Testimonials from Poor Folk
Living Deep in the Heart of Texas

Submitted by Maria Elena Castellanos
to the Kensington Freedom Bus Tour
as part of the petition drive to the United Nations

My name is Maria Elena Castellanos. I am a divorced mother of two Mexican-American children, ages 11 and 13, living in Houston, Texas. My children and I have suffered because of my activities as a human rights lawyer and defender of poor people's rights, as well as because of my low income, lack of health insurance, and inadequate housing. In fact, my children and I were forced out of our apartment two weeks ago because the air conditioner broke down and the 100-degree heet is unbearable.

But I won't focus on our hardships or the retaliation my family has suffered because of my efforts to stop the execution of innocent people by the State of Texas. Slashed tires, tapped telephone, media censorship, professional ostracism, economic oppression, and unjust arrest and jailing are just a few of the scare tactics directed against me for helping to reverse the death sentences of Ricardo Aldape Guerra, Jose Moises Guzman, and other innocent people on Texas' Death Row.

Rather, I will share with you the heartbreaking stories of two of the hundreds of other low-income people I have represented in the courts, schools, and administrative tribunals of Texas during the past 16 years. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. These are true stories about real people -- who now live in hiding, almost like hunted animals, because of recent changes in the welfare and immigration laws.

When you get to the United Nations in New York City, please tell them about:

1. MARIA CONCHITA GONZALEZ, who was born with no hands, no legs, and only one partial arm in Colombia, 32 years ago. Regardless of her severe physical disability, Maria became the spiritual center of her close-knit family. She was smuggled into the United States 12 years ago. Maria learned to make beautiful decorations with the use of her partial limb and special tools. The sale of these decorations help support Maria and her aging mother in Texas. Her U.S. citizen brothers and sisters have also helped support Maria and pay for her medical and personal needs.

In the summer of 1996, Maria learned that she still qualified for legalization under an old immigration law that was undergoing radical and cruel transformation. On October 1, 1996, the most inhumane, anti-immigrant -- the cruelest immigration law of this century was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton.

With the stroke of a pen, hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had been contributing members of American society for many years suddenly found the doors to work permits and green cards being slammed shut. Pandemonium was breaking out among immigrant communities throughout the U.S.

Maria obviously qualified for a type of legalization called suspension because of the terrible hardship she would suffer as a severely handicapped deportee. If the economic hardship resulting from deportation didn't kill her by starvation, then surely the emotional trauma would kill her remarkable will to live. All of Maria's immediate family had legalized years ago, including her loving mother and U.S. citizen brothers and sisters.

So Maria, her family, and her lawyers tried desperately to get her case to an immigration judge before the deadline.

Her pretty face glowed, as her limbless torso was draped in a graceful dress and then carefully placed in a wheelchair. Maria's mother pushed her into a Texas immigration office in the fall of 1996 for the crucial interview. Only the immigration officials had the authority to get her case referred to the immigration court without subjecting Maria to the humiliating and unhealthy experience of detention or a costly immigration bond.

Only the immigration officials held the key to the immigration court which could free Maria from the fear and isolation that afflict so-called "illegal aliens." Maria and her mother arrived on time for their appointment, full of hope. It had taken months for INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to process Maria's request for this status review appointment. But Maria's hope for legalization and eventual citizenship was soon dashed to pieces by a heartless bureaucrat. Maria was turned away on a technicality by a cold-hearted official who falsely promised to reset her appointment. That particular INS investigator was notorious for making hateful comments about immigrants. INS never again reset Maria's status review appointment. The new law took effect on April 1, 1997 and thereby wiped out her eligibility forlegalization because of the change in requirements. Under the new law, Maria's suffering doesn't count anymore. Only the suffering of U.S. citizen children and extreme hardship to legalized spoused or parents of the applicant count in the legalization process called "Cancellation of Removal."

Before the new immigration law took effect, Maria was only "handless" and "legless." Now Maria is also "faceless."

And like other "faceless" undocumented immigrants, she is tormented by the constant fear that she will be "found out" and deported -- torn away from all that makes life worth living -- separated from the warm and loving embrace of family.

2. JOANN HIGHTOWER, who was an African-American mother who dared to stick up for the housing rights of her Spanish-speaking neighbors against a greedy slumlord in Houston, Texas. JoAnn was thrown in jail and made to pay dearly for her courage.

