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Culture change needed to reduce sexual harassment at NOAA, experts tell House hearing

Sexual assault and sexual harassment cases by employees are pervasive at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and major reform is needed, House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman T.J. Cox said at a hearing on Thursday.

Highly-rated businesses in black communities are devalued, a new study finds

WASHINGTON -- Highly rated businesses in black neighborhoods sustain revenue losses totaling about $3.9 billion and do not...

Tribal leaders, U.S. territory officials and land managers call for more infrastructure funding

Nelson Petty Jr., commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Public Works, told the subcommittee that the infrastructure of the islands is advancing to accommodate trade throughout the Caribbean.

Democrats call for a change in measuring poverty, clashes with a Trump proposal

Democrats criticized a proposal from the Trump adminstration, which would raise the threshold for poverty.

Holocaust survivors probe the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe with congress

As Jewish people around the world commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the conversation about anti-Semitism continues on Capitol Hill.

EDA prioritizes opportunity zone initiative in testimony to Senate committee, despite alleged tax abuses

EDA prioritizes opportunity zone initiative in testimony to Senate committee, despite alleged tax abuses

An Economic Development Administration official said one of the agency’s key areas of focus is opportunity zones, which was created in 2017 as part of President Donald Trump’s tax plan overhaul. But just last week, the Treasury Inspector General opened an investigation into potential abuses of the Trump tax break by billionaires, following reports by ProPublica and the New York Times.

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The affordable housing crisis reaches new heights

The affordable housing crisis reaches new heights

Officials from the National Low Income Housing Coalition said they had surveyed Americans in five cities – Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Little Rock and Indianapolis – and heard frequent complaints about the escalating cost of housing leading Americans to scramble to find an affordable place to live.

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The Supreme Court Revisits “Bridgegate” scandal which could set a new precedent for public corruption

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in the 2013 New Jersey “Bridgegate” scandal on whether using government workers and property to punish a political enemy should be a federal crime.

Aides to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie obstructed traffic on the nation’s busiest bridge as political retaliation against then Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for refusing to endorse Christie’s re-election bid. The aides, Bridget A. Kelly and Bill Baroni, were convicted of several counts of criminal fraud.

Kelly and Baroni changed traffic patterns on the George Washington Bridge to reduce from three to one the number of lanes reserved for vehicles accessing the bridge from Fort Lee. They also created a phony traffic study to justify the change in traffic, which resulted in excessive traffic jams in Fort Lee for three days.

The court will weigh whether Kelly’s and Baroni’s use of public property, such as employee labor and traffic lanes, to punish a political opponent is fraud. Their traffic study required public engineers to work for a collective 36 hours, amounting to $1,828 in labor costs. Another $3,696 were spent in additional wages for tollbooth employees.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that in masking their scheme to punish Fort Lee’s mayor, the pair had misused public property, which constitutes fraud.

During the Supreme Court hearing, Justice Samuel Alito appeared to agree with the appeals court, arguing that money lost during the fraudulent traffic study might indeed constitute as a loss of state property.

“So property—money is property. And money was lost,” said Justice Alito.

But attorneys for Kelly and Baroni argued they used their authority to make a “regulatory decision” that inevitably involved the use of public property. Because their main objective was political, their actions could not constitute fraud since the misuse of government property was merely a byproduct of their main goal, the lawyers said.

They also argued that the criminal conviction of officials who misuse government property for political motives is a drastic overstep of federal criminal jurisdiction. They argue that the appeals court decision if upheld, would allow any federal, state or local official to be imprisoned for concealing their true political motives when using public property.

“Taken seriously, it would allow any federal, state, or local official to be indicted on nothing more than the ubiquitous allegation that she lied in claiming to act in the public interest,” said Kelly’s attorney.

Advocates tell House gentrification is increasing homelessness

WASHINGTON –Across the country, gentrification has exacerbated homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, experts and tenant advocates told the House Committee on Financial Services Tuesday.

Karen Chapple, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said that when affluent newcomers move into low-income neighborhoods, property values rise, which can cause long-term residents to become displaced.

Jeffrey Williams, a tenant advocate, told the committee that at one point gentrification increased his housing costs so much that he had to spend over 50 percent of his income on rent.

“Every month, we had to struggle to make that first-of-the-month payment,” Williams said in his statement. “In our house, the rent eats first. We’d rather go hungry than risk being out on the streets.”

After falling behind in rent, his family was evicted and ended up homeless. Currently, the majority of extremely low-income households are severely rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 50 percent of their earnings on rent, according to a committee memo. An unanticipated expense, like a medical bill, could cause them to default on their rent payment and get evicted.

Matthew Desmond, a professor at Princeton University, said evictions have become commonplace due to stagnant incomes, the rise in housing costs and inadequate federal funding for rent assistance.

Witnesses said voucher allocations and congressional efforts to fund affordable housing have not kept pace with the hike in living costs across the nation, putting many Americans at risk of eviction and homelessness.

“I am deeply dismayed that, despite these numbers, Congress has failed to prioritize this issue and continues to underfund the very programs that would help people afford a roof over their heads,” Chairwoman Maxine Waters,D-Calif., said.

