NYMHM for 3 Feb

We often observe here at #newsyoumayhavemissed that so much is happening that it’s impossible to keep track of it all—almost certainly a strategy by the Trump administration to achieve their unpopular goals. The shutdown story, border wall boondoggle, and Mueller investigation have been pushing off the front page the equally important stories of the transgender military ban, teachersstrikes, BLM and Native American concerns, and migrant children locked up, separate from their parents, in facilities with, to put it mildly, inadequate oversight. Meanwhile, those social justice concerns are in turn diverting attention from structural changes to our governance and laws, and those changes are diverting attention from the slow-motion oncoming climate crisis. None of these things are a distraction-in-the-sense-of-being-unimportant, but they each serve to distract us from the next, making any sustained campaign of objections less likely. This week we’ll again focus on some stories getting less attention, and follow the news with some suggestions and resources for action.

DOMESTIC NEWS

1. White House blocking rule requiring employers to submit details of workplace injuries.

The Obama administration enacted the Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses rule to get more detailed information about how, and how many, people are injured on the job. In 2017, the Trump administration put the rule on hold. More recently, they amended the rule so employers would only have to submit a summary report, effective 25 February 2019. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) rushed through the amendment in 6 weeks (rather than the usual 3 months) despite the shutdown. The non-profit occupational health research group Public Citizen has filed a lawsuit hoping to prevent the changes. [Vox]

2. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to roll back Obama-era rules on campus sexual assault cases

The Department of Education has proposed new rules for investigating campus sexual assaults. DeVos wants to protect the accused by, among other changes, narrowing the definition of sexual harassment (potentially excluding rape!), guaranteeing a right to cross-examine accusers through a lawyer or representative, and exempting schools from investigating assaults at off-campus events.

Nothing is stopping DeVos from doing what Ajit Pai did and claiming, like her supporters, that “quality is more important than quantity“—although NYMHM observes that arguing that is essentially an admission that the problem of sexual assault is far more common than the problem of false accusations. The comment period is over, but you can still call your members of Congress.

3. Federally-funded foster agencies in SC may deny services to same-sex and non-Christian couples.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster asked for, and has now received from the federal government, a waiver of the rule that “prevents publicly licensed and funded foster care agencies from serving specific religions.” In effect, it’s now legal to discriminate against prospective parents because they are gay, or Jewish, which McMaster is perversely championing as a win for religious freedom.

4. 18% of streams and 51% of wetlands under threat

On December 11, 2018, in response to a February 28, 2017 Executive Order and three Supreme Court decisions, the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) jointly proposed a new Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule (AKA the Clean Water Rule), narrowing the scope of the 1972 Clean Water Act, and probably disingenuously argues that states will make up the difference. Washington Ag Network states the replacement rule is “welcomed by U.S. agriculture” and the Farm Bureau president has spoken in support of it, saying current rules aren’t clear. The Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at University of Tennessee argues:

A better solution to changing WOTUS may be to require the federal government to map the areas that it determines are in the watershed of ephemeral streams. Then farmers will not be faced the problem of not knowing whether or not they need to apply for a permit before engaging changes to their land.

The National Law Review has published an outline of the changes. A 2017 EPA/USACE slideshow (pdf) estimated 18% of streams and 51% of wetlands would no longer be protected. The Environmental Defense Fund recommends edge-of-field and watershed-level conservation and restoring buffers, filters and wetlands, regardless of what happens with WOTUS. Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, a 60-day comment period will start. We’ll post when it does, as will Martha’s list.

5. Changes to H1-B lottery

The lottery for H-1B visas, which allow American employers to employ specialized foreign labor (and which, we’re amused to learn, Melania Trump once used), is changing. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will now start with a lottery of all petitioners to fill the 65,000 H-1B quota, followed by a 20,000-quota lottery for holders of advanced degrees from U.S. institutions, instead of the other way around, which gives holders of advanced U.S. degrees two kicks at the can. USCIS estimates that up to 5,340 more immigrants with higher degrees will be selected, though the overall number of immigrants is not increasing.

