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


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.


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.


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


  • 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.