The committee is currently considering four bills to address the affordable housing crisis, including measures that aim to end homelessness, support housing infrastructure, stabilize families and provide safety nets.

The committee’s deliberation over solutions went back and forth between market-based solutions and increased federal subsidies for existing programs.

Michael Hendrix, director of state and local policy at the free-market think tankManhattan Institute, said the housing crisis cannot be solved without creating more housing and market-based solutions.
Priya Jayachandran, president of the National Housing Trust, said that while she believes in market dynamics, cobbling together sources of capital to keep properties affordable is the “biggest challenge.”

However, Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., said increasing the housing supply costs money so it won’t be easy.

Maintenance backlog cripples national park

YORKTOWN, Va. — Colonial National Historical Park is home to Yorktown, the site of the final major battle in the American Revolutionary War. Now, historical Yorktown is once again fighting for its life, but this time, it’s not because of British troops — rather a growing deferred maintenance backlog.

Colonial, as the park is locally known, has $400 million in deferred maintenance backlog costs for work that has been delayed beyond a normal cycle for repairs. Without these funds, the park can’t repair the sagging floors, peeling paint and termite outbreaks in its historical structures.  

Park Superintendent Kym Hall said historical structures like the ones at Colonial are significantly costlier to maintain than modern houses. Each part has to be custom-made and has fit historical standards.

Hall said the lack of maintenance does not only look bad, but can cause public safety hazards, forcing the park to shut down historical structures. One of her priorities is to reopen these buildings so the public can view them.

“Ultimately, [the park] is not just for preserving, it’s for connecting people to that piece of history,” Hall said. “If we could get into these buildings and get them touring around … it just kind of transports you to a different place in time and that’s what we want.”

A bipartisan bill to fund overdue park maintenance was recently introduced in the Senate, but it has not yet passed. A previous version of the bill passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, but died with the new Congress.

A sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., specifically mentioned the backlog at Colonial as one of his reasons for introducing this bill.

“We owe it to our Commonwealth and to our country to pass this bill,” he said. “This problem will only worsen if we fail to act.”

“I felt very detached,” says new mother who struggled with perinatal depression

WASHINGTON –– Gail Sasse gave birth to her son, Joey, in late February, but she didn’t feel close to the baby until recently. Joey spent the first days of his life in the NICU after he began experiencing tremors — a symptom of neonatal abstinence syndrome. He was no longer receiving the mood stabilizing medication he had grown accustomed to in the womb.

“They took him right away to the NICU. So I never really had that initial bonding experience with him because I was passing out from blood transfusions,” Sasse said. “Just in the past couple of days have I felt like he’s mine.”

Sasse was first diagnosed with depression when she was 14 years old and bipolar disorder when she was 18 years old.

She stopped taking her medication before she became pregnant because she was worried about how it would affect the baby. However, she said the change in hormones during pregnancy exacerbated her mood disorders. She found herself frequently tired and unable to function at her job in human resources at the University of the District of Columbia, where she was ultimately fired.

At that point, she went back on her medication, including depression medication Pristiq, a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor or SNRI, and lithium for bipolar disorder. The medications posed health risks to her baby, such as tremors from withdrawal and heart defects.

But her doctor did not properly adjust her dose for her pregnant body, which the National Institutes of Health says, on average, pumps 50 percent more blood than a non-pregnant woman. In December, Sasse was hospitalized at the psychiatric unit at Sibley Hospital for seven days.

According to Dr. Emma Basch, a psychotherapist specializing in women’s mental health, 15 to 20 percent of pregnant women struggle with perinatal depression.

She said perinatal mood disorders are often compounded by social expectations of pregnancy and early motherhood. “There is this shattered expectation of what is supposed to be a wonderful time of life. And it’s not for them, and that’s really heartbreaking,” she said.

Sasse continues to take antidepressants and find a community that can help her get through her mental health issues. She wants other women struggling with perinatal depression to know that they are not alone.

“What I would ultimately like to do is write a children’s book about the mother going to the hospital, getting stronger and getting better for her child,” Sasse said.

Tribal Governments Want More Power to Investigate Cases of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women

WASHINGTON — Native American tribal governments need more power to properly investigate and prosecute cases of murdered and missing Native American women, tribal advocates told a House Natural Resources subcommittee Thursday.

Tribal governments often have difficulty investigating and prosecuting cases due to jurisdiction issues —if the perpetrator is not a Native American, or the identity can’t be determined, “it paralyzes the tribal government from taking action,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and legal counsel to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.

“There’s a connection between tribal sovereignty and the safety of Native women,” she told the Indigenous Peoples Subcommittee.

A provision in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act gave tribes criminal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans in cases involving them. The act expired Feb. 15, when a federal stop-gap funding bill did not include it. According to a 2018 National Congress of American Indian report on the jurisdiction provision’s first five years, 18 tribes exercise this special jurisdiction.

A 2010 report by the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice estimated that 97 percent of female Native American victims would experience violence by a non-Native perpetrator in their lifetimes, and 90 percent by an intimate partner of non-Native descent.

