News You May Have Missed: September 13, 2020

We know you must be exhausted both by the news and in anticipation of the work ahead, with only 50 days before the election. Hence, we’ve added a good news section, not to offer comfort food but to illustrate that concerted action pays off.

Not a California sunset. Photo credit, Peggy Mena


1. Deadly fires, unbreathable air in California and the Pacific Northwest

28 large fires in Oregon have burned over a million acres, demolishing entire neighborhoods in the Southern Oregon communities of Phoenix and Talent, according to Oregon Live. 10 people have died. The fires, like the coronavirus, have hit the most vulnerable the hardest, as Street Roots points out. Evacuation is difficult for elderly people, and too many people need to get out of the intolerable air: As Street Roots put it, “The scale of need is extraordinary…The uneven distribution of shelter and wealth has always been a public health crisis and the need right now is acute as people are evacuated from still-standing homes, evacuated from ruins, and evacuated from the streets.”

Twenty-two people have died in California fires, some of which are under control. The massive SCU Lightning Complex fire in central California is almost contained, having burned some 400,000 acres and leaving almost a thousand homes destroyed, according to the Mercury News. Smoke, dangerous air and eerie light as the smoke piles on the marine layer plague residents. Also almost contained is the LNU Lightning Complex in the North Bay, leaving 375,000 acres charred. The largest fire in the state’s history, the August Complex in Northern California, has burned over 877,000  acres.

In Big Sur, the Dolan fire has injured a number of firefighters and burned 111,000 acres of beautiful country, filling Monterey County with smoke. Communities near Lucia, South Coast Ridge Road, Gorda and Prewitt Ridge have been evacuated; the Zen Center Tassajara could be in the fire’s way. Set by an arsonist, according to the Monterey Herald, the Dolan fire is on its 27th day at this writing, and 14 homes have been destroyed. Big Sur Kate’s blog is an excellent source on the Dolan fire.

How the fires are connected to the climate crisis is clearly described in a recent LA Times article. Though forest management strategies, dry lightning, and human maliciousness and carelessness are all factors, no combination of these would result in fires this extreme aside from the climate crisis. As  Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based think tank, told the Times, “We have seen the rapid warming of California summers really turbocharge the type of conditions that are suitable for rapid growth of wildfires. We see fires growing from essentially nothing to a quarter of a million acres in one day. And that’s because the conditions are ripe, and temperature plays a large role.” RLS

Those who want to donate could think about Big Sur Fire, which provides emergency services across the Big Sur Coast. Resources and fire information for California can be found at the Cal Fire website. Donations can be made to the California Community Foundation. Resources and information about the Oregon fires can be found at the Jefferson County website. You could also donate to your favorite organization working on the climate crisis.

2. ICE relocated detained immigrants in order to police protests, spreading COVID

This summer, the Trump administration used both Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officers to quash protests in Washington DC and other cities. How did those ICE agents make it to Washington DC and elsewhere? ICE agents are prohibited from travelling on chartered flights unless they are accompanying detainees. According to reporting by the Washington Post and based on interviews with current and former Department of Homeland Security employees, ICE resolved this dilemma in the case of Washington DC protests by using charter flights to unnecessarily transfer detainees from Arizona and Florida to Virginia; this allowed ICE officers who are members of “Special Response Teams” to accompany those detainees–then join other federal agents monitoring and attempting to shut down protests.

