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Wall debate obscures other struggles at the border

SAN DIEGO — In Washington, it’s all about the wall. At the border, it’s only part of the story.

Border authorities are struggling with outdated facilities ill-equipped to handle the growing increase in family migrants, resulting in immigrants being released onto the streets every day. The immigration court system is so clogged that some wait years for their cases to be resolved, and lacks funding to pay for basic things like in-person translators. An increase in sick children arriving at the border is putting a strain on medical resources.

But the Washington debate has focused almost exclusively on the $5 billion in wall spending that President Donald Trump wants. Other proposals being discussed keep the rest of the Homeland Security department funding at existing levels.

“The wall is a tool. Unfortunately even if it’s implemented across the border it isn’t a solution to all the problems,” said Victor M. Manjarrez, a former Border Patrol sector chief with more than 20 years of experience, now a professor at the University of Texas-El Paso.

Trump has suggested migrants won’t bother to come if he gets his way, making other immigration issues less problematic. Walls and fencing currently blanket about one-third of the border — mostly built under President George W. Bush — and the president wants to extend and fortify them. But contracting, designing and building new wall systems complete with updated technology could take years.

Trump met Friday with Congressional leaders who said the president threatened the shutdown could go on for “years.” Trump later said he’d considered using executive authority to get a wall built on the border.

“You can call it a barrier, you can call it whatever you want,” Trump said a day earlier, flanked by immigration union heads. “But essentially we need protection in our country. We’re going to make it good. The people of our country want it.”

Meanwhile, the House passed a bill Thursday evening to fund the government without the $5 billion, with new Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling the wall an “immorality.”

The debate overlooks major bottlenecks in the immigration system as more families and children traveling alone turn themselves in to authorities to seek asylum, instead of trying to elude capture as almost everyone did just a few years ago. In some cases, migrants are climbing existing border fence and seeking out agents to surrender.

The backlog in immigration courts has more than doubled to 1.1 million cases since shortly before Trump took office, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Families and children now account for about six of 10 Border Patrol arrests, but there are only about 3,300 family detention beds and the number of unaccompanied children in government care has soared under Trump.

Border crossers are stuck in short-term holding cells for days and there has been a spike in sick migrant children, including two who died in custody.

In addition, the wall will do little to address the issue of visa overstays — when immigrants come to the country legally and remain here after their papers expire. Authorities say there were nearly 740,000 overstays during a recent 12-month period.

And border agents continue to struggle with growing numbers children and families. Officials say they are stopping about 2,000 people a day, more than 60 percent children and families, higher than during many periods under President Barack Obama. They referred 451 cases to a medical provider from Dec. 22 to Dec. 30, more than half children.

David Aguilar, the Border Patrol chief from 2004 to 2010 and a former acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, said agencies that oversee long-term immigration custody need more funding to immediately step in after the Border Patrol makes an arrest. He says the agency is “overwhelmed” in dealing with all the children and families coming across the border now, much different from 1990s and 2000s.

“The demographics and the flows that are crossing the southern border are very different from the demographics and flows when we built the original walls ... back in 2006 and 2008,” he said.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, said stations were not built to manage the crush of families coming over. The wall was important, he said, but so were these other issues. He said they needed budgeting for medical care and mental health care for children in their facilities.

Trump has significantly increased the number of immigration judges but, A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said it came without enough support staff. About a week before the shutdown, judges were told the courts ran out of money for many in-person translators and that, as a result, it would have to reach them telephonically. A hearing that might last three minutes would last 20 minutes.

The shutdown is already having an impact on the immigration system. E-Verify, the online government system where employees can confirm eligibility of their employees to work legally in the U.S. is down.

Courts were only functioning for those who were detained. Other cases will be reset for a date once funding resumes, according to the website for the courts, which are overseen by the Department of Justice.

Immigration lawyers said that will only worsen the already overwhelming backlog. Immigration attorney Jeremy McKinney said he expects cases in Charlotte, North Carolina will be moved to 2020 because this year’s docket is already full.

“The situation is a lose-lose,” he said.

In contrast, the funding problems have only minimally affected the U.S. government agency tasked with reviewing immigrants’ applications for green cards and other benefits. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is a fee-based agency, said its offices are open and immigrants should attend appointments as expected.

Major shakeup on horizon for local judiciary roster
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

As the dust settles from the 2018 midterm elections, a potential shake-up of unprecedented proportions is brewing quietly around the historically stable McLennan County judiciary.

