with TOP, is trying to improve her aunt’s neighborhood one trash can, one street lamp, at a time.

“It’s this cycle, that in the neighborhood nothing’s gotten any better, that this is our lot in life,” De La Rosa explains. She’s currently taking a class on community organizing, aimed at educating people in the Valley, she says, on “how we can actually get something done, and the political process.”

That political process is something that De La Rosa says many of her peers and neighbors don’t have much faith in, because over the years, they’ve been paid too much lip service and witnessed too little on-the-ground change. She talks about voter identification troubles, and, recounting her last attempt at voting, describes an exasperating trip to four different polling locations. I ask her if she believes in her local representatives.

“I could lie and say yes,” she says, with a humorless smile. “But they’ll tell you anything you want to hear if it’s an election year. Maybe I’m jaded, but I’ve yet to meet a politician that has fulfilled their promises.”

But De La Rosa says she hopes to be an agent of change, moving people out of the mindset of, “mi familia first, everyone else is second.”

“There’s always people who don’t want to sit and take what they’re given,” says De La Rosa, and she’s one of them. But she says she’s frustrated with some of her neighbors in the Valley who vote only for their compadres: “Most of the people vote because they know who [the candidates] are. They don’t take time to do their homework on people.”

This is a refrain I hear from almost everyone I speak to in the Valley, whether they’re newly involved in the political process, like De La Rosa, or seasoned veterans like Rosalie Weisfeld, a long-time Democratic organizer in Hidalgo County.

Weisfeld meets me for coffee at the Starbucks inside a Barnes & Noble, one of the storefronts in McAllen’s sprawling web of strip malls and retail developments that house medical offices, fast-casual restaurants, and big-box retailers, filling the space between outposts of every two-and-a-half star hotel a seasoned business traveler could name.

Weisfeld, a veteran of venerated Democratic Gov. Ann Richards’ campaign in the early 1990s, bemoans the compadre mentality, and says it’s just that kind of voting philosophy that has prevented progress in the Valley.

We’re talking about reproductive rights—the very issue that put Wendy Davis on the national radar this summer when her filibuster forced Gov. Rick Perry to call a third special session to pass an omnibus anti-choice bill, HB 2, requiring abortion providers to get admitting privileges at local hospitals, severely limits the prescription of medication abortions, and which critics of the bill expect will shutter all but six existing abortion clinics in the state by requiring abortion facilities to be licensed as ambulatory surgical centers.

Valley residents seeking abortions will be particularly hard hit by the legislation, which will require them to drive hundreds of miles round trip to San Antonio, where the nearest abortion-providing ambulatory surgical center is located, for safe, legal abortion care.

“Now here we are, 40 years [after Roe v. Wade], fighting these same battles!” exclaims Weisfeld. “How did we get here? How did we have this battle a generation ago?”

Weisfeld remembers that battle. She was in high school before Roe v. Wade, and recalls her friends, or at least those whose families could afford it, traveling to Reynosa, California, and New York to obtain abortions. A “ferocious reader,” she was the first among her group to discover Planned Parenthood, and became the go-to source for information about sex and contraception as a teenager.

The Valley may vote blue, she says, but it doesn’t mean Valley Democrats support reproductive rights.

“I think that what happens here is that people vote, but not necessarily according to the lines of pro-choice or anti-choice,” explains Weisfeld. More often, people look at a candidate and say, “This is my buddy.”

“There’s a unique personal relationship to the elected officials here,” says Weisfeld. “When you vote for someone, you’re voting for someone you’ve known for some part of your life.” When that “buddy” is an anti-choice Democrat, like Brownsville’s Eddie Lucio Jr. of Texas’ mandatory adoption counseling bill fame, or Weslaco’s Armando “Mando” Martinez, personal relationships take precedence over political issues.

“They effectively have eliminated the possibility for their constituents to have access to a safe medical procedure,” says Weisfeld. “I don’t understand how these legislators think what they’re doing is good for their constituents, either medically, financially, or emotionally.”

Davis’ opponents have already begun targeted efforts to sway voters in the Rio Grande Valley and environs against the senator, who will likely face Republican Greg Abbott, Texas’ Obama-slamming, gun-toting, and Bible-beating attorney general, in 2014’s gubernatorial showdown. Anti-choice groups are counting on conservative South Texas to be appalled by Davis’ record on abortion rights, but South Texans’ views on reproductive rights, “pro-life” Democrats notwithstanding, are more nuanced than many anti-choice groups may like to believe, thanks in large part to Valley residents’ daily encounters with the economic realities of poverty.

