“We Don’t Have An Agenda – We Just Want To Be Safe”

By Tracy Dingmann

It’s been a week since the Environmental Improvement Board held a hearing in Mesquite, N.M. on Helena Chemical’s request to waive an air quality permit for its fertilizer-blending operations there. I was only there for a short time, but I gathered enough information while there to fuel a week’s worth of writing.

The window for public comment on Helena’s request closes today (July 28) – a decision on the request is expected later this summer.

An Emotional Plea

One of the most moving speakers at the last week’s hearing was Larry Sedillo, a teacher and one of the founding members of Mesquite Community Action, Committee. The group is suing Helena for negligence, alleging that Helena’s practice of blending fertilizer is sickening local children, causing asthma, chronic respiratory infections, nosebleeds and severe chronic bronchitis.

In his often-emotional testimony, Sedillo spoke of the uncertainty of living next to the Helena plant and not knowing for sure how it is affecting the health of the people in the community.

Like pretty much everything else in the town, the school at which Sedillo teaches is very close to the plant.

“We’ve got kids coming into school at 7:30 in the morning and their eyes are burning. Talk to parents at our school. These things are happening and they are going to continue to happen. Our quality of life is going to keep going down.”

The smell from the plant is sickening in itself, Sedillo said.

“We can’t stand the smell, and we are wondering why we are getting sick. I don’t know why we don’t see people in the street complaining to Helena every day.”

Some people have asked why people in Mesquite don’t just move, Sedillo said. Echoing many of the others who spoke at the hearing, Sedillo pointed to the deep roots many have in the community, living on land that was passed down to them from ancestors. Most people who live in Mesquite don’t have the resources to leave – and why should they have to, Sedillo asked.

“I’m not embarrassed or ashamed – I’m proud of Mesquite. Those lawyers have a job to do, and that is to protect Helena. We have a job to do in Mesquite, and that is to protect each other. We are standing up – we are not going to lay down and die!”

“We don’t have an agenda – We just want to be safe.”

A Question of Fairness and Safety

Sedillo also addressed what he called the “outrage” of Helena asking to be let out of an air quality permit.

The company has already shown that it will not comply with state regulations unless it is forced to, Sedillo said. Every other company that works with chemicals in New Mexico is expected to comply – how is it fair to allow Helena to regulate themselves?

“This is a company that’s had numerous violations. If I had a company or I did something at my house where I dumped chemicals in the air or on the ground or in the water, I would be liable. For me it is an outrage to say this chemical plant doesn’t need a permit,” Sedillo said.

“They were working with sulphuric acid and anhydrous ammonia, mixing chemicals,” Sedillo said. “There was a vapor in the air that caused burning of the eyes, so we contacted them. They come back and say now – we stopped the process. They only did it because WE stopped them.”

“Otherwise they would still be doing it.”

Targeting Nonprofits: The Tides Foundation this time — with real bullets

First on Fox. One of the impacts of last week’s media firestorm over Andrew Breitbart’s most recent smear involving doctored videos (the ACORN deception was the first) was to overshadow another important story with a Fox connection.   The shocking tale of an “anti-government” gunman determined to launch an assault on Bay Area nonprofit organizations was almost totally buried.

The Shirley Sherrod story was beginning its week-long domination of several news cycles — starting with the Breitbart smear trumpeted on Fox, followed by her cowardly firing by the Administration, and finally her total vindication by mid-week when the full video of her previously edited speech was released. Meanwhile, a political assault of another, more ominous kind, was thwarted outside Oakland, California.

San Francisco Examiner:

Byron Williams, 45, of Groveland, was apparently headed to kill people at two nonprofits in San Francisco when CHP officers made an enforcement stop of his Toyota Tundra at 11:57 p.m. Saturday on westbound Highway 580 near Harrison Street.

