Transparency in California Should Not Be Optional

CIVIC believes strongly in our right to information in the State of California and beyond.  If you live in California, please call and write to your state assembly member to stand up for accountability and remove the public-records provisions from SB 71 now or vote it down altogether so that we can keep our California Public Records Act intact.  The California Public Records Act helps us gain information about ICE’s contracts with detention facilities in California among many other things that we have a right to know.  You can find your state assembly member here: http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov/

Originally posted by EFF.org

The California legislature is considering suspending important provisions of the state’s public records act, giving local agencies the authority to unilaterally ignore procedures designed to ensure government transparency.

Senate Bill 71, which could come up for a vote Saturday, would allow government bodies on the local level—such as cities, counties, sheriff’s departments and education systems—to choose whether or not to follow certain requirements under the California Public Records Act. These provisions would be downgraded from law to mere “best practices.”  Gone would be the deadlines for determining whether records are disclosable and notifying the member of the public who requested the records. Gone would be the requirement that agencies assist members of the public in identifying which records would answer their questions. Gone would be the mandate that agencies turn over documents in an electronic format if the records have already been digitized.

A local government wouldn’t even have to publicly disclose its records-disclosure policy in writing. The bill only says an agency must “announce orally” once a year if it decides not to follow the new “best practices.”

The impact on government watchdogs, journalists and the public—including EFF—would be profound. The legislation would create long waits for access to records, allow agencies to interpret requests narrowly (say, rejecting requests unless the citizen asks for a specific document), and leave the requesters waiting in limbo indefinitely as government agencies will have no incentive to be helpful. 

Further, it would create massive inconsistencies in policies across the state, making it difficult for members of the public to know what their rights are under the law. Because the opt-out announcement could be made orally, people may have to go back and listen to audio recordings of meetings to even find out if local officials decided to ignore the recommendations.

The state senate passed the bill 24-9 in May under the auspices that it would save the government money, and is now set for a vote in the Assembly. So far no dollar figure has appeared in any public legislative analysis (meanwhile, the state’s revenue has exceeded expectations by $4.5 billion).

Even if SB 71 would save money on the front end (if anything, a drop in the bucket), taxpayers would pay a heavy price for it in the long haul: It could mark the end of the public’s ability to uncover wasteful spending, ineffective social and educational programs, foolish development projects, abusive practices by law enforcement, and political graft.  The agencies most likely to opt out of the best practices won’t be the ones with tightest budgets, but the ones with the most to hide.

California has long had a strong commitment to government transparency. The California Public Records Act became law in 1968, just one year after the federal Freedom of Information Act, and recognizes that:

access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.

Californians even incorporated a right to government transparency into the state constitution by overwhelming majority vote in 2004. However, this proposed legislation would strongly undermine this important right.

As is it now, California’s public-records laws are inadequate. The State Integrity Project—a report-card-style study by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International—gave the state a D- in the terms of public access to information. The grade was based on a 75-percent mark for the legal right to access and a 47-percent for actual effectiveness.

If this bill is passed, we predict that failing grade will drop even lower.

This legislation runs in exactly the opposite direction that the government should be moving in terms of transparency. Public access to records should be included as a standard part of the overhead of any government activity. EFF urges the state assembly to stand up for accountability and remove the public-records provisions from SB 71 now or vote it down altogether.

Post Deportation Help

May 31, 2013

Yes, that’s what Ernesto did on Wednesday for the detainee whom he has been visiting since December 2012. T* (not her real name, to protect her identity) has decided to stay in the border town of Tijuana so that she can see her 3-year old daughter (U.S. citizen) and hopefully to gain custody of her so that A* can move to Mexico to live with her. It’s a success story so far. Let me tell you about our day.

Ernesto and his wife had already visited T* in Tijuana, shortly after she got deported on May 1. I accompanied him on this next visit. When we met up with T* after work, I could immediately see the love and respect between she and Ernesto. That moment made the trip worth everything to me. But let me digress.

Ernesto and T* had been in telephone communication so that when she was about to get deported, she immediately called him and he was there for her. She had won her recent bond hearing and Ernesto had decided to pay her bond; that’s how close they had become. He, along with Christina Fialho, tried to stop the deportation, but by the time they arrived to help her, the bus had already left for Mexico. It was May 1, Immigrant and Labor Day, and I was at the rally in Santa Ana. Serendipitously, it was at the exact time that we were marching past the Santa Ana Jail and chanting so the detainees could hear us that I saw Ernesto and Christina in front of the jail. I stopped marching and spent the next couple of hours with them. During that time, T* called Ernesto, told him she had found a nice women’s shelter to take her in temporarily. He was reassured. We called my friend Johnny (Juan Carlos), a 2011 deportee to Tijuana, to seek his help. He is now a friend of T*’s. Connections are wonderful, aren’t they?

Back to Wednesday.

