News You May Have Missed: March 29, 2020

To reduce the chaos of multiple stories, we offer you an overview of all things coronavirus, from the impact on the economy to the strains that are circulating, to the likely impact on elections. We also alert you to what kinds of machinations are going on in the name of coronavirus defense.


“Negative – Melbourne (?), Victoria, circa 1910” is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

Apropos of which, are you mystified by Trump’s approval ratings during the coronavirus outbreak? Heather Cox Richardson explains.

Now more than ever, it’s hard to get fact-checked news. We suggest some lesser-known but notable sources:

  • Specializing in in-depth, freshly reported stories from around the world, the Daylighter now has been running illuminating coronavirus updates.
  • We also recommend Cold Type, which has news, features, analysis, history–from everywhere. Don’t miss it.
  • We count on Crysostom’s election round-ups (and a little election gossip). He’ll let you know where Mitch McConnell’s super-pak is putting its money and measures the effect on the re-election prospects of those senators who dumped stocks rather than warning the public about the coronavirus.

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. Under cover of COVID-19

The administration has been slow and disorganized in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s been quick to capitalize on the chaos created by coronavirus to roll back regulations and take other actions that would face a much more critical response in ordinary times. A few of these changes and proposed changes:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced, retroactive to March 13, that it will allow corporations to monitor themselves for compliance with environmental regulations and will not issue fines for many kinds of reporting violations, according to the Hill. The EPA has also announced a suspension of its enforcement of environmental laws, including those around pollution, according to the New York Times.
  • The administration has announced plans to use pandemic protections to justify immediately turning away asylum seekers and would-be immigrants crossing the U.S.’s southern border, reported CBS News.
  • The New York Times reports that a rollback of automobile fuel efficiency standards is expected next week.
  • The Federal Labor Relations Authority has made it easier for federal employees to stop withholding of their union dues.
  • Workers at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department have been told not to relax deadlines for public comment despite ways the coronavirus pandemic might slow individuals’ and organizations’ ability to file such comments. Many comment periods are being limited to thirty days, the bare minimum required under law.
  • Under a supposed move for “transparency,” an EPA rules change would essentially bar a significant proportion of scientific research from consideration in policymaking because these studies do not release the personal health information of the participants—a standard ethical practice in such research (see our 2nd story on March 15 for more detail. This proposal is particularly salient at the moment because it may prohibit research into the coronavirus and its treatment from consideration in policymaking.
  • The Department of Justice has requested Congressional authorization to hold individuals indefinitely during federal emergencies without following rules of habeus corpus, Rolling Stone noted.. This proposal is unlikely to receive Congressional approval, but shows the kind of moves the administration is currently attempting. S-HP.

You may want to tell the EPA that self-monitoring and eliminated fines for corporations are an invitation to wreak environmental havoc and that “transparency” should not be used as an excuse to ignore the best available scientific research. You could also tell Homeland Security that the U.S. continue to follow international law regarding the processing of asylum seekers. Addresses here.

2. Children, adults in detention dealing with coronavirus

With four children having tested positive for coronavirus in a federal shelter in New York, a federal judge has ordered the U.S. to release the 3,600 asylum-seeking children separated from their parents to sponsors as soon as possible. As the New York Times reported on March 29, Judge Dolly M. Gee of the United States District Court ordered authorities to report by April 6 on their efforts to release the children. Last year, PBS reported on how being institutionalized has long-term psychological effects on children and NBC News has a piece on the terror of children in detention as the pandemic spreads.

In addition, the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with others, filed a petition over this past weekend, insisting that ICE either release asylum-seekers in detention centers or find some way to protect them. Detainees and staff are beginning to test positive, but ICE has not intensified its medical response. As things stand, those detained cannot possibly maintain physical distancing and have limited access to soap and washing facilities. A district judge set a date of April 13 for an expedited hearing. The SPLC quotes one plaintiff from California, at high risk from coronavirus due to age and other factors, as saying, “I am scared for my life.” RLS

Youth justice advocates in 30 states have called for the release of youth in detention centers and juvenile justice facilities. Access the state-level campaigns here. Raices has filed suit for the release of families in detention, given the conditions they live in and the risks of the virus; find out about their work here.

3. Coronavirus legislation overlooks needs of those with disabilities

Disability rights advocates are raising concerns that the conronavirus response legislation passed thus far omits funding for services essential to the disabled community. The Arc outlines those shortcomings. Autistic Advocacy and the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network suggest contacting Congress to ask for legislation that provides the following

  • Extra funding so Medicaid can still provide home and community-based services during the crisis.
  • Making sure family caregivers for adults with disabilities are covered by paid leave.
  • Making sure that people on SSI or SSDI are able to receive cash payments like everyone else, without worrying about income or asset limits.
  • Making sure that people with disabilities can get medications refilled.
  • Making sure people with disabilities don’t face discrimination in health care.
  • Protecting the rights of students with disabilities.
  • Permanently reauthorizing Money Follows the Person, to make sure that people who are institutionalized during the crisis can return to their homes and communities.

ProPublica has also reported that as states prepare triage procedures (the way care is assigned when there isn’t enough to go around), it appears that those with intellectual disabilities may be among those denied care. ProPublica cites the following language from Alabama’s proposed procedures: “‘Persons with severe mental retardation, advanced dementia or severe traumatic brain injury may be poor candidates for ventilator support”; [and] “persons with severe or profound mental retardation, moderate to severe dementia, or catastrophic neurological complications such as persistent vegetative state are unlikely candidates for ventilator support.’” The suggestion that intellectual disabilities are equivalent to being in a vegetative state are both disturbing and dehumanizing. Other states with potentially problematic triage priorities include Washington, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. As a result, disability rights groups have filed multiple complaints and queries with the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the decision-making being done on the state level. According to the New York Times, the U.S Office of Civil Rights has opened in investigation to make sure that state-level rationing plans  “are fully compliant with civil rights law.” S-HP

We suggest that you call for coronavirus legislation that includes provisions essential for the disabled community, demand federal-level monitoring/legislation to protect people with intellectual disabilities from bigoted denial of service, and emphasize that intellectual disability is not an appropriate ground for denying limited-availability resources and care.

4. Native American communities not receiving promised funds

Vox reports that on March 6, Congress allocated $40 million in coronavirus aid to assist in the surveillance of the virus, laboratory capacity, infection control, and other initial preparedness and response activities. Congress also subsequently allocated another $64 million in aid directly to Indian Health Services. On March 20, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Indian Health Service, announced it was prepared to release $80 million in coronavirus funding to tribes, tribal organizations, and Urban Indian Organizations. However, citing sources familiar with the Indian Health Service, Vox reports that as of March 21, only 2% of tribal clinics had received this because of the lack of bureaucratic mechanisms to distribute funds from the CDC. Meanwhile, the American Indian Health Service reports that it is dangerously low on medical supplies and equipment. S-HP

You might share your concerns about the need for expedited release of these funds with the heads of Health and Human Services and the CDC, and ask your Congressmembers to intervene to see that these funds are disbursed quickly. Addresses are here.

5. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wins legal battle against DAPL

The Dakota Access Pipeline lost its permits to run a pipeline across Standing Rock Sioux Tribal land as a result of a decision by a federal judge last week. The judge said that the company had not adequately addressed the Tribe’s concerns about the liklihood of an oil spills, and found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act  when it granted the pipeline permits in 2016. The judge is requiring the company to do a full environmental impact report, which the Sioux have been requesting from the beginning. As Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chairman Mike Faith told Earthjustice, “It’s humbling to see how actions we took four years ago to defend our ancestral homeland continue to inspire national conversations about how our choices ultimately affect this planet.” RLS

6. Coronavirus used to restrict abortion access

In preparation for a likely influx of coronavirus patients, a number of governors are calling for a halt of elective hospital procedures until the pandemic wanes. While this move makes sense generally, it is being used deliberately to restrict abortion access. As the LA Times puts it, “A ‘postponed’ abortion? Yeah, that’s called having the baby.” The Governors of Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas have all halted elective procedures and have included abortions on the list of procedures to be discontinued. However, unlike, say, cosmetic surgery, which can be safely postponed, abortions cannot be delayed for any significant length of time, particularly because the procedure becomes riskier for women as they move further along in their pregnancies. Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Lawyering Project and other organizations have filed a lawsuit to stop the postponement of abortions. S-HP

Do you think that these governors should be able to decide whether an abortion is essential? If not, you can reach them at these addresses.

7. Blood shortages projected: FDA urged to lift ban on gay men donating

As schools, community centers, churches, and similar venues close because of coronavirus and as healthcare staff shortages increase, blood drives are being cancelled across the country. The Red Cross has canceled more than 5,000 blood drives in order to follow CDC guidelines regarding social distancing and other preventive measures. As a result, the available blood supplies are shrinking, and we are faced with the possibility of massive shortages, according to the Guardian. One way to increase the rate of blood donation at this crucial time would be for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to lift its ban on donations from men who have had sex with other men in the past year. (Canada permits such men to donate if they have not had sex within the last three months.) A group of US senators has called on the FDA to drop the ban, saying that given increased blood screening capabilities, the ban is discriminatory and unnecessary, Time reports. S-HP

You could call on the Commissioner of Food and Drugs to end to this discriminatory rule that excludes willing blood donors at the time we need them most.

8. Trump eviscerating union rights

Trump has been using executive orders to weaken union and collective bargaining rights for federal employees. These rollbacks include three 2018 orders shortening performance improvement plans to thirty days, exempting adverse personnel actions from grievance proceeding, placing time limits on collective bargaining, and severely restricting the time federal employees can spend on union-related work. Unions challenged these moves in court, but were told that they can only challenge the provisions of these executive orders through concrete disputes with agencies before the Federal Labor Relations Authority, meaning the changes will have to be fought piecemeal over an extended period of time. More recently, Trump signed off on a memo giving Defense Secretary Mark Esper the right to exempt any of the units he oversees from federal labor law. Now a bipartisan group of Representatives has introduced H.R.6246: To Provide that Certain Executive Orders with Respect to Federal Employee Collective Bargaining Shall Have No Force or Effect. H.R.6246 is currently with the House Oversight and Reform Committee. S-HP

You can ask your representatives for quick, positive action on H.R. 6246. Contact information is here.

9. Trump packing courts

One of the major “accomplishments” of the current administration has been the ongoing warp-speed confirmation of federal judges, including two Supreme Court Justices who are young enough to continue serving on the court for decades. The New York Times now reports Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans have also been systematically identifying judges appointed by Republican presidents who are eligible for retirement or senior status and encouraging them to make the transition now, so that their replacements can be appointed by Trump before the possible election of a Democratic President or Senate in November’s elections. More than ninety Republic-appointed judges are or will be eligible for “senior status” before the end of the year. Senior status judges can continue to hear cases, hire clerks, and receive pay, but their seats become officially vacant, allowing the president to appoint new judges, even if the senior status judges continue to work. Many of these potential appointments are on appeals courts—and appeal court rulings can become binding precedent, affecting future rulings. The New York Times quotes Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer explaining, “Senator McConnell knows he can’t achieve any of his extreme goals legislatively, so he continues to attempt to pull America to the far right by packing the courts.” S-HP

If you are so inclined, you could tell your senators that you are object to this deliberate attempt to warp the nation’s judicial processes and urge them to resist the continuing rapid pace of judicial appointments.

10. Elections at risk during COVID-19 pandemic

U.S. election security and functions were at risk before the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, which has significantly worsened these problems. The Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act, (S.3440 in the Senate; H.R.6202 in the House) would address these problems by requiring states and jurisdictions to develop plans to facilitate elections during disaster, including the coronavirus pandemic, by making vote-by-mail ballots easy to request and readily available, including the options of requesting these ballots online and printing ballots at home, the Hill explains. It would also allow absentee ballot requests to be submitted up to five days before an election if requested via mail and one day if requested online. Finally, it requires that states and jurisdictions provide pre-paid envelopes for voters casting mail ballot. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and other signers have sent a letter to Congress urging Congressmembers to act quickly. S-HP

If you want to advise your Congressmembers to support the Resilient Elections During Quarantines and Natural Disasters Act and similar legislation, addresses are here.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

11. Why Italy was hit so hard

Given that Italy had a thriving economy, a higher life-expectancy than most Western countries and more health-care beds per person than the U.S., why has the coronavirus hit it so hard? Foreign policy writer Conn Hallinan thinks it has to do with the country’s anti-immigration policy. Because birthrates are low among Italians and immigration has been restricted, 23 per cent of Italians are over 65–and the death rate of coronavirus jumps to 8 per cent at age 70. Austerity measures following the economic crisis of 2008 also targeted health care, so that the country had insufficient margin. (He describes for-profit health care and managed care as the culpits in the U.S.) In Dispatches from the Edge, Hallinan explains that countries which keep out immigrants and allow their population to age will be at similar risk, exacerbated by the lack of working-age adults to fund social spending. RLS

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

12. COVID-19: One month update

Readers may recall the snapshot overview we provided on March 1st. It is now four weeks later and we have some better clarity on where the United States stands confronting this pandemic. As before, data is changing hourly in this rapidly evolving world catastrophe. 

Currently there are 199 countries and territories reporting at least one infection, for a total of about 722,000 infections recorded and about 34,000 deaths. You may have heard the word “exponential” used regarding this virus and if you compare these numbers to the numbers provided just four weeks ago you will see why: They have doubled roughly every week with that period shortening as we move further from the brief flattening in the curve China managed to produce. It has become clear that the most important single factor in preserving life during this crisis is to have adequate hospital care available for patients in severe respiratory distress, meaning ventilators and ECMO machines, as well as healthcare workers well enough to operate them. As it currently stands, no country in the world is adequately prepared for the numbers we will be seeing in coming weeks and so heartbreaking decisions are facing medical staff, as has already been the case in Italy, regarding who will get life-saving care and who will not. 

The virus itself is not remaining idle either, with eight distinct strains of the virus recorded around the world. As far as can be determined, the differences in the strains are not causing either less or more severe illness but they do allow for opportunities for forensic tracking via the evolution of the genome, USA Today reports. Evidence based on this tracking suggests that strategies of social distancing are effective in slowing or even halting the spread of the disease. The entire genome has been available for awhile now and it is apparent to experts that it is not of human design, instead almost certainly originating from an animal host and crossing to humans in China. 

Speculation that the impact to the world economy would be severe has proven correct as the New York Stock Exchange recorded the largest drop ever and the second largest by percentage since the ‘Black Friday’ event of 1987, with other less severe but substantial drops occurring–as well as modest rallies in response to positive news. A record three million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last two weeks. Trillions of dollars have evaporated, negating years of positive growth which has prompted some, mostly on the political right, to posit that the costs of social distancing might be more than the cost of simply allowing the virus to rapidly spread. Health experts are broadly unified in their recommendation that social activities be limited to the bare essential, regardless of economic cost, since the consequences of an even more rapid spread would be horrific, the Connecticut Mirror points out. Repeated models of more limited measures, such as isolating only the sick, family of the ill and the most high-risk show that they are inadequate to prevent the collapse of our healthcare system, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

It is puzzling as to how billionaire investors, President Trump and others who support an early cessation of social distancing measures think that a completely overwhelmed medical system throughout the entire nation with commensurate mass casualties will not result in devastating economic losses as well. Already there has been backtracking on the ideas being floated, withTrump apparently giving up on his Easter date and aiming for the end of April (which is also insufficient) and suggesting that 100,000 American deaths would be “a very good job,” essentially a concession that there will be a massive loss of life as a result of this pandemic. As a basis for comparison, the worst flu season in the last forty years was in 2018; it claimed 80,000 lives. 

While the economic and human cost of the pandemic have been getting much attention, social costs are beginning to show, highlighting long standing cracks in societies. Southern Italy has been dealing with a growing rise of discontent in the face of their country’s relatively severe restrictions of movement. Southern Italy has long been poorer and more discontented than the northern areas where the virus has hit hardest: Now there are people going hungry and altercations over food and cash. Meanwhile, here in the United States, domestic terrorists do not seem to be hesitant in using the disorder caused by the virus to identify weak areas to attack. A white supremacist was arrested after plotting to bomb a hospital, the front line of the fight, ABC News reported.

Finally, while China was aggressive in its response to the outbreak and enacted sweeping suppressive measures, evidence is emerging that the peak of their infection was far worse than official numbers record, Newsweek suggests, estimating from numbers of cremations and the shipments of urns. In addition, due to the official Chinese narrative that the enormous government response was successful in stamping down the infection, foreigners are now blamed for every new case of infection within the country, Foreign Policy notes. President Trump’s branding of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” is adding fuel to the xenophobia and nationalism brewing.

Current CDC recommendations are that all persons able to stay home and/or work from home should do so. If ill, you are advised to wear a mask and continue using effective hand washing and disinfection of regularly contacted surfaces. Only go to the hospital if you or a loved one are seriously ill, such as experiencing significant shortness of breath and chest pain, having blue lips or being unresponsive. The three major symptoms of the illness are fever, cough and shortness of breath with fatigue. Most people who fall ill do recover at home and it is important that if you can self treat, you should do so–as the strain on medical resources will be acute. JC  

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist is tracking its impact. See what your calls and letters have accomplished!
  • Sarah-Hope’s action items follow the news summaries above, but if you want the whole group of summaries and items for postcarding, it is here.
  • Martha tells us that regulations.gov, which receives public comment, is a moving target because of the coronavirus emergency. She sees echoed the issue we raise above about what is being done in the name of COVID. In the “recent” section at the following link, there are numerous changes across agencies enacted/proclaimed because of the pandemic. Here are the opportunities to comment through all this that she has collected.
  • Rogan’s list has a link to surgical mask-making instructions, a site where you can donate undocumented workers, a way to advocate against water-shutoffs–and more.

News You May Have Missed: March 22, 2020

We know that fast-breaking news about the coronavirus and everything surrounding it can be paralyzing, so we have sorted through and summarized the most pressing issues with lots of possibilities for action, even if you are sequestered at home.

Keep reading Heather Cox Richardson, even if you don’t want to be saturated with news. Her March 21 column talks about the story Politico broke about Department of Justice proposal to impose emergency measures that would gut civil liberties. It is telling that the Trump administration is willing to impose these kinds of draconian measures but won’t order manufacturers to produce medical equipment.

Worldwide COVID-19 is being tracked by Our World in Data, which is relying on information from the European CDC. See also the devastating real-time site designed by a Washington State high school student that shows the increases in cases of COVID-19, percent increases and fatalities. Balance this with the map below, which shows (in orange) the counties without ICU beds and in light grey, the counties without hospitals.

From Kaiser Health News.

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. What they knew and when they knew it

The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, warned a small group of wealthy constituents on February 27 that the coronavirus was much more serious than the U.S. government was letting on, describing it as “akin to the 1918 pandemic,” according to recordings obtained by NPR. All those in attendance had contributed $100,000 or more to his campaign in 2015 and 2016. He did not convey this warning to his constituents at large. On February 7, Burr had assured them that the U.S. was well-prepared to deal with the coronavirus, but on February 13, he sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million in stocks, particular shares in hospitality companies whose value has dropped by half in recent weeks, according to ProPublica. In 2012, Burr was one of only two senators to vote against the The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, or the STOCK Act, which was designed to prevent insider trading by members of Congress or their aides, Politico reported at the time.