When the officers tried to contact Williams, a 12-minute-long gun battle ensued. Williams, armed with three guns, including a .308-caliber rifle that can penetrate ballistic body armor and vehicles, eventually surrendered and exited the vehicle…

Williams was pulled over on his way to San Francisco to shoot members the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and Tides, an organization that advocates progressive social change through philanthropy, police said Tuesday…

It’s not clear why those two organizations were targeted except that conservative media commentators often accuse them of having left-wing agendas.

San Francisco Chronicle:

A 45-year-old parolee, described by his mother as angry at left-wing politicians, opened fire on California Highway Patrol officers on an Oakland freeway early Sunday and was hit by return fire while wearing body armor, authorities said…

Williams watched the news on television and was upset by “the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items,” his mother said…

For those unfamiliar with the Tides Foundation, it’s a philanthropic organization that has provided funding to nonprofits engaged in economic and social justice work since 1976. The ACLU, of course, has for the last 90 years carried out its mission “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

Some obvious questions  arise: What “news” program was Williams watching that led him to conclude that the Tides Foundation had to be taken out in a hail of bullets? Why target the Tides Foundation? Where would he get such an idea to hit an organization little known outside the nonprofit sector?

The answer?  The odds are overwhelming that Williams had been watching the Fox News Channel.

According to research from Media Matters, since the premier of Glenn Beck’s show on January 2009, “Tides has been mentioned on 31 editions of Fox News programs, 29 of which were editions of  Beck’s show (the other two were on Sean Hannity’s program). In most of those references, Beck attacked Tides, often weaving the organization into his conspiracy theories. Two of those Beck mentions occurred during the week before Williams’ shootout.”

Only on Fox

“By contrast, since January 19, 2009, according to our Nexis search, Tides was not mentioned on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, or PBS. Not once. This search is not perfect — Nexis does not include, for example, MSNBC’s daytime coverage. But the contrast with Beck’s coverage is stark.

If only the late historian Richard Hofstader could see the latest, and easily one of the vilest, manifestations of what he called “the paranoid style in American politics.” It’s easy to see how a paranoid personality like Williams’, when exposed to Beck’s all-encompassing world-historical narrative, might feel that his world was being turned upside down, that he had no other choice than to kill the people he been identified to him on Fox as the ones responsible for his feelings of oppression.

Continue reading

More From Mesquite

By Tracy Dingmann

As I mentioned in my last post, I gained a new appreciation for a lot of things when I visited Mesquite, N.M. on Wednesday for a hearing on Helena Chemical Company’s request to avoid having to seek an air quality permit for its operations in the town.

Before I even got out of the car, I experienced the acrid, sickening smell I had heard about from so many people who live in Mesquite. For the first time, I saw how close the school and the church and people’s houses are to Helena’s warehouses.

And as I listened to many townspeople tell the Environmental Improvement Board what it is like to live and raise families next to the fertilizer blending and packaging plant, I heard some new angles on the reasons people there are so angry.

Reasons besides the fact that they are truly, deathly afraid of what health effects Helena’s odiferous operations might be having on their families. Reasons beyond the fact that there has never been a comprehensive study showing the effects of Helena’s operations on their community. Reasons beyond that fact that the leader of a local group that’s been trying to get those answers was slapped with a defamation suit by the company.

Revitalization Deferred

But then I learned something I hadn’t heard before. Rose Garcia, executive director of the affordable housing group Tierra Del Sol in Anthony, N.M., told the EIB that her company has been unable to develop affordable housing projects in the area because of health and environmental concerns about the Helena plant.

Specifically, Garcia said that investors looking to revitalize and improve historic Mesquite have been spooked by the company’s repeated violations of state environmental regulations. . The company has racked up hundreds of thousands of fines for the violations, which have occurred over the last several years.

“We have pursued the feasibility of housing in the historic village of Mesquite and have been denied because of questions about the environmental health and safety of the plant,” said Garcia. “There are federal environmental requirements for the projects and because of Helena’s record of being in noncompliance, we have been unable to revitalize the community.”

