Nevada Legislature considers ditching existing citizenship requirements for Victim Fund payouts


Photo accredited to the American Immigration Council, 2015

Originally published in The Nevada Sagebrush on Feb. 28, 2017

The Nevada Legislature is considering a bill allowing the eligibility for compensation of victims of violent crime, regardless of their citizenship status. If the bill is written into law, undocumented immigrants living in Nevada will qualify for a program that provides financial support to victims of crimes involving physical injury, threat of physical injury or death.

Assembly Bill 122 was heard by the Joint Meeting of the Assembly Committee on Judiciary and Assembly Committee on Corrections, Parole and Probation on Monday, Feb. 13.

Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson, D-Reno, is the primary sponsee of Assembly Bill 122. Her testimony in last week’s joint committee meeting was matched by members of the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence and Tu Casa Latina, a northern Nevada-based nonprofit that advocates for immigrant women, men and children who are victims of violence and abuse.

“This is a human rights issue,” Benitez-Thompson said. “If a person violently attacks another person, that person’s citizenship status shouldn’t matter in terms of being able to get assistance.”

The Victims of Crime program provides support to victims during the fallout of a violent crime. It is not funded with taxpayer dollars, but with forfeited  appearance bonds, gross misdemeanor fines, DMV fees and other revenues. It covers lost wages, hospital bills and even funeral expenses and accepts claims as high as $35,000.

In 2016, it denied the applications of 54 violent crime victims because they were not documented U.S. citizens.

“Nevada is only one of two states that have a prohibition from allowing victims of a crime to apply if they are not a citizen of the United States,” Benitez-Thompson said.

Alabama is the other state with a citizenship qualification for victims.

Lizzie McElheney, a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno, fears that hateful rhetoric will dominate students’ discussion and understanding of the bill.

“The buzz around this bill will be more harmful than the bill itself because of the extreme polarization of the word immigrant,” McElheney said.

She described what she called an exceedingly common American narrative: the term immigrant is rarely associated with white faces.

“I’m a Jew, and in Judaism I was taught to stand up for the voiceless,” McElheney said. “For me, it’s not hard to imagine being in a sh — situation because of how powerful institutions treat you.”

Victims seeking financial support in Nevada must meet a myriad of requirements other than citizenship.

“In order to qualify for these dollars, they have to file a police report within three days and they have to participate with law enforcement in the persecution of their defender,” Benitez-Thompson said.

Assembly Bill 122 will delete the citizenship qualification of the Victims of Crime program, but not the long, grueling process of a violent crimes victim.

When asked if information from the program’s undocumented applicants is made available to federal agencies, like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Benitez-Thompson said the Victims of Crime program assists victims with beginning the U visa process so that they start on the path towards citizenship.

Congress passed the U nonimmigrant visa along with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in October 2000. Law enforcement, bolstered by the legislation, can more easily work with undocumented victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and trafficking.

“This bill has been misconstrued as something that helps undocumented people stay undocumented and that is not true at all,” Benitez-Thompson said.

The Las Vegas Sun reported the bill was not passionately debated in the joint committee meeting.

“I would agree it’s a human rights issue,” said Keith Pickard, R-Henderson. “Where someone comes from should not be a factor when receiving compensation for these crimes.”

The bill caters to violent crime victims who have every legal fear of talking with law enforcement. Its supporters said undocumented victims are more apt to stay with their abusers rather than jump through the hoops of few legal options. According to the Victims of Crime office, these victims often do not reach the office’s doors for fear of their immigration status being flagged.

“This bill provides a supportive environment where victims are able to come forward and, ultimately, it puts offenders of violent crimes behind bars,” Benitez-Thompson said.


Fitness center first of many new projects


A student lunges away from a punching bag in a specialized boxing studio. Photo accredited to Gabriel Selbig

Originally published in The Nevada Sagebrush on Feb. 21, 2017

With the completion of the E.L. Wiegand Fitness Center on campus at the University of Nevada, Reno, the university looks to new capital improvement projects.

The fitness center opened its doors to the community and the media last Wednesday, Feb. 15, during an open house showcasing nearly every room of all four floors of the $47 million project.

“There’s something for every person on every floor,” said Sheena Harvey, the sports and events coordinator at the Wiegand Center. “I don’t think we missed anybody. People still have to go up to Lombardi and swim, but other than that I think we’ve covered everything here.”

Upon entrance, one stands immediately adjacent to a towering “fitness stairway,” leading from the bottom floor to the top. Trudging upward, one passes a field of weight-lifting machines that eventually fade into a wide-open CrossFit area.

On the second floor, there are exercise-specific rooms: yoga, pilates, rowing, Zumba, and others. The third floor consists of three full-length basketball courts near a cardio area equipped with treadmills and stationary bikes. The staircase ends at the foot of a one-eighth mile running track that overlooks nearly all 108,000 square feet of the facility.

In the 2013-14 school year, University of Nevada students voted on and passed a referendum that allowed each undergraduate be charged $15 per semester for the facility and $30 per semester for operations once it opened.

“The students particularly chose this funding mechanism so that every student is paying for it up front and each additional activity doesn’t cost any more,” UNR President Marc Johnson said.

Ian Reh, a junior at the University of Nevada, has already visited the new facility five times in its opening week.

“I would say the lighting and the space,” Reh said regarding major differences between the new Fitness Center and Lombardi Recreation Center. “I think it’s fine [students] still pay for it because they still have the ability to use it anytime. I mean it’s the same thing as signing up for a gym membership. You’re paying for it and you usually won’t go, so I think that every kid ought to see it’s not a big price to pay for having a state of the art gym accessible at any time.”