After the news about Burr dumping stocks, it came to light that four other senators sold large parcels of stocks, among them Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), according to the Daily Beast. Senator Loeffler’s husband is Jeffrey Sprecher, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange; she began selling stocks on January 24, the same day as she attended a briefing by health officials to the Senate Health Committee, on which she sits, and also acquired stock in a tele-working company. In an opinion piece, the New York Times says that although Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) attended the same briefing and also sold his stock, according to Raw Story, he had been systematically selling it since he became chair of the Armed Services Committee. Similar, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) sold his stock, but after the stock market had begun falling. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sold stock as well, but she had not attended the briefing and indeed, she lost money on the deals as some of the stocks she sold were in biotech, which has gained in value. Bloomberg has a graph of how the stocks the others sold tanked. The Times piece asks where we would be now if those senators who had attended the January 24 briefing had broken ranks and told the country how serious the coronavirus was, instead of preserving their own financial interests. RLS

2. We could have been prepared

A scenario about a pandemic played out January-August of last year, one that sounds eerily familiar. The scenario, however, was a rehearsal, one which uncovered how disastrously unprepared the U.S. was for such a disaster, the New York Times explains. (The Times also explains how the Obama administration had assessed the nation’s readiness in light of Ebola, and how that administration ran an exercise on responding to a pandemic for incoming senior officials in the Trump administration in January of 2017.) But it wasn’t all scenarios and models: The Washington Post reported on Friday that intelligence officials and the CDC had been trying to get Trump to take the coronavirus seriously since mid-January, becoming increasingly frantic.

After the scenario last year, a truly alarming document was circulated but not released in October, sketching the chaos and miscommunication that would ensue. Now, it reads like history. RLS

3. Easing the impact of the coronavirus on students, others

The financial vulnerabilities of many Americans are becoming painfully clear as the coronavirus pandemic progresses. Among those affected are students at colleges and universities and those living in federal housing or purchasing homes through federal loan programs. Some members of Congress have been calling on federal departments and agencies to fast-track programs to protect these groups. A bipartisan group of 72 Congressmembers have requested that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos take all possible steps to identify the costs students are incurring as a result of college and university closures and to “identify how students may be reimbursed for any educational expenditures related to the coronavirus.” These expenditures include debt accruing on student loans; the costs of travel home when dormitories are closed; reimbursement of monies paid for on-campus housing, if that is closed; and the costs related to cancelled study abroad programs.

However, the New York Times says that what looks like a waiver of student loan payments is not; it only means that payments are applied to the principal.

A group of 106 Congressmembers is calling for an immediate moratorium on foreclosures and evictions from properties owned, insured, or overseen by the following federal agencies and programs: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans’ Administration, and the Department of Agriculture. Sixty-three percent of all mortgages originating in the U.S. are affiliated with one of these agencies or programs. S-HP

Join in asking DeVos to begin immediate work to protect students from coronavirus-related expenses. You can also ask administration leadership to immediately end foreclosures and evictions. Addresses are here.

4. Social Security continued to hold disability hearings, some immigration hearings go forward

Many courts around the U.S. have shut down amid coronavirus pandemic, but some have done so only recently and others continue to operate. The Social Security Administration continued to hold disability hearings through March 20, a particularly troubling choice given the physical vulnerability of many disability recipients, though they have now suspended them, Vox points out. Immigration hearings for those not in detention have been suspended, but hearings are still being held for those in detention, despite a March 15 letter calling for immediate suspension of all hearings issued by the National Association of Immigration Judges; the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 511, which represents Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Employees; and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, WBUR explains.

Of course, cancelling hearings while continuing to hold asylum-seekers in detention or forcing them to remain in Mexico as a result of the Migrant “Protection” Protocols leave these individuals vulnerable. See the Times story on how those in the camps in Mexico are trying to manage. Multiple organizations, from local to national, have been calling for the release of immigration detainees to prevent the spread of coronavirus in detention facilities, which are notoriously crowded and under-provisioned. The former Acting Director of ICE advocates for their release in the Atlantic on Sunday. S-HP

You can join calls for an end to in-person hearing for detainees in immigration custody and for the release of these individuals until the pandemic is over. Addresses are here.

You can also contribute to El Otro Lado’s fund for assisting the 65,000 asylum-seekers forced to wait in camps on “the other side,” just over the border.

5. Whistleblower doctors call for detainees to be released; some prisons releasing inmates

Some U.S. jails and prisons are releasing prisoners early, according to the BBC. Prisoners are at risk for COVID-19, because not only are they in close quarters, but if they are handcuffed, they cannot cover their sneezes or coughs, and hand sanitizer is prohibited because of its alcohol content.

Whistleblower doctors from the Department of Homeland Security have sent a letter to Congress, calling the immigrant detention centers that house some 40,000 people “tinderboxes” for the coronavirus, according to CNN. Rather than release asylum-seekers, the government is curtailing visits from family members and advocates. ICE is seeking funding to deport more asylum-seekers and to release others with ankle bracelets. In an article Friday, Mother Jones quotes a detained Cuban doctor on the conditions in detention centers; she said that even soap for handwashing has to be purchased from the commissary, as not enough is supplied. Immigration attorneys argue that ICE could release detainees if it chose to.  The immigrants’ rights organization Raices sent CNN statements from asylum-seekers near San Antonio, among them one who wrote, “”This thing is very sensitive, and sickness spreads fast in Karnes. We will all die in here. If it comes here, we are doomed. Lack of medical care will kill us.” RLS

The ACLU has called for the release of prisoners who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Here is their petition. Color of Change and others are circulating a petition under the URL Humane Outbreak Response.
Immigrant rights organizations, such as
El Refugio, are raising funds so that asylum-seekers can call their families. Raices is asking people to sign a petition to release all vulnerable inmates

6. Effect of border shutdowns on migrant workers, ourselves

Every year, 250,000 workers come in to the U.S. to grow and pack our food. Now, the State Department has frozen the H-24 visas on which many of them come, according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The impact on the food supply will be profound if these workers are not permitted to come into the country, according to a bipartisan group of 42 legislators, led by Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D), who represents California’s Central Coast.

In contrast, in Canada, agricultural workers will be granted exemptions from the otherwise closed border, though they will have to self-quarantine for 14 days after they come in and though this new policy will require some delicate negotiations with the U.S., through which they ordinarily must pass in order to arrive in Canada, according to the St. Catharine’s Standard. This policy seems to be at odds with the merciless decision to turn away refugees at the border, which Trudeau announced on Friday, the CBC reported. RLS

7. Mask shortages endanger medical workers

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to expand, medical personnel across the country are facing dangerous (and embarrassing) shortages of basic medical supplies. The Washington Post reports that healthcare workers are having to improvise safety gear, using bandanas in place of face masks, and sports goggles in place of eye shields. There are also individual reports of medical workers improvising protective gear from craft supplies, Bloomberg reports, and using face masks for a week at a time, spraying them with bleach at the end of each work day in an effort to limit transmission. The Atlantic reported on the shortage of masks on January 30. Campaigns are underway seeking donations of basic supplies from private citizens. Other campaigns have seamstresses sewing face masks at home for distribution to health-care sites, though the efficacy of these is not known. S-HP

Where did all the masks go? China produces about half the world’s masks, according to the New York Times, and with the outbreak there, they have not been shipping masks out; indeed, producers elsewhere sent masks to them. The massive fires in Australia and California used up a large supply of masks (the N95 masks are effective against both smoke and viruses). And panic buying means that individuals are holding masks that could have gone to health care providers–though others, including tattoo artists who can’t work–are donating theirs. RLS

Doctors of our acquaintance are recommending that you tweet @realDonaldTrump and call your congressional representatives. Use the hashtag #GetUsPPE when you tweet, and follow the thread to see the scope of the problem.

If you want to speak up about the supply failures that have our healthcare workers using improvised safety gear and demand an immediate increase in funding for and production of these supplies, here is appropriate contact information, as well as links for mask-making.

8. Ramping up ventilator production–better late than never

The U.S. has the capacity to produce respirators and similar equipment at a rate much faster than it is currently doing. Although Trump has invoked the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows him to order the ramping up of industry to manufacture ventilators and other necessary medical equipment, he has not actually directed companies to produce medical equipment, says the New York Times. All this could have begun much sooner if the administration hadn’t wasted two months or more minimizing the risk of the coronavirus rather than developing responses to it. According to an article in Forbes Magazine, industry could easily produce five times the number of ventilators that are currently produced. S-HP

You can call for immediate action to assure that the maximum number of ventilators and supplies will be produced as quickly as possible. Contact information is here.

9. Virginia moves to keep insulin and epipens affordable

We’ve all read stories about people facing financial challenges whose health has been threatened by or who have died as a result of attempting to ration their insulin use as the prices for insulin skyrocket. In a move that should be an inspiration to every state, the Virginia General Assembly has passed legislation that would cap the cost of insulin for patients to $50 a month, the Virginia Mercury reports. Now that many face decreased employment or unemployment due to the coronavirus pandemic, paying for medications like insulin has become even more challenging. This is true for other life-saving medications like EpiPens. S-HP

You can ask your state legislators to take action now to cap the prices of insulin, EpiPens, and similar medications. Find Your State Legislators Here.

10. Protect the 2020 election

At the moment, we have both a national emergency and a rapidly approaching election. One of the concerns raised as a result is how to guarantee the right of Americans to vote in the November Presidential election, should limits on public assembly and shelter-in-place orders remain in effect at that time. A solution to this problem is already sitting with Congress. The Vote by Mail Act (S.26 in the Senate; H.R.92 in the House) would guarantee the right of every American to receive a vote-by-mail ballot. The House also has a second, similar piece of legislation, H.R.138, the Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act. S.26 is with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. H.R.92 is with two House committees: Administration and Oversight and Reform. H.R.138 is with the House Administration Committee. S-HP

You can urge support for H.R.92, H.R.138 and S.26 to protect our elections at this challenging time . Addresses are here.

11. What if he didn’t know?

We’re familiar by now with the Trumpian strategy in which he claims he did not say things that he did say, how he distorts truth in the way made famous by 1984. Recently, of course, he said, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic”; in response, the New York Times carefully lists what he has actually said over the last two months. He also said that he did not know who had dismantled the pandemic response team or even that it had been disbanded (this was in the same news conference when he said his famous–though unfortunately not last–words: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” The Intercept now is asking the question: What if in fact he did not know? Most of us have assumed that he is lying, as he does. It is even scarier to think that really, he knows very little about what is going on in his own administration, and given the revolving door, decisions of grave importance are being made by his favorite of the moment–in the case of the pandemic response team, John Bolton. RLS

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

12. Trump’s deadly sanctions against Iran, Venezuela, Cuba

After Trump intensified the sanctions against Iran last week, a group of economists called on him to lift the sanctions, which by making basic goods unavailable are hampering people in these countries from protecting themselves against the coronavirus, Common Dreams reported. At least 1,100 people have died in Iran from the coronavirus, and Venezuela is on lockdown as cases have emerged. Cuba has one case so far. For Iran, the sanctions have not only been devastating but have put neighboring countries at risk. As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), explained, “there is no doubt that Iran’s capacity to respond to the novel coronavirus has been hampered by the Trump administration’s economic sanctions, and the death toll is likely much higher than it would have been as a result.” RLS

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

13. Alternative data points might show a clearer picture than official numbers for COVID-19

An Australian academic specializing in data analysis noticed internet speeds in Malaysia plunged by over five percent over the course of the day between March 12 and March 13. The conjecture? That despite only recording 129 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Malaysia was in the middle of an epidemic crises. This is because when people decide to self isolate, call in sick or are sent home, they naturally do what everybody does; they turn on Netflix, check social media or play online games, Wired notes. This surge in demand degrades internet speeds and is almost immediately measurable. In Malaysia’s case, the public was becoming aware of their government’s poor handling of the outbreak due to a massive exposure at a public religious event that was mishandled.

Similar analysis of China’s internet traffic indicates that its return to normalcy is lagging behind the public face China is presenting. For instance, there is solid conjecture that factories that have been restarted are running for show, to prop up electrical demand which causes a return to the usual sorts of pollution levels China normally experiences. The internet traffic says something else, though; if the factories that are running are not fully staffed, employees are at home on the net. This is not to say there’s not a rebound. NO2 levels from cars are rebounding and those *are* indicative of a return to normal travel patterns with an estimate that China is at approximately 2/3 of where they were the same time last year. JC

14. Truckers adapt to fill vast supply chain needs during pandemic crisis

As grocery store shelves empty and medical facilities run low on the necessary protective equipment they need to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, America’s truckers are stepping up to help fill those gaps. Spot prices for last minute truck deliveries have risen over six percent in the last week, diesel sales have also modestly increased, pointing to an industry that is expanding productivity while much of the rest of the nation’s economy languishes. In order to help truckers meet the need to supply essential manufacturing with raw materials, deliver food and hygiene products and get medical supplies where they’re needed, the federal government has suspended some safety regulations that require periodic rests; they have also made exceptions for truck stops to remain open as truckers depend on their facilities to meet basic needs. That being said, workout and entertainment facilities at truck stops remain closed and drivers are being cautioned to maintain social distancing from each other and thoroughly wash and clean, Ars Technica reports. JC

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist has clear, easy actions you can take on all sorts of issues relating to social justice.
  • If you write post-cards (or the electronic equivalent), Sarah-Hope’s action items are above–or you can work through her whole list.
  • Martha’s list this week has a site for commenting on the story we featured last week, the EPA’s misnamed “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” which would essentiallu permit decisions to be made without taking into account scientific data. A couple of weeks ago we wrote about rules permitting the “accidental” killing of migratory birds; now there is a proposal for hunting them. See also the federal anti-union bill for federal workers.
  • Rogan’s list this week has lots of news and many action items on the coronavirus this week, including a call for volunteers to 3-D print ventilator parts.
  • Ars Technica is updating its comprehensive coronavirus site every day at 3 PM.



News You May Have Missed: March 15, 2020

Last week seems like a decade ago. Disasters deform time, with enormous changes occurring overnight. And time is at their center; as the many graphs that have been circulating suggest, the pace at which infections proliferate will determine whether our health care systems will be overwhelmed to the point of incapacity. Meanwhile, while we may have imagined this epidemic as temporary, a secret document from the UK Public Health system suggests it will govern our lives for the next year.

Chrysostom points out that a few things outside of the coronavirus are going on–see his comprehensive election coverage. And we recommend that you keep reading Heather Cox Richardson’s column, Letters from an American; she puts the coronavirus–and everything else–in context.


“Dali” by ChaSanabria is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. Public Health England predicts the virus will last till spring 2021

Though Trump says that the coronavirus will “disappear” like a “miracle,” a secret document produced by Public Health England and uncovered by the Guardian predicts that the virus will last until the spring of 2021 and that four out of five Britons will contract it, with more than half a million deaths. The strain on the National Health Service–along with first responders–will be profound. One epidemiologist quoted by the Guardian expects that the virus “will dip in the summer, towards the end of June, and come back in November, in the way that usual seasonal flu does.” The Guardian article did not speculate on what these projections for the UK imply about the how the virus will affect the rest of the world. RLS

2. What you may have missed on Super Tuesday

While the media (and audiences) were distracted by primary results, the Trump administration published a rule change which would prohibit using scientific data to make decisions unless it was publicly available, according to Common Dreams. In the usual double-speak, the rule, called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” would exclude data based on proprietary information or personal health information. An early version received over 600,000 comments, most opposed to the “secret science” proposal, according to Nation of Change.

As the New York Times pointed out in the fall, understanding the relationship between pollution and disease, for example, often depends on data obtained under circumstances when confidentiality was guaranteed; crucial information that we now depend on, such as the relationship between lead paint and behavioral issues in children, or between mercury emissions from power plants and development delay, was obtained using confidential medical data. As the head of the American Lung Association told the New York Times, “This means the E.P.A. can justify rolling back rules or failing to update rules based on the best information to protect public health and the environment, which means more dirty air and more premature deaths.” RLS

3. International adoptees could become deportees

There are thousands of international adoptees in the U.S. who never became U.S. citizens, not because they didn’t want citizenship, but because adoptive parents often didn’t know the application was necessary, didn’t know all the steps involved in the process, or received incorrect information on some point. As KGW8 describes it, the case of Rebecca Trimble in Oregon is one such example. Born in Mexico in 1989, she was adopted by an American couple in her infancy and has lived her entire life here. She voted in the 2008 Presidential election. In 2012, she applied for and was denied a REAL ID because of problems with her documentation. She subsequently filed the appropriate forms to request an adjustment of status, but was denied. Why? She is a “criminal,” having voted in a U.S. election when she wasn’t a citizen. A bill introduced by Representatives Adam Smith (D-Washington) and Rob Woodall (R-Georgia), the Hill reports, would resolve Trimble’s case and many others . Called the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2019, S.1554, this legislation is currently with the Senate Judiciary Committee. S-HP

If you want to speak up about the Adoptee Citizenship Act, contact information for your senators is here.

4. Liberty, justice and sick leave for some

House Democrats have passed H.R.6201, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which would provide funding for sick leave for (some) workers, free coronavirus testing, expanded food assistance, and unemployment benefits, as well as new workplace protections for healthcare workers. As details about the legislation emerge, however, it becomes clear–as the New York Times reported–that its paid leave provisions will only benefit some 20% of Americans. Companies with over 500 employees (that’s 54% of all companies in the U.S.) are exempt. Employers with fewer than fifty employees can apply for a hardship exception from the rule. Those larger employers may (or may not) choose to offer paid leave, and that leave may (or may not) match the leave requirements (for those who qualify) in H.R.6201. S-HP

You may want to urge immediate Senate action on H.R.6201 and insist on an amendment that includes more than 20% of the U.S. workforce. Appropriate addresses are here. You can also sign the letter Moms Rising has produced, urging the Senate to pass a comprehensive package.

5. Coronavirus in prisons and detention centers

Incarcerated people and those in immigration detention will likely find themselves particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, given their living conditions, a story in the Washington Post explained. A group of senators led by Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has written the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and private prison operators to warn that “Given the spread of the virus in the U.S.—and the particular vulnerability of the prison population and correctional staff—it is critical that [you] have a plan to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus to incarcerated individuals and correctional staff, along with their families and loved ones, and provide treatment to incarcerated individuals and staff who become infected. According to the Hill, the senators have also requested detailed information on their coronavirus plans. The Lens reports that public defenders in one Louisiana Parish have requested the immediate release of all non-violent offenders “to limit the spread of the virus and the potential catastrophic effects on our community and clients in jail and out.” S-HP

If you want to join in these calls for aggressive planning and risk mitigation by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and private detention companies, appropriate addresses are here.

6. Protecting the November elections

Louisiana and Georgia are the first states to postpone their presidential primaries in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but other states may be forced to take similar measures—and at the moment, we don’t know what impact the pandemic will have on November’s Presidential elections. In Georgia, according to the Guardian, many poll workers are older and hence at increased risk. S.3440, A Bill to Require States to Adopt Contingency Plans to Prevent the Disruption of Federal Elections from the COVID-19 Virus, does what its title suggests. Most states no doubt will be making such plans, but S.3440 can serve as a reminder to them and as a firm nudge to any states who have not begun considering possibilities. S.3440 is currently with the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. S-HP

You can urge your senators to co-sponsor S.3440 and act on it quickly.

7. In Texas, U.S. Marshals arrest people behind on student loans

In September 2019, the Department of Education created a new rule, making it more difficult for students to receive loan forgiveness if the institution they attend has engaged in misrepresentation of its programs. In a rarely used move, H.J.Res.76, which has passed through both houses of Congress and now goes to Trump, would nullify that rule. There are not enough votes to override a veto, so Trump’s signature is essential. For the record, the full title of this legislation is Providing for Congressional Disapproval under Chapter 8 of Title 5, United States Code, of the Rule Submitted by the Department of Education Relating to “Borrower Defense Institutional Accountability.” Currently debt collection agencies in Texas are having U.S. Marshals arrest individuals who fall behind on educational loan payments, according to New York Magazine. While this may be an only-in-Texas situation, student borrowers across the country struggle daily with loan payments—and certainly deserve the right to challenge loans they undertook when an institution misrepresented what it had to offer. S-HP

If you want to urge Donald Trump to sign H.J.Res.76, you can write him at the White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC 20500, (202) 456-1111.