The stated reason for the detainee transfers was to reduce overcrowding that might facilitate the spread of COVID-19, but dozens of those transferred detainees tested positive for COVID-19 after their arrival. The Farmville, Virginia, immigration jail, to which the detainees were transferred, subsequently suffered an outbreak of COVID-19, with 300 inmates infected; one of the infected inmates died as a result of the disease. The Washington Post notes that ICE officials in the Washington office objected to the transfers before they were made; they also noted that many ICE detention facilities besides the one in Farmville had room for transfers at the time. A lawsuit has now been filed on behalf of four inmates, three of whom contracted COVID-19, who were already housed at Farmville when the transferred detainees arrived. The Washington Post points out that in a hearing related to that lawsuit, an ICE attorney told a judge that one reason for the transfer was that “ICE has an air regulation whereby in order to move agents of ICE, they have to be moved from one location to another with detainees on the same airplane.” S-HP

If you want to intervene, you can object to this disingenuous use of transfers to deliver ICE agents to suppress Washington DC protesters, which resulted in a surge of COVID-19 cases at Farmville and ask your Congressmembers to investigate this dangerous and unnecessary transfer used as a pretext to deliver ICE agents to Suppress Washington DC protesters. Addresses are here.

3. Immigration documents and prescription medications held up by Postal Service delays

Previously, we’ve reported on the potential effects of cuts and policy changes at the United Stated Postal Service (USPS) on election security and an accurate vote count, but we have additional reasons to be concerned. Documented notes that, like our elections, the U.S. immigration system depends upon an efficient postal system. In a radio interview cited by Documented, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) employee and American Federation of Government Employees union member Kenneth Palinkas explained that “our work [at USCIS] and the USPS go hand in hand.” The USPS carries immigration paperwork, notices, visas, work authorizations, and naturalization documents on a daily basis—all of which are time sensitive. If immigration paperwork doesn’t reach USCIS on time, an individual’s immigration application may be derailed. Immigrants can’t look for employment until they receive work authorizations. Immigrants also can’t register to vote until they’ve received their naturalization documents.

 Another area of concern is delivery of prescription drugs. The Washington Post notes that in 2019, upwards of 170 million prescriptions were filled by mail. That number will be increasing this year with more people isolating (whether under orders or for personal health reasons) due to the CIVID-19 pandemic. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bob Casey (D-PA) have released a report, based on data provided by major pharmacies and pharmacy benefits managers, documenting the effect of changing postal practices on the delivery of prescription drugs. With the exception of one pharmacy, which makes almost exclusive use of private carriers, all pharmacies reported delivery delays, usually of 1-2 days, though one pharmacy reported it regularly experiences delays of an entire week.

Pharmacies reported significant increases in complaints about delayed medication delivery. They also pointed out the increased costs they face as increasing numbers of prescription orders have to be reshipped because of delivery issues. One pharmacy reported an increase of 35% in the number of reshipments this year and noted that July 2020 was particularly problematic; in that month their reshipment numbers increased by 80% and cost the pharmacy $700,000. These delays can threaten the health of Americans, particularly those with chronic conditions—like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and high blood pressure—who depend on daily medications. In the long run these delays may also result in increasing drug costs, as pharmacies are forced to spend more time fielding complaints and reshipping orders that have not been received. S-HP

Consider asking your Congressmembers to address the impact of mail delays on both immigration and healthcare. Maybe the USPS Board of Directors also needs to hear from you that mail service must be maintained at a level that guarantees not just safe voting, but also reliable delivery of medications and timely processing of immigration documents.

4. Immigrants’ biometric data captured

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has proposed federal rule changes that would significantly increase both the occasions in which the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) collects biometric data and the kinds of biometric data it collects. Nextgov explains that the USCIS currently collects fingerprints and uses these when conducting background checks. Under the changes, USCIS would collect palm prints, photos to be used in conjunction with facial recognition software, voice prints, iris images, and DNA samples. These data would be collected not just for background checks, but also for much broader identification purposes, such as the production of identity documents. As we’ve reported repeatedly, biometric identification software is highly unreliable, particularly for people of color, producing significant false identifications. These proposed rule changes are open for public comment through October 13. DHS is only accepting online comments on this proposal. S-HP

If this use of biometric data troubles you, you can object to DHS’s attempt to increase the use of technologies that invade individual privacy and that regularly result in false identifications by going to this web address.