Traditionally, once McLennan County judges get into office, many remain for decades and rarely are challenged for re-election. But a number of domino-effect changes to that equation in coming years could project the current slate of local judges onto a turnover carousel and result in a dramatically different roster.

Aside from possible changes at the McLennan County Courthouse, U.S. District Judge Alan Albright started the process of replacing a longstanding judge when he was sworn into office in September to replace disgraced U.S. District Judge Walter Smith Jr.

Smith, Waco’s first and only full-time federal judge, served 32 years. He retired after being sanctioned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which concluded Smith made unwanted sexual advances against a female court employee in his chambers in 1998 and lied to investigators about it.

The first domino that fell recently at the McLennan County Courthouse started at the top, the fourth-floor home of the 10th Court of Appeals.

Justice Al Scoggins, 63, left office at the beginning of the month with four years remaining on his six-year term. Scoggins, who defeated Justice Felipe Reyna in 2010, was the first person from Ellis County elected to the court.


Scoggins, who did not move to Waco, said he decided to leave office because he grew tired of driving back and forth from Ellis County.

Gov. Greg Abbott will name Scoggins’ successor, and at least four candidates, including 414th State District Judge Vicki Menard, are seeking the appointment.

Menard became the first woman to serve as a state district judge in McLennan County when former Gov. Rick Perry appointed her the first judge of the court when it was created in 2005.

Should Menard get the nod to replace Scoggins, Abbott will name someone to replace her as judge of 414th State District Court, which primarily hears civil and family law matters.

Abbott’s appointee to the 10th Court of Appeals will have to run for election in 2020 and again in 2022, when Scoggins’ term expires.

The 10th Court of Appeals is a three-judge panel and is one of 14 intermediate appellate courts in Texas. It hears both civil and criminal appeals from courts in an 18-county Central Texas region.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Judge Matt Johnson is considering moving up to seek a seat on Waco's 10th Court of Appeals when it becomes vacant in two years.

Scoggins’ colleague on the 10th Court of Appeals, Justice Rex Davis, said he will leave the court when his term expires in December 2020. Judge Matt Johnson is considering moving up to seek Davis’ seat in two years, which would create a vacancy in Johnson’s 54th State District Court if Johnson were to be elected. That position also would be filled through gubernatorial appointment. If another candidate were to defeat Johnson, he could retain his post in 54th State District Court.

“The planned retirement of Justice Rex Davis from the 10th Court of Appeals, where he has served with such integrity and sound judgment, will be a significant loss to the Texas judiciary,” Johnson said in a statement. “I am seriously considering running for the position and have filed with the Texas Ethics Commission to begin the campaign process. At this time I am not ready to make a formal announcement but anticipate doing so later this year. Having presided over more than 225 jury trials during my 12 years as a district judge, I have the extensive experience the job demands, if the voters will allow me to serve on the 10th Court of Appeals.”

Johnson is one of two state district judges who preside over felony criminal courts in McLennan County. He succeeded Judge George Allen, who retired in 2006 after 24 years on the 54th State District Court bench.

Johnson’s father, Derwood Johnson, served 25 years as judge of 74th State District Court.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Judge Ralph Strother, 75, will retire at the end of his current term in December 2020. State law requires judges to retire once they reach age 75.

In other expected changes, 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother, 75, will retire at the end of his current term in December 2020. Strother was appointed to the court in 1999 after longtime Judge Bill Logue was forced to retire when he turned 75 in January 1999.

Strother has benefited from a change in the law since then that allows state district judges who turn 75 in the middle of a four-year term to complete their term before stepping down.

When Logue retired, he was the longest-tenured state judge in Texas, serving since 1960. Before that, he also served as county judge.

Thomas West, who worked as a McLennan County prosecutor for almost 10 years, said he plans to run for Strother’s seat and will file the paperwork indicating his intent to run in the coming week. West, 54, is a partner with the Waco law firm Dunnam and Dunnam, where he has worked for the past 18 years. He is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Also, Jim Meyer, 68, is starting his fifth, four-term as judge of 170th State District Court. He said he might consider retirement at the end of his term, when he will be 72 and would have held the position for 20 years.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

County Court-at-Law Judge Vik Deivanayagam participates in a swearing in ceremony Thursday for District Attorney Barry Johnson. Deivanayagam has not announced plans to seek another office, but several higher local courts will be getting new judges in the coming years.