8. Cut to payroll taxes would undermine Social Security

Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has largely focused on its effect on business, rather than on providing healthcare. According to NBC News, one way he’s proposing to support the economy is by cutting payroll taxes through the end of the year, which is, quite frankly, a terrible, but not necessarily a surprising move, as the LA Times makes clear. Payroll taxes fund Social Security, and Trump has made it clear that one of his goals if reelected is to end Social Security as it currently exists. This move will not address the actual health crisis we’re in, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities explains. Workers (often low income) outside of the Social Security system and the unemployed will not see any financial relief at all under this proposal. S-HP

Write your elected representatives if you want to object to this attack on Social Security and explain that we have much better options for addressing this pandemic than unravelling existing safety nets (this link will take you to a petition you can sign as well).

9. Frackers lining up for coronavirus relief

Trump has promised to seek to provide help for the parts of the economy hit hardest by the coronavirus, and this cohort may include—frackers? Shale (aka fracking) companies have been having a hard time of it lately with high debt and difficulty getting lines of credit (a sign that, among other things, climate protests are having an effect). They’ve also been hurt by the current oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. And, oh yes, coronavirus. The Washington Post reports that multiple companies have been lobbying the White House to be included in coronavirus economic relief. They cite the example of Continental Resources, a company founded by Trump supporter and energy adviser Harold Hamm. Hamm, who owns a 77% stake in the company, personally lost $2 billion in value last Monday. While the Senate delays aid to working families, billionaires with their hands out are being greeted much more warmly by the administration. S-HP

You might remind the Administration and Congress that fracking is hugely destructive to our planet and recommend that shale companies not be included in and economic relief associated with the coronavirus pandemic: addresses here.

10. Disaster victims expected to pay back FEMA

Recipients of FEMA disaster relief funding are often in desperate straits, needing to rebuild quickly to have a place to live, but often lacking significant resources beyond those granted by FEMA. Recent practice has been that if FEMA makes an error in an applicant’s favor when providing disaster relief funding, that individual is required to repay FEMA any monies granted in error, even if those monies have already been spent and regardless of whether the individual has other financial resources. However, at the moment the rule allowing FEMA to collect such overpayments has expired and a rule change is proposed to reinstitute this practice. As the Mercury News explains, a bipartisan group of California legislators have proposed legislation that would prevent FEMA from demanding repayment of FEMA overpayments: H.R.5953, the Preventing Disaster Revictimization Act. This legislation has made it through committee and is now eligible for consideration on the House floor. S-HP

You can speak up on behalf of disaster victims by commenting on FEMA-2019-0004. As of March 13 only two comments had been received. Instructions are here; comments are due by April

11. Bottled water companies pay almost nothing for water

In California in 2016, Crystal Geyser bought access to a spring near the city of Weed from a timber company and began bottling at a rate that made it impossible for the city to continue using this spring as their main water source as had been the case until then. Nestlé’s Arrowhead water comes from the San Bernardino Forest, and the company takes an average of 62.2 million gallons a year. The price? Under a 1978 permit, the company paid an annual fee of just $524, and continued taking water at this rate after the permit expired. Under a new permit issued in 2018, the company now pays $2000 a year—four times the previous year, but still pretty much a literal “steal” at over 31,000 gallons for each dollar paid, according to Sunset Magazine–which published a summary of what a number of companies are making and what they are paying for water.

Across the country, groundwater on both private and public land is increasingly being “purchased” by bottling companies—almost always at rates so low that to call these “purchases” is an example of capitalist wishful thinking. This year, state-level legislation is being considered in Washington, Michigan, and Maine that would place strict limits on the type and amount of water bottling companies could have access to, the Washington Post reports. For example, the Washington legislation would allow use of tap water for bottling, but would prohibit the use of spring water. Communities in Oregon and Montana have passed similar legislation, though the Montana legislation is still being fought in court. S-HP

You might want to suggest to your elected representatives that they consider state legislation of this sort. If you are in California, you can find them here.

12. Your voice is needed on Scalia power grab

We’ve written recently about the new powers Attorney General William Barr has been granted to review and overrule and decisions made in immigration courts. Now it appears that Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia would like to have similar powers, according to Employment Law Daily. A proposed rule change would grant Scalia “discretionary secretarial review over cases pending before or decided by the Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals and to make technical changes to Departmental regulations governing the timing and finality of decisions of the Administrative Review Board and the Board of Alien Labor Certification Appeals.” The Board of Alien Labor Certifications Appeals makes decisions regarding the admission of foreign workers to the U.S. Secretary Scalia would be granted the same powers over employee food safety protections and whistle-blowers. To get a sense of who Secretary Scalia is and why you might not want him to be able over-rule these boards, see Common Dreams’ scathing assessment from last fall. As of March 13, one version of this proposal has received a single comment; the other has not received any.

If you’d like to comment for the public record on the proposal to expand Secretary Scalia’s powers, instructions are here. Comments are due by April 6.

13. Food for schoolchildren during the pandemic

Thirty million schoolchildren participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) school meals program. But, as the Union of Concerned Scientists asks, what happens to those students and their food access as schools across the country close in response to the Coronavirus pandemic? As of March 12, 2,100 schools serving 1.3 million students had been closed—and those numbers are increasing rapidly. The USDA has approved proposals for California and Washington to continue providing meals through the school lunch program, with students eating in less-crowded situations than they normally would. S-HP

You can ask state and national government officials to monitor food availability for children during the pandemic and urge them to act as necessary to ensure children are well-fed. Addresses are here.

14. Bill to prohibit the death penalty frozen in the House

Unlike most developed countries, the United States continues to make use of the death penalty, despite the regular overturning of convictions based on DNA evidence and research by programs like the Innocence Project; the clear demonstration of racial bias in applying the death-penalty; and the fact that, since 1973, 165 individuals on death row have been exonerated and released before they could be executed. Ayanna Pressley’s H.R.4052, To Prohibit the Imposition of the Death Penalty for Any Violation of Federal Law, would prohibit the death penalty at the federal level and require re-sentencing of those on death row. This legislation was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and has sat unaddressed in its Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security Committee for over seven months.

If you want to recommend that the Judiciary Committee and House leadership to take strong, positive action on H.R.4052, their addresses are here.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

15. Handwashing, isolation impossible in some First Nations communities

While some Canadians are sharing twenty-second songs to time their handwashing and others are debating what to watch during self-isolation, many First Nations people lack running water and live in crowded homes, according to Vice. In addition, as Daniel Morriseau, a spokesperson with Grand Council Treaty #3, explained, “Indigenous reserves are typically made up of the very demographics most at-risk of severe COVID-19 infection: the elderly, the young, and people with diabetes.” In addition, Indigenous children whose parents cannot care for them are often placed with grandparents or great-grandparents. If those relatives die from the coronavirus, children will suffer from the loss and disruption. Prime Minister Trudeau, in self-isolation himself, has made reconciling with First Nations communities central to his public persona. The Walrus had a piece last fall on the problematics of this strategy. RLS

16. Prosecution of killers in El Salvador massacre needs documents from the U.S.

In January, we reported that a Salvadoran general admitted that the US-backed Salvadoran army was responsible for the massacre at El Mozote–where in 1981, 1,000 women, children, and elderly people were killed. As one survivor who lost 24 family members in the massacre told the Washington Post “I saw the soldiers,” she said. “They had forced all the people outside their houses, they had them under a mango tree. I saw my family, I saw what happened. They shot them.”

The massacre was covered up at the time, though reporter Ray Bonner has been insisting on the truth about the massacre and the U.S. role in it for almost 40 years. Now, the killers are finally being prosecuted in El Salvador. However, the judge in case has asked the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for records from the American archives that might illuminate how it was planned, given how closely the Americans were working with the Salvadoran military. Neither the CIA nor the State Department has responded to the request. RLS

If you agree that the U.S.  should provide these documents, regardless of the light they shed on our own role in the massacre, relevant committee members’ addresses are here.

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

17. Black women face high odds of dying in pregnancy and childbirth

At the end of January, the National Center for Health Statistics released the first standardized maternal mortality rates from all fifty states. That data confirmed what other, less extensive studies have revealed: Black women face much higher odds of complications and death during pregnancy and birth. While the overall rate for maternal deaths in the U.S. is 17.4 deaths per 100,000 live births (the comparable overall rate for wealthy countries is 8 deaths per 100,000 live births), the rate for Black women is 37.1 deaths per 100,000 live births. There are many reasons for this huge gap in outcomes, as NBC News reports. One of the most pernicious is implicit bias: the tendency for medical professionals to offer poorer care and to listen less carefully to Black women who are pregnant, despite no deliberate intention to discriminate.

The Senate now has an opportunity to consider legislation that would address this disparity.  S.1600, Maternal Care Access and Reducing Emergencies Act (better known as the “Black Momnibus”) was introduced by Kamala Harris (D-CA) and is supported by Congress’s Black Maternal Health Caucus. This legislation would create two grant programs, one for addressing implicit bias in obstetrics and gynecology, the other for state programs that reduce maternal health-related complications and deaths and that focus on women who are uninsured or enrolled in Medicaid. S.1600 also calls for the National Academy of Medicine to recommend that medical schools incorporate bias recognition in clinical-skills tests. S.1600 is currently with the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. S-HP

To urge your senators to take swift, positive action to address Black maternal health and advance S.1600, ask your Senators to cosponsor this legislation. Addresses here.

18. Trump angles to poach COVID-19 vaccine researchers

German news sources are reporting that President Trump offered large sums of money for German researchers at the company CureVac to come to the United States with their research so that the US would benefit from any potential vaccine. CureVac is a few months from beginning clinical trials for a vaccine to treat COVID-19; additionally, the vaccine is of a kind that uses a very low dose which could theoretically make it easier to produce in the quantities needed worldwide, according to Deutsche Welle, a German news outlet. CureVac works in partnership with German state agencies and labs, so there are political and legal ramifications of such an attempt to poach talent in the middle of a crisis. JC

19. Entire nations are shutting down. Meanwhile in Oklahoma…

The governor of Oklahoma enjoyed a taco dinner with his family in a crowded restaurant on Saturday evening and took a selfie to document the fact which he then posted to Twitter, encouraging all his fellow Oklahomans to do the same, according to The Frontier. The governor has refused to close schools in the state, or cancel large public events, citing the lack of community acquired infections as yet. The problem is that the entire state of Oklahoma has administered very few tests as a percentage of their population, and the tests they have done have not been representative of the state as a whole. The most glaring example of this skewed testing situation is the fact that the Utah Jazz had all 58 members of its team tested in Oklahoma, taking over half of the entire state’s daily capacity at the time, according to Politifact. Epidemiologists universally agree that the most effective quarantine measures are put in place BEFORE community spread occurs. JC

20. Tracking the coronavirus through genetic testing

Comparing the genomes of the coronavirus strain that infected passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship to the one that infected residents of Washington State, scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have been able to ascertain that the virus likely traveled from a passenger who got on the ship from Washington; the genomes are almost identical. Now the UCSF team is mapping viral strains elsewhere, a process that can identify the multiple strains that might be circulating, some of them undetected. The Mercury News describes this detective work vividly.

Meanwhile, the virus was isolated by two teams of Canadian scientists, who were also able to reproduce it. According to the Globe and Mail, they can now work on developing a vaccine without having to have viruses shipped over the border. The viral strains identified by the two teams were slightly different, and different still from the virus isolated so far in the United States, a variety which will help clarify whether a vaccine can work across multiple strains. RLS

21. New protections proposed for Monarch butterflies

Western monarch butterflies used to number in the millions, but have now been reduced by 99% to an unsustainable population of just 29,000. The drop in population is a result of prolonged drought, loss of milkweed and native pollinator habitat, loss of breeding and overwintering habitat, and climate change. Last month, Representative Jimmy Panetta introduced the bipartisan H.R.5920, the Monarch Action, Recovery, and Conservation of Habitat (MONARCH) Act, which would provide additional protections and conservation for Monarchs. H.R.5920 is currently with three House Committees: Natural Resources, Appropriations, and Agriculture. The Agriculture Committee has assigned H.R.5920 to its Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. S-HP

You can ask the appropriate committee chairs to act quickly to preserve Monarch butterflies and raise the issue with your senators as well.

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist advises us on how to avoid fear and take action.
  • If you want to work through Sarah-Hope’s entire list and write comments, you can find it all in one place here.
  • Martha’s list this week provides opportunities to comment on the Community Reinvestment Act and the alleged Fair Housing initiative, as well as on the Migratory Bird Act which allows for an increased “take” of migratory birds. You can also review a number of attempts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic–and much more.
  • Rogan’s list tells doctors how they can get coronavirus test kits from the University of Washington and has a number of very useful links around the coronavirus.



News You May Have Missed: March 8, 2020

While conventions and festivals are cancelled and airplanes are flying empty, 60,000 people are in crowded camps just across the US-Mexico border, waiting for their asylum claims to be heard. In 2019, 52,000 were in detention centers, some of which violate “basic human needs,” according to a federal judge, who noted that in a center near Tucson, asylum-seekers are sleeping in bathroom stalls (see our story from last week). 9,500 people in Detroit have no running water, as we explain below. Over a hundred First Nations communities in Canada lack safe drinking water. We advocate the precautionary measures against COVID-19 that have been suggested–but we think that it is essential to remember who cannot wash their hands, cannot avoid crowded spaces, cannot stay hydrated

Heather Cox Richardson reminds us in her March 7 column that times of crisis, such as this one, illustrate the way the U.S. oscillates between the pursuit of equality and the protection of property. Other columns last week look at the faultlines exposed by the coronavirus and the underpinnings of the Democratic Party’s nomination process.

Chrysostom has an analysis of the Super-Tuesday results–and more. See his elections round-up.


“2018/11/23 Ten days old Asylum Seeker arrives in Tijuana, Mexico” by Daniel Arauz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. Detained asylum-seekers must work for food

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) prohibits forced or coerced labor. CoreCivic and other private companies whose facilities hold detained asylum-seekers often require labor from detainees (“compensated” at ridiculously low rates) to pay for essentials like food and hygiene products. A group of immigrants’ rights organizations—including Project South and the Southern Poverty Law Center—are suing CoreCivic in federal court, arguing that the TVPA should apply to those in immigration detention. CoreCivic, of course, has filed a motion to dismiss this complaint, which has been rejected twice, most recently by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. S-HP

You can contact your Congressmembers to point out that CoreCivic is likely violating the TVPA and ask what action they’re taking.

2. Senators Warren, Merkley and Harris challenge remote legal representation

Immigration attorneys are being forced to work with asylum seekers in detention remotely, relying on phone calls. Often the first time an attorney can see her asylum client is when the asylum-seeker’s claim is heard before a judge—and then, attorney and client aren’t seeing each other in person: they’re seeing each other via video and may be separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, according to PRI. United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) raising concerns about the lack of access to appropriate legal services and lack of transparency at DHS-operated “tent courts” at the U.S.-Mexico border. The lawmakers suggest these conditions violate asylum seekers’ due process rights and hinder critical oversight of those courts. Harris and other senators also signed a detailed letter arguing against the politicization of immigration courts. S-HP

If you want to join Warren, Markley, and Harris in speaking out on the due process issue of legal representation, you can find pertinent addresses here.

3. Attorneys advocate for new immigration court system

The American Bar Association, American Immigration Lawyers Association, Federal Bar Association, and National Association of Immigration Judges are all calling for an independent immigration court, separate from the Department of Justice (DOJ). (You can see the letter on AILA’s Twitter page.) Our current system is biased and rushed, undermining due process, the Marshall Project explained last summer. Pressures from within the DOJ undermine due processes. Immigration and asylum are matters of life and death and deserve serious, detailed consideration by a judiciary free from political pressures. S-HP

You can call on your members of Congress to establish an independent immigration court system.

4. Attorney General Barr overrules decisions on torture

At the end of February, Attorney General Barr issued a new definition of “torture” that will make it much more difficult for applicants to receive asylum on that ground. He can do this, explains the Washington Post, due to “a process known as ‘Certification,’ a historically little-used power of the attorney general that allows him to overrule decisions made by the Board of Immigration Appeals and set binding precedent.” While recent administrations have used certification relatively rarely (averaging between once every six months to once every two years), the Trump administration has used Certification at least twelve times in three years. The new definition of torture requires that “to constitute ‘torture under these regulations, an act must, among other things, ‘be specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering….’ [that] “‘torture’ does not cover ‘negligent acts’ or harm stemming from a lack of resources.” The asylum-seeker in this case was requesting asylum because upon his return to Mexico he would be committed to a Mexican mental health care facility whose poor conditions rise to the level of torture. An immigration judge had approved his application, but Barr has now reversed it. S-HP

5. Barr’s redaction of Mueller report questioned by federal judge

As part of a Freedom of Information suit asking for the public release of the unredacted Mueller report on Russian election interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign in 2016, Federal Judge Reggie B. Walton (appointed by Republican George W. Bush) ruled that he would have to see the unredacted report in order to determine whether administration claims justifying the redactions are appropriate. According to the New York Times, Judge Walton’s demand to see the full document was accompanied by references to Barr’s summary version of the Mueller report as “distorted,” “misleading,” and containing “inconsistencies. He characterized Barr as having “a lack of candor” and challenged Barr’s “credibility and, in turn, the [Justice] department’s” assurances to the court that the redactions were necessary. S-HP

If you’d like to propose that Barr resign and ask for a Congressional investigation into the issues raised by Judge Walton, here is whom to write. You can read Judge Walton’s statement here.

6. (Un)fair housing rules change

The misleadingly titled “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule,” a proposed Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rule change, purports to require that jurisdictions receiving federal funds follow processes to ensure non-discrimination and work against segregation in housing. Despite that fact, the rule makes little mention of discrimination; it conflates “fair housing” and “affordable housing”; it removes the requirement for community participation and engagement on fair housing issues; it eliminates the requirement to analyze the local conditions that contribute to housing discrimination and segregation; and it threatens policies, such as those around rent stabilization policies and environmental protections, that can promote housing stability and safety. We could use affirmative furthering of the Fair Housing Rule, but this proposal falls short, as Shelterforce explains in more detail. Comments must be received by March 16. Hat-tip to Americans of Conscience Checklist. S-HP

Comment on this proposed rule change, with your own housing stories, if appropriate. Here are instructions.

7. How to ensure election security: All LA residents to receive mail-in ballot for November election

Sometimes voter disenfranchisement is deliberate; sometimes it’s the result of poor planning and inadequate equipment. But good public officials respond by protecting that franchise. Los Angeles County experienced a number of problems with the March 3 presidential primary vote. The county had multiple instances of voting machine failures and long waits to vote. In addition, the contractor sending out mail ballots discovered a week before the election that it had failed to mail out 17,000 ballots. Los Angeles had just made a switch from local polling locations to larger regional “vote centers” and under California policy effective through 2024, should have sent a mail ballot to every voter in former polling districts, but received a legislative waiver of this obligation, the LA Times reports. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla has now issued an order that Los Angeles County must send mail ballots, in a timely fashion, to every resident for the November presidential election. S-HP

If you want to thank California Secretary of State Padilla for acting to ensure that Los Angeles County’s voters will be able to exercise the franchise in November, here is his address.

8. Government purges continue

The White House has confirmed it is doing ongoing work to identify federal agency employees who are not sufficiently loyal to Trump, according to Government Executive. A White House spokesperson was reported as saying that they are trying to find individuals who have taken any action that undermines Trump. Many are voicing concerns that this process will violate civil service laws. As Government Executive points out, the “number of federal employees proving their agencies took prohibited personnel practices against them reached an all-time high in Trump’s first year in office” [emphasis added]. According to CNN, the White House has also acknowledged adding Trump-related questions to a questionnaire required of applicants for administration positions. Those seeking career positions (as opposed to political appointments) will not have to complete it. Applicants will now have to answer questions such as: “What part of Candidate Trump’s campaign message most appealed to you and why? Have you ever appeared in the media to comment on Candidate Trump, President Trump or other personnel or policies of the Trump administration?” S-HP

If you’d like to remind this administration and Congressmembers that the loyalty that matters most is to the Constitution, and suggest that the Acting Inspector General, Office of Personnel Management, find his spine, relevant addresses are here.