6. Low-yield nukes

In a move we here at NYMHM don’t understand at all, on the direction of the Trump administration, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has started building the W-76-2, the “first low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead” for the Navy. We find ourselves in the weird position of… advocating for higher-yield nukes? What is even happening. But: it appears that W-76-2 has a yield of about 5 to 7 kilotons (for contrast, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 15 kt), and would be launched from submarines, but Russia, or any other enemy, would have no way of differentiating it from the Navy’s primary sub-launched nuke, the 100kt W-76-1, so they would launch a massive counter attack upon detection. Yet a foolish president might be more likely to actually order the use of the W-76-2, thinking of it as more like a big conventional bomb. So as far as we non-experts at NYMHM can tell, this move makes us less safe.

7. Comment period for changes to HIPAA

For those of you interested in health policy, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services has published a Request for Information (RFI). Comment by February 12 specifically on HIPAA and medical data sharing and communications. This is not an opportunity to comment on anything you dislike about HIPAA, but is more narrowly focused on removing regulatory obstacles to efficient patient care coordination while preserving patient privacy. Section II.a. of the RFI lists the questions they’d like commenters to address.

8. ICE continues to be awful

a. ICE force-feeding detainees

Immigration detainees from India and Nicaragua being held in a detention center in El Paso have been on a hunger strike over the last month, protesting unequal treatment. In particular, detainees from Punjab have been denied bond, while others have received it. AP reporters Martha Mendoza and Garance Burke reported that hunger strikers are being painfully force-fed.  Human Rights Watch condemned the force-feeding: “ICE should immediately stop the cruel, inhuman, and degrading process of force-feeding any detainees who have made a rational decision to stop eating as a form of protest.”

b. ICE issues fake court dates, forcing immigrants to drive for hours

NYMHM reported on the practice of ICE giving immigrants fake court dates, sometimes many hours away. ICE has done it again; on Thursday, according to CBS, ICE issued thousands of Notice to Appear letters, leading to chaos in immigration courts in Arlington, San Francisco and Memphis, as thousands of immigrants responded as they thought they were supposed to. As one immigration attorney told CBS, “For someone who’s facing deportation, playing around with court dates is literally playing around with their life.”

c. ICE refuses to cite shelters for violations

Meanwhile, ICE has refused to cite detention facilities for health and safety violations, according to an auditor general’s report (pdf). Among the 14,000 violations reported only two penalties were imposed. Among the violations were failures to report sexual assault and staff misconduct, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Staff did not respond quickly enough to medical crises, permitted detainees to be housed among violent criminals, allowed a toxic gas to be used to subdue detainees and so on; instead of citing the facilities, ICE issued waivers permitting the practices. Over 35,000 people are being housed in private detention centers.

d. The U.S. says it can’t find separated children

In a court filing on February 2, the U.S. said that it cannot locate the many thousands of children ICE separated from their parents. It says it has no tracking system and no resources to do so, while acknowledging that separations are ongoing.

The ACLU, which is carrying the case to force the government to locate the children, posted that “The Trump administration’s response is a shocking concession that it can’t easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents, and doesn’t even think it’s worth the time to locate each of them. The administration also doesn’t dispute that separations are ongoing in significant numbers. We will be back in court on February 21.” The government’s responses are on the ACLU site.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

9. Where did Juan Guaidó come from?

Last week, NYMHM commented on the simmering coup in Venezuela, where the incumbent president has been challenged by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who proclaimed himself president after having boycotted the election in which he might have run (and won). Astonishingly, Guaidó was immediately recognized by the U.S. and Canada and praised by the mainstream press. Writing for Grey Zone, journalists Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal recount recent US interventions into Venezuela, all of which added to the destabilization of the economy, and show how Guaidó was cultivated from his student activism days by US politicians, institutes and universities.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration said on Sunday that military options were on the table in Venezuela and promised $20 million in aid to Guaidó, along with access to Venezuelan funds in U.S. banks.

A number of European countries plan to recognize Guaidó if Maduro doesn’t call new elections.

