Q&A with ACLU’s Terri Burke

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Terri Burke
Terri Burke

Executive Director of the Texas ACLU

Interview by Gwen Gibson

Terri Burke
Terri Burke

Q. You have tackled many controversial issues during your two and a half years as chief executive of the Texas ACLU. Your ongoing efforts to protect the rights of immigrants and to guarantee religious freedom for all seem to stir up the most debates. How do you explain your stand on these contentious issues to your supporters and to your detractors?

A. One of the first things I stress is that we are talking about immigrant rights, we are not talking about immigration reform. The Constitution doesn’t have those words in it. The Constitution talks about people; it doesn’t talk about citizens. The way we treat our immigrants is a reflection of who we are as a people and whether they’re here legally or illegally, whether they’ve broken the law or not, they deserve the due process that everybody in this country gets according to the Constitution. I don’t ask you to believe that immigration policy should be changed. I don’t ask you to believe that 12 million people ought to be thrown out of the country or 12 million people ought to be let in. I just ask you to think about who we are as a people and what are our very most fundamental American values. When we don’t afford these folks the basic constitutional rights they are entitled to, we diminish ourselves as Americans.

Q. How do you respond when people say you are defending criminals when you defend the rights of illegal immigrants?

A. I say it’s no different when you have an American accused of committing a burglary. In this country we believe that every person is entitled to an attorney and a trial and a jury of his or her peers. Am I coddling a criminal when I say that? Maybe you think I am. I think it’s about basic rights. My answer is, “What part of the Constitution is it that you don’t like?”

Q. And what about religious freedom?

A. It’s the same thing. I think people in Texas are more in step with my point of view than they are with the State Board of Education, for example, or with the people who have a Bible curriculum in their school.

Q. And your point of view is?

A. I’m the mother of two, a grandmother of one. Our family is steeped in the Episcopal Church. I always wanted our daughters to learn our religion from us and not from someone who would teach them a value system rooted in a religion different from ours. Now I also have respect for those who are atheists or agnostics, but I think most of us in Texas have some religious foundation in our lives. That is our family value and we wanted our children to be taught our religious view first, at home and in our church. Only with that grounding would they be prepared to learn about other faiths and cultures. We did this through friends or special events where we could sit with our girls and afterwards be able to discuss what we had heard.

Q. You say the State Board of Education has made Texas the butt of jokes for national comedians by inserting conservative views and a religious point of view into the curriculum of Texas public schools. The board, for instance, demoted Thomas Jefferson by deleting his name from a list of influential political philosophers. How can the Texas ACLU stop these developments when a majority of the education board has voted for them?

A. We can do a number of things. We are working in partnership with our good friends at Texas Freedom Network who have done a wonderful job of raising Texans’ awareness of the electoral process with respect to the State Board of Ed. We are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. We are not engaged in anything relating to this election. But I was amazed by the many smart Texans who didn’t know they had elected these people. They thought Rick Perry had appointed all of them. You might want to blame Rick Perry for a lot of things, but you can’t blame him for this. Our efforts now are going to be on three levels: public education, legislation and—potentially—litigation.

Q. So, you might bring a lawsuit?

A. We don’t threaten lawsuits, we just file ’em. We are certainly doing some research. We have a very strong public education department, a strong policy department and an extraordinary legal department. We’re taking the three of these and doing what I call integrated advocacy. First, we’re doing a report on the processes, the rule-making, and whatever else guides the State Board of Education. We will look at their history, and they have a long history. They’ve been an elected board, an unelected board, an appointed board. They’ve had a million iterations. So we’ll look at that; then we’ll analyze the social studies curriculum, specifically, and hit on three or four themes, one of which is they’ve thrown the establishment clause (specifying the separation of church and state) out the window. Another is the fact that, according to them, only white folks have ever accomplished anything in Texas. And so we’ll look at the key themes and where we think they’re flawed we’ll make some recommendations about what we think could be done.

We’re going to call for a moratorium on any further action on implementing these TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) until after the election in November. There’s a vote on this curriculum at the end of May. One of the things we’re investigating is whether they can stop, legally. And if they can we’re going to say, “Stop, don’t do any more.” Once they post these TEKS (this was done on April 15), the public has 30 days to comment. We’re going to urge Texans to do so. We’re going to urge legislators to talk to these people. I think there are a lot of so-called conservatives out there who find this (curriculum) offensive and they need to speak out.

So that’s the grass-roots movement. As for litigation, that’s where we’re doing research. We don’t know if there’s a way to litigate this. Despite what the headlines say, litigation is always the last resort for the ACLU. We try to do everything but. Finally, all of this will inform our legislative work next session. In 2011, we will go to the legislature to bring about real change to the State Board of Ed.