9. Unlocking the Senate

In the Washington Post, a bipartisan group of former Senators has directed an open letter to the current U.S. Senate asserting that Congress is not fulfilling its Constitutional duties and that much of the responsibility for that lies with the Senate. They call for the formation of a bipartisan caucus committed to making the Senate “function as intended by the founding fathers.” The letter enumerates powers Congress has ceded to the executive branch, including regulation of international trade, the use of military force, and the power of the purse. The letter also cites changes in Senate practices, in particular, the practice of quickly resort to filibusters or the threat of filibusters to prevent action so that “Neither in committee nor on the floor do rank-and-file members have reasonable opportunities to advance their positions by voting on legislation.” Of particular interest is the fact that one-third of all signators to this document served in the Senate as Republicans or Independents, making it difficult to claim the letter to be “Democratic politicking.” S-HP

If you’d like to add your voice to those of former Senators, here are the relevant addresses.

10. Voter suppression in communities of color

The House Oversight and Reform Committee has just released a report, “Voter Suppression in Minority Communities; Learning from the Past to Protect Our Future.” The report, described by the Georgia Reporter, identifies current voter suppression tactics, such as North Carolina’s reduction of early voting locations; the shortened (three days, instead of two weeks) open period for the early polling location at Texas State University; attempts by the Florida Secretary of State to prevent early voting being held on the campuses of public universities and colleges. The report highlights the damage done by voter purges and restrictive voter ID laws, providing detailed coverage of voter suppression tactics employed in the most recent Georgia Gubernatorial election, which was “won” by then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who engineered purges of voter rolls, blocking of new voter registration, and poll closures. While the contents of the report may be disheartening, Oversight and Reform has done valuable work shining a light on undercutting of our voting system. S-HP

If you want to thank the Oversight and Reform Committee for their work, their address is: 2157 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington DC 20515, (202) 225-5051 .

11. Water shut-offs in Michigan impede handwashing in poor households

Roughly 9,500 homes in Detroit remain without water after the city disconnected them for nonpayment last year. In 2019, Detroit saw 23,473 such shut-offs. For those who were able to have water restored, the average wait time was twenty-nine days, Bridge reports. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer could choose to use her executive privilege to end these shutoffs, which would appear to be the wise move, given the coronavirus situation and the hand washing cited as the first line of containment, Bridge points out. Whitmer has declined to do this, according to Michigan Radio, but efforts are underway to urge her to reconsider.

You can join the voices asking Governor Whitmer to put an end to water shutoffs and to make safe, clean water affordable for all Michiganders: Governor Gretchen Whitmer, P.O. Box 30013, Lansing, Michigan 48909, (517) 335-7858.

12. Bill to end religious discrimination in immigration

H.R.2214, the No Ban Act, would impose limitations on the President’s authority to suspend or restrict aliens from entering the United States and terminate certain presidential actions implementing such restrictions. It would also prohibit religious discrimination in various immigration-related decisions, such as whether to issue an immigrant or non-immigrant visa, with certain exceptions. It has a large list of cosponsors. S-HP

You can tell the Speaker of the House that you support this legislation and want to see it come before the full House. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Speaker of the House, 1236 Longworth House Office Building, Washington DC 20515, (202) 225-4965.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

13. Are your shoes and devices produced by forced labor by Muslim-minority Uighurs in China?

Eighty-three multinationals–including Nike, Adidas, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Fila, Puma, Bosch, and Panasonic–have been linked to forced labor by Uighurs in factories across China, according to a study by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). The report estimates that between 2017 and 2019, some 80,000 Uighurs, of the estimated 1.5 million ethnic minorities China is holding in internment camps, were assigned to perform forced labor for these companies. The exploitation of Uighur labor is just one aspect of a systematic effort by China to destroy Uighur culture and identity, as this Muslim ethnic minority is seen as a threat to Chinese homogeneity and security. Forbes reports that “[a]lthough state media are claiming Uighurs are being compensated for their work, the ASPI researchers found they live in segregated dormitories, are unable to go home, and they undergo Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, similarly to Uighurs in the internment camps.” They are also unable to follow their own religious practices, according to Democracy Now. Most of the companies whose goods rely on forced labor say that they have no knowledge of forced labor being used in the production of the items because they work through contractual relationships with labor suppliers. S-HP

If you want to demand that these companies determine whether their products are being made with forced labor, discontinue their relationship with labor suppliers when it is, and establish mechanisms to monitor who is making their products and under what conditions: their addresses are here.

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

14. Bill to protect children threatens encryption

Privacy advocates and some in the tech industry are raising alarms because of a bipartisan bill that has been proposed in the Senate. The bill, called the EARN IT Act (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies), has two Republican and two Democratic sponsors including Senator Lindsay Graham and Senator Diane Feinstein and proposes a sweeping change to how shielded tech companies are from content they host from third parties. The bill is aimed at reducing and combating child pornography and requires that tech companies operating online adhere to a set of “best practices” yet to be determined that will be established by a 19 member commission, which will mostly be made up of law enforcement officials. Law enforcement agencies from the Federal level down to the local level have long sought to weaken the ability of citizens to use encryption to protect their privacy, claiming it hides criminal activity. Because the right to encrypt information has been upheld in court, this law would circumvent individual rights by aiming at the companies who host and transmit data from person to person. Should a tech company decline to abide by the “best practices,” it would lose the legal shield against lawsuits that online hosting services have enjoyed for decades, Ars Technica explains. JC

15. White House ordered EPA scientists to disregard howTCE damages fetal hearts

“Trichloroethylene; Draft Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) Risk Evaluation and TSCA Science Advisory Committee on Chemicals (SACC) Meetings; Notice of Availability, Public Meetings, and Request for Comment” is quite a mouthful. What it boils down to is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is asking for public comments on a proposed change in the risk evaluation of the widely-used toxin trichlorethylene (TCE), a solvent which often leaks into groundwater. At least 15 scientific studies between 2000 and 2018 have shown relationships between TCE and cancer clusters and immune disorders. Even trace amounts of TCE have been demonstrated to cause severe fetal heart defects. In the past, based on this research and its own studies conducted in 2011 and 2016 the EPA has placed restrictions on the use of TCE. In 2016, shortly before Trump took office, the EPA began the process of completely banning certain common uses of TCE. Then, in 2017 when Scott Pruitt became EPA head for the new, Republican administration, he ordered this process halted and insisted that the risk assessment for TCE begin again from scratch. This created an opportunity for the chemical industry, which arranged for John DeSesso to present research challenging TCE’s  demonstrated effect on fetal heart development. De Sesso has held occasional academic posts, but primarily works as a contract scientist for the chemical industry—the TCE research he presented to the EPA was funded by the Hydrogenated Solvents Industry Alliance and the American Chemistry Council. The EPA noted a weakness in DeSasso’s study, which eliminated certain types of fetal heart defects from its results, and concluded that even trace exposure to TCE is unsafe. Now, the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal has interviewed two government scientists who state that “EPA scientists were directed to substantially rewrite their evaluation by discarding the science on TCE’s role in fetal heart defects.” The instructions, they said, “came from the Executive Office of the President.” Reveal’s evidence includes a careful review of the changes made between the draft and final reports on the effects of TCE and comparison with changes made to similar reports between the draft and final stages.

At question is what sort of health risk will be considered “baseline” for TCE, since the baseline risk is the one that determines levels above which the chemical cannot be used. The revised EPA report chose not to use fetal heart damage as its baseline, which would have severely limited the use of TCE, and instead chose TCE’s effect on immune disfunction as the baseline for the chemical. The level at which TCE affects immune functioning is 500 times greater than the level at which it affects fetal heart development. As Reveal explains “the sidelining of the heart defects research could affect any EPA proposals to ban or limit TCE. It also potentially could erode any existing EPA recommendations based on the heart defect science, such as EPA guidance on TCE pollution cleanup at military bases and other Superfund sites.” Given all this, the baseline proposed in the new regulation has the potential to allow ongoing incidents of fetal heart damage, among other effects. Comments on this proposal are due by April 26. SH-P

You can comment for the public record and make an argument that the baseline for TCE’s risk assessment should be fetal heart damage, not damaged immune function. Instructions are here.

16. “Ghost” flights another consequence of coronavirus

Completely empty aircraft are flying the skies in Europe now, wasting thousands of gallons of jet fuel and adding tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, according to Gizmodo. Regulations require that airlines use at least 80% of the slots allocated to them in Europe’s busiest airports, or they will lose them. The regulation makes sense in normal circumstances; it’s in everyone’s best interests that flights are full and and resources efficiently allocated to those carriers who actually have demand and capacity to fill them. Unfortunately with travel restrictions being enacted in Italy and consumer travel falling out of fear of spreading the growing pandemic, that regulatory demand to fill the flights has operators in a bind–with the only solution at present being to fly the planes empty. Yhe UK Transportation Secretary has made an appeal to suspend the regulations in the effort to stop this wasteful practice, but as of now it remains in place. JC

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist has quick, straightforward explanations and ways to act on key issues, among them the reduction of draconian sentences, the need to revoke a pipeline carrying fracked fuel through low-income communities, the importance of restoring voting rights for Native Americans–and more.
  • Amy Siskind’s weekly list documents item by item the out-of-whack events since a certain inauguration day. Year one is out in book form; you can order it at her site.
  • See Sarah-Hope’s list for action items for some of our stories last week, including those on the Remain in Mexico program, the use of denaturalization procedures to undercut immigrations, the use of extreme tactics in sanctuary cities–and more.
  • Rogan’s list gives you ways to speak up about ICE on Peter Pan buses, surprise charges for coronavirus testing, anti-racist voting–and more.
  • Martha advises us that three key issues on her list have deadlines this week: plans to revise NEPA revisions (National Environmental Policy Act), undercut the Community Reinvestment Act, and gut Fair Housing provisions.

News You May Have Missed: March 1, 2020

Trump is preventing scientists in federal agencies from speaking about the coronavirus without clearance from Pence’s office. But we are not gagged, nor is the World Health Organization; their situation reports provide current, reliable information, as does the Johns Hopkins site. (For information about infectious diseases in general, you might look at ProMed.) See our first and last stories for a comprehensive look at the political and medical context of COVID-19.

We know that avid readers of the news are fixated on the Democratic primaries as well as the tailspin in Washington. But each seat in the House and Senate is acutely important. Chrysostom reviews some key races.

As is her wont, Heather Cox Richardson has given us some historical context for that tailspin; her most recent columns are an especially useful corrective to the view that the present has no precedent in American history.


“Coronavirus spike protein structure” by National Institutes of Health (NIH) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. US to divert funds from low-income heating program to fight COVID-19.

There are a great many things wrong with the Republican administration’s response to coronavirus. These include a fixation on economic impact over public health, as evidenced by the inclusion of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House economist Larry Kudlow in Vice President Mike Pence’s Coronavirus Task Force and the consideration of additional tax cuts as part of the coronavirus response, according to the Washington Post; a requirement that all public statements about coronavirus and the U.S. response by any federal employees or appointees be pre-approved by Pence (the Director of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was quickly instructed to cancel interviews with five Sunday talk shows, the Hill reports); misleading statements about the development timeline for a coronavirus vaccine; and a clear assumption that it will be perfectly acceptable if the cost of the virus makes it unavailable for the majority of Americans. Even now, the CDC has not told the medical community all it knows about American patients, hampering treatment, CNN reported on March 1.

Let’s consider another problem with the coronavirus response: Trump has proposed moving $37 million from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to the coronavirus response effort, according to the Minnesota Post Bulletin. In case you don’t know what LIHEAP is, it’s the program that provides winter heating assistance to low-income Americans. S-HP

You can tell the administration that risking the health of low-income Americans is no way to go about funding a pandemic response and call for Congressional resistance to this proposal: addresses are here.

2. Family separation practices meet the definition of torture, according to physicians

After conducting psychiatric evaluations of parents and children separated at the U.S. border, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has issued a substantial report documenting the ways in which these separations meet not only the definition of trauma, but of torture as well. Nearly every individual interviewed met at least one criterion for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or another mental health condition. The report includes a number of urgent recommendations

For the Administration, Department of Justice, and Department of Health and Human Services these recommendations include:

An end to separations, except in cases where rigorous assessment finds a risk of immediate danger to the child; full maintenance and disclosure of records on all family separations and reunifications; abiding by existing federal standards for care of children in custody and licensing of all facilities where children are held; full implementation of all recommendations made during previous investigations of child detention by the Department of Homeland Security and the Inspector General of Health and Human services; establishment of a recovery fund for mental and physical health screening and treatment for those who have been separated; acknowledgement that separation without due process is unlawful and a guarantee that these policies will not be continued or repeated.

For Congress these recommendations include:

Increased funding for alternatives to detention and for more timely, fair, and thorough processing of asylum claims; legislation banning family separation and detention; public access to all data on separations and reunifications; U.S. ratification of the Convention on Rights of the Child, an international agreement that went into effect in 1990; the U.S. is the only nation in the world that has not ratified this Convention. S-HP

You can insist that the Administration act on PHR’s recommendations, highlighting those that seem most crucial to you. Relevant addresses are here.

Parents of child shot by the Border Patrol cannot sue

The US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the parents of 15 year-old Sergio Hernandez, a Mexican citizen shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent in 2010, cannot sue the agent responsible for their son’s death in US courts, CNN reports. At the time of his shooting, Hernandez was unarmed, and on the Mexican side of the border, although the government has alleged that the shooting occurred while “smugglers” were attempting to cross the border illegally and were throwing rocks at the agents. Hernandez’s parents claim he and friends were playing games on a cement culvert separating El Paso, Texas from Ciudad Jarez, Mexico, through which the international border runs. 

Writing for the 5-justice majority, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that although the case is “tragic,” allowing the agent to be sued in US Courts would have national security implications, and that action to regulate agents’ behavior should fall to Congress, not the courts. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissented, disagreeing about the national security implications of the suit and pointing to a pattern of problems at the US-Mexico border; she also concluded that although the majority felt that Hernandez’s being on Mexican soil was significant to a lack of grounds to sue, the boy’s location “should not matter one whit.” JM-L

3. Immigration detention centers violate “basic human needs”: judge

Following a seven-day trial and a ruling by federal judge David C. Bury, Tucson sector Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention centers are now under a permanent federal injunction due to ongoing conditions that violate the Constitution and fail to meet “basic human needs.” Basic needs, under the judge’s ruling include uninterrupted periods of sleep on a bed and with a blanket; nutritious food; shower access; and medical assessment by qualified medical professionals, according to the Washington Post. Evidence at the trial included footage of detainees attempting to use facility toilets by first crawling over other detainees forced to sleep in the bathroom and in the stalls themselves. Under the injunction, no individual may be held at the facility for longer than48 hours until CBP has provided proof that all requirements have been met. S-HP

If you want to call for Congressional action to address this inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers, you can find the addresses of your elected representatives here.

4. Refugee Act would require the U.S. to protect refugees

H.R.5210, the National Refugee Protection Act, would require the United States to take in at least 100,000 refugees a year from Central America and prevent the government from forcing people to apply for asylum in other countries they passed through. It would stop the policy of charging people who cross without documents with a criminal offense, reverse the policy that bars people fleeing domestic or gang violence from obtaining asylum and require our government to appoint lawyers for migrant children. This legislation is currently with multiple committees: the House Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship; the Ways and Means Committee; the House Budget Committee; and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. S-HP

You can tell these committees that you want to see swift, positive action on H.R.5210. Relevant committee members’ addresses are here.

5. Court rules against “Remain in Mexico” and then stays its order

On Friday, the 9th Circuit court found the government’s “Remain in Mexico” policy to be illegal and said that asylum-seekers must be allowed into the United States to pursue their cases. Potential asylum-seekers living in filthy, freezing camps across the border rejoiced and prepared to enter the U.S. Almost immediately, however, the court stayed its own ruling in order to give the government time to appeal and for the plaintiffs to respond, the New York Times reported. 

The administration’s policy that asylum-seekers could not request asylum if they came into the United States illegally was also thrown out–and not stayed–by the 9th Circuit Court. RLS

6. Department of Justice focuses on denaturalization

The Justice Department has established an office to pursue denaturalization of U.S. citizens, the New York Times reported, noting that “denaturalization case referrals to the department have increased 600 percent.” Denaturalization had ordinarily been used when citizens lied on their applications or turned out to be criminals. Some immigration attorneys–including some within the Justice Department who were quoted anonymously–fear that denaturalization will be used more broadly to revoke the status of legitimate immigrants. Small errors or omissions on applications could be regarded as fraud. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has a background piece on denaturalization, with relevant policy and information.

In Canada, too, naturalized citizens can have their citizenship revoked if their application was based on false representation, according to the government of Canada, or if they are convicted of treason or spying. In Canada, however, citizenship revocation is not being used as a weapon against immigration. RLS

7. Sanctuary states and cities lose a round in court

Last week we described the Trump administration’s vendetta against sanctuary cities and states, which have refused to cooperate with the apprehension of immigrants by the Customs and Border Patrol. The CBP has sent in elite tactical units to sanctuary cities and sued a number of states, several of which have sued in return.  New York City as well as the states of New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, Virginia and Rhode Island sued the administration when it decided in 2017 to withhold grants unless the city and states agreed to give immigration authorities access to jails and let them know when an undocumented person was released from jail, reported Al Jazeera, drawing on an AP story. Now the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals has overruled a lower court decision that said the Trump administration had to release funding. RLS

8. Oil and gas leases voided because of insufficient public input

A judge in Idaho has voided almost a million acres of oil and gas leases, saying that the way the Trump administration had limited public comment was “arbitrary and capricious,” according to the Washington Post. The Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity had brought the case to try to preserve habitat for the sage-grouse (among other species dependent on sage), whose population is declining precipitously. The Wilderness Society’s website explains what the original Bureau of Land Management actions were, and the Post cites many examples of how the administration has tried to shorten public comment periods or eliminate public comment entirely.  Chase Huntley from The Wilderness Society’s climate and energy program, told the Post that “A centerpiece of this effort has been the administration’s efforts to silence the public and local communities.” RLS

9. Communities in California would be buffered from oil drilling sites

California’s AB-345, “Setbacks from Oil Drilling: Health and Safety Zone,” would create a 2,500-foot protective distance between oil drilling sites and homes, schools, childcare facilities, healthcare facilities, and other sensitive locations. Oil and gas extraction pose severe environmental, health, and safety risks to nearby communities, which are disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color, according to the Daily Kos. This bill would ensure that oil drilling does not happen within such dangerous proximity to where people live. AB-345 has been passed by the California Assembly and is now with the California Senate. Public input hearings are being held. S-HP

Californians can ask their state senator to support AB-345 and can also submit a public comment. Addresses are here.

10. Fracking is good for the environment, says the DOE

A Department of Energy (DOE) proposal (“Expanding Natural Gas Export Authorizations to Non-Free Trade Agreement Countries through the Year 2050”) would extend liquified natural gas (LNG) export authorizations to 2050 for dozens of corporations. Most LNG is derived from fracking. The Department of Energy wants to extend export authorizations for another 30 years—and to allow those exports to be without volume limits. The main criterion is economic, a variation on the old theme of “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” But in an interesting twist of logic, the DOE puts forth an argument that continued LNG sales are actually good for the environment, because if the countries importing the LNG were to use coal instead, their emissions would be worse. We know we cannot allow fracking and LNG sales to continue for the next 30 years: the most dire effects of climate change will happen in the next 10-12 years S-HP

You can send a comment to let the DOE know it needs to pursue energy sources that are truly environmentally friendly, rather than using regulatory smoke and mirrors to exchange one destructive policy with another.