In response to a question from a committee member, Garcia promised to provide the committee with proof of her claims. She also told the committee that she does not appreciate Helena’s attempt to contact and intimidate her and other residents from speaking publicly.

“The only way we’ve ever been able to have a platform to speak is with this kind of meeting,” she said.

Later, Garcia told me:

“I support the all the industries around here, but I am also an advocate for community development and affordable housing.”

Effectively Gagged

Garcia said representatives from Helena contacted her in the past and “only wanted to focus on Arturo.” She was referring to Arturo Uribe, the local community organizer who spoke out about Helena and was subsequently sued for defamation.

“I told them, this is not about Arturo – this is about the ability of this community to be revitalized.”

The suit against Uribe, has been “like a gag,” Garcia said. “I’ve been afraid to speak out, to express myself. For me, as well as for my organization. In fact, I’m concerned about being here today, to be honest. My job is to protect my organization, but I have to balance it out, too, as to whether this is in the interests of the clients I serve.”

“But to me, it’s simple. The Environment Department’s requirements are for everybody.”

A Report From Mesquite, N.M.

By Tracy Dingmann

I traveled to Mesquite, N.M. yesterday to attend the Environmental Improvement Board’s hearing on Helena Chemical Company’s request that they be allowed to operate their fertilizer blending plant without an air quality permit.

I didn’t get to write about the hearing the way I wanted to – with tweets and frequent posts throughout the day – because there was no wifi at the church where the hearing was held.

It was almost a blessing, though, because I was able to concentrate fully on the testimony from the people who live in Mesquite, none of whom were able to travel to Santa Fe for hearings on the permit earlier in the month.

For the citizens of Mesquite, the EIB hearing at Our Lady of Perpetual Help was a coveted chance to directly explain to state officials what life living next to Helena Chemical’s operation is like.

For me, visiting Mesquite for the first time, it was a chance to see how thoroughly the Tennessee-based chemical plant dominates the historic farming village with its smells, its dust and the sheer size and number of its structures.

Helena enlisted a number of corporate boosters who testified at the hearing that the company is a good corporate citizen who is being inexplicably singled out and scapegoated by various individuals and the New Mexico Environment Department.

Much has been written about community organizer Arturo Uribe, whom Helena sued for defamation over claims Uribe made about the company’s operations making local children sick.

And there has been a lot of talk about how the suit has intimidated and silenced the people of Mesquite.

But sitting there in the church, I heard from lots of people who gathered their courage to finally tell their stories to the very people with the power to hold Helena accountable. The fear and anger and uncertainty they feel about the chemical giant in their midst is real.

It was a moving experience.

In my short time in Mesquite, I learned a lot and observed conditions there first-hand. Over the next two days, I’ll talk about it in a series of posts and relate the stories some of the people who told their stories at the hearing.

But for now, this account from today’s Las Cruces Sun-News is a good backgrounder and contains information at the end of the story for people who might still want to comment.

The EIB will accept written comment on Helena’s request through July 28.

AG Gary King Thinking About Continuing His Battle Against Nonprofits

By Tracy Dingmann

It is unfortunate that a recent appeals court ruling has apparently not dissuaded Attorney General Gary King from contemplating a continuation of unfounded legal action against nonprofits in New Mexico.

On June 30, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld in its entirety a lower court’s ruling that the state of New Mexico has no power to force two nonprofits to register as political committees. The court based its decision on the fact that the nonprofits’ central purpose isn’t campaign intervention, and that their election-related expenses don’t make up a preponderance of their budgets.

It was an unambiguous ruling that affirmed the traditional role of nonprofits and upheld their right to free speech.

But in a July 19 article on the website NMPolitics.net with Heath Haussamen, King was quoted as saying he is “quite honestly digesting that case and trying to decide” whether to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In August 2009, a judge ordered the state to pay the nonprofits some $72,000 in attorney’s fees accrued through that time. The estimate of fees accrued during the state’s appeal to the 10th Circuit is not in, and it is unknown how much an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would cost state taxpayers.