There are at least three people on that (15-member) board right now who won’t be there in January. We know that and they’re part of the right-wing fringe. Don McLeroy, the former chairman, was defeated in the Republican primary. Cynthia Dunbar didn’t stand for reelection, and Geraldine Miller in Dallas was defeated. Two other seats are up which could potentially bring in more open thinkers.

Q. The ACLU has opposed the distribution of Bibles in Texas schools. Tell me about your efforts to prevent this, when Gideon Bibles were being distributed on some public school campuses.

A. That was a real public education effort. We did open records requests in some 10 school districts and learned how they were doing it. And we put out a document giving guidelines to parents and educators about what is permissible. It’s permissible to pass out the Bible if it’s out on a table in a place where a kid can walk by and pick it up, or not. It is not permissible for the principal to call students into his office, individually, as one was doing, and hand them Bibles.

Q. So you were able to stop this without legal action?

A. Absolutely. We pointed this out to the schools and to the parents and the schools are abiding by the law.

Q. What do you think of the new state law requiring Texas public schools to incorporate Bible literacy in the curriculum?

A. First of all, the state law really doesn’t require it. You’re not alone in thinking that. We’ve discovered that people on the left and the right were out there saying that. The left was saying, “Oh, my God.” The right was saying, “Get it done.”
What the law says is that the schools may include a Bible curriculum if it is rooted in the teaching of history or literature. I think this is a slippery slope, but if it’s a part of history and literature, that’s great. The problem is the State Board of Ed refused, as instructed by the state legislature, to write a curriculum guideline. Without a curriculum guideline there is no training of teachers on the subject. So you have school districts all over the state creating their own curriculum or, worse, purchasing this turnkey curriculum from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools in North Carolina.
I maintain the State Board of Ed was brilliant. By not writing a curriculum guideline, every school district can do whatever the heck they want to do and we have to go district by district by district (to find out).

Q. The Texas ACLU releases an annual “Banned Books Report.” What books are on your latest list?

A. One is “Friday Nights Lights,” by H.G. Bissinger. This book was banned by a Texas public school, which I think is hysterically funny. I think it made the list because in Texas we just don’t want football to be maligned. Also on the list this year is a popular vampire series, including two books in the series that haven’t even been written yet.

Q. The immigrant population in Texas—legal and illegal—has been growing steadily over the years. How do you assess the impact these immigrants, especially Hispanics, have made on state and the city of Austin.

A. My perception is that you have two extremes. You have immigrants who are key to much of the new generation of business in Austin and to the University of Texas. Their contributions are unlimited. At the other end of the spectrum, you have folks who are struggling to make it. And, as the cliché goes, you have other immigrants in this town taking jobs no one else wants to do. As diverse as the population of Austin is, I don’t know how well the immigrants of Mexico and Central America are assimilating. I don’t see a lot of that. If they are people of education and money, they’ve assimilated, but I think those who are not well off are living in their own world. I hear this from my friends from Spanish speaking countries. They don’t see the multiculturalism of Austin. I think at the University you have lot of folks from South Asia who are well accepted and well educated.

Q. The ACLU recently won its fight to overturn the third in a series of ordinances enacted by the City of Farmers Branch in its efforts to prevent property owners from renting to immigrants. Have you seen similar—perhaps more subtle—attempts to deny apartments to immigrants, especially Hispanics, in other cities?

A. We’ve seen more of it in the Dallas suburbs than anywhere else. The city of Irving is doing something perfectly legal. There’s no way to stop it. They have four tiers of rental units. Tier four would be your newest, more expensive apartment units. Level one includes your really old units that are grandfathered out of the building codes and not even very safe. Anyone wishing to rent a level one or level two unit in Irving must complete a form and allow a criminal background check. If you’ve ever had a felony or a sex crime conviction the owner cannot rent to you. There’s an appeal process if your crime was something less than murder or if it was 50 years ago.

We met with the mayor and city manager and others in Irving. They are very nice folks; they say they are doing this because they don’t want these apartments turned into drug havens. An admirable goal. But we believe it’s up to the police to stamp out drug havens. What the city is doing is law enforcement on the cheap.

No city has tried to copy Farmers Branch but a few, like Irving, have come up with some things (to control the immigrant population) that are legal.

Q. Have you seen anything like this in Austin?

A. We haven’t seen anything like a rental ordinance in Austin. But we have seen other things that concern us, like the Criminal Alien Program at the Travis County Jail. Administered by the ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement). This program is responsible for identifying people in federal, state and local prisons and jails throughout the United States and securing a deportation order against them before they are released from prison.

