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.


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.


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.


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, 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


  • 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.