Witnesses called for more complete tribal power over murder and kidnapping cases involving non-tribal members.

In situations where law enforcement does have jurisdiction over non-Native perpetrators, Nagle also decried their “lack of response.”

“Too often, it’s family members and friends searching [for missing and murdered Indigenous women], not law enforcement,” she said.

Ruth Buffalo, a representative in North Dakota’s state legislature and member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, spoke about leading the 2017 search for Savanna Lafontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old who disappeared while eight months pregnant.

“[The local task force] thought, if and when this should ever happen again, we didn’t want to waste time in having to convince law enforcement that we are human beings, and that we deserve justice,” said Buffalo.

At Lafontaine-Greywind’s trial, Buffalo said that William Hoehn downplayed the disappearance, saying she was “always going missing.” In October, Hoehn was sentenced to life in prison with a chance of parole for his involvement in kidnapping Lafontaine-Greywind’s baby, which was cut out of her womb, but acquitted of charges for conspiring to murder her.

Sarah Deer, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and professor of gender studies at the University of Kansas, said that Native Americans have a “well-founded” mistrust of law enforcement because of historical persecution.

“If [a missing woman] is not the perfect victim…, if she’s had an addiction problem, or she’s been homeless, or her children have been taken from her, and you go to urban or off-reservation police departments, oftentimes families tell us there’s just a shrug and a ‘Well, what did you expect?’” said Deer.

Witnesses also said that a lack of comprehensive data on these women could contribute to difficulties in investigating cases and locating missing women.

A compilation of statistics from the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person and Unidentified Person Files reported that 322,865 women and 10,642 Native Americans were missing in 2017. There was no number given specifically for Native American women.

In 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing Native women and girls, according to the center. Just 116 of them were logged into the Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database.

Deer highlighted the importance of data collection as another solution to the issue, but also emphasized the continued involvement of Native people themselves.

Deer said that the federal government could partner with Native-operated nonprofits like the Sovereign Bodies Institute, an open-source data collection service, but “it needs to be on the terms of the Indigenous people.”

“It’s critical that Native people are at the forefront of this effort,” she said. “Even if we were to receive federal funding, it still should be tribal members and families and survivors that should drive the data collection.”

Lawmakers Call to Speed Up Infrastructure Projects, Minimize Environmental Impacts

WASHINGTON – Federal regulations are a roadblock to completing federally funded highway projects quickly and cheaply, several senators said Wednesday, but others cautioned against streamlining the process at the expense of environmental protection.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said waiting for federal approval costs states and towns time and money.

“It shouldn’t take years to permit projects that take only months to complete,” he said.

Patrick McKenna, vice president for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, agreed.

Completing projects more quickly is “really impactful” for states, said McKenna. “Even when we shave [off] a week, a month, two months, in a lot of states, that’s the whole construction season.”

Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the committee, said he would not support streamlining legislation that weakened environmental protections.

“The benefits of highway infrastructure will be impeded, if not downright nullified,” said Carper, “if we don’t address the threats of climate change and extreme weather events that are increasingly disrupting our nation’s transportation system.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., echoed Carper, saying he supported simplification “as long as it’s not protection for crummy environmental protection.”

To cut down on environment-related regulations, some witnesses suggested using more categorical exclusions to federal review. Typically, the White House Council on Environmental Quality will confirm that a group of actions doesn’t have a significant impact on the environment, and therefore doesn’t require assessments or impact statements., McKenna suggested allowing federal agencies to use exclusions in place at other federal agencies.

Additionally, federal, state and local agencies could make permitting for routine projects easier and faster, suggested Michael Replogle, deputy commissioner for policy at the New York City Department of Transportation. He also said the Federal Highway Administration could give more design and certification authority to states, reducing federal involvement, or increase direct funding to cities, reducing state involvement.

Lawmakers also called for long-term reauthorization of federal highway funding, which expires in September 2020. Former President Barack Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, into law in 2015. It was the first multi-year surface transportation bill enacted in over a decade.

If the funding authorization expires, the Federal Highway Administration will not be able to reimburse states for their projects.

States support a five-year reauthorization rather than just extending it for a year. McKenna explained that state departments of transportation plan for 10, and make projections for 20 to 30 years.

“Without knowing how much we can invest, all of those plans are for naught,” said McKenna, who is also director of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

He said that when states can’t count on federal reimbursement for infrastructure projects, they stop taking financial risks. Missouri itself is running two capital programs to prepare to pay for projects in case FAST Act reauthorization fails.

If the federal government does not pitch in, said McKenna, “that will literally take 35 to 40 percent of our capital programs right off the books.”

Even if the act is reauthorized, funding remains uncertain. The money comes from the Federal Highway Administration’s national Highway Trust Fund, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the fund will not be able to meet state demand as early as fiscal 2021.

The fund is financed mostly by the gas tax, which is 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon on diesel. The tax has lost much of its value since 1993, the last time it was increased—18 cents then would be 31 now. If the fund hits zero, states will have to wait for the gas taxes to trickle in.