Q. President Obama pledged his support last year for meaningful immigration reform. How do you rate his efforts in this regard to date?

A. First let me say that the ACLU does not have a policy on immigration reform. Speaking for myself, I think most folks who are engaged in this conversation would like to see the Obama administration move more quickly. Those of us who care about it are concerned that it will get no traction this year because of the election. Depending on the outcome of the election we may have lost any chance at it.

Q. Is President Obama’s detention policy (regarding illegal immigrants) different from that of the Bush administration?

A. The current administration made a significant statement last year when it stopped sending families, including young children, to the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, a prison facility we had to deal with in the courts and that became an unfortunate symbol of what is wrong with this country’s immigration detention system. The administration has also announced plans for an overhaul of the entire system and is reviewing the federal government’s contract with for-profit prisons. Yes, some policies we don’t agree with, that were implemented under the previous administration, continue today. But in the past year we have seen this administration at least recognize that the system is in serious need of an overhaul and we that find encouraging.

Q. You have said the treatment of illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley is not unlike Guantanamo. In your opinion, what are the worst injustices being committed against immigrants in the Valley, and elsewhere in Texas?

A. First of all, the previous administration had a great love affair with naming things Operation Something. But Operation Streamline is anything but. Under this, they round up perhaps 100 people and put them in a courtroom where they don’t get counsel and they get this sort of collective, “Do you all plead guilty?” And they do. Half of them don’t speak English.

In the old days, if you were here illegally and got caught, you were taken to an administrative deportation hearing. And you got deported and you couldn’t apply to come back for 10 years. Today nearly everyone who is caught in this country illegally is charged with a crime and ordered to jail. If their conviction is for an aggravated felony, then they must wait 20 years to apply to return to this country.

The other is Operation Border Star, which we did a big report on and I forget how many zillions of dollars are involved. People need to understand the government is funneling gobs of money into states like Texas for immigration enforcement or to fight the drug cartels. The money is going to local authorities, local law enforcement people, and the measurement of success is “How many people did you arrest today?” One town down there (in the Valley) with four thousand residents had 8200 arrests in one year. The point is we are not safer for this money; we are poorer because we wasted it. We still have the drug cartels; we still have horrible violence on our borders; and we haven’t fixed anything. But we’ve sure rousted a bunch of brown-skinned people down there.

On the detention front they deliberately put people in these detention centers where, by in large, there are no attorneys, no families, no support system. At the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, they had to add tents to hang on to everybody. There are people in Willacy who were arrested in Massachusetts in workplace raids and were moved to Willacy purposefully to keep them away from their support system.

Q. The projected 110 miles of border fence along the Texas-Mexican border is nearly complete. You call the fence a “wall” and have complained that, “Where there’s wealth there’s no fence, where there’s poverty, there’s a wall.” Please elaborate.

A. We all know the story of the country club in Brownsville that is so beautiful. I’ve actually had breakfast there; it’s a gorgeous setting. But they didn’t get the wall through there as they were supposed to do. They have a gorgeous golf course and I’m really glad they didn’t ruin it. But, yeah, you go to any of the little towns between Brownsville and McAllen and that sucker’s running right through people’s back yards. We went to one town of about five pretty little brick homes with fruit trees around and they’re covered in dust and ash because of the wall being built right behind their back yard. And they hate it.

Down in the valley they have concrete walls. In El Paso there’s a true wire fence running through the heart of El Paso north and then west and there’s no break in it. On the other side of the fence (Juarez) are the poorest of the poor. We took our board of directors out there in October. If I had scripted it, I couldn’t have done better. We drove to end of this dirt road where the fence is and on the other side are some villages. It was a misty, ugly day. Everybody got out of the vans and these kids came running up to the fence and climbed over it. We had taken food and candy. They came over to get the candy and climbed right back over the fence.

Q. Do think the fence, or “wall,” is a deterrent to crime?

A. No. Not at all.

Q. Do the residents think so?

A. No. I don’t know anybody in El Paso who thinks it’s great to have that fence. It’s certainly not deterring the violence.

Q. You have said that when the Texas Legislature reconvenes in January 2011, you expect lawmakers to step up their efforts to impose a religious point of view on public schools and local and state governments. You’ve also said they may try to discourage voting by enacting voter ID requirements again. Do you still have these misgivings and, if so, how do you plan to fight back?