Other possible changes in the judicial landscape could occur if Judges Brad Cates, Vik Deivanayagam or Fernando Villarreal decide to seek one of the positions in a higher court. Cates and Deivanayagam are both McLennan County Court-at-Law judges whose terms expire in 2022. Villarreal is Precinct 5 justice of the peace.

All three said this week they are not considering a run for higher office at this time, but are leaving their options open.

Waco attorney Russ Hunt, who has practiced criminal law in McLennan County for 41 years, said he cannot remember another time when there were so many potential changes in the judicial system in such a short time span.

“In my experience, this situation right now is highly unusual,” Hunt said. “It is very strange that this would all of a sudden occur. It is kind of a perfect storm. Maybe it’s an imperfect storm.”

Another stark change in the legal arena at the McLennan County Courthouse started last week, when Barry Johnson took over for Abel Reyna as district attorney. Johnson’s father, Judge Joe N. Johnson, was part of the tradition of long-serving judges in McLennan County.

Joe N. Johnson, who affectionately called the McLennan County Courthouse “The Rock,” went to work in that historic building for 40 years, serving 24 years as justice of the peace and 16 years as judge of 170th State District Court.

Judge Vic Hall was the only judge in McLennan County history to serve on four judicial levels. He retired in 1990 after 34 years in the judiciary. Hall was appointed justice of the peace in 1956 and was elected county court-at-law judge two years later. At age 36, he was elected 54th State District judge, becoming the youngest elected district judge in the state at that time. He later served 22 years as a justice on Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals.

Hall’s colleague, Judge Frank G. McDonald, was Texas’ longest-tenured state judge when he retired in 1988. McDonald served 36 years as chief justice of Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals. Before that, he served six years as judge of the 66th State District Court in Hill County.

City studying impact fees to offset costs of new developments
 Phillip Ericksen  / 

With an eye on reining in sprawl, the Waco City Council has commissioned a study on whether developers should pay one-time impact fees to offset the costs of public infrastructure needed to support what they build.

A 25-year plan the council approved in 2016 prioritizes inner city growth and avoiding pitfalls associated with growth on the outskirts of town, including high infrastructure costs and traffic issues.

Developers are already monitoring the situation, but as the study gets underway, officials have not publicly discussed details on the amount of any potential impact fees or specific areas that would be subject to fees. The city council approved a contract last month with consulting firm Freese and Nichols Inc. for a 14- to 18-month study, and the firm is tentatively scheduled to discuss its plans during a Feb. 5 council meeting.

City planning director Clint Peters said growth areas where Waco’s housing market has been hottest, including far western Waco, the Highway 84 corridor and China Spring, are likely to be considered in the study.

A partially complete rebuilding of Ritchie Road is one example of infrastructure needs that compete for resources needed throughout the city, Peters said.

“The council has a high priority to maintain our streets, but those dollars are competing against widening projects for Ritchie Road, and some of those growth areas that are being generated by new growth,” he said.

Last year, $6.7 million of the city’s $10 million streets budget went to Ritchie Road and Speegleville Road widening.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

“Sold” signs stand outside homes under construction in the Park Meadows subdivision near Hewitt.

The overall streets budget for 2019 has been boosted to $17.1 million in an effort to keep up with maintenance in the central city, but $7.6 million of that will go to Speegleville Road.

The city’s property tax revenue is up about $72 million for the upcoming year, or 9.8 percent, and sales tax revenue is also expected to increase by 2.8 percent.

But the state Legislature is set to debate the amount of property tax revenue cities can collect, and leaders at City Hall want to ensure they can fund basic services.

“Even with the current system, cities are having a hard time keeping up with infrastructure needs,” Peters said. “That’s why you see, especially growth cities, using impact fees. It’s not really a new thing.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

“Sold” signs stand outside homes under construction in the Park Meadows subdivision near Hewitt.

Kay Vinzant, executive officer of the Heart of Texas Builders Association, said she is eager for more details of the study on impact fees.

“Any time they raise prices, it always eliminates a number of people to buy a home,” Vinzant said.

Homebuilding companies D.R. Horton and Stylecraft Builders are collaborating on a 1,500-lot subdivision called Park Meadows in far western Waco near Hewitt.

Between January and October last year, Waco issued 473 permits to build single-family homes, many of them for Park Meadows, the Tribune-Herald reported last month.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

“Sold” signs stand outside homes under construction in the Park Meadows subdivision near Hewitt.

