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SPECIAL REPORT / ON THE STATE OF HUMAN RIGHTS : The Two Sides of Humanity : Deep in the Heart of America's Third World : Texas: In the heavily Mexican-American border area, poverty is felt in voting rights, education and health care as well as economically.

February 28, 1993|James C. Harrington | James C. Harrington is legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

AUSTIN, TEX. — When Americans talk about human rights, we speak about the condition of civil liberty in other countries. We don't even use the term when discussing the quality of rights in this nation, satisfied as we are with the status of freedom in the United States.

Yet, this is the country in which the highest court of the land permits execution of possibly innocent people and individuals with mental retardation, allows police to search vehicles on a neighbor's word of suspicion, upholds the kidnapping of foreigners for trial in this country and pardons police brutality in the name of "good faith." Moreover, about 70% of those in jail are people of color. Nor do we submit to international tribunals, like other Western democracies, except on a self-selected case-by-case basis.

This is also the country that has its own Third World, right here in the Lone Star State, along the border with Mexico, where the denial of political rights is every bit as evident as the deprivation of basic economic, health, education and social rights. This is the blind side of the "New Texas" proclaimed by Gov. Ann Richards. In this heavily Mexican-American border area, the poverty of health care is as endemic and debilitating as economic poverty. The result is tuberculosis, leprosy and the birth of anencephalic babies at rates unheard of in the rest of the country.

Many of the border's poorest people live spread out in some 1,000 colonias, rural ghettos, many of which do not have running water, electricity or sewage lines. The unemployment rate is officially 20%, but that doesn't include workers who have despaired of ever finding a job; and the underemployment rate is at least twice as high. Texas' archaic school-financing scheme ensures inadequate facilities, a high dropout rate and a less-than-competitive education. No wonder Texas is one of the five states with the highest rates of illiteracy.

The most recent police-brutality statistics from the U.S. Justice Department record more complaints from Texas than from any other state, nearly 20% of the total. Undoubtedly, the reported complaints are a fraction of the real number. Poor people, especially those who aren't skilled in English and are used to the heavy hand of the police, don't usually submit written complaints to Washington. Similarly, the Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Agency have a sordid history, so much so that it has been popularized in Mexican folk music and movies.

Even though the Voting Rights Act, now extended to Texas, has opened the local political doors to some Mexican-American communities in south Texas, statewide political clout remains a dream. The franchise problem is made worse by Texas' convoluted voting system, in which many important elections are held during seasons when the huge migrant farm-worker population based in Texas is moving to other parts of the nation. Ironically, Texas makes it incredibly easy for "snowbirds" (retirees sunning themselves in the "Magic Valley") to vote, thereby diluting Mexican-American electoral strength.

The large minority prison population is accounted for in part by ineffective legal representation. There is no state public-defender system. The result, when coupled with months-long waits in jail for trial, is predictable.

Dealing with day-to-day legal problems, such as Social Security, landlord-tenant issues and access to hospital care is just as bleak. Less than one-third of those needing legal assistance get it. Texas attorneys steadfastly refuse to begin a pro bono program to help pick up the slack.

Texas consistently hovers at the bottom of the list, around 47th, in providing social-service benefits and health care to its residents. For example, only 30% of poor children receive welfare benefits, compared with 58% nationwide. Overall, 18% of Texans live in poverty; but 35% of Mexican-Americans and 33% of African-Americans live in poverty. The border area has four of the nation's 10 poorest metropolitan areas, and the country's poorest county is in the Rio Grande Valley.

The condition of human rights in Texas, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border area, is abysmal. Yet, somehow, state leaders and Americans manage to overlook the problems in our own house while being so willing to throw stones at our neighbors. We need to fix up our own home, too.

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