“I don’t believe in [abortion],” says Mallory De La Rosa, “but I’m not going to force my belief on anyone else.”

Of course, family planning is intertwined with every other decision Valley residents of all income levels must make, and that reality is one that may push people to say one thing in public, in keeping with the cultural conservatism and Catholicism in the area, but another in the voting booth. To focus on abortion, even if that is Davis’ latest news-making cause, may be to sell Valley residents short.

Andrea Ferrigno, now the corporate vice president at Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider with five locations in Texas, has been on the front lines of abortion care in the Valley ever since she began working for her uncle, an OB-GYN who provided abortions in McAllen, after moving to McAllen from Venezuela for college.

“Recently, we’ve seen this change in the Valley that’s actually hopeful for some of us,” says Ferrigno, speaking by phone on one of her frequent five-hour drives between the Whole Woman’s clinics in Austin and McAllen. She says she’s seen a marked decline in clinic protestors in McAllen over the last four years or so, and an increasing political awareness around abortion. “We’ve seen this change happen, where there’s a lot more interest in reproductive rights and social justice, and we’re seeing that support in the community.”

What Ferrigno is seeing at Whole Woman’s clinics may be part of what Rosalie Weisfeld, with her four decades of political organizing in the Valley, describes as a swinging pendulum, one heading back in a more progressive, multi-issue oriented direction.

Weisfeld compares Davis’ appeal to that of Hillary Clinton and Ann Richards. She remembers both those women making explicit efforts to meet the people of the Rio Grande Valley where they were, talking about practical and intersectional problems and their potential solutions. People still talk, says Weisfeld, about the connective highway project that Ann Richards promised, and delivered on, in the ’90s, linking Highway 83 and U.S. 77.

In the first two weeks of her campaign, Wendy Davis has been quiet on the reproductive rights front, concentrating on highlighting her political record on education—it was, after all, her 2011 filibuster that first gave Davis name recognition across the state when she challenged conservative leaders who wanted to make deep cuts to public education. As a teenage mom who graduated from community college before working her way through Harvard Law, Davis has made accessible and affordable education a major focus of her work in the state legislature and in her earlier tenure as a Fort Worth City Council member.

But above all, Weisfeld says that party leaders, Davis campaigners, and the candidate herself must work to develop the personal relationships that people in the Valley so appreciate. And Weisfeld is optimistic about Davis’ chances. “She’s going to get a huge amount of support from South Texas.”

Below, view photos from Andrea Grimes’ trip to the Rio Grande Valley:

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News Abortion

Texas Advocates Speak Out as Abortion Access Hangs in the Balance

Teddy Wilson

Reproductive rights advocates with the #FightBackTX Truth Tour have traveled around Texas this month to raise awareness about the negative effects anti-choice laws have had on abortion access.

Young women on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station Friday read personal narratives about having abortions as part of the #FightBackTX Truth Tour. The speakers gave life to the experiences of women who have had an abortion as part of an ongoing effort to end the stigma around the procedure.

The Feminists for Reproductive Equity and Education, a student organization, sponsored the event on Texas A&M University’s campus.

Reproductive rights advocates with the #FightBackTX Truth Tour have traveled around Texas this month to raise awareness about the negative effects anti-choice laws have had on abortion access, and the further repercussions for reproductive health care that could come to pass in the coming months.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments March 2 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (formerly v. Cole), the case that will decide the constitutionality of the sweeping anti-choice restrictions passed by Texas Republicans in 2013.

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“It’s a challenge to the Texas law that has had such drastic impact on this state and could have even more detrimental impacts if the case doesn’t go our way,” Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, one of the sponsors of the tour, told Rewire.

Busby explained the importance of traveling around the state to raise awareness and ensure diverse voices from all women could be heard. “We really wanted to make sure that Texan voices were represented, and not just in Austin at a rally at the capitol, but across the state,” Busby said, referencing the battle waged at the tail end of the 2013 legislative session.

SB 5 was introduced during the first special legislative session called by then-Gov. Rick Perry (R) in 2013. Republican lawmakers tried to push through the bill at the end of the session, and it was filibustered in an act of political defiance that would have a lasting effect on the politics of abortion in the state and throughout the nation.