PANELISTS DESCRIBE PERSISTENT NURSING HOME ABUSE TO SENATORS

WASHINGTON — A health expert and the family members of elderly abuse victims told a Senate committee Wednesday that many nursing homes are unsafe and treat their patients abusively, including rape.

Seminole, Florida resident Maya Fischer told the Senate Finance Committee that her then 83-year-old mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, was raped by a nursing home caregiver who had been investigated multiple times in the past for sexually assaulting nursing home residents but kept his job.

“The dignity which she always displayed during her life, which had already been assaulted by her disease, was dealt a further devastating blow by her caregiver,” Fischer said.

Finance Committee senior Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden said the elderly in nursing homes are vulnerable and are “being exploited in unimaginably cruel ways in nursing homes that are unsafe, under-staffed and uninterested in providing even the most basic, humane level of care.”

Harvard Medical School Professor David Grabowski cited a 1974 Senate Special Committee on Aging report that found “lack of human dignity, lack of activities, untrained and inadequate numbers of staff, ineffective inspections and enforcement, profiteering, lack of control on drugs” and other forms of poor care in nursing homes. Grabowski said these are many of the same issues plaguing care facilities today.

“We have made important progress towards improving nursing home quality in the past few decades since the 1974 U.S. Senate report,” he said. “I would assert, however, that the nursing home sector is better but still not well.”

But American Health Care Association Senior Vice President of Quality and Regulatory Affairs David Gifford argued that while he was “appalled and disgusted” by the cases of abuse the victims’ family members described, those incidents are not representative of most caregivers. He argued that their stories don’t reflect the improving quality of care in nursing homes across the country.

“I’ve heard thousands of heart-warming accounts of how nursing home staff look after residents as if they were their own family members … Listening to media stories, one might think the quality of care in nursing homes is getting worse,” he said. “This is not true.”

The witnesses said there must be more thorough investigation of workers’ employment history and that more staff are needed to properly care for residents. A data analysis by Kaiser Health News found that nursing home employees fluctuate greatly day-to-day, sometimes with personnel caring for almost twice as many residents as they did when the highest number of staff were on duty. Staff shortages can lead to lack of thoroughness in checking workers’ employment records, leading to cases like Fischer’s.

Worker shortages can also lead to neglect, which is the most common type of nursing home abuse, according to the Nursing Home Abuse Center. In 2018, 95 percent of nursing home residents reported neglect of medical concerns, basic needs and personal hygiene or emotional needs.

Neglect and other forms of abuse can result in wounds, injuries, increased risk of new illnesses and higher levels of depression, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. The NCEA also reports that elders who have been abused have a 300 percent higher risk of death than those who have not experienced abuse.

Patricia Blank of Shell Rock, Iowa told the committee that her mother’s death was the result of nursing home neglect. Blank said she and her family had believe her mother was getting good care in the nursing home for the 15 years she was there, but they learned that in the weeks before her mother’s death, she had barely eaten or drank any fluids and had been crying out in pain at night.

Fischer also said she felt her trust was betrayed. She learned of her mother’s rape the week of Christmas in 2014.

“Now and for the rest of my life, when I think of my mother at Christmas, I will think of that horrifying call,” she said. “The sense of helplessness I felt trying to comfort her while she had a rape kit performed on her will always remain with me.”

FOR MIGRANT CHILDREN AT THE BORDER, CONFUSION CLOUDS THE FUTURE

WASHINGTON – In the months after the Trump administration formally ended its family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, more than 200 new immigrant children were separated from their families and the number previously separated was much larger than reported. And thousands more than originally reported were separated earlier.

According to some lawmakers, the new separations and underreporting of previous separations is the result of two issues: a lack of communication among immigrant agencies and an unwritten policy that still permits family separations.

“It’s as if nobody discussed how reunification would happen before this policy was implemented,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, during a Feb. 7 hearing on the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

“I really think that what we’re talking about is state-sponsored child abuse, and I would go as far as to say kidnapping of children,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said during the hearing.

Family separations began under the Justice Department’s “zero tolerance” policy. After public outcry, President Donald Trump’s executive order ended the separations in June 2018. However, from the end of June through December last year, there have been at least 218 more separations, according to a Jan. 17 report from the Office of Inspector General in the Health and Human Services Department.

This report also revealed that there were “thousands” more migrant children separated from their parents than the government previously recorded, which signals that the full extent of the family separations under the Trump administration is larger than many believe.

To better understand why hundreds of immigrant children are still searching for their parents in the U.S., it’s helpful to examine the processes of implementation, identification and reunification under current Trump administration policy.

Implementation

On April 6, 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo outlining the department’s new “zero tolerance” policy, which directed federal prosecutors to criminally charge adult migrants entering the U.S. illegally and border officials to separate them from any children they brought. Children cannot be held in immigration detention facilities with their parents because they are not referred for prosecution. Instead, they are held in separate child detention facilities.

Just five days later, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the administration had not implemented any policies allowing family separations at the border in testimony before the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee.