In addition to considering a Supreme Court appeal, King hinted to Haussamen that he is also considering ways to revise the state’s Campaign Reporting Act that would still inappropriately regulate nonprofits who engage in protected speech. 

Not all nonprofits though – just the ones King has decided were formed for the purpose of campaigning, because they dare to exercise their right to hold public officials accountable.

From the Haussamen story:

King said he’s not out to require disclosure from groups such as the League of Women Voters or Association of Commerce and Industry, groups that “really do provide information to either the public or to their members, and it’s not campaigning.”

We know some elected officials don’t like being held accountable – and they complain bitterly when their voting records are called out. King knows it too – complaints from legislators whose voting records were publicized were what motivated him to pursue this failed case.

It may be true that New Mexico’s Campaign Reporting Act needs work. But somehow reconfiguring and torturing it to make sure it punishes and shuts up the nonprofits King doesn’t like is not the kind of reform we need.

Long-Form Debate on Immigration Deserves Kudos

By Tracy Dingmann

An interactive, multi-media forum on immigration devoted a healthy chunk of time to an immensely complicated and explosive issue – and for that, KUNM-FM, KNME-TV and the New Mexico Independent deserve kudos.

The July 14 panel discussion at the KNME studios featured Rep. Dennis Kintigh, R-Roswell, a former FBI special agent; Marcela Diaz, an immigrant-rights advocate with Somos Un Pueblo Unido; and Dante DiGregorio, a professor at UNM’s Anderson School of Management who specializes in business relations between the U.S. and Mexico. Trip Jennings, senior writer for NMI, moderated the discussion.

A live studio audience looked on as KNME cameras filmed the discussion for webcast on NMI, while reporters from NMI liveblogged the proceedings and relayed questions from online viewers and the audience. Meanwhile, KUNM news director Jim Williams relayed questions as he anchored the station’s live broadcast of the event, which came during the public radio station’s all-important evening drive time.

A transcript of the forum is available here on the NMI site.

(Full disclosure: Although I am a correspondent for KNME-TV, I was not involved in the planning or execution of this particular forum. The station has hosted similar forums on other topics in the past and will likely do so in the future.)

A Long-Form Discussion
One of the best things about the forum was the generous amount of time afforded to the topic and the effort that organizers made to balance the discussion, said Adonai Morales, a community organizer at the local immigrants rights group El Centro de la Igualidad y Derechos .

Morales was born in Mexico. At El Centro, his outreach and advocacy includes giving workshops that inform immigrants about their basic civil rights.

Morales, a former journalist, said he was impressed with the format of the event.

“It was an excellent forum. It is always good to have different sides and different viewpoints. A lot of what you see in the media is one-sided, most of the time,” he said. “It was more than an hour long. Immigration is a very complicated issue, and the fact that they gave it enough time to really flesh out the arguments was great.”

In the forum, Diaz made an often-passionate case for immigrants who live in New Mexico now, saying that their lives are disproportionately subject to misinformation and fear. Diaz tamped down the myth that there is an immigrant crime wave going on, citing figures that show immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the restof the population.

DiGregorio offered up a number of interesting facts and figures regarding immigration, including that rates are currently declining due to the downturn in the U.S. economy.

A Focus on Law and Order

And while he stressed several times that he favors immigration reform that is fair for all, Rep. Kintigh repeatedly attempted to frame the debate as one largely about law and order and the need to protect law-abiding American citizens from crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

Kintigh’s repeated mention of two or three ghastly crimes committed locally by illegal immigrants as justification for his hard line position caused some head shaking and eye-rolling among some members of the audience. Reactions from the audience heated up even more after the KNME cameras were turned off at 7 p.m. and the discussion continued on.