11. 750,000 civilian DoD workers to lose collective bargaining rights

In a memorandum published on February 20 in the Federal Register, Donald Trump granted Secretary of Defense Mark Esper the power to strip collective bargaining rights from the 750,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense (DoD). Many of these employees are currently represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union representing federal employees. The memo also empowers Esper to delegate to other officials the right to strip collective bargaining (though they may not delegate it further). The justification for this move is a claim that “national security” requires “expedient and efficient decisionmaking” [sic] and that collective bargaining is “incompatible” with this requirement. S-HP

You can support DoD workers before Esper decides to exercise this new power, by calling for legislation to stop this attack on unionization. Find Esper’s address and those of your members of Congress here.

12. Proposal to collect social media activity from all foreign travelers

The Department of Homeland Security is accepting comments on a proposal “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” Under this proposal, the Department of Homeland Security would have “generic clearance” to collect five years’ worth of social media activity from all foreign travelers to the USA, whether they are entering via tourist visa, educational or work visa, as a refugee, or as an immigrant. It will also affect anyone applying for naturalization. A statement submitted by a group of forty-two civil rights organizations—including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Brennan Center for justice at the NYU School of Law, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the International Rescue Committee, and PEN America—raises a number of serious objections to this proposal, including: its undermining of the First Amendment; its excessive invasion of privacy; the likely subsequent increase in monitoring of speech of those living in the U.S.; the inefficiency of past social media monitoring programs; the increased likelihood of ideological vetting based on stereotypes, particularly for Muslims.

It is also worth noting that the U.S. Office of Management and Budget defines as appropriate for “generic clearance” only information that can be provided in a manner that is “voluntary, low burden… and uncontroversial,” which is not the case with this proposal. Comments are being accepted through March 11. S-HP

You can speak out against this sweeping, invasive, and (most likely) discriminatory policy [note: mention Docket Number DHS-2019-0044 when commenting]. Instructions for commenting are here.

13. Financial exploitation of minors in prison

A Newsweek opinion piece by Jonna Matstropascua, a secondary teacher in an adult jail in Pima County, Arizona, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project, draws attention to the high costs of being a young adult in prison—not for governments, but for the children themselves, who can be placed in adult facilities when charged as adults, even before they have been convicted of any crime. And standards for charging minors as adults vary significantly across the country. In the Pima County jail where Mastropascua works, young women go without undergarments because they aren’t part of the clothing issued by the jail and must be purchased by inmates at a cost of $3.25 per pair of underpants and $13.50 per bra. Even when young women can afford to pay for undergarments, it takes days for an order to be processed and additional time for the products to arrive and reach the purchaser. If family members want to place money in a minor’s commissary account, there’s a $4 fee per deposit. Single ramen packets cost $1.25 each, though six- or ten-packs are readily available in groceries at the same price. Minors pay fees of twenty cents a minute for phone calls and five cents a minute to use e-readers. Private commissary companies serving prisons have an estimated annual profit of $1.6 billion. California has passed legislation banning for-profit prisons and detention centers—the Republican administration is suing to have that law invalidated. S-HP

You might call for hearings on the financial exploitation of minors in U.S. prisons and jails with appropriate follow-up legislation. You can find the addresses for your elected representatives here.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

14. Shootout in Haiti between the army and police

Last Sunday, Haiti’s National Police exchanged gunfire with the country’s army, Business Insider reported, which was disbanded in 1995 and reconstituted by President Jovenel Moïse in 2017. The violence was a reaction to the government refusing to increase police pay and firing five police officers negotiating to unionize the force. The police, trained by the U.N. and partially funded by the U.S. and Canada, are fighting a resurgence in gang activities including kidnappings, according to the Miami Herald. The US State Department has had the country under a level 3 travel advisory since last June. Protesters are demanding the resignation of Moïse, in part because of the unionization effort, notes the BBC, but also, as News You May Have Missed explained last year, because of Haiti’s economy and the ongoing PetroCaribe scandal. The president has responded by asking to give him more power in a new constitution, citing the closure of parliament and canceling of parliamentary elections; critics worry about dictatorship, the Financial Times suggests. The Miami Herald has an illuminating piece explaining how the army and the police ended up in a violent clash. JM

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

15. Not a drop to drink

Reporting by Time highlights the dire state of America’s drinking water. Examples include Alabama homes where sewage drains directly into backyards and can also flow back into homes out of sinks and showers; South Carolina water treatments to prevent rust in pipes that result in skin ailments; toxic sludge in Kentucky that has been poisoning water with arsenic and mercury for over two decades; and Navajo nation water across several states that is unsafe as a result of uranium mining. The Environmental Protection Agency itself acknowledges that 30 million Americans (that’s slightly less than 10% of the U.S. population) live in areas where water systems violate safety rules. Time quotes Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, who says “Legal standards are often compromises between what the data shows in terms of toxicity and risk, and how much it’s going to cost,” suggesting that even water that does comply with government standards may not be completely safe. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s water a D rating and called for $25 billion of upgrades over the next twenty-five years. International law and U.N. conventions identify clean drinking water as a basic human right. S-HP

You can tell your Congressmembers that we need a nation-wide effort to fix this nation’s drinking water systems. Find their addresses here.

17. COVID-19: Where we stand

Readers may be excused for being confused about the facts regarding the novel corona virus that emerged out of northern China and spread into a health crisis in and around the city of Wuhan over the last two months. Even as this summary was being written, new data are being released as health officials across the globe scramble to attempt to contain and or mitigate this growing pandemic. Here is the most up-to-date summary of facts available. 

Currently there are 67 countries and territories reporting at least one infection, a total of over 88,000 infections to date and as I type this, 3000 reported deaths. The virus has displayed a transmission rate (also called the Ro) of somewhere between 2 and 3, which puts it on a exponential growth curve. With an Ro of 2 one can expect every actively infected person to pass the virus to 2 other people; in that scenario it is very easy to see how quickly things get serious. As a basis for comparison, the flu has an Ro of between 1 and 2 for most strains. The fatality rate for COVID-19 is more difficult to ascertain as it seems to depend greatly on the standard of care available. The low range estimate based on the example of South Korea which provides excellent universal healthcare and has responded quickly with effective containment measures is roughly .5%. That means for every 200 persons infected, one person will succumb.

In contrast, Iran has a very high reported fatality rate of over 5%, which would mean that out of every 20 persons one can be expected to die. The global average is around 2%, or one in every 50 persons. The average global fatality rate for the flu is .1%, or one in every 1000 persons. The numbers suggest that, conservatively, COVID-19 is around twice as infectious as the flu and five times more deadly. Complicating all of these numbers are data suggesting that many, possibly even a majority of infections may have no or very mild symptoms which would inflate fatality statistics, but also make the disease almost impossible to contain. Worldometers has a continually updated site, and the WHO has daily situation reports.

As concerning as the actual disease is, it is the impact on the economy and global supply chains that may prove to be the most disruptive result of the pandemic. Scientists can already observe significant air pollution reductions across China as their economy has ground to a halt as a result of movement restrictions and quarantines, similar to reductions briefly observed after 9/11. The US stock market has had its largest decline since the 2008 recession as news hit financial markets that the virus has spread outside of China. The supply of goods to the US has not yet been affected very much as shipped goods arriving now started out 30 days ago, but impacts related to shortages of goods may be expected to hit in mid-March, Harvard Business Review estimates. 

 There have been comparisons to the SARS outbreak in 2002, which caused both a measurable drop in Chinese productivity and a shock to global supply chains which cleared relatively quickly. The China of 2020 is very different than the China of 2002, though, as China has doubled its share of global trade and quadrupled the size of its economy. SARS also had a significant effect in Canada, with 44 deaths; since then, the country has advanced significantly both in its preparations for a viral outbreak and its ability to diagnose infections, Al Jazeera notes. Worldwide, SARS peaked with just over 8000 infections in 2003, with eight infections in the United States which caused no deaths; it cost the global economy 40 billion dollars. COVID-19 is already an order of magnitude worse than SARS, according to the CDC.

While numbers from China are sobering, the government is not known for its transparency and the veracity of the reported statistics is in question; however, as the virus has spread, we have other outbreak examples to use as models. The one possibly most relevant to the US is Italy. Italy is currently contending with the largest outbreak in Europe with 1694 infections, according to the government webpage. Italy has a modern, western style healthcare system with ample capacity and strong public health agencies; it went from two infections reported as of February 2 to 80 cases twenty days later; ten days after that it stands at 1694, with a quarantine in place for over 50,000 people. Italy is now expected to be in an economic recession for the next year, according to the BBC.  

To prepare, the CDC recommends that you have a supply of food staples and basic hygiene products in place as an emergency measure with at least 30 day supply of any prescription medications you may need as well as ample over-the-counter medications needed to treat a flu-like illness. The Red Cross suggests that you learn how to obtain up-to-date health information from your local health departments, observe stringent hand washing techniques, wipe daily contact surfaces like door knobs, light switches and toilets with disinfectant, avoid ill people and–if you are ill yourself–please stay home and self-quarantine. While the CDC recommends using N95 face masks if you are sick, the U.S. Surgeon General has asked people not to use masks to avoid getting sick–as they are needed for health care personnel. Finally, the most at-risk population for COVID-19 are people 60 years of age and over, the CDC points out, so have a plan to care for family members in this age range should they fall sick. JC

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist offers ways to weigh in about housing discrimination, reducing the sentences of non-violent prisoners in federal facilities for 10 years or more, voter suppression of Native Americans–and more.
  • Sarah-Hope’s list has some action items for issues we addressed last week, including the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the use of therapy notes in deportation proceedings, and the catastrophe in Syria.
  • On Mondays, Rogan’s list provides a listing of proposed rule and regulation changes that are currently accepting public comment. As Martha explains (see below), “Our comments also become part of a record that will be reviewed by courts if and when a regulation change is contested. Courts use comments to judge whether an agency is acting arbitrarily and capriciously. “
  • Martha’s list will tell you how to speak up for the Clean Water Act, address the destruction of records in the National Archives, object to Trump’s proposal to exempt Federal agencies from having to take climate change into account in their planning, and much more.

News You May Have Missed: February 23, 2020

On February 22, Heather Cox Richardson answered the question of whether we have been here before, whether the political situation in the U.S. has ever before been in such crisis, and if so, how democracy was preserved. If you dozed through 9th grade civics, she reviews the history succinctly and tells us what we need to do.


“Forgotten Classroom” by ne* is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. Medicare for all would save $450 billion and 68,000 lives

According to a new report published in the Lancet, the plan proposed by Warren and Sanders, “Medicare for All” “…will save Americans more than $450 billion and prevent 68,000 deaths every year,” Democracy Now reported. The authors of the report, researchers at Yale University, say that Medicare for all is more “cost-effective” than “Medicare for All Who Want It,” the option preferred by Buttigieg. They write, “The entire system could be funded with less financial outlay than is incurred by employers and households paying for health-care premiums combined with existing government allocations. This shift to single-payer health care would provide the greatest relief to lower-income households.”

Just for the sake of comparison, the LA Times reported in January that the U.S. health care system costs four times as much to operate as the Canadian system. A 2017 study in Annals of Internal Medicine found that health care costs every American (including children) $2,497 per year, while in Canada, it costs $551 per person. (Makes you wonder where that extra $1,940 goes.) You can look at the study in Annals if you want to see how it breaks down: note “insurers’ overhead” and “hospital administration,” for example. RLS

2. Border volunteers acquitted: Judge objects to  deterence by death

Earlier this month, the conviction of four volunteers from No More Deaths/No Más Muertes who had left food and water for immigrants in the desert was reversed by a federal judge. Hundreds of bodies have been found in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, where the volunteers had left life-saving supplies, the Tucson Sentinel reports. Central to their defense was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA: They persuaded the judge that they were acting on their religious convictions. According to the Intercept, the judge wrote that “In other words, the government claims a compelling interest in preventing defendants from interfering with a border enforcement strategy of deterrence by death…This gruesome logic is profoundly disturbing.” RLS

If you want to read about the wide-ranging work that No More Deaths /No Más Muertes does or to contribute to the organization, start with this page.

3. Notes from children’s therapy sessions used in deportation proceedings

Since a 1997 court-ordered settlement which established minimum detention standards for the detention of immigrant children, children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) have been provided with therapy to help them deal with the traumas that have led them to flee their countries of origin and of their migration and detentions. After policy changes in 2017 and 2018, notes from those therapy sessions have been used by ICE in asylum and removal processes, despite therapists telling children that their sessions would be confidential. According to the Washington Post, the therapists sometimes were themselves unaware of how their notes would be used by the ICE. JM-L

The head of the American Psychological Association condemned the use of therapy notes in asylum and deportation decisions. The letter is here; you can also write to the Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Secretary of Health and Human Services–addresses are on the letter. You can also see Rogan’s list for whom you might write.

4. Are you now or might you ever be?

The Supreme Court this week permitted the Trump administration to deny green cards to immigrants who might at some point in the future become a “public charge.” Quartz points out that despite public misconceptions about immigrants who receive benefits, most of them are employed and work in industries where they are much needed. A 2019 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that “immigrants help fill key gaps in the U.S. economy,” partly because they are more mobile; in addition, they address the labor shortage left by the baby boomer generation and raise upwardly mobile children. CBPP notes that “the rule will discourage their families from receiving health care, nutrition, and housing assistance that can improve their ability to contribute as future members of the adult community and workforce.” 

In her dissent to the decision, Justice Sotomayor noted that cases are being rushed to the Supreme Court without being fully heard in lower courts, thereby “putting a thumb on the scale in favor” of the Republican administration, Bloomberg news reported. RLS

5. Officials lied when they said there was no room at the inn

The catastrophic “Remain in Mexico” policy was justified in part by the idea that facilities for asylum-seekers on this side of the border were out of space. They were not, according to a Customs and Border Protection official in a deposition for a legal case brought by the immigrant support organization in Tijuana, El Otro Lado; the official said he was told to lie when turning back those applying for asylum. Buzzfeed quotes the testimony: Attorney: “In fact, it was obvious to everybody who was implementing this policy at Tecate that the capacity excuse was a lie, right?” CBP officer: “Correct.” RLS

El Otro Lado’s website has more information about what they do. In 2019, Mother Jones reported that their staffers routinely receive death threats, some presumably from the cartels their clients are fleeing.

6. Contracting rules waived for border wall

Among the laws being waived so that Trump’s border wall can be built are those governing contracting. Concerns about inflated prices and cronyism have been raised by critics of the project. The AP quotes Charles Tiefer, professor at University of Baltimore School of Law  as saying that the government “can just pick the contractor you want and and you just ram it through … The sky’s the limit on what they bill.” RLS

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

7. 900,000 civilians under assault by Syrian forces

As we noted last week, the last sanctuary for rebel forces opposed to President Bashar Al-Assad, Idlib province, is under relentless assault by Russian-backed Syrian forces. The Guardian has a devastating video of conditions there and Time points out that American inaction has allowed this catastrophe to continue. Turkish President Erdogan has said he will hold a summit about Idlib on March 5 with leaders of Russia, France and Germany, according to Al Jazeera. But March 5 is a long time away when 900,00 people are crowded into ever-shrinking zones, freezing and starving. The United Nations humanitarian chief has alerted the world to an “unfolding humanitarian catastrophe…In Idlib, nowhere is safe,” he said. RLS

Two links to rescue organizaions working to support civilians in Idlib can be found here. You’ll also find ways to contact your elected representatives if you want to tell them that no matter what is going on in Washington, we have a responsibility to the rest of the world.

8. Could the Irish re-unify post-Brexit?

The left-wing Sinn Fein Party in Ireland won the recent elections–but by a margin so narrow that they cannot form a government. The two center-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, are in exploratory talks to form a coalition government, according the BBC, a coalition founded on vilifying Sinn Fein, the Irish Times reports. Foreign Policy in Focus has a piece usefully sketching Irish history since 1609 and speculating that the reunification of the Republic and Northern Ireland is now a possibility. In the Brexit vote, Northern Ireland and Scotland both voted to remain in the E.U.; now that Britain has left, if Northern Ireland follows, border complexities will seriously impede trade with the Republic, which remains in the E.U. Reunification would solve this issue–but whether a vote could succeed, given the history, depends on whether both countries could be persuaded that serious social issues–health care, housing, jobs, education–would be better addressed united, FPIF asserts. RLS

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

9. No country for young kids

A wide ranging report by the World Health Organization in cooperation with UNICEF and The Lancet has declared that not a single nation on earth is creating a healthy enough environment for our children. Compiled by a team of more than forty child heath experts, the report warns of extreme environmental degradation and irresponsibly aggressive marketing of unhealthy products to children, according to the Independent. Among the recommendations to correct the problems that threaten to reverse decades of global child wellness improvement: Deep cuts to CO2 emissions, child centered policy vision and much tighter regulations on marketing products to children. JC

10. Individual atomic interactions imaged for first time

A lab at the University of Otago in New Zealand has captured incredible images of individual atoms combining to form molecules, a process so far studied only by inference using statistical analysis of large numbers of atomic interactions. Phys.org reports. The process involves blending a cutting edge variety of technologies using lasers, near absolute zero temperatures, a vacuum chamber and quantum imaging technology. The experiment was able to show in real time three atoms being brought together to unite two of them in combination to form a molecule, releasing energy (you can see a diagram of this at APS Physics). This heralds a new level of control that promises to one day allow us to build molecules from the individual atoms up, allowing for an almost unimaginable precision in material engineering. JC

11. 25% of all tweets on the climate crisis produced by bots

A quarter of all tweets on the climate crisis were produced by bots, according to a study coming out from Brown University, the Guardian reports. The researchers looked at 6.5 million tweets from around the time Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords. Tweets from bots tended to spread misinformation or downright climate crisis denial. Tweets such as “Get real, CNN: ‘Climate Change’ dogma is religion, not science,” and “Get lost, Greta” reached tens of thousands of followers. RLS

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist is on hiatus this week, but we recommend that you look at their new “We Make an Impact” feature, which charts the many victories people working for justice have had.
  • Sarah-Hope is away this week but there are lots of actions you can still take if you haven’t worked through last week’s list.
  • Rogan’s list has any excellent ideas for ways you can comment on and intervene in things as they are: on Trump’s “pardonapalooza,” disabled asylum-seeking children waiting in Mexico, Native American voting rights, and much more.
  • Martha’s list this week offers numerous opportunities to comment for the public record, along with important news on Gulf of Mexico region-wide oil and gas lease sales on all federal holdings (with some named exceptions) and the waiver of laws for the border wall across several states. There is no formal opportunity to comment so she recommends writing your legislators.





News You May Have Missed February 16, 2020

Heather Cox Richardson’s column for February 16 recounts the history of the Democrat and Republican parties: It is intriguing to see the echoes into the present. Previous columns look at Trump’s efforts, directly and via Barr, to undermine the DOJ; threaten New York (see Martha’s list); and make an argument (February 9) for the power of stories to make change. The Constitution is a rather remarkable story about change; cryptic as it is, it–along with the Bill of Rights, and the evolving commentaries in the form of judicial decisions–is what we have.