A Houston Chronicle report contradicted Nielsen’s claim, even citing cases of family separation before Session’s April 2018 memo. The report found 22 cases from June to November 2017 of parents with no history of immigration violations who were prosecuted for the misdemeanor crime of improper entry and separated from their children.

Improper entry is defined as entering the country outside of established ports of entry as designated by U.S. immigration officers.

Kennji Kizuka of Human Rights First, a migrant rights organization, said because the family separation policy was enforced at ports of entry, asylum seekers crossed elsewhere, encouraging further illegal immigration.

“It’s a very cruel irony that this policy is being enforced at points of entry where people are trying to seek asylum legally. If they cross between the points of entry they are not currently subject to this policy,” Kizuka said.

Facing mounting pressure from Congress and the public, Trump ended family separations under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on June 20, 2018 with an executive order.

“What we’ve relied on for the last couple of years has been a strategy of public pressure and that was what really forced this administration to back down from the child separation policy,” a Democratic Senate aide said.

A federal judge followed Trump’s move with a June 26 decision ordering the government to reunify all separated children and parents.

Identification

After Trump’s executive order and subsequent court order, the Office of Refugee Resettlement was responsible for coordinating the placement and care of unaccompanied immigrant children through its Unaccompanied Alien Children program. ORR does not apprehend migrants at the border or enforce U.S. immigration laws.

Jonathan White, former deputy director of ORR, claimed HHS worked closely with Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the June 26 court order to identify all parents of children in ORR’s care who met the criteria for reunification.

White claimed that there were 2,816 children who qualified under court order to be identified and reunited with their parents, all of whom were able to be located by the UAC Portal case management system.

The Government Accountability Office released this chart which reveals the total number of children that ORR identified for potential reunification as of September 10. (G

However, a Government Accountability Office report from October revealed that the HHS did not have a consistent method of identifying separated children and their parents, which presented difficulties in reunifying families.

Prior to the court’s ruling, HHS had never been required to identify, categorize or track separated children entering ORR care for the purposes of reunification.

HHS had to additionally assess the health of the parent, determine the location of their apprehension and separation, and evaluate if reunification with the parents could present a danger to the child.

White said that HHS collected a wide variety of data sets from different agencies, including CBP and ICE, and the case management records for every child in ORR care as of June 26, 2018 to identify family matches.

But HHS was not obligated to identify children separated from their parents if the children were released by ORR to a sponsor or someone claiming to be their guardian, before the June 26 court order. Because of that, HHS officials estimated that thousands of additional children were separated by DHS, referred to ORR care, and released through standard ORR processes prior to that date, according to Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general for HHS Evaluation and Inspections.

Maxwell added that incomplete information about separations that happened after Trump’s executive order and the court injunction hurt ORR’s ability to identify the remaining separated children for reunification.

“Separation is a possibility under exigent circumstances in order to protect the child and to ensure the wellbeing of the child and are not attributable to zero tolerance,” said a CBP official. The official added that these circumstances can include a parent who has a criminal history, outstanding criminal warrant, communicable disease, fraudulent claim of guardianship or drug smuggling charge.

Reunification

After HHS identified the 2,816 children separated from their parents, the process of reunifying them began.

“There were three agencies, and each was like its own stovepipe,” said U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, who was presiding over the case. “Each had its own boss, and they did not communicate. What was lost in the process was the family. The parents didn’t know where the children were, and the children didn’t know where the parents were. And the government didn’t know either.”

This chart from an HHS report indicates the number of migrant children referred to ORR by DHS from July 1 to Nov. 7, 2018.

In his ruling, Sabraw said families could be only separated under very limited circumstances in which a parent posed a danger to the child. However, Sabraw did not establish standards of oversight for this requirement.

As of Feb. 7, White said, 2,155 of the 2,816 children identified for reunification were with the parent from whom they were separated.

The remaining 661 children left ORR care through other appropriate discharges, remained in the U.S. with a sponsor or did not have parents who met the requirement for reunification.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the federal class action lawsuit, is responsible for aiding the parents in the process of reunification with their children.

What’s Happening Now?

There are still reports of family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, as ORR received at least 118 children separated by DHS from July 1 through Nov. 7, 2018 for reasons including a parent’s gang affiliation, illness or hospitalization, or immigration history.

The Justice Department told the ACLU that it isn’t obligated to report new separations because they are no longer done under the zero-tolerance policy. In some cases of family separations, DOJ would not specify certain crimes, nor the evidence, that migrant parents were suspected of committing.

As CBP stated previously, parents can be lawfully separated from their child if they pose a danger, which was supported by Sabraw’s court ruling.

However, Sabraw did not establish specific standards of oversight for this requirement.

As a result of this absence of oversight, immigration rights groups have claimed that border agents now have the authority to determine what classifies a parent as a danger to the child.
“In the U.S., lawful rights are always seen by a judicial process and that’s part of what’s been missing in this whole situation,” said Lee Goodman of the Shut Tornillo Down Coalition, which aims to end the children’s detention centers. “Border patrol agents, ICE officers and others have been allowed to operate without much oversight, particularly since the children don’t have representation.”