For his part, Morales said he understands that public safety needs to be part of any discussion about immigration.
“Focusing on crime is always an argument that is used, and there is a real basis to it,” said Morales. There are hardcore trafficking and kidnapping syndicates, as well as whole industries based on the forgery of documents and of smuggling people and weapons into and out of the country.”

However, he continued:

“The problem is when sometimes a couple of bad actors – criminals on either side of the border – get all the attention when the majority are honest, working immigrants who are just here to work get cast in this wide net of strategy.”

“It’s not an excuse for not solving the problem and tackling the issues. And it’s not an excuse to not work for comprehensive immigration reform that is fair for all.”

FAIR Report On Immigration Costs Is Anything But

By Tracy Dingmann

Just because a group calls itself FAIR doesn’t mean it is.

Take the Federation for American Immigration Reform – FAIR – the group behind Arizona’s odious new immigration law (scroll to the end for the part where the group takes credit for helping craft it).

Not content with passage of the law, FAIR has continued to advise Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on measures that seem to have nothing to do with illegal immigration and everything to do with hating people who are brown and speak Spanish.

Those who track extremist hate groups in the United States have long had FAIR on their radar. In 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center designated FAIR a hate group, noting that its founders and key associates have ties to white supremacist and Holocaust denial groups.

People who were paying attention when AZ 1070 was passed knew full well that FAIR and its legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, was behind it.

But apparently FAIR’s unsavory connections were not of concern to some media outlets who jumped on the group’s dubiously-sourced July 6 report claiming that undocumented immigrants cost American taxpayers more than $113 billion a year.

The New Mexico Business Weekly carried a story and linked to the alarming-sounding numbers in FAIR’s report. On Monday, the right-wing talk radio station KKOB-AM featured the report on its 9 a.m. call-in show and offered the numbers up as red meat to its rabid anti-immigration listeners – including some that were supposedly calculated just for New Mexico. Nationally, FOX News trumpeted the study’s findings throughout the weekend.

What you might not have heard is that, within hours of the study’s release, the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit think-tank dedicated to “standing up for sensible and humane immigration policies that reflect American values” came forward with three “fatal flaws” in FAIR’s study – flaws so grave as to render its findings meaningless.

From the AIC press release:

“….in its rush to portray unauthorized immigrants as nothing more than a drain on the public treasury, FAIR completely discounts the economic contributions of unauthorized workers and consumers. Moreover, FAIR inflates their cost estimate by indiscriminately lumping together native-born, U.S.-citizen children with their unauthorized parents.

FAIR’s report suffers from three fatal flaws:

The report notes that the single biggest “expense” it attributes to unauthorized immigrants is the education of their children, yet most of these children are native-born, U.S. citizens who will grow up to be tax-paying adults. It is disingenuous to count the cost of investing in the education of these children, so that they will earn higher incomes and pay more in taxes when they are adults, as if it were nothing more than a cost incurred by their parents.

The report fails to account for the purchasing power of unauthorized consumers, which supports U.S. businesses and U.S. jobs.

The report ignores the value added to the U.S. economy by unauthorized workers, particularly in the service sector.

At least the FOX story included this information about FAIR, calling it “a conservative organization that seeks to end almost all immigration to the U.S.” and included this passage:

Groups that support immigration reform immediately attacked FAIR’s report and pointed out that it is the polar opposite of the Perryman Report, a 2008 study that found illegal immigration was actually a boon to the American economy. It estimated that illegal immigrants add $245 billion in Gross Domestic Product to the economy and account for 2.8 million jobs.

Unfortunately, the lopsided, inaccurate report issued by a known hate group was picked up and taken as gospel by way too many media outlets.

It really is a shame.

Hard Times: Colbert to Pick Up Hoe; plus The Great Recession’s Impact on NM

Recently, the United Farm Workers (UFW) launched the “Take Our Jobs” campaign, an effort to highlight the importance of immigrant workers to our food supply — and the difficulties agricultural employers have in maintaining a stable, legal workforce.