A. I think the religion issue may change. The heat this state is taking over the State Board of Ed may change that. But I think they’ll push voter ID again; immigrant xenophobia is not going to let up. The good news is we’ve got redistricting and a massive fiscal shortfall and my prognosis is they’re going to be busy as beavers taking care of those two things. That may save this state from some real heartache. But I fear we may see endless special sessions and with these there’s a risk they’ll tack anti-immigrant stuff onto anything.

Q. The theme of the next annual meeting of the Texas ACLU—to be held in Austin July 31—will be: “Youth Rights in Texas: Sensible School Discipline.” How are the rights of Texas students being violated and what corrective measures are needed?

A. Just because a kid crosses the schoolhouse door doesn’t mean he has lost his constitutional rights, and too many schools seem to think that’s the case. There’s no question that there are discipline problems in our schools. But what got our attention in the first place is that Texas, like most states, has a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP). If a kid violates all the rules he or she gets pushed to DAEP. A disproportionate number of African Americans and Hispanics and special needs kids get pushed to this program and we know now that they are the ones most likely to drop out. When they drop out they get in trouble and they go down the path of crime to jail.

The business community is upset about this because not only do they need the college educated workforce, they also need the labor-skilled workforce. These kids perhaps were not college bound but they might have been bound for the trades. Instead they get sent literally up the river. Or worse. We have these school police officers who can give kids class C misdemeanors so that they walk out of school with a criminal record.

Q. On a lighter note, in late March you attended the premier performance in Philadelphia of the new play titled “The Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” How do you rate the play and does it offer a true reflection of Molly?

A. It’s a wonderful portrait of her. There were moments when we would close our eyes and we thought she was back. And of course Kathleen Turner portrays her spot-on. You close your eyes and Molly’s back speaking words that make just as much sense today as they did 20 years ago.

Q. Molly left the remainder of her estate to the Texas ACLU and The Texas Observer, after making bequests to her family. To what extent has this benefited your office?

A. Molly wasn’t a rich woman. And everyone who knew Molly knew she was generous to a fault with her friends and family. The way it has benefited us—beyond dollars and cents—is that we can talk about it. Molly famously wrote a letter in August of ’94, that I love to quote, in which she said, “I could have left my money to something that would have been my monument with my name on it but this way I’ll know that everybody who ever raises hell and causes trouble is my monument.”

Q. Before joining the ACLU you had a long career as a newspaper reporter and editor. Your job as executive editor of the Abilene Reporter-News was your last in print media. Has this background helped you handle the demands of your current job, as head of the Texas ACLU?

A. Enormously. Abilene is generally a pretty conservative city. I think 87 percent of the voters voted for George W. Bush. So when I arrived, I was an outsider. I came from a corporation that had just bought their hometown newspaper and they were pretty certain I was a liberal and their newspaper was going to hell in a handbasket. I ended up staying far longer than I had planned and loved every minute. It was a great opportunity to prepare for this job I never knew I wanted. It informs a lot of my work today.

Q. How large is the Texas ACLU, in relation to other states?

A. We’re the eighth largest ACLU affiliate. Larger affiliates are in New York, California (which has three), and in Washington Stae, Michigan and Massachusetts.

Q. Has membership in the Texas ACLU increased during your term of office?

A. It has not. You know, George W. Bush was the greatest thing that ever happened to ACLU membership nationally because of Guantanamo and torture and terrorism issues. So there was a great surge in membership through ’08 and then it tapered off. We’re concerned about it. We’re concerned that young people who came out in that ’08 election seem to have become inactive. And we want them to be members of the ACLU. They should be. We think a lot of members of the Tea Party should be members of ACLU. We share the same feelings about big government.

We need to get our message out and I think my background in the newspaper business gives me an awareness of this and how we can use media. I’m a little bit older and I don’t know how to Tweet, but we have a young and very smart staff and we’re learning how to use that alternative media to get our message out.

Q. Is there anything I have not asked you about that you would like to comment on, particularly concerning the city of Austin?

A. Austin has been an interesting place for us to work because you tend to think of Austin as this oasis of liberalism and people who shun big government. We’ve seen a few challenges here. Many surrounding suburbs are totally opposite of what you think of as the Austin approach. So in some ways we are able to use the greater Austin area as a laboratory for working on some of our issues before we take them on the road to other cities.

For more information about the work of the ACLU, visit the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Gwen Gibson is a veteran journalist with more years of experience than she cares to admit. In her early career she worked as a general assignment reporter and feature writer for UPI in Washington, D.C., the New York Herald Tribune in New York and the New York Daily News in Washington, D.C., where she covered the White House. More recently, as a freelance writer, she has contributed to a number of national newspapers and magazines and written two books.

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