“We the People” by StevenANichols is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. Trump’s cruel budget

On February 10, Trump released a 4.8 trillion dollar budget with a laundry list of cuts to social services, according to the Wall Street Journal. The budget would provide two billion for the wall and would cut Social Security disability by 71 billion. It would eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, Artforum reports, given them only enough money to shut down, Artnet noted. His budget would eliminate the student loan forgiveness program for public sector workers, CNN reports; the program is already deeply flawed, with very few people actually receiving loan forgiveness, according to an ongoing suit by the American Federation of Teachers. The budget would also eliminate subsidized loans for low-income students. The Washington Post offers a useful chart of how the budget process works. RLS

If you want to weigh in on how Trump’s budget affects the issues that concern you, you can find your elected representatives’ addresses here. If you are especially interested in how the budget would cut funds related to environmental issues and climate change, see the post from EcoWatch.

2. Good news on work requirements for Medicaid, food stamps

One of the moves that the Trump administration has repeatedly made is adding work requirements to safety net programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps. We can report two positive developments in efforts to ensure such benefits are available to those who need them. First, on Valentine’s Day, appropriately enough, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration had violated federal law by allowing states to impose work requirements on Medicaid programs, according to Axios. The ruling went on to state that the administration had not satisfactorily justified the change which was not in line with Medicaid’s statutory goals. Second, H.R.5349, the Protect SNAP Act, would prohibit rules changes adding work requirements to SNAP benefits (Supplemental Food Assistance Program, or food stamps). This legislation is currently with the House Agriculture Committee. S-HP

If you want to urge the chair of the House Agriculture Committee to take quick, positive action on H. R. 5349 and to tell your elected representatives that you do not want to see work requirements added to safety-net programs, the addresses are here.

3. Who (else) has your cellphone data?

It’s not just corporations buying up data on cell phone users’ apps, purchases, teams and the like—apps and sites to which consumers may unthinkingly grant location tracking. The Department of Homeland Security is also buying cell phone data, according to the Wall Street Journal. Since 2017, DHS has been buying information from Venntel, a “pioneer in mobile location information.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reportedly spent $190,000 on Venntel data. Customs and Border Protection has spent over $1 million. Originally, this data was used in anti-human trafficking operations, but it is now being used to track immigrants in order to arrest them.

As Vice points out, a Supreme Court ruling requires a warrant to collect wireless data from wireless providers, but the ruling does not cover the large data-mining and data-selling businesses that have sprung up in tandem with increased cellphone use. What was once creepy commercial surveillance is now becoming a government means for avoiding the kinds of documentation and processes involved in obtaining an electronic collection warrant. While government representatives claim tracking information is only being used in the case of “illegal” immigrants, the data being purchased by DHS agencies includes vast numbers of cellphone users in the U.S., regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. This kind of data collection is possible because of Congress’s failure to enact meaningful online privacy legislation. As the New York Times observes, “The use of location data to aid in deportations also demonstrates how out of date the notion of informed consent has become.” Representative Carolyn Maloney, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has announced that the committee will be holding hearings on this issue. S-HP

You can urge Venntel to stop potentially illegal searches and seizures by ending sales to government organizations, thank Maloney for the promised hearings and ask your Congressmembers to educate themselves on electronic privacy, which is an issue that merits bipartisan support. Addresses are here.

4. How voter rights are—and aren’t—being protected

Remember when Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, was elected governor of Georgia after purging 700,000 voters from the state’s rolls between 2016 and 2018? As Governor, Kemp has fought to prevent the release of specifics about those purges—whom they affected and how they were directed. Now, thanks to a suit brought by journalist Greg Palast, federal judge Eleanor Ross ruled “sua sponte” that the state of Georgia must release this information without a trial, a move not requested by Palast’s attorneys, because Kemp’s defense was so weak that no trial was warranted, according a Georgia newspaper, Valdosta Today.

And…

In early February, Senate Democrats attempted to pass three pieces of election security legislation by consent, the Hill reports. Two would have required campaigns to alert the FBI and the Federal Elections Commission about offers of foreign assistance. The third would have provided additional election funding and prohibited voting machines from being connected to the internet. Consent passage is used for noncontroversial legislation of bipartisan interest—like, say, election security. A single Senator can block consent, making the affected legislation’s path to the Senate floor much more complicated and uncertain. One Senate Republican, Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), objected, sidelining these basic efforts to protect our electoral system. S-HP

You can point out the desperate need for improved election security and voting rights protection to your Congressmembers and let Blackburn know how you feel about her decision to block consent. Addresses are here.

5. Honor among thieves?

Historian Heather Cox Richardson puts it succinctly: “Trump, and evidently Barr, see the Department of Justice as a tool for Trump to reward friends and take revenge on enemies.” As the New York Times explains, Trump has been looking for an attorney general who was an advocate for him in all things, as Roy Cohn was for him in the 70s–and in many ways, Barr has obliged (Roy Cohn was Joe McCarthy’s right-hand man in the 1950s). He intervened in the Justice Department’s sentencing  of Roger Stone for lying to Congress, leading to the resignation of four Justice Department prosecutors. He has assigned a special prosecutor to reconsider Michael Flynn’s case–another Trump ally who lied to Congress in the Mueller investigation, the Times reports, and hired prosecutors to handle other cases of interest to Trump, interrogating prosecutors about the decisions. Barr has also declared that only he, not the FBI, can open investigations into presidential and vice-presidential candidates, according to CNN. He has in addition, according to Cox Richardson, arranged to accept “information about the Bidens in Ukraine from Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.” He is, in short, undermining prosecutorial independence and the authority of federal agencies.

At the same time, he said that Trump’s tweets made it impossible for him to do his work, the Times revealed in another story. And without notifying Trump, Barr declined to prosecute Andrew McCabe, former director of the FBI, who investigated Russia’s interference into the 2016 election. It is not clear whether Barr’s actions are intended to create an appearance of independence or whether he is actually trying to distance himself, however marginally, from Trump. Wherever the truth is, Barr’s hoarding of power is alarming. (Slate has an excellent round-up of his outrageous decisions and the Washington Post has an explanation of the re-investigating that Barr is doing and the effects of it.) RLS

1,100 former Justice Department employees have sent a letter recommending Barr’s removal. You can write to him suggesting that he resign and ask the Judiciary Committees of both houses of Congress to investigate Barr’s multiple ethics violations and his failure to fulfill his responsibilities as outlined in the Constitution.

6. Hookers for Jesus

The business of federal grants generally operates as follows. A call for proposals is released. Groups apply. The applications are read blindly by a group of experts who score each proposal on a number of criteria, giving each a final score. Then, the score range is looked at (again blindly) and the scores are sorted into tiers: Tier 1, Tier 2, etc. Grants in the Tier 1 category are prioritized for funding, although there is no guarantee there will be sufficient funding for all Tier 1 proposals. Tier 2 and lower proposals are very rarely funded.

However, as alleged in a whistleblower complaint filed by the Justice Department’s employee union, things did not play out this way in a recent series of Department of Justice grants to aid victims of human trafficking. Two long-established nonprofits, the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach and Chicanos Por La Causa of Phoenix, were originally given Tier 1 status and slated to receive grants. Both organizations were later removed from the list and additional grants were awarded to a pair of Tier 2 proposals: Hookers for Jesus and the Lincoln Tubman Foundation. Hookers for Jesus provides a safehouse for trafficking survivors. In manuals published by Hookers in 2010 and 2018, the organization required participation in Christian services and had rules that included a ban on reading “secular magazines with articles, pictures, etc. that portray worldly views/advice on living, sex, clothing, makeup tips”; they said that homosexuality is immoral and abusing drugs for pleasure is “witchcraft.” The Lincoln Tubman Foundation was launched by the daughter of a prominent Republican who supported President Donald Trump as a delegate at the 2016 convention and is close to South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott. Reuters noted that the grant reviewers described the Foundation as still in its “infancy” with “little to no experience.” The Washington Post explains how the substitution of grant recipients is part of a pattern. S-HP

You can ask the Inspector General for the Department of Justice to fully and carefully investigate the activities highlighted in the whistleblower complaint and ask the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings on the process by which these changes were made. Addresses are here.

7. Native American burial sites blown up for Trump’s wall

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona’s Sonora Desert has been home to endangered species and Native American burial sites. Now, however, blasting has begun to make way for the border wall, according to CBS and confirmed by Snopes. Saguaro cactus are being destroyed, a rare aquifer is being drained, and human remains have been disturbed, the Intercept reports, noting that the Real ID Act permits the waiving of environmental regulations by the Department of Homeland Security. (Snopes notes that a cemetery in Texas where US veterans are buried which was originally in the pathway of the wall seems to be being protected from border wall construction.) There has been no consultation with the Tohono O’odham nation whose ancestral lands those are, according Congressman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and who represents the area. “This administration is basically trampling on the tribe’s history — and to put it poignantly, its ancestry,” Grijalva told CBS. RLS

You can thank Representative Raúl Grijalva for speaking up and let your members of Congress know how you feel about the wall. Addresses are here.

8. Department of Justice sends tactical units to cities, sues states over sanctuary laws

The Republican administration has declared war on sanctuary cities where police have been directed to decline to work with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). CBP has begun to send elite tactical units to apprehend immigrants in sanctuary cities, according to the New York Times, among them Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, Detroit and Newark. The Times also reports that the Department of Homeland Security will prohibit residents of New York from buying or renewing  Global Entry passes or participating in other programs which make it easier for those who frequently travel among Canada, Mexico and the U.S. to do so. And the Republican administration has again sued California, New Jersey and Washington State, arguing that their sanctuary laws are unconstitutional, according to the Times. RLS

If you want to urge mayors of these sanctuary cities to stand firm in upholding the values of their cities’ residents in the face of administration harassment, their addresses are here.

9. White nationalists in the armed forces

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Lecia Brooks recently testified before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Personnel to warn of the presence of white supremacist individuals in the armed forces and to make recommendations on how to stop this problem. Brooks testified that “the white supremacist movement in the United States is surging and presents a distinct and present danger to this country and its institutions, including the U.S. Armed Forces. Recent investigations have revealed dozens of veterans and active-duty servicemembers who are affiliated with white supremacist activity.” She cited a 2019 poll by The Military Times, finding that 36% of active-duty servicemembers who were surveyed reported seeing signs of white nationalism or racist ideology in the U.S. Armed Forces—a significant rise from the year before, when 22% reported witnessing these extremist views. In the same survey, more than half of servicemembers of color reported experiencing incidents of racism or racist ideology, up from 42% in 2017.

Brooks argued that the issue has not been treated with appropriate seriousness, noting that the most recent National Defense Authorization Act was altered in the U.S. Senate to remove mention of “white nationalists” in the screening process for military enlistees, leaving “extremist and gang-related activity” as the focus of screening processes. Supremacist groups like Atomwaffen, the Base, and Identity Evropa view the U.S. military as a valuable source of weapons training and a productive ground for recruiting new members. Brooks called for implementation of a true zero-tolerance for white supremacist activity and ideology in the U.S. military. She concluded her prepared remarks by urging “this Subcommittee and this Congress to exercise its oversight responsibilities and to use its powers to ensure that every branch of the military take the strongest action possible to prevent the infiltration of white supremacists and to weed out those who are already active. They represent a serious and ongoing threat not only to military order and the values that servicemembers are sworn to uphold but to the safety of every American.” S-HP

You can write to the chair of the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel and the chair of the House Armed Services Committee to raise the issue of white supremacists in the military.

10. Rule proposed to permit all breeds of service dogs on planes

One of the challenges faced by people with disabilities when travelling is that many commercial airlines have blanket policies prohibiting certain breeds of dogs from traveling in the passenger area of planes. However well intended, this policy results in either separating disabled individuals from their service dogs or in severely reducing travel options for disabled individuals—despite the fact that service animals go through extensive training and certification. The Department of Transportation has proposed a federal rule change that would exempt certified service dogs from these blanket prohibitions. S-HP

If you want to comment for the public record on this rule change, the instructions are here.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

11. Ruthless bombing of Idlib province in Syria

800,000 Syrians have fled Idlib province and another 500,000 are trying to escape, as the Syrian army continues its relentless bombing campaign. The last sanctuary for rebel forces opposed to President Bashar Al-Assad, Idlib had been where Syrians fled from other parts of the country. The E.U. has called for an end to the bombing and a “humanitarian corridor,” according to Al Jazeera, essential as the border with Turkey is closed. The circumstances for refugees are dire, as it is almost impossible to get aid to them and the weather is freezing, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. See the New York Times for an intensely vivid photo essay on those fleeing.

The International Rescue Committee says that hospitals and ambulances have been deliberately targeted, and that they have had to move 30 staff people from the line of fire; the Inquirer reported that “In 2019 alone, there were 85 attacks on health-care facilities in Northern Syria,” according to the head of CARE USA. A doctor who works in Idlib described conditions there in a piece for Al Jazeera. RLS

If you want to donate to help refugees from Idlib, two links are here. In addition, it might be worth explaining to your Congressmembers that the only kind of involvement the U.S. should have in Syria is humanitarian.

12. Alarming turn of events in El Salvador

El Salvador is facing a constitutional crisis as President Nayib Bukele attempts to force passage of an international loan to fund “his Territorial Control national security plan, which intends to ‘modernize’ the police and armed forces with advanced weapons, tactical gear, aircraft, drones, surveillance equipment including facial recognition, and other materials,” as explained by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. Taking a move from the Trump playbook, on Friday, February 7, Bukele issued an order via tweet to the Salvadoran legislature calling for a special Sunday night legislative session that would have to sole purpose of approving this loan. Bukele also tweeted a call for popular insurrection if the legislature did not comply. The military issued tweets confirming its oath of loyalty to President Bukele [as opposed to the nation of El Salvador].

On February 8, legislature security personnel were removed and National Civilian Police and Armed Forces members surrounded, then entered the Assembly, the nation’s legislative building. Far-right and far-left political parties found themselves agreeing on the illegality of this move by Bukele. On Sunday, February 9, only 28 legislators, less than a quorum, appeared for the meeting. That same day the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, issued an international call (also via tweet) for dialogue and respect for democratic institutions in El Salvador. On Monday, February 10, El Salvador’s Supreme Court issued a blanket suspension of any acts resulting from the underattended Sunday legislative meeting. In an op ed in the New York Times, Human Rights Watch Director José Miguel Vivanco called U.S. and E.U. responses to Bukele’s actions inadequate “mild rebukes,” noting that “It’s going to take more than that to cow a man who shows absolute disregard for the balance of democratic powers.” World Politics Review called Bukele’s actions “the most serious constitutional crisis in El Salvador in nearly three decades.” The situation in El Salvador mirrors the way that the military’s role in Latin American countries is intensifying, as the Washington Post explains. S-HP

You might want to ask your Congressmembers to monitor the situation in El Salvador and urge that, in its position as a member of the Organization of American States, the United States respect and support Salvadoran democracy. Addresses are here.

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

Two million tons of radioactive waste dumped in Oregon

Oregon law prohibits improper disposal of radioactive waste. Nonetheless, between 2016 and 2019, Chemical Waste Management, a landfill in Arlington, Oregon near the Columbia River Gorge, accepted and buried over two million tons of radioactive fracking waste, which registered radium levels up to three hundred times higher than allowed under state law. Oregon law limits landfill waste to no more than five picocuries of radium per gram; the average reading of the material accepted in Arlington was 140 picocuries per gram. Kevin Niles, Assistant Director for Nuclear Safety with the Oregon Department of Energy said that, while the facility was cited, it would not be fined because the landfill operators misunderstood the state guidelines and were not aware they were committing violations. According to ABC News, Niles said that fines could only be levied for violations repeated after an official warning, for willful acts, or for acts that result in “serious adverse impacts” to humans or the environment, which begs the question of exactly how many tons of radioactive fracking waste would be required to meet the “serious adverse impacts” threshold. The organization Columbia Riverkeeper has launched a petition calling for an investigation of Chemical Waste Management’s handling of the material, an immediate fix to loopholes that allowed this dumping to occur, an end to new oil and fracked gas projects in the state, and accountability for the organizations responsible for the radioactive dumping. S-HP

You can join the Columbia Riverkeepers in demanding both stronger state laws regarding radioactive fossil fuel waste and consequences for those responsible for such waste–addresses for the Oregon governor and attorney general are here.

11. Climate change and homeland security

The House has passed H.R.4737, the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] Climate Change Research Act. This legislation would require the DHS to evaluate federal research in order to anticipate potential impacts of climate change on homeland security, to identify gaps in that research, and to launch research projects to fill those gaps. This legislation has moved to the Senate where it is currently with the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. S-HP

You can urge leadership of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and your own Senators to take swift, positive action on H.R.4737 because real security requires acknowledging the threats posed by the climate crisis.

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist has easy, straightforward things you can do. Now you can click them off when you’ve done them, so they have a idea of their impact.
  • If you want to work from Sarah-Hope’s complete list, it is here.
  • Martha’s list offers opportunities to comment on major revisions to Medicare and Medicaid (scroll down–there are several), the travel ban for New Yorkers, rules changes to permit drilling and mining in Bear Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante, migratory birds, seismic blasts at polar bear dens, and a request for climate scientists on some recommendations–pass the word.
  • Rogan’s list has ways to respond to the outrages at the Department of Justice, send support to the four prosecutors who resigned, speak up for disability rights, comment on Trump’s budget, object to the shredding of files at the archives, and more.
  • Many of you have circulated this great list of 64 things white people can do for racial justice.

News You May Have Missed: February 9, 2020

Trump is lashing out like a blinded basilisk at those who have attempted to hold him to Constitutional norms. Two people who deserve thanks: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose leadership has been crucial during the impeachment process, and Mitt Romney, the sole Republican to vote to convict Trump on either of the two articles of impeachment. Whether or not we generally share his political viewpoint, he was unique among Republicans in his willingness to hold the President to account. Their addresses are in the links if you want to send your thanks. Common Cause is also suggesting that we speak up for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who has been dismissed from the National Security Council for testifying truthfully about Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine.

Once again, Heather Cox Richardson explains the impeachment debacle and urges us to listen closely to Trump’s budget speech tomorrow, when he is expected to propose deep cuts to Medicaid.

Justice Gavel
“Justice Gavel” by Tori Rector is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. Asylum seekers killed on return to El Salvador

Human Rights Watch has been tracking the fates of asylum-seekers deported to El Salvador. The organization reports that between 2013 and 2019, two hundred of these deportees were killed, raped, or tortured upon return to El Salvador. 138 of these deportees were killed by “gang members, police, soldiers, U.S.-trained death squads, or ex-partners” (in the case of those fleeing domestic abuse)–in other words, ” the same perpetrators the asylum seekers had fled from,” according to Democracy Now. Human Rights Watch identified these cases through news accounts, court records, and interviews with family members; since no official data is kept on the fate of deportees the actual number of those affected is probably higher.

You can speak up about the practice of returning asylum-seekers to the country they fled and ask the House Homeland Security Committee to begin monitoring this situation. Addresses are here.

2. Trump trolls hacked Iowa caucus phone lines

All sorts of lessons can be drawn from the debacle that was the Iowa Democratic Presidential Caucus, but let’s focus on two. First: We. Need. Paper. Ballots. Yes, a ballot box can be stuffed, but the parts of our election systems that are most vulnerable are electronic. In 2018, we saw how easily eleven- and twelve-year-old children could hack U.S. voting systems. We need secure operating systems and secure machines. Second: We have to identify and combat new forms of election interference as they arise. Bloomberg first reported that one of the problems the Iowa caucus had to contend with was deliberate clogging of the phone lines used to tally results. When the tallying phone app failed, caucus leaders had to phone in results to a central number. Unfortunately, as NBC reported, the phone number to which results were reported was easily found via Goggle search—and had been shared on right-wing message boards in advance of the caucus. Those answering the phones on caucus night found themselves fielding calls excoriating the Democratic party and touting Donald Trump, rather than calls with caucus results. S-HP

If you want to recommend legislation to make our elections secure, including legislation that requires paper ballots and that penalizes deliberate attempts to interrupt voting and tallying procedures, you can find addresses for your Members of Congress here.

