Texas Civil Rights Project Protects the Poor, Disenfranchised

Mimi Marziani, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, explained the role of the 25-year-old organization she leads through the eyes of the clients the TCRP has helped during the January meeting of the Women’s Policy Forum.

“It’s the honor of my life to work with people I work with and to help the clients we represent,” Marziani said. She joined the TCRP in February of 2016 from Battleground Texas where she was legal director. The TCRP, which has offices throughout Texas, recently opened a Dallas branch.

Marziani explained the impact of TCRP by telling clients’ stories.

*Totsya Watkins, an African-American mother of two who put herself through college, moved to a new neighborhood and was eager to vote in her first mid-term election in 2014. She took her two daughters to the polls with her and was told by poll officials she wasn’t registered. She thought she was registered because when she updated her driver’s license online, she was asked if she wanted to register to vote, and she clicked “yes.” The Department of Public Safety disagrees with modernizing voter registration online as a matter of policy. Therefore, Watkins wasn’t registered to vote. But, she wasn’t notified of that situation.

“The state has received thousands of complaints from people like Watkins who were disenfranchised simply because they updated their voter information online. The State of Texas has refused to take common sense steps to comply with the law, forcing us to bring a lawsuit against them,” she said.

*Carina Canaan, a young Latina woman from El Paso, is also a hardworking mother, who has struggled to make ends meet. In 2016, she spent 10 days in jail for traffic and parking fines she couldn’t pay, even though the U.S. constitution prohibits imprisoning people for debts. To make matters worse she was pregnant while she was in jail. Carina still can’t get her driver’s license while she has surcharges pending. She’s been turned down for several well-paid jobs because she doesn’t have a license. Carina’s story illustrates a serious problem — the over incarceration of poor Texans, often for low-level, Class C misdemeanors, often with disregard for procedural safeguards. In El Paso, for instance, the city has a stated policy of requiring people like Carina to pay 25 percent of whatever they owe upfront, period.

“Our lawsuit seeks to invalidate that unconstitutional law and implement other reforms that will protect Carina and the more than 34,000 debtors in El Paso who were unjustly imprisoned last year alone,” Marziani said.

*Client A – Like one-third of those who end up incarcerated in Texas, A. has long struggled with serious mental illness, including bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. She was also an alcoholic. But, despite her inner demons, A. was also a caring mother for two twin girls, and did everything in her power to provide for them. A was arrested and put into jail. A. and her family told county officials about her mental illness, but their pleas were ignored. A. was left in a cell, alone, without proper monitoring and with telephone cords — which she ultimately used to hang herself. A. died before being convicted of any crime; indeed, she had not even had a chance to appear before a judge.

“Late last year, we won a lawsuit on behalf of A.’s family. The proceeds will allow her daughters to go to college, paving a better future for them. In addition, the county had agreed to reform its mental health treatment policies, to ensure that no other children lose their parents while on the State’s watch. And, we’ll soon announce a statewide initiative to combat jail suicides in Texas, which have taken more than 300 lives since 2005, " she said.

*Juana Gomez –a Mexican immigrant without legal status living in the Rio Grande Valley, Gomez has lived in this country since she was a girl. Now, she has two little girls of her own, both born in Texas and — as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment — U.S. citizens. But state officials refused to issue birth certificates to Juana for her daughters. They claimed that the IDs she presented, a Matriculate issued by the Mexican Consulate, and even her Mexican passport, weren’t good enough. Without birth certificates, Juana was terrified that her daughters would be taken away — including when Border Patrol agents once demanded to see their birth certificates at a checkpoint in the Valley.

“Despite the risk of exposing her immigration status, Juana bravely took a stand against the State’s actions. She couldn’t stand the idea that her daughters, lacking birth certificates, would grow up as second class citizens in the country of their birth; a country she has grown to love,” Marziani said.

 In the summer of 2016, with allies at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the organizing group LUPE, TCRP won a settlement with the State to ensure that Juana’s daughters, and all babies born in Texas, can obtain birth certificates.

Marziani said the victory was a critical win for the hundreds of thousands of mixed status families in Texas, as well as a win for everyone who respects the U.S. Constitution.

Finally, Marziani said her clients face deprivations that many of us cannot even imagine. “Somehow they find the courage to stand up for what is right,” she said. “Most are driven by their children or grandchildren. They want to make the state better than when they came

into it.”

TCRP is focused on using legal advocacy to right systemic wrongs in each of these areas. According to Marziani, impact litigation is the best shot at forcing change. She said: “By remaining bold and creative in the courtroom, deepening our relationships with allies, and combining smart communications strategies with our legal work, we’ll continue to lead the charge to protect civil rights in Texas in 2017.”

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WOMEN’S POLICY FORUM   |      P.O. Box 11246   Fort Worth, Texas 76110    womenspolicyforum@gmail.com