The coalition lobbied to shut down the child detention center in Tornillo, Texas, which closed in January.

Some migrant parents have filed lawsuits against the federal government for the damage that the separations caused them and their children, while lawmakers try pin down exactly how many children were separated before the DOJ’s April 2018 memo.

Nielsen is scheduled to testify before the House Homeland Security committee on March 6. Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi will likely question Nielsen about the magnitude of the administration’s family separation policy.

After feeding furloughed workers, pop-up café prepares for possibility of a repeat shutdown

WASHINGTON – The pop-up kitchen Chefs for Feds closed its doors Feb. 1 after feeding furloughed workers throughout the 35-day partial government shutdown. The kitchen, café, and resource center remained open until furloughed workers received their first paychecks.

“People need food, people need food fast, and people want food that feels like something they can eat. Not just a ready-made T.V. dinner,” spokeswoman Katie Hurd said. “You have something that feels like people care about you.”

Celebrity chef José Andrés opened the pop-up through his non-profit organization World Central Kitchen (WCK), which he founded after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since then, the organization has fed survivors of natural disasters in eight countries, including people impacted by the Indonesian earthquakes and the recent Carr and Mendocino Complex Fires in California.

Hundreds of volunteers, including furloughed federal workers, contributed about 1,500 shifts at World Central Kitchen’s D.C. location, according to the WCK website. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)The D.C. kitchen closed on Feb. 1 at noon. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)6,000 to 8,000 furloughed workers would wait outside of the kitchen daily to receive a hot meal. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)WCK partnered with more than 400 restaurants in 35 states across the nation. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)Chefs prepare meat for a BBQ Steak Sandwich with caramelized onions. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)Volunteers serve a vegan Italian bowl with kidney beans to accompany the BBQ sandwich. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)By the end of the 35-day shutdown, the center had provided 12,645 meal kits for workers to prepare at home, according to the WCK website. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)WCK’s D.C. Resource Center opened up next door to the kitchen in what was previously an upscale restaurant. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)Volunteers and patrons sign a poster thanking the WCK team and Chef José Andrés. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)The kitchen was located in ThinkFoodLab, a venue created by Andrés that rotates fast-casual food pop-ups. (Heena Srivastava/MNS)

The federal worker-focused pop-up launched on Jan. 16 in Washington, D.C. and served 6,000 to 8,000 locally sourced hot meals daily. WCK also launched partnerships with more than 400 restaurants in 35 states, including UNO Pizzeria & Grill and Sweetgreen, to feed furloughed employees nationwide under the moniker #Chefsforfeds.

“It’s real. It’s big. It is a crisis. People are going hungry. Contractors are not receiving a paycheck anymore,” Andrés said. “We, the private sector, have to take care of the federal workers the government should be taking care of.”

By closing day, the D.C. location had served 100,000 hot meals, and WCK served about 50,000 more nationally.

Chef Tim Kilcoyne said they partnered with the restaurants that reached out to them, but also tried to prioritize locations based on need.

“We wanted to make sure that in areas with a high population of federal workers, there was something available,” Kilcoyne said.

For example, WCK made sure they were offering meals in Ogden, Utah, home to the highest population of IRS employees.

Kilcoyne said he found “Waffle Love”, a food truck that appeared in the Food Network Show The Great Food Truck Race, and reached out.

“They loaded up their food truck one day for lunch and went and parked at the IRS building and served lunch to everybody,” Kilcoyne said. Waffle Love also opened pop-up restaurants. They fed both furloughed and employed federal workers. Many were working without pay.

WCK sources ingredients from US Foods, a private foodservice distributor, along with local farms and markets. Upon opening, they asked for seven thousand loaves of bread a day from a local Washington bakery. “He thought we were insane,” Kilcoyne said of the owner. In turn, the bakery hired more staff to accommodate the demand.

With such tall orders, food suppliers are sometimes unprepared. If the kitchen cannot get the ingredients needed, they make adjustments to their menu. “That’s why we are so good at this,” Kilcoyne said. “Every day there is going to be something that is a curve ball thrown at you.”

Hurd said the experienced chefs are adept at preparing food for thousands of patrons. “They have done this without power, they have done this with a kitchen a fraction of the size of that,” she says. “It’s a big operation, but they know what they’re doing.”

Chefs for Feds also helped connect federal workers, many of whom volunteered in the kitchen. Upon opening, all volunteer shifts for the first week immediately filled up, according to the WCK website. Each shift lasted 6 hours.

Steve Flores frequented Chefs for Feds as both a volunteer and a patron. Because he is a contractor employed by General Dynamics for the National Transportation Safety Board, and is not a government employee, he got his paycheck last Friday instead of Feb. 1.

General Dynamics recommended he file for unemployment benefits, therefore he could not pick up another job. Working at Chefs for Feds kept his mind occupied during the shutdown.

“Even if you want to put some time aside to read a book or study, you have these pauses where you start thinking about how you are not making any money, that you are not working, and that puts a lot of stress on you,” Flores said.

Chefs for Feds not only provided financial relief by paying for food, but also provided a sense of community. He recalls one patron who thanked him for volunteering.