Stylecraft owner Doug French said impact fees likely would not affect his business overall, only the location of his developments.

“You end up pushing buyers around,” French said. “If the city of Waco, or wherever they’re providing sewer and water and infrastructure, has impact fees, and other places don’t, the builders and the developers and the buyers end up going to places that are more affordable.”

He said the Interstate 35 corridor is popular right now because of its affordability, and major metropolitan areas are generally less attractive to developers.

“I completely get that the cities have to fund infrastructure. … It’s a really difficult situation that cities are in,” French said. “I definitely don’t envy them.”

The Freese and Nichols study will include public input sessions and a city-appointed advisory committee that will coordinate it.

Chris McGowan, a former urban development director at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce who is now a consultant, said a recent study by the nonprofit Strong Towns found that inner-city development thriving on legacy infrastructure can create more net value for a city than development requiring new roads, water and wastewater systems.

“Generally speaking, infrastructure costs are more expensive the more expansive you have to go out,” McGowan said. “From an urban planner’s perspective, impact fees have been beneficial to drive investment back in toward the core.”

Analysis: Without new state money, can Texas still call it school finance reform?

Two of the most expensive ways to make Texas voters happy just happen to be the top priorities of the state leaders and legislators assembling next week in Austin.

The state’s school finance system is out of balance when it comes to raising money for education, and out of date when it comes to distributing the money it raises. It’s expensive to re-balance — even when overall spending remains the same — because it pits one set of taxpayers who’ll be paying more against others who’ll be paying less.

And lowering property taxes — a closely related but different financial puzzle — is both expensive and elusive. Most modern attempts to cut property taxes have cost the state a lot of money and left most property owners wondering why the advertised savings never appeared.

Texas’ school finance solution might not be about spending more money, though that was one of the recommendations in a new report from the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, formed to recommend a top-to-bottom rewrite of the state system for funding public education. If there’s already enough money in the system, then the solution may be redistributing it more equitably.

That redistribution, however, is expensive. The state has to raise money on its own if it wants to replace what is currently being raised from cranky property taxpayers. And the state has to figure out who will be the winners and the losers if spending formulas are adjusted, as those “adjustments” mean spending more money on one set of students and less on others.

Even so, the plans advanced so far for public school finance in Texas, as ambitious as some of them are, remain cautiously vague when it comes to sources of new money.

In its final report, that commission said it wanted to: balance local and state funding for public schools; to rework “outdated or otherwise inefficient allotments, weights and programs;” to increase equity in schools “with significantly greater investment in low-income and other historically underperforming student groups;” to reduce the growth of property taxes and reliance on the so-called “Robin Hood” system that moves money from wealthier districts to poorer ones; to encourage adoption of “data-informed best practices” and to immediately spend more money to do it; and to increase per-pupil funding in the future based on the results of those practices.

Even if not one more dime is spent on public education in Texas, leveling the fundraising load would force the state to raise more money. The last rebalancing, in 2006, put the state and local shares of public school spending at about 45 percent each, with the other 10 percent coming from the federal government. Now, the numbers are 55.5 percent local and 35 percent state, with the rest coming from the feds. Roughly speaking, it would cost more than $11 billion to balance that, an amount that would require the state to find that much money somewhere — kind of an early Halloween for some set of taxpayers — in order to lower school taxes for property owners.

It is a financial problem, but it’s also a political one. That local money is raised from property taxes. Texas has the sixth-highest property taxes in the country, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that tracks state and federal tax issues. Property owners vote. Voters are screaming at the state’s politicians to ease the load. One reason state leaders want to cut property taxes is to make those people happy. But it’s a lot to ask: Those same elected servants fear how their masters — you — might react if they increase other taxes to offset cuts in property taxes.

The formula changes are problematic in another way. It costs more to educate some students than others, and state funding for school districts is adjusted to take those differences into account. Changing those outdated adjustment formulas without new money inevitably means spending more on some students and less on others. That will ripple through each school district in a different way — and those ripples will be noted in advance by lawmakers trying to figure out what the changes will do to their schools at home.

It’s as tricky as the property tax part: expensive to tinker with, and fraught with political risks for politicians who are trying — whether you believe it or not — to produce a great public school education for Texans for as little money as possible.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Baylor guard Makai Mason (10) attempts a three-point shot late in the game against TCU.