Johnson echoed this sentiment and gave disillusioned students and staff a cause for hope.

“We’ll be looking at a groundbreaking in late spring for a new arts building. It’s about 37,000 square feet of new facilities with practice rooms for band, a bigger museum and a recital hall of 300 seats,” Johnson said.

Johnson also disclosed that the university has legislation before the Nevada Legislature asking for a new engineering building. Johnson said Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed the state would pay for half the cost of constructing the potential new building.

According to the UNR College of Engineering, the University has committed $12 million in renovations out of an expected $80 million needed to completely fund the complex. Johnson said he hopes they can break ground sometime in 2018.

On-campus parking is a common dilemma for University of Nevada students. One of the larger lots was excavated for the Wiegand Center’s groundbreaking in June 2015.

“I’ve just got a report this week on our parking demands for the next five years,” Johnson said. “We are likely going to build another parking garage and it needs to be on the south side of campus.”

The University of Nevada, Reno campus is swelling. High rates of incoming freshmen have increased funds for capital improvements. Bruce Shively, the university’s budget director, and his department released a report that estimated an additional 3,200 students by 2020. Governor Sandoval’s budget recommendation for the 2018 fiscal year is $222 million, just over $17 million more than that of 2017.

Beyond more large-scale capital improvement projects, UNR also looks to hire hundreds more faculty members by 2020. Shively’s report calls for improvement of student-to-faculty ratio, aiming at a change from 22:1 to 18:1. Of the future positions, 272 will be tenure-track.

The landscape of the University of Nevada, Reno, will continue to change over the coming years.

Recreational Marijuana, Sustainable Education Funding for the 21st Century


Photo accredited to

On election night 2016, Nevada went mostly blue and even a little green. As vote-counting concluded in Nevada, ballot measure 2 succeeded in legalizing recreational marijuana by a margin of just under 100,000 votes. Thus, recreational marijuana will be legal across the state, ensuring that all Nevada schools receive a slice of the 15 percent excise tax on wholesale marijuana revenues.

State counties will be able to determine the location of dispensaries, however, they will not be permitted to outright prohibit businesses from entering their towns.                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Assistant Manager at Reef Dispensaries in Sparks, Angel Pailor had this to say, “Cannabis has a bad perception but now after 50 years or so, I think that times are changing, and it’s a good thing to change that perception of like ‘Oh, it’s a hardcore drug’ and it’s a gateway drug when it’s totally not like that.”

“I think it’s awesome because you don’t see people in the alcohol lobby or in pharmaceutical drugs offering even to help schools out”, she added.

The law allows for adults of at least 21 years of age to possess, consume and cultivate a small and personal amount of marijuana. Fiscally, recreational marijuana business will begin to pump money into local schools once their tax infrastructure is built. The Department of Taxation will be charged the duty to regulate and administer facilities that produce, cultivate and dispense marijuana products.

According to the initiative’s specifics on, one major aspect of this is collecting a 15 percent excise tax upon the wholesale value of marijuana sold by these facilities that will then be deposited into the State Distributive School Account. Supporters of the bill have projected profits of more than $350 million statewide by the end of 2018, according to an article written by Seth A. Richardson in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

How will this affect my kids and our schools? It is a question surely on many Nevadan parents’ minds, one month removed from election night. Stacey Smith is a teacher of world history at Wooster High School in Reno. “They’ve learned to use it when they’re vaping.”, she said.  “They’ve caught kids using in the vape pens, so then they don’t actually get busted for it. We had an incident a couple weeks ago where a kid was actually caught smoking in class.” Still, she does not see a large-scale problem of high accessibility in her school.

Smith went on to differentiate between a few bold students and that of the entire student body. “As far as if it’s a real issue [at Wooster] I don’t think it’s a huge issue.”

A parent of students at the University of Nevada, Reno and Fernley High School, Ramona Campbell offered her opinion. “I don’t do it and I don’t like it, and even I don’t agree with other people who smoke, but I prefer it be legalized and that people pay the right taxes.” On the 15 percent excise tax, she added, “It’s good, it’s the right thing to do.”

Additionally, a common fear is the accessibility to edibles packaged similarly to common candies. Pailor admonishes, “We have our own Sour Patch Kids, but we call them Sour Hash Kids.” Countering the parental fear, she offered her business’ explanation, “We want to support schools and also keep the kids safe. I feel like the reason they kind of make them look like [candy] is it’s appealing to adults, it’s just the nostalgia factor to a lot of people.”

“I don’t like that idea, sorry”, Ramona Campbell responded. She feels that the market for edibles is made up of young and future smokers. “Children who have access to candies with marijuana, can you believe it then? They’re going to start to be addicted, and it’s not good.”

Still, Nevada smokers may be in for a wait before they can enter Reef Dispensaries without a medical card. Angel Pailor explained a halting transfer of power, “We’re hoping the earliest will be summer of 2017, but realistically it’s probably not going to be until the beginning of 2018. The Department of Behavioral Health are the people that handle health cards and everything like that, and when it goes recreational the Department of Taxation is going to be handling that. Once they get their tax infrastructure set up, that is what we’re waiting on for us to get the go ahead to become recreational.”

“I don’t think the district is doing anything about it across the board because it’s going to take awhile. They’ve got to get that infrastructure, get the licenses out for people to have dispensaries”, Smith responded to a question on steps the Washoe County School District is taking in regards to marijuana legalization. She supports the taxation from the bill benefitting schools like Wooster High, but still addresses the fact that schools will not see a dollar from recreational marijuana until the tax infrastructure is built.