Last night, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez was a guest on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. Responding to the oft-repeated charge that undocumented immigrants who work in the fields are taking jobs away from American citizens, Rodriquez pointed out that few Americans are willing to take these jobs and their difficult working conditions.  That’s part of the inspiration behind the “Take Our Jobs” challenge.

Unfazed, Steven Colbert accepted the challenge. Sometime soon then, we can expect to see Stephen hoeing and weeding in some field in California or Arizona, camera team in tow.  He asked Rodriguez if there would be air conditioning.  You can watch it here:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Arturo Rodriguez
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

The Great Recession in NM

In other news, a recent report from NM Voices for Children is worth the read.  Entitled “The Great Recession: How New Mexico Workers Are Faring,” it looks at wages and unemployment rates by job sector, compares the impact of the last four recessions on workers, the effect of the Unemployment Compensation program, and the longer-lasting personal consequences of a recession.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

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Let Freedom Ring: Nonprofits React To Court Ruling

By Tracy Dingmann

The decision handed down yesterday by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver affirmed what most people already knew about nonprofits – that the advocacy in which they engage is a vital part of the important services they provide to their communities, as well as to society at large. (You can read a copy of the ruling here.)

When Secretary of State Mary Herrera, at the direction of Attorney General Gary King, ordered the SouthWest Organizing Project and New Mexico Youth Organized (a project of the Center for Civic Policy) to register as political committees back in 2008, the groups sued to assert their First Amendment rights. The case was never just about those two groups – it was always about the ability of all nonprofits to advocate for the rights of those they serve.

The state is already on the hook for more than $70,000 in attorney’s fees, plus untold more for the time state employees have spent on the case.  That doesn’t count the money spent – fees on the part of the attorneys for the nonprofits and times spent by state workers – appealing it at the 10th Circuit for the past eleven months.

In the wake of yesterday’s decision by the higher court, Clearly New Mexico asked nonprofit leaders in New Mexico and nationwide to share their feelings about what it means for the continued good works of all nonprofits.

Here’s what they said:

Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest:

“Nonprofits are our nation’s best vehicles for broad civic engagement. The 10th Circuit’s decision in this important case means that nonprofit voices will not be silenced through unconstitutional acts intended to intimidate ordinary people from getting involved in public decisions that affect their lives. With the economic crisis and political polarization, nonprofit advocacy with and for those who need it most is more important than ever.”

Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy:

“There is mounting evidence that when nonprofits engage in advocacy and community organizing, it brings clear benefits to communities. This decision affirms the important role of nonprofits in the civic life of our nation, and I hope it encourages organizations to be bold in their advocacy on behalf of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. The decision also sends a clear message to grantmakers that it is perfectly appropriate to invest in nonprofits engaged in advocacy.”

Joan Lamunyon Sanford, director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice:

“Requiring non-profit organizations to register as political committees would have required us to list all of our members and supporters. As an organization that advocates for reproductive justice in an atmosphere of increasing violence and intimidation, our members would have had to choose between their personal safety or supporting women’s reproductive justice.”

Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness:

“This decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirms the legality of the important educational role that nonprofit organizations play in our democracy. This decision is important because it means nonprofit organizations can exercise free speech about their issues even when the information they have to share is not complimentary about people in power. And it means that nonprofits can tell it like it is without fear of being punished or closed down by people in the government who don’t like their message.”

Ron White, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Grantmakers:

“The 10th Circuit Court has provided, what I believe can genuinely be thought of as, a sane prescription for what the lower court described as a “politically infirm” action. Foundations, community groups, and nonprofits can now all breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that raising our voices on behalf of the environment or the marginalized or the need for support services for constituencies dear to our missions, is well within our rights. We should all be pleased that the right for nonprofits to engage in limited nonpartisan advocacy, which is guaranteed under our charter, has been sensibly affirmed with this ruling.”