“She started crying. And then she looked at me in the face and said ‘Can I give you a hug? That’s the only way I can repay you guys for what you are doing’,” Flores said. The sense of community he received at Chefs for Feds has inspired him to look for other volunteering opportunities on weekends.

“We call the federal government the federal family. And at times we are a strained one. But it does still feel like sometimes we are family,” said Tanner Hinkel, a loan specialist in the USDA’s Rural Business Services program. Although he was not a patron at Chefs for Feds, he frequented other food banks and resource centers.

WCK opened a resource center next to the kitchen in the previously upscale 701 Restaurant. Now, volunteers pack onions into bags where there used to be a private dining room.

There, federal workers could pick up grocery bags filled with dried goods, pet food, and even diapers. At the resource center, Comcast, Xfinity, Verizon, and Pepco associates offered furloughed workers home improvement assistance and bill deferment options. This is how Flores paid for his Comcast bill and made meals after working without pay for two weeks.

“They are making sure that nobody will see their phone, or electricity, or their gas, or their water shut down because of the government,” Andrés said.

After closing last week, WCK is prepared to reopen on Feb. 15 if needed. “[If] the government shuts down again, we’re ready,” Hurd said.

“Honestly, it’s just pretty much ordering some food,” Kilcoyne said. “We will all fly back. And probably within 12 hours we will be able to open.”

Andrés joked that he was excited about having to close the kitchen, because it meant people were getting paid again. “I cannot wait to be put out of business,” he said.

LAWMAKERS CLASH OVER VOTERS RIGHTS, ETHICS AT HOUSE OVERSIGHT HEARING

WASHINGTON—Voter rights and campaign finance were at the center of the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Democrats promoted the For the People Act, also known as H.R. 1, which would create extensive reforms to the election system, including curbing gerrymandering, creating a public fund for campaigns, and improving voter access. They said the bill is needed to combat voter suppression, ethics violations in the Trump administration and the need for more extensive campaign finance disclosures.

Republicans called the bill a partisan overreach into states’ abilities to prevent fraud in voting and run their elections. Representative Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said that “a more accurate name for the For the People Act would be ‘For the people who want Democrats to win act.’”

While members of both parties agreed that there is a need for election reform, they differed on the root problems. Democrats cited voter suppression, while Republicans focused on voter fraud.

Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., cited a personal story for his support of H.R. 1.

“One year ago, today, on my mother’s dying bed—92 years old, a former sharecropper—her last words were ‘Do not let them take our votes away from us,’” Cummings said.

“Voting is crucial, and I don’t give a damn how you look at it,” he continued. “There are efforts to stop people from voting. That’s not right.”

Rep. Comer, R-K.Y., responded, “I don’t want to make it harder for people to vote.”

“I just want to make sure elections are fair and that only people who are eligible to vote can vote,” he added.

Representative John Sarbanes, D-Md., said that the numbers of people engaging in voter fraud is “microscopic.”

“Voter fraud is not a problem,” he said. “Voter suppression is the problem, the obstacle course that has been set up that makes it so difficult to register and get to the polls, that demoralizes people.”

One of the more controversial elements of the Democrats’ bill is the proposal to use public money for political campaigns. The federal government would use tax-dollars to match donations under $200 from individuals for the candidate of their choice, a mechanism that Democrats say would decrease the impact of “PAC” funding on campaigns.

“The public is tired of feeling like their elections, their system, their government, their democracy is owned by special interests, big corporations, Wall Street, big oil and gas industry, Super PACS, lobbyists–everybody but them,” Representative John Sarbanes, D-Md said.

Conservatives said this was clear abuse of tax-payer dollars. Chairman Bradley Smith of the Free Speech Institute said “There is something deeply wrong about forcing people to fund the political campaigns of candidates they abhor.”

Representative Carol Miller, R-W.Va. said in an email after the hearing that the proposed money for public campaign finance “could be better used on infrastructure, rural broadband, or economic development.”

“America deserves better than a short-sighted political power-grab,” she wrote.

In the hearing, Freshman Representative Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., said, “We wouldn’t have to ‘grab back’ the power for the people if, through policy, you weren’t complicit in, or perpetuating, the disenfranchisement and marginalization of the people, and disproportionality people of color, and disproportionally black people.”

Representative Clay Higgins, among other Republicans, suggested that there was value in certain portions of H.R. 1 and that the Democrats should break up the bill into pieces.

The “totality” of it is “just wrong,” he said. “It resembles Russian government policy.”

Rep. Tlaib said after the hearing that H.R. 1 is “urgent” for her constituents because of their desire to “clean up” the Trump Administration.

“I am hopeful that, with the largest incoming [Democratic] class since Watergate, this is a class that should uphold the rule of law and that no one should be above the rule of law,” she said.

H.R. 1 is a partisan bill designed only to fund and elect liberal Democrats,” said Congressman Clay Higgins in an email after the event. “Thankfully, there is zero chance that it will be signed into law by President Trump.”