We also noted last week the tragic irony of the appointment of Elliott Abrams as special envoy to Venezuela. The Intercept now has a history of Abrams’ disastrous relationship to Latin America. Warning: the first paragraph is difficult reading.

10. Foreign Policy chaos: attack on Iran?

Writing for Foreign Policy in Focus, Conn Hallinan sketches out the real possibility that John Bolton could lead us into war with Iran. Apparently the Trump administration is persuaded that its sanctions have not persuaded Iran to revisit the 2015 nuclear agreement that the administration unilaterally scrapped. Still, other nations have declined to support the sanctions and have urged Iran to stay in the agreement. As FPIF notes, it’s not clear that war with Iran, which is opposed by the American public by a 2-1 margin, serves anyone’s interests at all.

11. Immigration attorneys denied entry in Mexico

Two immigration attorneys who work for Al Otro Lado, which filed a lawsuit in 2017 alleging that the Trump administration was violating the rights of asylum seekers, were denied entry into Mexico because another country—unnamed—had flagged their passports. In addition, two journalists who covered the migrant caravan were also prohibited from entering. One of the journalists needed to go into Tijuana, where she lives, to pick up her baby.

SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT

12. Opioid crisis projected to deepen: 147% increase in deaths by 2025

According to a study by a team at Massachusetts General Hospital published in JAMA Network Open, deaths from opioid overdoses are likely to rise despite changes in policies limiting the prescription of opioid drugs. The study shows that opioid use has shifted in recent years. What were largely misused and/or over-prescribed medications have now been replaced by dangerous synthetic illicit drugs such as fentanyl and heroin. In addition to former prescription drug abusers shifting to wholly illicit substances, the team projects that by 2025, half of all new opioid users will start with these black market sources, completely bypassing the medical system altogether. The study concludes that simply reducing availability and use of prescribed opioids will not be enough to stem the current crisis; instead, a multi-pronged approach is needed including drug therapies to treat addiction and more widespread use and availability of anti-overdose medication such as naloxone.

13. Massive cavity found beneath crucial Antarctic glacier 

An enormous void around two-thirds the area of Manhattan has been found beneath the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, mostly formed in just the last three years. The vast Thwaites Glacier’s meltwater alone accounts for about 4% of total sea level rise. The void is between the glacier and the bedrock it sits on, where ocean currents infiltrate and undermine the ice above them.

As the ocean penetrates further into the glacier, the glacier will melt faster—and the Thwaites Glacier has enough water to raise the world’s oceans over two feet by itself. Of even more concern is that the Glacier acts as a plug of sorts, damming ice in place further inland. Without it, ice would flow from the interior of the continent to the sea, potentially leading to an additional eight feet of sea level rise. A sea level rise of ten feet would be catastrophic, displacing hundreds of millions of people and drowning dozens of cities around the world. [Science Advances]

14. Fewer than one in ten people can tell an ad from a news article. 

An online experiment conducted by professors at the University of Boston and the University of Georgia found that fewer than one in ten participants could tell what they were reading was advertising and not an impartial news article. The study asked participants to read an actual advertising piece from Bank of America created by marketing firm Brandpoint. The 515 word ad entitled “America’s Smartphone Obsession Extends to Online Banking” contained a disclosure line identifying it as an advertisement, yet less than ten percent of the participants—a broad cross-section of the US population—accurately described it as an ad. The people who were successful tended to be younger, more educated, and more apt to describe their news consumption as for informational purposes.

RESOURCES FOR ACTION

  • Jen Hofmann’s Americans of Conscience Checklist for the Week of February 3, 2019.
  • Martha’s list has some key opportunities to comment—among other issues, on further restrictions to SNAP (food stamps), redefinition of the “Waters of the U.S,” standards on preventing food-borne illness, injuries to marine mammals and many, many EPA regulations.
  • Do you have something to say about wait times for asylum seekers, the protection of vulnerable immigrant populations, the separation of families, the Climate Solutions Act, changes to the Clean Waters Act (WOTUS), the Mueller investigation, and so on? Sarah-Hope’s list recommends whom to write about what. Her own summaries are excellent and she has some drawn from Rogan’s list as well.
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