Then-state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) spoke on the chamber floor for more than 11 hours, preventing a vote from being called before the midnight deadline on June 25, 2013. The filibuster was broadcast live, and people tuned in throughout the country to watch the stream online.

It was a galvanizing moment for Sidney Coker, a sophomore special education major at Texas A&M. She watched the filibuster and the protests from her home in Irving, Texas, the summer before her senior year in high school.

“It definitely made me realize that these are issues that I’m going to have to care about as a woman,” Coker told Rewire.

The political victory of Davis’ filibuster was short-lived. An identical bill, HB 2, was passed and signed into law during a second special legislative session. 

“What we have to realize is that moment was more of a catalyst,” Busby said. “What we’re seeing now and is that we’re really working hard to do is continue that work.”

After Davis’ filibuster, Busby saw people from all over the state who had come to Austin to protest at the capitol return to their communities and begin having conversations about abortion access.

“Sen. Davis’ filibuster and all of the people who came and testified at the capitol broke the silence around abortion access. Now people are talking about this issue, talking about their own abortion experiences and why they support access to abortion care,” Busby said.

The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) filed a lawsuit challenging two provisions of HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement as applied to two clinics—Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen and Reproductive Services in El Paso—as well as the requirement that every abortion clinic meet the same building requirements as mini-hospitals.

If the Supreme Court sides with Texas, there will be only nine or ten clinics, licensed as ambulatory surgical centers, that will provide abortion services in a state with more than 5.4 million women of reproductive age, according to CRR.

“We already seeing the impact of this,” Busby said. “There was a study that came out last year about how there are waiting periods of up to 20 days in some areas,” a statistic found by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) at the University of Texas at Austin. “Anecdotally, that’s what I’m hearing as well: people calling our office saying that they can’t get an appointment and where can they go.”  

The TxPEP study concluded that the longer waiting periods would increase the number of second-trimester abortions. The study’s authors noted that this is concerning from a public health perspective because “later abortions, although very safe, are associated with a higher risk of complications compared to early abortions.”

“When you’re cutting off timely access to safe care, some folks are resorting to other options if they can’t get an appointment at a clinic or if they can’t get an appointment anywhere close to where they live,” Busby said.

The Planned Parenthood clinic in nearby Bryan closed in 2014 because it would not meet the requirements of HB 2, leaving Texas A&M students with few options for affordable reproductive health care. The Women’s Clinic on the Texas A&M campus is one of the few places where students can access reproductive health care.

Coker said that she goes to the Women’s Clinic to get hormonal birth control, but that is one of the only services they offer. “If you want anything else you have to go to an actual doctor off campus,” Coker said.

The lack of access, either due to distance or cost, has reportedly pushed some women as far as attempting to self-induce abortions. Between 100,000 and 240,000 Texas women of reproductive age have attempted to end a pregnancy on their own without medical assistance, according to a study by TxPEP.

“Texas has a long and proud tradition of standing up for reproductive rights,” Rachel Jacobson, the Texas state director for Shift, an organization working to “shift the stigma around abortion” that also sponsored the#FightBackTX Truth Tour, told the students in the plaza. “We know that no matter what happens at the Supreme Court we’re going to have challenges and we’re going to have opportunities ahead.”

Analysis Law and Policy

The Damaging Effects of This Year’s Texas Legislative Session Must Not Be Underestimated

Andrea Grimes

It would be difficult to imagine a 2015 session that could have rivaled the 2013 special summer session in terms of restrictions. But dangerous bills did get traction this year—and some made their way into law.

Texas lawmakers sent two explicitly abortion-related bills to the governor’s desk this legislative session; reduced access to the state’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Screenings program by kicking Planned Parenthood out of its provider base; and once again funded only a fraction of the family planning infrastructure needed across the state.

But post-session media coverage of the 84th Texas legislature has largely focused on the fact that anti-choice lawmakers failed to pass many other proposed new restrictions on legal abortion care, neglecting to note that the bills that did pass contain elements of a number of other individual proposals and downplaying their impact on some of the most marginalized Texans: abused, neglected, and orphaned minors. While the state capitol may have been full of fireworks during state Sen. Wendy Davis’ filibuster and the subsequent passage of HB 2 two years ago, activists told me, the damaging implications of this year’s session should not be underestimated.