We picked Johnny up in the beautiful area of Tijuana where he lives, Playas (yes, right by the ocean), and began our day’s adventures. First, we stopped at the border wall by the beach, a place that draws me each time I visit. In Tijuana it’s called Parque del Mar.  We call it Friendship Park in the U.S. Each Saturday and Sunday, the Border Patrol opens the gates from 10-2, and families can come together across the border. They walk right up to the wall/fence and can touch pinkies with each other and talk through the mesh/wall. For several years, Methodist ministers have been facilitating a cross-border communion service at 1:30 each Sunday. A wonderful experience if you’re ever in the area. We saw messages such as “This wall will not save your economy”  “All walls fall and so do empires” “Love has no borders. We love you, neighbors!”  written on the wall. Ernesto brought T* here later when we came back to Playas for dinner. This is a place she could see her daughter more often. But they could not hug so it might be too difficult for them both.

Our next stop was the canal/bridge at the border where many deportees live. We learned that these are the people who don’t find better shelter or run out of time there, can’t make it to their homes south, or don’t get their birth certificates in time to get a valid id to find work. They are out of luck. Lots of people, makeshift tents, litter strewn, some huddled under the tunnels. I wondered how many of these people led good lives in the U.S., how many of them left their families behind when they were deported, and if so, how many times they have tried to go north to reunite. From the bridge we could see Desayunador Salesiano del Padre Chava which serves breakfast to up to 1200 each morning, 70% of whom are deportees. I visited there on my last trip; they need volunteers.

When Johnny was deported, Grupo Beta, a Mexican government support agency for deportees, was at a spot that is now the new border crossing. It was weird for Johnny to “go back to that time.” He had found the new Grupo Beta, the place where T*’s bus, the Orange County Homeland Security bus, had dropped her off. We stopped there for awhile, just looking and talking about it. The guy with the gun didn’t especially like to see me taking pictures. Buses come here each day. Johnny showed us where the deportees walk down a long ramp.

We were hungry, had a great inexpensive Mexican lunch (one reason I love to come to Tijuana). Also, did you know I was less than 2 hours away from my home in Orange County?

Next stop Instituto Madre Asunta (Mother Assunta Institute) – Shelter for Migrant Women and Children.  Assunta was an Italian nun, but in Mexico they drop one of the “esses’, making it Asunta. T* stayed here beginning May 1. Sister Adelia Contini showed us around the “campus.” Housing up to 60 recently deported women and children in three rooms with bunkbeds, this is a beautiful home-like environment. Living room areas. Lots of flowers. Large and small chapel to be spiritual in your own ways. Room for classes and meetings. 3 internet computers. A room for college students who visit there as volunteers or to write papers during graduate work. Laundry room. Kitchen with a large pantry of food … where they cook for themselves. We met Lupe who had been there 3 months. She had lived in Seattle for 25 years, had 3 U.S. children there who she’s finally been able (after lots of paperwork and phone calls) to get to Tijuana Her two daughters were on Facebook and she was on the third computer. Her son, maybe 10, was playing a game in the game area. I said that it must be hard for U.S. children to make Mexico their new home.  Sister Adelia said yes, that it’s a gran problema, a big problem. Often they do not want to come but they want so badly to be with their mothers and fathers. Lupe and her three children are about to move to Mexico City where she has family and hopes to find a job to support her children. Once they get settled, their English might help them. But we will miss the contributions they could have made in the U.S.

A similar men’s shelter run by the same group is down the street. Sister Adelia said they get funding from the Catholic Church, other local churches and community groups, and the church in Germany. She has been here 20 years, originally from Brazil. She will be working here until she dies. We all felt her wonderful spirit. She told us that three groups physically go to the Grupo Beta station each day beginning at 3:00, and are there when people “get off the buses.” This is how they found T* and took her in.

Next stop was Hotel San Diego, to pick T* up after work. But first we bought her some beautiful flowers. After all, her birthday was the next day. Like I said before, Ernesto and T*’s connection was apparent. It was like a family reunion. I hadn’t met T* but soon after meeting me, she began asking about her friends at Musick. Were they still detained? How are they? Please say “hi” from me. Tell them I am doing good. She said it feels good to have freedom but that there is lots of adjustment to her new life. She was in the U.S. for many years.

She is proud of what she has done in a month. She found a job in a restaurant, then soon a better one as a maid in the hotel. On this day, her supervisor was out so asked T* to be the acting supervisor. She has found an apartment with another recent detainee (8 months), and just moved in on Monday. She was proud to show us her apartment, lacking furniture but having lots of promise. In order to gain custody of her daughter, T* is required to show that she has a permanent job, has a separate room in which her daughter will live, etc. She showed me a picture of A*, is so anxious to be with her. Loves her SO much. Since it’s in English, Ernesto helped her with her Case Plan created by her child’s case worker in the U.S. and given to him by her court-appointed attorney after the court approved it. T* has also signed up (through DIF, the Mexican government’s Integral Family Development agency), for three programs including parenting classes they want her to complete. She is doing everything she can to gain custody of A*.

Since we had to take Johnny home anyway, we had dinner on the beach in Playas. It was a dream for T*. She was thrilled to see the ocean while we ate. She was thankful for everything Ernesto has done. She was happy.

Ernesto and T* will remain friends. We will bring news of T* to her friends at Musick. We will bring them hope for their futures.