She asked me to defend her against the landlord's attempt to evict her and her children and grandchildren. JoAnn and her children also faced permanent loss of Section 8 government-subsidized housing if the landlord's false charge of felonious vandalism and destruction of property were allowed to stand.

JoAnn and the other residents of a run-down apartment complex in Houston could not get the new owner to make repairs. So JoAnn organized her predominantly Spanish-speaking neighbors and called in the media to view the dangerous and shameful conditions including:

  • exposed high-voltage wires
  • broken and leaking water pipes and toilets in many of the apartments
  • broken air-conditioning units
  • infestation by rats, roaches, and mice
  • broken lighting fixtures and unlighted stairwells
  • raw human waste and sewage leaking onto the apartment complex common areas.

    Instead of making repairs, the multi-millionaire landlord went to the District Attorney and filed a phony felony charge against JoAnn, claiming that she had intentionally flooded her own bathroom and had supposedly caused the ceiling of the apartment below hers to collapse from the water damage. While JoAnn was sitting in jail, facing 2 to 10 years in prison on the felony charge, the landlord launched the eviction process in Justice of the Peace court.

    After several court appearances and after filling the courtroom with JoAnn's neighbors and a volunteer construction expert, other community organizers and I helped JoAnn avoid the felony conviction and the eviction order. JoAnn kept her Section 8 eligibility, but eventually was forced to move to another apartment complex because we didn't have enough resources at the time to take the slum landlord to court in order to get the apartments repaired. The city officials were put on notice that the landlord was violating the city building codes and sanitation codes, but the city officials claimed they did not have enough inspectors to enforce the codes.

    JoAnn and some of her children and grandchildren have been hit hard by the recent negative changes in the federal and state welfare laws.

    3. Final comments about the struggle of the poor in Texas:

    "Workfare" in Texas has been such a flop that last year, the federal government withheld millions of dollars from Texas because the Texas state officials were not "cooperating" with the new reporting requirements under "workfare." The computer technology, robotics, and high fibre optics displace people by the thousands. And the relatively small numbers of new jobs opened up are not accessible to poorly trained mothers trying to get off welfare.

    In the past few years, the welfare reform laws have chopped, that is reduced, Texas' welfare rolls by 40%. In February of this year, health officials reported that Texas children are receiving less vaccination protection. Health officials are concerned that diseases wiped out years ago, such as polio, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and measles, may now be coming back with a vengeance.

    Also, recent reports indicate that at least 10,000 people are homeles in Houston. That was the same number of homeless people "officially counted" in a study done in the mid-1980's. According to a more recent report printed in an April 1998 article in the Houston Chronicle, the difference in "composition" of Houston's homeless population is that nowadays the majority of the homelss in Houston are women and children, and not single men. Houston is the fourth largest city in the U.S. and still does not have any publicly run shelters or programs for the homeless.

    Houston's young people are also hurting from overcrowded, underfinanced public schools and little help from the so-called "city fathers." Just last week, the third week of June, the City Council refused to fund $100,000 to help 1,000 chilren between the ages of 8 and 15 through the Youth Summer Enrichment Program. It was a drop in the bucket compared to Houston's big city budget and compared to the massive educational and recreational needs of Houston's teenagers. But apparently it was a drop that stingy politicians would not give up to Houston's neglected youth.

    Please tell the United Nations that you brave children, women, and men of the Bus Tour '98 are speaking for the children of Texas when you call for implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For the past 50 years, it has been mostly an expression of hope. (And not that many people in Texas and the U.S. even know about it.)

    Well, it's high time we do some serious organizing to turn that expression of hope for decent jobs, education, medical care, food, and housing into a living, breathing reality.

    Remember that a leader of the American Revolution said two hundred years abo that all men [and women] are created equal, and that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

    Well, you folks on the BUS TOUR '98 are helping Americans and people in this country see that we have got to get back into that revolutionary spirit. We have got to organize to SEIZE OUR INALIENABLE RIGHTS AS HUMAN BEINGS AND PROTECT OUR CHILDREN WHO ARE MULTI-NATIONAL MEMBERS OF THE SAME HUMAN FAMILY.

    May you have a safe journey.

    Signed: Maria Elena Castellanos

    918 Heights Blvd., Houston, Texas 77008

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