Short of a governor-endorsed “personhood” law or outright abortion ban, it would be difficult to imagine a 2015 session that could have rivaled the 2013 special summer session in terms of restrictions. That’s when lawmakers passed the omnibus anti-abortion bill HB 2, which brought thousands of orange-clad Texans to the state capitol in protest. No legislation so far has been able to compare to HB 2’s widespread damage to reproductive freedom and access to legal abortion care in the state. 

But dangerous bills did get traction this year: a bill that would have banned insurance coverage for abortion care, and two attempts to ban abortion in cases of fetal anomaly incompatible with life outside the womb made it to tense floor debates in the capitol. Others made it into law. Planned Parenthood was ousted, yet again, from providing cancer screenings to low-income Texans. HB 416 requires abortion providers (and no other medical professionals) to take state-mandated training on human trafficking.

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And HB 3994, an omnibus bill that severely restricts the “judicial bypass” process by which abused, neglected, or orphaned minors can ask a judge to stand in for a parent and grant consent for the minor’s legal abortion care, was signed by Gov. Abbott last weekend. HB 3994 also requires Texans seeking abortion care to provide government-issued identification to their doctors to prove that they are older than 18 or be reported to the state health department if their doctor provides care without a patient’s proof of age.

Still, reporters turned to Texas reproductive rights activists not to gauge their reactions to the dangerous laws that did pass, but to find out how grateful they were that more harm wasn’t done.

Texas activists told me that this premise—that any time Texas doesn’t actually regress in terms of reproductive freedom, it’s a success story for the political left—gets more than a little old after a while and fails to address the totality of the new challenges that Texans are facing this year.

“It’s sad that we live in a state where this session would be seen as a victory,” said Nan Little Kirkpatrick, executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, a nonprofit that helps people traveling within and to North Texas for legal abortion care. While neither the abortion insurance ban nor the fetal anomaly abortion ban passed, she said that “the fact that these measures were even introduced shows that there are people in our legislature who are interested in continuing to chip away at all avenues of abortion access in Texas,” adding that the proposals “show contempt for people who have decided that abortion is the best option for themselves and their families.”

Take HB 416, the mandated human trafficking training bill that expressly targets abortion providers, and those who volunteer and work for them, as somehow uniquely responsible for addressing the issue of human trafficking in Texas. Democrats tried to amend HB 416 to include dentists, general practitioners, or emergency room doctors, all of whom might encounter survivors of sex trafficking, but those suggestions were, as they say in lege-speak, “not acceptable to the authors.”

Noted Kirkpatrick about HB 416, anti-choice lawmakers placed “restrictive requirements for abortion providers in an anti-sex trafficking bill, showing their interest in singling out abortion providers and displaying their lack of concern for what is truly best for sex trafficking survivors.”

Meanwhile, 2015’s banner anti-abortion legislation, HB 3994, will affect hundreds, rather than the millions, of Texans affected by HB 2. But the Texans it does target—abused, neglected, and orphaned minors—are among those with the least resources, and who by virtue of their age have no political recourse. It goes into effect in January, changes fundamental tenets of the state’s judicial bypass process, and implements the pre-abortion ID requirement.

Even when HB 3994 was proposed, Republican leaders questioned the bill’s fitness for actual implementation, citing its messy legal language and potentially unconstitutional provision that allows judges to automatically deny a minor’s petition for a legal abortion simply by failing to rule on their case. Current judicial bypass statute automatically grants those petitions. And while a minor could appeal a judge’s failure-to-rule, the process is especially difficult and lengthy for a teenager, or perhaps even a child, to navigate in a situation where time is of the essence: The minor must appeal directly back to the court that denied the original petition and only “if the minor shows that there has been a material change in circumstances since the time the court denied the application.”

At Jane’s Due Process, a nonprofit that assists minors throughout the judicial bypass process, executive director Tina Hester told Rewire that while the actual number of Texans affected by HB 3994 will be fewer than those affected by HB 2, “the young women I serve would take little comfort in that argument.”

HB 3994 forces most teens who are seeking a judicial bypass to file their petitions in their home counties, potentially putting the privacy of rural teens at risk, and requires teens to give their home phone number and address directly to a judge.

Said Hester: “From my vantage point of working with clients, the venue restrictions and the requirement that a minor must give a judge her home phone number and address is creepy. The whole reason she turns to the courts is because she doesn’t feel safe involving a parent.”

“These lawmakers think we live in a perfect world,” said Hester: one in which teens always have parents available who can help them make decisions about their unplanned pregnancies. During testimony on HB 3994, anti-abortion lawmakers and lobbyists repeatedly implied that teens who go through the judicial bypass process are deliberately deceptive kids trying to pull one over on their otherwise loving parents, necessitating a rewrite of the process. 

