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Paso del Norte Staff

Presenting the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project

By James C. Harrington

The Texas Civil Rights Project is working with a group of El Paso community people to set up the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project. We already have one staff person, Gabby García; and, in August, a lawyer will be on board.

Why is the Center opening? For the last few years, people in El Paso have often asked us to help do this. During the last decade, TCRP has handled a good deal of litigation in El Paso. For example, we worked with VOLAR to require accessible ballots for blind voters and to set up good wheel chair seating in stadium-style theaters, like Cinemark. Both these cases helped start a national impetus to do the same. Now, accessible election systems and new theater designs are written into federal law.

We also worked with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid regarding the 2003 Montwood student walkout and inappropriate police response. Thanks to the current city administration and police chief, the case resulted in improved training for nearly all law enforcement officials in El Paso County, and new procedures regarding demonstrations. The result of that settlement was seen in the peaceful student immigration demonstrations on May 1.

We've also been involved in federal cases involving a jail suicide and a Border Patrol officer's sexual abuse of undocumented women. And, for more than a year, we have carried a full case load of VAWA clients in the El Paso area. Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), undocumented abused women and children can separate from their spouses and obtain legal status in the United States. Before VAWA, the abusers would threaten them with deportation, if the women reported the assaults to the police - and threaten to keep the children.

So, it makes sense to establish a more solid presence in the 15-county area of West Texas. This is the first civil rights center of its kind in West Texas, and will concentrate on education and litigation. The focus of the litigation will be working with community groups to help create systemic change. We will rely on community organizing efforts to select cases that help empower those efforts and improve conditions. We won't be able to handle all the cases that come to us (currently, we have to reject about 95% of cases because we don't have the staff to handle them - so great is the need in Texas), which makes it important to choose cases carefully and with community guidance.

Civil rights problems in El Paso are like those everywhere - police misconduct, voting rights, denial of equal protection to poor people (the water districts, being a good example), First Amendment, jail conditions and treatment, discrimination on the basis of disability, national origin and sex, to name a few.

El Paso, however, has an added issue, and a significant one - abuse of undocumented immigrants and people "profiled" as undocumented immigrants. Sheriff Leo Samaniego's illegal roadblocks in the colonias and rural areas is a prime example. He thinks he can create "de-constitutionalized zones," at his discretion. We will help teach the sheriff a lesson about the Bill of Rights.

The El Paso area has a long history of civil rights activism, buttressed by the labor movement. A few early examples are the cotton field strikes, the Confederación de Organizaciones Mexicanas y Latino Americanas in the late 1930's to eradicate racist policies and the African American movement, also in the 1930's, joined by the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. And, of course, there's the recent movie "Glory Road," about then Texas Western College in El Paso - and the breakthrough in NCAA sports.

That activism continues strong to this day, and we will do our best to help strengthen and support it through the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Center. We are proud to have been invited to be part of this movement. We will do all we can to be worthy of the trust put in us by those who invited us to join with them to help improve the lives of people in West Texas.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

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You may contact the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Center (Gabby García) at 2211 E. Missouri Avenue (Suite 100), El Paso, TX 79903 (915-532-3799 phone; 915-532-0621 fax). Members of the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Organizing Committee for the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Center are Dennis Bixler-Marquez, Maceo Dailey, Ed and Maria Hernández, Harold Howell, Virginia Price, Carmen Rodríuez, Daniél Solís, Kathleen Staudt, and Annette Torres.

James C. Harrington is Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a program of Oficina Legal del Pueblo Unido, Inc., a nonprofit IRS 501(c)(3) foundation, promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas. All contributions are tax-deductible.

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