RAISE THE GAS TAX, FORMER TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY TELLS HOUSE

WASHINGTON — The federal government needs to invest in and repair aging American bridges instead of “limping along” with short-term partial fixes, roads and transit systems, said city and state leaders Tuesday at a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing.

While other countries follow decades-long infrastructure plans, “we’re limping along with two- and five-year band-aids,” said Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood said that  “America is one big pothole… and you can only do so much by continuing to fill potholes year in and year out.”

To finance road investments, Lahood proposed an increase in the gas tax, which Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he campaigned on.

“This is something that voters want,” Garcetti said.

The federal tax is currently 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon on diesel. Unchanged since 1993, the tax is the primary source of funding for the Highway Trust Fund, which funds most government spending on roads and bridges. Indexing the excise to the cost of living would match it to the yearly rate of inflation.

If Congress had done this in 1993, Lahood said, “we wouldn’t be having this debate. We’d have the resources.”

Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., said that the trucking industry is the biggest advocate of a gas and diesel tax increase, as the per-gallon fee would be outweighed by the money saved on maintenance and wear.

Underfunding infrastructure also contributes to road congestion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE, which estimated that traffic in cost the country $160 billion in lost fuel and time in 2014 alone.

To maintain American infrastructure, representatives discussed using tolls, another tax based on vehicle miles traveled, surge pricing, public-private partnerships, regional infrastructure exchanges or even create an infrastructure financing authority.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz called for stable and long-term federal funding for interstate infrastructure projects, saying, “If we can get some of that certainty, you’ll see us working together.”

“You don’t need to worry about the threat of reverberation from your constituents,” Lahood said. “Think of this as a jobs bill.”

ASCE estimates that states and the federal government must collectively invest $206 billion more yearly to maintain infrastructure in a safe, functional state. In a 2016 study, it found that, at the current rate of underinvestment, the U.S. would lose $3.9 trillion off its economy by 2025 from higher travel times, unreliable utilities, higher manufacturing and distribution costs.

The committee is preparing to push for a comprehensive funding package this year.

President Donald Trump asked Congress Tuesday for an infrastructure plan during his State of the Union address.

SENATORS WARN OF IMPENDING FINANCIAL CRISIS FOR RETIREES

WASHINGTON – Many American seniors have little or no retirement savings according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. That was the focus of a bipartisan hearing where Senators urged action in Congress to relieve the financial stress for Americans unable to save for retirement.

The typical working household in Maine has just $3,000 saved for retirement. Roughly one in four households ages 65 to 74 in the U.S. have no retirement savings of any kind, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairman of the Senate Aging Committee, said the U.S. retirement system is “becoming a national crisis” for an increasing number of Americans who cannot afford to retire due to fewer traditional pensions offered outside of the public sector and fewer employer-sponsored retirement plans, forcing individuals to plan their retirement on their own.

The committee focused on the challenges presented to small businesses that cannot afford to present their employees with retirement plans. According to the Small Business Administration, 60 million Americans work for small businesses, but it has become more expensive to administer these retirement plans, called SIMPLE plans.

In response, Collins and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., reintroduced the SIMPLE Plan Modernization Act to provide greater access to SIMPLE plans among small businesses. The bill did not pass after it was first introduced in July 2018.

Collins and Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., also introduced the AARP-supported Retirement Security Act of 2019 Monday, which would allow more businesses to join multiple employer plans and protect members of these pension plans from losing their tax benefits. AARP, an interest group with roughly 38 million members, helps people with healthcare, employment and income security, and retirement planning needs.

This bipartisan bill, Collins said, will hopefully reduce the estimated $7.7 trillion gap between what Americans save to maintain their standard of living in retirement and what they actually have.

AARP wrote a letter in March 2018 to former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., endorsing the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act of 2018. It would encourage employers to offer retirement plans with automatic enrollment and adequate deferral amounts, which would be “an important step to improving retirement policy.”

Congress adjourned before taking a vote on the bill, but many of its provisions are in Collins’ newly introduced Retirement Security Act of 2019 (S.321).

Since its inception, Social Security has always brought in more revenue than its costs. That came to an end in 2010, and now the program is relying on interest income to help cover expenses, according to U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro.

He said Social Security is threatened by demographic trends, certain pension plans facing insolvency, and increasing individual management over retirement savings. In 2016, the bottom 20 percent of households age 65 or older relied on Social Security retirement benefits for 81 percent of their income.

“Between Social Security and Medicare combined, we are facing a $54 trillion deficit for the next 75 years,” Dodaro stated.

High healthcare costs also became a central focus for the committee. Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama shared a personal story about how his parents saw their life savings evaporate after Jones’ father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “They thought they had a very good plan,” he added, but unexpected costs are a financial threat to many Americans, especially healthcare costs.

Relatively low real wage growth, accumulation of debt, rising healthcare costs, and financial illiteracy continue to pose a threat to retiring Americans, Dodaro said.

“The news is not great looking to the future,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “Social Security is a trust fund and we have an obligation to make it solvent.”

The Retirement Security Act has been referred to the Committee on Finance.

 


 

Medill Today // February 25, 2020