But in the past week, she said Jane’s Due Process has already assisted a 12-year-old rape victim and two unaccompanied minors who were assaulted on their way into the United States. An already intimidating process (to hear more about how it works, you can join a Texas teen on part of her judicial bypass journey in this Rewire report from 2013) will become nearly impossible to navigate for teens who are facing an unplanned pregnancy and whose parents might be abusive, incarcerated, or deceased. Already, those teens must appear before judges, in court, and share potentially scary or embarrassing parts of their life stories with a stranger who holds their future in their hands. Now, judges have longer to rule on their cases and must demand a higher standard of evidence—a higher standard of evidence from, say, a 13-year-old incest survivor—than current law requires. 

HB 3994 also requires a judge to swiftly involve law enforcement and the Department of Family and Protective Services in cases where a minor demonstrates that they’re being abused by a parent, effectively ensuring that an abusive parent will be notified that their teen, or perhaps even their child, has sought legal abortion care.

But a law doesn’t need to be explicitly related to abortion or reproductive health care to have the effect of limiting access to that care, noted Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, the Texas policy director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, which brought a number of Latinas to the capitol during the 84th legislative session so that they could, many for the first time, testify about legislation that would directly affect them.

“A lot of bad bills failed to pass related to abortion care, and I guess part of redefining success is celebrating a crisis averted, but I think that’s the type of outlook some folks have based on such a grim political reality,” said DeFrates. She noted that other legislation did make it through—bills that could very well have indirectly devastating consequences for many vulnerable Texans.

DeFrates told Rewire that not only is she concerned about the ID requirement in HB 3994 preventing immigrant Texans and Texans living in poverty from accessing legal abortion care, but she also sees other bills that have no explicit connection to abortion as detrimental to reproductive health-care access. HB 11, for example, is a sweeping $800 million border-related bill that expands the federal, state, and local law enforcement presence along the U.S.-Mexico border and will place southbound immigration checkpoints across the southern half of the state, further limiting travel options between the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, where the nearest abortion-providing ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs) are located. If HB 2 goes into effect, Texans from the Valley will lose the last remaining abortion provider—the Whole Woman’s Health of McAllen, which is a licensed clinic but not an ASC—and be forced to travel north for care.

“If you’re undocumented, you can’t get past [the checkpoints] and if the health care you need is on the other side of that checkpoint, then you get no health care,” said DeFrates. She also said that a smuggling provision in the new border law “will encourage local law enforcement to essentially racially profile,” if they see groups of Latinas traveling together. 

“We know that a lot of Latinas have to carpool and get together and ride share and make their [doctor] appointments on the same day,” said DeFrates. “What happens if that raises a red flag for local law enforcement who now have the authority to act in some federal capacity? It’s concerning.”

Lenzi Sheible, the founder of Fund Texas Choice, a nonprofit that helps Texans with the logistics of traveling long distances for legal abortion care, said that she found nothing to “celebrate” about the 84th legislature.

For one thing, she noted, it was disappointing to, once again, see affirmative measures to increase access to abortion care fail.

“Nothing that affirmatively improved abortion access was accomplished, of course,” wrote Sheible in an email interview. “Texans really needed some helpful legislation to be passed, and it wasn’t. Since the legislature has missed that opportunity, Texans seeking abortions will continue to face enormously difficult barriers.”

She predicted that bills that didn’t make it to the governor’s desk this year could easily see passage in the next session.

“The political will for their passage was there,” said Sheible in an email interview. “The bills were defeated by some procedural issues, that’s all.”

Sheible said she sees the failure of some anti-choice legislation as a logistical, rather than a political, issue: “This session, I learned that pretty much the only thing protecting my body from the full force of anti-choice wrath is the fact that the Texas legislature was a bit pressed for time this year.”

And as lawmakers continue to whittle away at what little is left to restrict when it comes to access to comprehensive reproductive health care, those time constraints will become less and less imperative. There simply will be less damage to do because so much has already been done. But Heather Busby, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said that she’s fully prepared for the fight.

“The bright side of this session is that many champions for reproductive health care in the Texas legislature continued to fight for Texas families, and new champions emerged,” she told Rewire. “Although they’re outnumbered, many lawmakers haven’t given up on fighting for access to health care, so we cannot give up on them.”


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