3. Southern states propose to criminalize gender-affirming medical treatment for transgender kids

A House committee in South Dakota passed a bill which would impose fines of up to $2000 and jail sentences of up to a year on doctors who prescribe puberty-blocking hormones and gender-affirming surgery to transgender teens under 16, according to the Washington Post. Other states are proposing these bills as well, among them South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where providing puberty-blocking hormones to children would be defined as child abuse, the Tennessean reports. The bill in Georgia would make the provisions of gender-affirming care a felony; the legislator who is proposing it refers to it as “child abuse,” according to the Marietta Daily Journal. Legislators argue against allowing transgender youth to make permanent changes to their bodies when they may merely be “experimenting with their identity,” the Post reports. The Campaign for Southern Equality, an organization of medical professionals in the South, has spoken out against these bills, saying that “gender-affirming care is linked to significantly reduced rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide attempts.” The risk is that young transgender teens will take puberty-blocking hormones without medical supervision and will be at higher risk for mental health challenges and suicide. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 25% to 30% of transgender adolescents report attempting suicide at some point during their lives; the risk for female-male transgender adolescents is especially high, 62.5%. RLS

If you are a doctor in the South, you can sign the Campaign for Southern Equality’s letter. Otherwise, you can remind your Congressmembers that we need national-level protections for LGBTQ+ rights—including the rights of minors. Addresses here.

4. DNA samples to be collected from asylum-seekers

The Center for Public Integrity has reported on a Republican administration plan to collect DNA samples from nearly one hundred thousand individuals, some of them minors, being held in immigration detention. This would likely be the U.S.’s largest ever law enforcement collection of DNA from individuals not accused of a crime (it is important to remember that those in immigration detention are in civil, not criminal, detention). The plan, announced in early January, would begin with DNA collection at two migrant detention centers, one in Michigan and the other in Texas. Civil rights advocates have raised concerns that DNA collected could be used to link immigrants to family members who might then be targeted as well. While those charged with a crime can request that their DNA samples be destroyed if they are found innocent, no such provision is included in administration plans. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has signed a $5.2 million contract with Bode Cellmark Forensics for supplies and services. The contract will expire in April. S-HP

If you want to suggest that Bode Cellmark Forensics honor civil rights by refusing to extend or reapply for this contract and to ask the House Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees to investigate this large-scale collection of DNA from individuals not charged with any crime, addresses are here.

5. National archives are being purged

Let’s add a small corollary to Santayana’s warning that “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” and note “Corrupt governments will encourage that forgetting when they find it expedient.” A New York Times opinion piece by professor of history Matthew Connelly warns that “vital information [held by the National Archives] is actually being deleted or destroyed, so that no one—neither the press and government watchdogs today, nor historians tomorrow—will have a chance to see it.” In 2017, it was revealed that the National Archives had authorized Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) delete or destroy documents detailing the sexual abuse and death of undocumented immigrants. After thousands of critical comments were received from individuals, Congressmembers, and organizations that plan was given minor changes, but last month the National Archives gave ICE permission to begin destroying documents from the first year of Trump’s presidency.

The opinion piece goes on to identify other documents being destroyed with Archives approval: Department of the Interior files on endangered species, offshore drilling, safe drinking water, and management of Native American lands; Department of State papers of the under-secretary for economic growth, energy, and environment, which include everything from aviation safety to foreign takeovers of American firms. As Connelly notes, “All this is happening without so much as a congressional hearing—Congress has not called [National Archives Director] Mr. Ferriero to appear for almost five years.” Part of Congress’s lack of action may be that maintaining and running archives is an expensive business, and one that the nation has repeatedly underfunded. S-HP

You can tell the Director of the National Archives and your Congressmembers that you want to see the preservation of documents currently being or slated to be destroyed–which will require better funding of the Archives. Addresses here.

6. House supports union organizing, Republican administration undercuts it

On February 7, the House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would allow the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to fine employers who fire employees for union organizing, allow contract (“gig”) workers to unionize, and ease “Right to Work” provisions in various states that undermine union organizing, according to the Washington Post. Central Coast representative Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) described the bill as “the most significant upgrade to U.S. labor law in 80 years…a direct response to the struggle that many hardworking families are facing to keep pace with the rising costs of education, child care, housing, and other basic essentials.” The bill is unlikely to be taken up in the Senate, as it is opposed by right-wing and industry forces. Why launch it, given it will not become law anytime soon? According to In These Times, the point is to announce the Democratic agenda and map the future should Democrats be in a position to enact it.

A staple of collective bargaining agreements is the carry-over principle, which is that the provisions of an agreement stay in force even if it expires while a new one is being negotiated. The Republican administration has proposed a rule which would undermine this long-standing way of preserving continuity. A “General Statement of Policy or Guidance: Agency-Head Review of Agreements that Continue in Force Until New Agreements Are Reached” would allow heads of federal agencies to review expiring agreements and decline to continue any provision whose legality they question. Not only will workers’ rights under their contracts take a hit, but unions will be under pressure to settle contracts more quickly, perhaps accepting retrograde agreements. RLS

If you want to preserve the continuity of workplace regulations and the rights of workers, you can comment on this rule by 2/24/2020. In addition, you might want to advise your senator to urge that the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, H.R.2474, be brought to the floor of the Senate. It has already been passed by the House.

7. State of disunion

Trump’s “fanciful” State of the Union Address has left our country’s fact-checkers grossly overworked, but let’s focus for a moment on two legislative issues. First, Trump urged Congress “to pass bipartisan legislation to “dramatically” lower the cost of prescription drugs,” as the Hill reports. If you were listening, you may have heard the chants of “H.R.3! H.R.3!” coming from the Democratic side of the aisle, Vox notes. H.R.3, the Elijah E. Cummings Lower Drug Costs Now Act, was passed by the House in December and received in the Senate that same month, but has not yet been assigned to a Committee by Senate Majority Leader McConnell.

You may also have noted the lack of Democratic enthusiasm when Trump called for paid family leave. The legislation to which Trump was referring is S.2976, the Advancing Support for Working Families Act. S.2976 does offer working families a new means for covering family leave, but it does not actually include any paid family leave, via either the government or employers. Instead, it allows families to collect a portion of future child tax credits early to “pay” for the leave. In other words, families would be borrowing from their future selves in order to cover family leave offered by S.2976. Additionally, S.2976 only applies to family leave for babies or adopted children under age six and includes no provisions to care for sick family members or to cover an individual’s own health emergencies. S.2976 also does not provide any job protection for individuals covering family leave by this method, according to the New York Times. S-HP

It would be a good time to remind your Senators that the drug-price legislation Trump called for is sitting idle in the Senate and that real paid family leave is paid family leave, not a juggling of the books that can threaten a family’s future financial security.

8. Immigration judges appointed with no experience

We’ve reported before on the pressures—both workload demands and political interference—immigration judges are forced to deal with, but there’s another threat to our immigration justice system that hasn’t been getting the notice it deserves. The Trump administration has been hiring immigration judges who have no experience in immigration law, according to the Hill. The experience requirement for immigration judges doesn’t mention immigration law experience, but only that applicants must have seven years of “post-bar experience as a licensed attorney preparing for, participating in, and/or appealing formal hearings or trials.” Of the 28 new immigration judges recently sworn in by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, 11 of them had no immigration law experience. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee has been speaking out on this issue. S-HP

You can thank Representative Lee for reminding us that immigration judges should have immigration law experience and urge your Congressmembers to join her in bringing attention to this problem. Addresses are here.

9. Asylum seekers on hunger strike

In a story that has received virtually no attention in the U.S., five men in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention have been engaging in a hunger strike that is now beginning its fourth month. The organization Freedom for Immigrants has filed a complaint against ICE for refusing to release the medical records of two of these men for independent review, a right that should be available to anyone in ICE custody, the Guardian reports. ICE has been force feeding two of the men, leaving nasal feeding tubes in for up to three weeks at a time. Because it can be both violent and painful, force-feeding is only allowed under a judge’s orders. The five men are from South Asia and are filing asylum claims based on fear of religious or political persecution

You can ask the House Homeland Security Committee to initiate a Congressional investigation of hunger strikes among ICE detainees and ICE’s treatment of these individuals.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

10. RCMP arrest First Nations people defending land in Canada

The RCMP tore down tents and arrested six First Nations people who are trying to keep a pipeline out of traditional Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia. In support of those objecting to the pipeline, protestors in Vancouver stopped traffic; a car drove through the protest group, though no one was hurt, Global News reported. Protesters in Ontario blocked the rail service between Toronto and Montreal, stopping 62 trains, according to the Toronto Star. Organizers from the group No One is Illegal told the Star that they were blocking the trains because “the RCMP has sent militarized police to evict Wet’suwet’en people from their unceded territory, to support a dangerous and disruptive pipeline project.”

“Unceded” means that the land was never surrended nor sold to Canada. Na’Moks, a hereditary chief with the Wet’suwet’en Nation who also goes by John Risdale, told the Star that “They came in with armed forces to remove peaceful people that are doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. We’re protecting the land, the air, the water.” RLS

To follow this issue or to look for ways to support the Wet’suwet’en people, see their website.

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

11. US Navy discontinues climate change task force

The United States Navy has long understood the need for ascertaining the impact climate change would have on the world in order to fulfill its mission, if for no other reason than the Navy has the vast majority of its assets (naturally) located in coastal areas that are due to see sea level rises. To this end, the Navy created a climate change task force in 2009 that issued a number of important reports outlining the dangers of climate change to world stability and naval assets as well as estimating the costs involved in mitigating the damage. It’s puzzling, then, why the Navy quietly shut down the task force back in March of 2019 without a press release or public comment period and scrubbed all data and information regarding the task force from the internet, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. One can only assume the Trump administration’s ongoing purge of everything climate related from federal agencies is to blame, though the Navy says its mission was “duplicative.” However, there is no other identifiable group or command in charge of climate change issues.  JC

12. Cost to make California net carbon neutral? 8 billion a year

A report issued by Lawrence Livermore National Labs estimated the costs and means by which California can achieve the goal set by former governor Jerry Brown in 2018 to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. In order to do that, the state will need to not only drastically reduce its overall carbon emissions but also pay for carbon capture to offset the emissions that cannot easily be eliminated. Among the methods are some relatively easy and inexpensive things such as restoring wetlands, changes in forestry, soil improvement and revisions in agricultural crops. Beyond that, there will need to be some relatively costly technologies employed. One option is to convert bio-waste to hydrogen fuels and store the carbon in underground repositories and another is simply to suck the CO2 directly from the air and inject it underground where there is geological capacity for 100 years of storage. The cost for all of this is estimated at eight billion a year, a large sum, but it represents .4% of state GDP or 5% of current state tax revenues, Ars Technica reports. Given the extraordinary costs of climate change impacts, the costs seem very reasonable. JC

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist focuses on easy actions you can take in the areas of democracy, voting access, equality for all Americans, basic respect for aspiring Americans.
  • Rogan’s list this week focuses on Black Lives Matter at school, nominating Adam Schiff for a Profiles in Courage award, battleground seats in the Senate, and much more.
  • Sarah-Hope’s full list is here.
  • Martha’s list offers many opportunities to comment for the public record. She notes that the opportunity to comment on high fees for immigrants, asylum seekers, and citizenship petitions has been extended till tomorrow. She gives you links for commenting on the many proposed regulations in support of faith-based organizatios. And there’s a new posting asking for general comment on their regulations process.


News You May Have Missed: February 2, 2020

If you are in despair about the vote in the Senate not to allow witnesses, read Heather Cox Richardson’s last few columns. Her long view is quite bracing. And if you want to thank the House Impeachment Managers, who have performed impeccably– documenting all claims and insisting on respect for the Constitution–their names and addresses are here.


“Influenza virus” by Sanofi Pasteur is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Just a word about the other “big” story, the new coronavirus: There is understandable concern about the new virus, but less worry about influenza, though as many as 25,000 people have died in the U.S. so far this flu season, according to the Washington Post. (3500 die annually in Canada; numbers from this season are not available.) See award-winning science writer Laurie Garrett’s piece from last fall on the connection between climate change and pandemics and on how the most vulnerable people and countries will suffer most. As with everything–political or seemingly non-political–it is important to focus not (only) on the sensational but on the news that doesn’t make the headlines (or that disappears quickly from the headlines). To that end, we bring you News You May Have Missed.

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. Trump authorizes the use of landmines

In 2014, Barack Obama issued a directive prohibiting U.S. production or acquisition of anti-personnel landmines (APLs). Landmines are a notorious weapon of war, designed to kill or main and often used in areas with significant civilian populations. In addition, landmines don’t disappear when a conflict ends. Vox reports that, according to the watchdog group Landmine Monitor, there were over 130,000 landmine casualties between 1999 and 2018. More than 160 countries—but not the U.S.—have signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, known as the Ottawa Treaty, which prohibits production, stockpiling, use, and transfer of anti-personnel landmines; Canada signed it as well and has not reneged. Now, a cable from the Trump administration indicates that the U.S. has given itself a blanket authorization to use landmines in current or future conflicts. S-HP

If you are aghast at the revival of landmines, consider objecting. You can write to the Secretary and Undersecretary of Defense as well as to your elected representatives; addresses are here.

2. Abuse of immigrants in detention centers authorized

“Hog-tying, fetal restraints, [and] tight restraints” are now all permitted at immigration detention centers; minors may be handcuffed, and the reasons for using solitary confinement have been broadened under new rules governing these facilities, according to the Texas Observer. Even more ominously, guards only need to notify ICE that an inmate needs to be transferred to a hospital “as soon as practicable,” rather than immediately. In addition, non-profit organizations, such as those that represent immigrants in their asylum appeals, will have less access to prisoners, the ACLU notes. One of the reasons for these lowered standards is to enable local jails and prisons to serve as detention centers, according to Rolling Stone. RLS

You can object to lowered standards at immigration detention centers and point out that seeking asylum is a right under international law, not a crime. Appropriate addresses are here.

3. Medicaid cuts would jeopardize elders and babies

Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)–the government insurance programs that serve 70 million Americans, including a third of all children–would be seriously undercut under new proposals from the Trump administration. As the LA Times reports, these programs cover half of all births in the South and 62% of nursing home residents nationwide. The new Republican proposal would permit states to convert their Medicaid allocation to block grants, according to the LA Times, allowing them to use the funds as they wished. The grants would be capped, likely diminishing access to medical care for low-income people. RLS

If you want to let your members of Congress know that cuts to Medicaid are inhumane, you can find your addresses here. You can mention your grandma, if appropriate.

4. Supreme Court won’t stop Republicans from using public benefits to keep out immigrants

The Supreme Court, in a typical 5-4 split, has determined that Trump’s “public charge” rule can be enforced while it makes its way through the courts, according to Politico and other new outlets. Under this rule, potential immigrants can be denied residency in or admission to the U.S. because they have used or because it is deemed likely that they may in the future use public-assistance programs, meaning an immigration official’s predictions of individuals’ future income could determine their fate. As numerous commentators have pointed out, this kind of regulation is what kept some 300,000 Jewish refugees out of the US during World War II. H.R.3222, the No Federal Funds for Public Charge Act, would end this program by prohibiting paying for it with federal monies. This legislation has 118 co-sponsors, including the Central Coast’s Jimmy Panetta. It is currently with the House Judiciary Committee’s Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee. S-HP

You can urge appropriate committee leadership to support H.R. 3222. Addresses are here.

5. “Saving” Social Security

Trump tweeted recently that he is going to “save” Social Security, but then had the following exchange with a CNBC interviewer at the World Economic Program in Davos: Interviewer: “One last question: Entitlements ever be on your plate?” Trump: “At some point they will be.”

Those of us uncomfortable with what a Republican “save” of Social Security might look like can urge passage of the Social Security 2100 Act (S.269 in the Senate; H.R.860 in the House). The legislation would provide an increase of about 2% of the average benefit to all beneficiaries; would improve the annual cost of living adjustment to better reflect the costs incurred by older Americans; would protect low income workers by setting a new minimum benefit at 25% above the poverty line; would cut taxes for beneficiaries by raising the threshold for non-Social Security income before benefits are taxed; and would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill don’t result in a reduction in SSI, Medicaid or CHIP benefits. The measure would also gradually phase in an increase in the contribution rate to keep the system solvent (for the average worker, this would mean paying an additional 50 cents per week every year), and would allow income up to $400,000 to be taxed for Social Security (these taxes currently tax income earned up to, but not beyond $132,900 a year). S.269 has been languishing in the Senate Finance Committee for over a year now. House action on H.R.860 has been similarly nonexistent, except for one referral to a subcommittee: the House Ways and Means Committee sent it to their Subcommittee on Social Security. In the House H.R.860 is also with the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Education and Labor Committee. S-HP

You can urge the appropriate Congressional committees to take quick action on these bills. Addresses are here.

6. HUD finds tracking discrimination “burdensome”

Originally passed in 1968, the Fair Housing Act outlawed discrimination in housing, but federal enforcement was lackluster. In 2015, the Obama administration moved to increase enforcement of the act by requiring local governments to track patterns of poverty and segregation. Federal funds could then be withheld from cities that did not address segregation. Calling this tracking “burdensome,” Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson is now moving to eliminate it. HUD has also cancelled efforts to end unintended discrimination in home loans caused by banking algorithms. According to Politico, this past November every Senate Democrat signed on to a letter to Carson, saying they were “deeply troubled by the direction this administration is heading in relation to fair lending and fair housing protections.” Currently homeownership rates are 73% for Whites and are a bit under 43% for Blacks. According to the National Fair Housing Alliance, the Treasury Department’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) saw an 8% increase in housing discrimination cases in 2018 (the 2019 annual report is not yet available), but according to Politico, the administration has filed only a single fair lending enforcement case since Trump appointees took over management of the CFPB. S-HP

If you want to remind the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development that addressing segregation isn’t burdensome but essential, and tell appropriate officials that CFPB’s poor record of fair lending enforcement is unacceptable, you will find addresses here. In addition, if you want to post a comment for the public record, see Martha’s list, here.

8. Trump pleases the crowd at the March for Life, threatens to punish California

Undermining abortion rights is a key strategy in Trump’s re-election campaign. His latest move is to threaten California with the loss of some federal funding if the state continues to require that health plans cover abortion services, according to the L.A. Times. Five other states already have this requirement, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The announcement was intended to coincide with Trump’s appearance at the March for Life rally in January, Politico reports, the first sitting president to do so. There, according to the BBC,  he told the crowd, without irony, that “We’re here for a very simple reason: to defend the right of every child born and unborn to fulfill their God-given potential.” RLS

If you want to urge your Congressmembers to defend women’s right to make their own healthcare decisions and let California officials know not to cave in to this blackmail, addresses are here.

