During a recent speaking engagement in Fort Worth, Mimi Marziani got right down to business. The executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project described the various lawsuits that her 25-year-old Austin-based group is overseeing. The goal: to protect voter rights and fight discrimination in the Lone Star State.
“One of our clients, Juana Gomez, is a Mexican immigrant living in Texas without legal status,” Marziani told the crowd of around 15 lawyers, TCRP staffers, and supporters who had gathered that evening in a conference room at Bailey & Galyen, Attorneys at Law.
Gomez “has lived in this country for 20 years and has two American children who were both born in South Texas hospitals,” Marziani continued, “but she was unable to get birth cer-tificates for her two daughters due to a recent Texas law,” one that passed in 2013.
Before 2013, Marziani said, Texans could use an ID commonly issued by the Mexican government, a matricular, to obtain birth certificates for children born in the United States. The change in law left thousands of American residents unable to apply for the crucial documents, effectively leaving newborns in legal limbo. In 2015, TCRP filed suit against the state, claim-ing that the law denied constitutionally protected rights for the infants.
“Recently, we settled with the state, which amended its rules to ensure people like [Gomez] will get birth certificates now and moving forward,” Marziani said. “The situation demonstrates how vigilant we have to be. Unfortunately, these issues are not stopping.”
The visit by Marziani reflects North Texas’ need for TCRP in the battle to protect voter rights. Last December, the group hired a regional legal director, Hani Mirza, to field a new TCRP office, this one in downtown Dallas.
Mirza said in a phone interview that when he isn’t in court or researching cases, he’s out engaging with the community and educating the public about TCRP’s mission. The Dallas office covers a wide swath of Texas, including parts of the panhandle and East Texas. Many of Mirza’s outreach trips are to Fort Worth, he said. Recently, he spoke to the atheist group Humanists of Fort Worth.
“It’s important that we build community ties,” he said. “It’s the best way to find out if there are civil rights violations going on in the area.”
Marziani said that the North Texas office is “critical” to advancing TCRP’s mission of reforming the criminal justice system, protecting and expanding the right to vote, and fighting persistent institutional discrimination. The legal group currently employs 30 staffers, including 10 full-time lawyers. The nonprofit relies heavily on pro bono lawyers and a network of allies like the low-income community advocacy group LUPE and the public interest justice center Texas Appleseed.
One lawsuit in particular between TCRP and the state highlights the ongoing battle over voter rights.
In 2014, Totysa Watkins, a Dallas resident and mother of two, updated her voter registration information through the website of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Un-der the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the state department is required to automatically register people like Watkins to vote. When she arrived at the polls two years ago to cast her ballot in the midterm elections, she was informed that she wasn’t on the rolls. Marziani said the refusal by DPS to register voters who update their addresses on the DPS website disproportionately affects minority and younger citizens because they are more likely to move frequently.
“Overall, we are moving toward a better system,” Marziani said. “But in 2012, across this country and in Texas in particular, we saw a rollback in voting rights of the type we had not seen in decades. We saw Texas’ 2011 voter ID law struck down recently because it is discriminatory. Texas is the only state where it is a crime to register your neighbor to vote unless you have gone through a training process and have been deputized by the county government. You can be liable for criminal penalties for making honest mistakes.”
Protecting voter rights is a nationwide struggle, Marziani said. But few states restrict access to the polls, especially for minority and younger voters, like Texas.
Civil rights violations can be reported to TCRP between 1 and 4 p.m. on Thursdays via 512-474¬-5073.