9. Boy Scouts still working with Border Patrol

Last August, we wrote about the Border Patrol Law Enforcement Explorer Program, a program for 14-to-20-year-olds, jointly run by the Boy Scouts and the Border Patrol. Its ostensible aim is to teach survival skills and first aid, and to participate in training exercises in which they “play” either Border Patrol agents or the immigrants they target. The Boy Scouts, which claims to “train youth in responsible citizenship [and] character development” continue to participate in the program. S-HP

If you would like to ask the Boy Scouts in what ways targeting minorities, separating families, and ignoring international law regarding the rights of asylum seekers improve their members’ citizenship and characters, addresses are here.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

10. Travel ban extended–who will be next?

Trump has extended the travel ban to six more countries with significant Muslim populations: Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania . Set to go into effect February 21, this move is likely to further endanger Myanmar’s Rhohingya Muslims, who face genocide in Myanmar and misery in refugee camps elsewhere, the New York Times notes. Nigeria is likely to be particularly hard-hit, as 7,920 Nigerians were given immigrant visas in 2018. Student visas would still be permitted, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which provides detailed information on its website. Most people from China are now being denied entry, but this prohibition is due to the coronavirus and hence is temporary. The previous travel ban was upheld by the Supreme Court, so it is hard to see what legal challenges will prevail against this one. Families separated by borders will particularly suffer, explained Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House: “It has become a de facto family separation policy besides the obvious one at the border,” he said. “This will just magnify the pain to extend it to other countries.” RLS

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

11. Astronomers observe warping of the fabric of space and time

An international team of astrophysicists has published data in the journal Science showing an effect called “frame dragging,” observed in a neutron star rapidly spinning around a white dwarf companion star, chalking up yet one more validation for Einstein’s theory of relativity. When a quickly spinning, quickly orbiting and very massive body moves, it bends the fabric of time and space around it, affecting the light radiating through the area of space around the object. This can have some unusual apparent effects. For example, if you were to throw an enormous spear right at the neutron star, it would appear that the spear would actually be moving in an orbit opposite the orbit of the star, away from the target. This is because the tip of the spear would actually be moving at a slower rate than the end of the spear, warping its image from any observer’s point of view. This observed and confirmed phenomenon can be added to the historic observation of light deflection during solar eclipse in 1919 and 1922 as proof that general relativity continues to make accurate predictions about the nature of the universe, Phys. Org notes. JC

12. Protecting migratory birds

As explained by Audubon, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) makes it illegal to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect migratory birds or their eggs or nests—or attempt to do so—without a permit. For decades, both deliberate acts and “incidental take” (accidental or inadvertent killing of birds) were considered violations of this legislation. In 2018, the Interior Department announced that it would no longer enforce rules against incidental take.

The problem is that “incidental take” is not necessarily accidental or inadvertent. For example, if a property owner decides to knock down a barn that contains an owl nest, the killing of nestlings is no longer considered a violation of the MBTA because the “intent” of the action was to tear down the barn, not to kill the nestlings. In other words, come up with the right story and you have a free license to kill and injure migratory birds and their nestlings. That decision to allow incidental take is being challenged in the courts by several wildlife and ecological protection organizations that argue that this new interpretation is clearly in conflict with the intent of the original legislation. The Migratory Bird Protection Act, H.R.5552, would affirm that the intent of the MBTA was to prohibit incidental take of birds without a permit and would require that the Fish and Wildlife research the impact of ongoing commercial activity on bird populations and that it identify and/or develop best practices to minimize this impact. The House Committee on Natural Resources had approved H.R.5552, which can now go to a vote of the full House. S-HP

If you want to encourage your representative along with the Speaker of the House to support H.R.5552, addresses are here. You can also see Martha’s list, below, to post a comment for the public record.

Amazon passes 500k employees, 1 trillion dollar valuation 

It’s fair to say that most people know that Amazon is a huge company. With its quarterly earnings report, it’s possible to more clearly define exactly how huge and influential the company is in the US marketplace. This past year saw Amazon add 150,000 workers to its payroll (more than Apple’s entire workforce), a 42% increase over the previous year.  While stocks tumbled this past week, Amazon stock reached over $2000 per share, doubling in value over the past two years. 150 million people are paying to be Amazon Prime members. Amazon has attracted criticism from Democratic presidential candidates for paying little tax relative to its size, a claim the company attempted to rebuff with a disclosure released this past week detailing the various taxes paid. While the company has indeed paid billions in payroll taxes and customs duties to the federal government, and has a tax bill of one billion dollars for 2019, it has deferred paying 900 million of those taxes, Geekwire reports. The amount paid in federal income tax for 2019 so far? 162 million dollars on an operating revenue of 14.5 billion. JC

RESOURCES

  • The Americans of Conscience Checklist not only has quick, clear-cut actions you can take but a long list of good news!
  • Our colleague Crysostom is back–with a comprehensive round-up of election news.
  • Sarah-Hope’s whole list has some California specific items, plus everything above.
  • If you get your health insurance through the ACA, you really need to look at the first item on Martha’s list.
  • Rogan’s list has great information on actions state-by-state, as well as ways to engage in upcoming primaries and an action you can take to restore asylum.

News You May Have Missed: January 26, 2020

Even for print people, film is a metaphor. The new news about the massacre at El Mozote–where, as Al Jazeera reports, in 1981 American-trained forces in El Salvador massacred 1,000 women, children, and elderly people–illustrates the need to pan, to survey the world systematically. The massacre was covered up, but now a Salvadoran general admits that the Salvadoran army did the killing. Representative Ilhan Omar reminded us about El Mozote last February, when she took on Elliott Abrams, who was then named the special envoy to Venezuela. Abrams had been in the State Department in the 80s, among those responsible for sending aid to El Salvador’s right-wing government despite clear evidence that civilians were being murdered. He claimed that the story about El Mozote was communist propaganda, Ray Bonner–who has been covering El Mozote since it happened–reminds us. This is why we need to remember.

The news cycle zooms in, then cuts to black, so that keeping everything in focus–the 69,550 children who were imprisoned by ICE in 2019, the almost-war with Iran, the discriminatory practices of some faith-based organizations–is a challenge. We’ll try to pan across some continuing stories this week, as well as giving you concrete, quick actions you can take. 

the hedgehog

“The hedgehog” by juanpoolio is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Useful in the process of keeping multiple stories in view is ironic humor–so to that end we recommend Foreign Policy in Focus writer Conn Hallinan’s “Are You Serious?” awards for the heights of absurdity in the previous year’s news.

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. Faith-based organizations would be allowed to discriminate, under new rules

Most of you are probably familiar with Executive Order 13831, even if that number doesn’t ring a bell. 13831 was the order signed by Trump to allow faith-based organizations to receive funding from the government and to participate in government programs while excluding from those programs anyone their faith disapproves of. The worst example of this we’ve seen is an adoption agency in Virginia that receives government funding and will not place children in Catholic, Jewish, Non-Religious, or LGBTQ+ households. If the rule changes proposed in order to implement 13831 go through, we’ll be seeing all sorts of hate-based unkindness. Eldercare programs that exclude Jews, soup kitchens that won’t serve atheists, academic support programs that bar LGBTQ+ youth—the possibilities are many and terrifying. S-HP

At the moment, eight different federal departments have proposed rules changes in order to implement 13831, and, yep, they all have to commented on separately. See the full list of proposing departments and comment instructions below.

2. Rules against flying while (possibly) pregnant

Remember when the term “anchor babies” had conservative pundits foaming at the mouth? Today’s equivalent is “birth tourism.” Just as with “anchor babies,” the horror underlying “birth tourism” is that the child of a non-citizen might be born in the U.S. giving that child citizenship rights—and thereby allowing all sorts of people from all over the place to become citizens because of immigration policies that favor family members. To eliminate this threat the administration has announced a rule change that would allow a State Department officer to deny a Class B recreational tourist visa to a pregnant (or possibly pregnant) women who that officer has “reason to believe” might be hoping to give birth during a vacation to the U.S. or a U.S. territory, NBC news reported. Note, that’s “announced,” as in “it’s a rule starting now,” as opposed to a “proposed” which would allow for public comment. A foretaste of this policy was recently offered by the airline Hong Kong Express that refused to allow a Japanese woman to board a flight to the U.S. territory of Saipan, where that woman had grown up and where her parents still live. A “fit-to-fly” test to which she was subjected included a pregnancy test. An airline employee took her into a bathroom, handed her a pregnancy test strip, and instructed her to urinate on it. (She was allowed a private stall in which to do this.) Only after the pregnancy test had a negative result was she allowed to board her flight, according to the Washington Post. Hong Kong Express has since announced that it has suspended this practice and apologized, but if the administration has its way, this process may be a good deal more common soon. S-HP

In Canada, the CBC came under fierce criticism for running a documentary on so-called “Passport Babies.” Women who come to Canada and pay privately to have their babies put a strain on the public health care system, the CBC says, and the nurses’ union says that the issue of increasing numbers of women coming from abroad to deliver might be mitigated if the private fees were put toward additional labor and delivery nurses. RLS

If you want to voice concerns about the new rule in the U.S., you can find the addresses for the State Department and your members of Congress here.

3. Asylum cases moved away from legal representation

In a move that may deprive thousands of immigrant detainees of legal representation, the Republican administration has announced that it is moving several hundred immigration cases out of San Francisco, where they were originally sited and where many detainees have been able to attain counsel, to a Van Nuys courtroom in northern Los Angeles. In response to increased immigration and asylum cases, a number of immigrant legal aid groups have been established in Northern California to support individuals with hearings in San Francisco.

The Guardian cites Valerie Zukin of the Northern California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, who explains that in 2017, only 2% of San Francisco immigration hearings were attended by an attorney. Presently, a group of thirty-five groups covers more than 80% of San Francisco immigration hearings. Zukin says that there is no equivalent group of organizations prepared to cover the hundreds of cases being transferred to Van Nuys. There had been rumblings of such transfers, and the Executive Office of Immigration Review had responded to queries from legal aid groups that no such move was planned. Case transfers are scheduled to begin on February 3. Asylum-seekers with legal representation are five times more likely to be granted asylum than those without, NPR notes, which raises the question of whether the underlying purpose of this move was to reduce immigrant access to legal aid. S-HP

You can object to the relocating of asylum cases and and ask for an investigation into the decision. Appropriate addresses are here.

4. A birthday present for Michelle

On former first lady Michelle Obama’s birthday, the Trump administration announced a proposal that would allow schools to serve foods that are higher in fats and sodium in place of fresh fruits and vegetables, ABC news reported. Better nutrition in school lunches had been one of her most significant policy initiatives.The new rules would make serving items like burgers and pizza easier. They would allow school salad bars to offered outside the point-of-service (in other words, where adults can’t see how much you take of which ingredients—croutons, anyone?). Legumes in meat alternatives would qualify as a “double dip,” simultaneously fulfilling meat and vegetable requirements. Limits on synthetic trans fats would be eliminated under the assumption that they are unnecessary under current Food and Drug Administration regulations. Water could be replaced with “calorie-free, non-carbonated, naturally flavored water” (lime aid with artificial sweeteners, anyone?). Vegetables (including nutritional duds like processed potato products) could substitute for fruit in school breakfasts. The Center for Science in the Public Interest and The Partnership for a Healthier America have called this a step in the wrong direction. Finally, reviews of school lunch and breakfast programs would move from a three-year to a five-year review cycle. S-HP

Want to get this stopped? Comments can be made for the public record; there were only 33 comments submitted as of 1/23/2020; the deadline for comments is March 23. Here is how to comment.

5. DOJ and oil industry–“a team”?

Reporting by Inside Climate News alleges that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has been siding with the oil industry, rather than acting on behalf of the American people. What appears to be carefully planned collaboration between the DOJ and industry lawyers began in early 2018, shortly after Oakland and San Francisco filed suit against several oil companies over the effects of climate change. At that point, the DOJ began a series of emails and meetings with industry lawyers and began preparation of an amicus brief supporting the oil companies. At the same time, a group of attorneys/solicitors general from fifteen Republican-led states began preparing their own amicus brief on behalf of the oil industry. In all, between February and May 2018 at least 178 pages of communications were exchanged between DoJ representatives and industry lawyers. A number of meetings among the groups took place, but documentation from these has not become available. According to Inside Climate News, in one email, Eric Grant, a Deputy Attorney General in the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division asked Indiana’s Solicitor General to arrange a meeting to review a plan to intercede on oil companies’ behalf. Another email refers to DOJ and industry lawyers as a “team.” S-HP

If you want to call for a Congressional investigation of this government/industry collaboration, here are the appropriate peopleto write.

6. Franchise workers deprived of protections

If you work at a fast-food franchise and are denied overtime pay, where can you go for remedies? Is your employer the local franchise owner or the fast-food corporation? In a situation where the answer to this question is “both,” you have what is a called a “joint employer” and you can expect both of the two to safeguard your employment rights. The Department of Labor has issued new joint employer rules that are scheduled to go into effect on March 16, US News reports. Under these rules, you are only jointly employed if you work under one or more of four very specific circumstances: if both employers can hire and fire you; if both employers supervise your work schedule; if both employers set your pay; if both employers maintain your employment records. Under the new rules if one or more of these is true, you may be jointly employed. But, if that fast food corporation doesn’t set your work hours or maintain employment records on you, the corporation does not have to worry about the franchise’s failure to honor overtime pay rules and workers are left with little recourse, according to the New York Times. Previously, determination of joint employment took into account the real degree of dependence of workers on the “upstream” company: for example, whether that company provided facilities and equipment for workers. S-HP

You can speak up about how these new rules jeopardize the most vulnerable workers. Here are addresses.

7. National Archives may be leaving Seattle

In 2014, the Alaska branch of the National Archives was closed, and the records it held were moved to the Seattle National Archive branch. Now, the Federal Public Buildings Reform Board, created in 2016 as part of the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act, which is charged with identifying and selling high-value government-owned real estate, is considering closing the Seattle Archives. The plan is to move Seattle Archive materials to a facility near Riverside, California, and federal agency records to Kansas City. If this proposal is approved, archives currently under a single roof will now be housed in two locations, complicating research efforts. When the Alaska Archive was closed, the National Archives committed to digitizing the Alaska records that would be less accessible to Alaska-based researchers, the Alaska Historical Society reports. That digitization is still incomplete, and an additional move may delay or even end that process. S-HP

You can write to the national archivist and ask that the Seattle archives remain open.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

8. Another assassination considered, amidst disinformation about Iran

It feels like eons ago that we were almost at war with Iran, following the U.S. assassination of top general Qassem Soleimani. But on January 24, it came out that as a result of missiles from Iran hitting US bunkers in Iraq, 34 people have brain injuries from the attack–contrary to what Trump had said earlier, which was at first that there were “no casualties,” then 11 casualties. Trump referred to the concussions that soldiers had incurred as “headaches,” according to Vox. Indeed, some of these are apparently not serious, as 17 of those affected are back at work. But headaches?

The day before, the State Department’s special representative to Iran, Brian Hook, said that he would order the assassination of Soleimani’s replacement if Americans are killed, Vox reported. Hook is the architect of the devastating sanctions that are causing a humanitarian crisis in Iran, according to the Nation.

Foreign Policy in Focus has an overview of American actions against Iran, covering the last forty years.

You can ask your elected representatives to support asserting Congress’s war powers and to ensure that Trump first receives Congressional approval before ordering military action such as that in Iran. Addresses here.

9. Iranian-born travelers stopped at border, students sent back

Though the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has denied detaining and questioning Iranian-born tourists, the CBC reported on January 23 that an unnamed U.S. border patrol official sent an email to a Washington State immigration lawyer saying that this was part of deliberate policy. On the weekend of January 4, some 200 Iranian-Canadians were detained and questions as they were coming into the US from BC for a concert. And at least 13 Iranian students have been prevented from coming in to attend universities in the U.S., the New York Times reported. The students had valid visas and were enrolled in American universities, having spent all their savings on tuition and plane tickets. RLS

If you want to object to the harassment of Iranian-born tourists and call for an investigation into the deportation of Iranian students registered in US universities, here are some ways to do so.

10. Saudi surveillance comes close to home

Curiouser and curiouser! The Saudis apparently hacked Jeff Bezos’ phone, via a WhatsApp video from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to CNN. (The Saudi embassy called the allegations “absurd.”) Whether they did this at Trump’s request or had their own reasons to monitor Bezos is not known–in addition to being the founder of Amazon, Bezos is the owner of the Washington Post, whose coverage has been persistently criticized by Trump. Raw Story claims that the Crown Prince likely had hacked Jared Kushner’s phone; Kushner and MBS, as the Crown Prince is known, are friends and MBS boasted in 2018 that he had Kushner “in his pocket,” according to the Intercept.

Even more oddly, Saudi Arabia is somehow paying the U.S. for the use of American troops, Rolling Stone reported on January 11. They quoted Trump’s interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, “I said, listen, you’re a very rich country. You want more troops? I’m going to send them to you, but you’ve got to pay us. They’re paying us. They’ve already deposited $1 billion in the bank.” Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), who recently left the Republican party, described this practice as the use of U.S. troops as “paid mercenaries.” 

Meanwhile, a report on the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in 2018 should have been sent to Congress by Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence–but was not; it was due last week, according to BuzzFeed. In November of 2018, the CIA had concluded that the Saudi crown prince had ordered the killing, the Washington Post reported then, though the Saudi government has denied this and has imposed the death penalty on five people who they say actually killed Khashoggi.

The Guardian reported on Friday that the Saudis were planning to keep surveillance on Khashoggi’s fiancee in London; the Guardian described this surveillance, the monitoring of a pro-democracy activist who has asylum in Norway, and the hacking of Bezos’ phone as part of a pattern: “Agnès Callamard and David Kaye, UN special rapporteurs who are investigating the matter, have pointed to a ‘pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents’ of the kingdom, especially people who are of ‘strategic importance.’” RLS

Are you troubled by the close relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudis? Are you outraged that the killing of Khashoggi seems to be on the back burner? Some ways to respond are here.

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & THE ENVIRONMENT

11. Physicists explain how voter turnout and high polarization are recipes for disaster

An electoral model constructed by physicists has given some insights into why our political system appears to be so broken, and why it might not improve. Physicists are used to reducing incredibly complex systems down to an idealized model to better understand the underlying mechanisms at work. It is this approach that physicists at MIT used to see why electoral results often do not match the actual will of the majority of voters., Ars Technica reports. The key ingredients in creating a broken system that does not accurately represent voter opinion are low voter participation and extreme political polarization. Essentially, as the political poles diverge, more people feel that neither candidate is suited to represent their beliefs and so they simply do not vote. This division leaves the remaining pool of voters concentrated in the extremes–which then repeats the same winnowing process, disenfranchising more voters. These extreme fluctuations are representative of a physical phenomenon called a phase transition, researchers explain in the journal Nature. Unfortunately, in physics, phase transitions are very hard to break out of once they settle to one extreme or the other, a prospect that doesn’t bode well for our democracy. More voter participation is sorely needed.  JC

12. Ocean acidification is already affecting crab larvae

As the gigatons of carbon dioxide human beings have emitted interacts with the world’s oceans, it increases the acidity of the water. This process has been predicted to have long-term negative consequences for wildlife, especially crustaceans and mollusks who depend on calcium carbonate for their shells; the higher acidity will literally dissolve them. A study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Dungeness crab larvae in British Columbia, Oregon and Washington states and published in the journal Science of the Total Environment has found that the process is already well underway, Phys.org reports.. Because of the way that deep water mixes with surface water, the coasts of the area studied have several “hot spots” with increased acidity levels, levels which will become the norm throughout the ocean. These hot spots are ideal for a peek into the future of the world’s oceans. They found that the crab larvae already show signs of pitting and folding in their shells, indicative of severe dissolution of their shell material. In addition, tiny free swimming snails that the crab depend upon for food are also negatively affected. The west coast Dungeness crab fishery is worth $200 million dollars alone.  JC

RESOURCES

  • The Americas of Conscience Checklist has accessible, usable information on voter registration and the census, as well as quick actions you can take toward justice–e.g., advocating for workers, transpeople and indigenous people in ICE custody, and more.
  • Heather Cox Richardson has illuminating commentary on impeachment–and more.
  • Want to thank the National Archive for restoring the images of the Women’s march? Inclined to speak up about the manipulation of aid to Puerto Rico? Sarah-Hope’s list has additional items that may interest you.
  • Martha’s list this week has numerous ways you can comment for the public record–on school lunches (2 measures), the Endangered Species Act review, DeVos’s “guidance” on school prayer, and most immediate, changes to SSI and SSDI disability reviews (see our December 23 issues for the full story).
  • Rogan’s list has an excellent roundup of actions you can take vis a vis impeachment, elections, and other issues.
  • Crysostom’s election news site is on hiatus this week, but here’s the January 7 column to hold you over.