5. Former intelligence officer who blew the whistle on information suppression also revealed catastrophic policy decisions on Latin America

Reporting on Brian Murphy’s whistle-blower complaint filed against the State Department has focused on Murphy’s claim that the State Department deliberately suppressed information on Russian election interference, instead promoting a narrative that presents China and Iran as the main players in attempts to undermine U.S. elections. However, this was not the only type of intelligence misrepresentation Murphy highlighted. Roll Call reports that Murphy’s complaint also alleges that intelligence regarding Central American nations was similarly distorted. Murphy claims that Kevin Cuccinelli, then the Department of Homeland Security’s second highest official, ordered him to fire or reassign intelligence analysts working on Central America because they were part of a “deep state” conspiracy to undermine administration restrictions on asylum. Intelligence reports at that time detailed corruption, violence, and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

  The Trump administration has been openly critical of the government in another Central American nation, Nicaragua. The U.S. State Department describes the government of Nicaragua, headed by former Sandinista Daniel Ortega, as violently repressive. According to the State Department, Nicaraguan police and para-police, “arbitrarily detain pro-democracy protesters.” The State Department considers reports of Nicaraguan torture and disappearances “credible.” However, this criticism of the Ortega regime has not had any impact on U.S. asylum policy.

  In late August, the Washington Post reported on a number of Nicaraguan activists who arrived to the U.S. to apply for asylum, but were quickly returned to Nicaragua without asylum hearings. Under rules put in place in response to COVID-19, current U.S. policy is to immediately return all asylum applicants from Nicaragua to their country of origin. One of the individuals featured in the Washington Post story was Valeska Alemán, 22, who posted video footage online of Nicaraguan police firing at student protesters. The footage went viral, and Alemán’s photo appeared in newspapers throughout Nicaragua. Alemán was detained twice and tortured: interrogators pried off her toenails. Because the U.S. government has been a vocal critic of the Nicaraguan’s crackdown on protesters, Alemán chose to seek asylum in the U.S. However, seventeen days after she entered the U.S. in July, Alemán was put on a flight back to Nicaragua with more than 100 other Nicaraguans, most of whom had protested against the government of Daniel Ortega. The 100+ were not allowed to submit asylum requests. Alemán and others of these deportees are now in hiding in Nicaragua; some have had their identity and travel documents seized, which would make a new attempt at applying for asylum much more difficult.

  Seven members of Congress have sent the President a letter formally requesting that the U.S. discontinue deporting Nicaraguan political dissidents hoping to apply for asylum. The Washington Post includes excerpts from that letter: “Your deportations of politically persecuted Nicaraguans run counter to U.S. values and directly undermine the stated goals of U.S. policy towards Nicaragua…. We call for any such future asylum requests to be considered, in accordance with U.S. law, and urge your administration to cease collaborating with the Ortega regime in deporting Nicaraguans.” The United Nations have also criticized the deportations for violating the international refugee convention’s principle of non-refoulement, the practice of forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to countries where they are apt to face persecution.

   Reuters reports that the Senate and House Intelligence Committees are investigating this complaint. S-HP

You might thank the House and Senate Intelligence Committees for investigating Murphy’s whistleblower complaint and share your concerns about the deportation of Nicaraguan asylum-seekers. Addresses are here.


6. Trump’s efforts to avoid counting undocumented people thwarted by court

In July, Trump instructed Census administrators to exclude undocumented people from the count and to shorten the timeline, attempting to reduce the number of residents in each state for apportionment purposes. Last week, in response to a suit by the ACLU and the New York State attorney general, a judge told the Republican administration that they could not shorten the timeline and that they had to include undocumented residents. Had the administration been able to exclude them, state with high numbers of undocumented people would suffer in terms of federal funding and representation in the House. As Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project told the Washington Post, “President Trump has tried and failed yet again to weaponize the census against immigrant communities. The law is clear — every person counts in the census.” RLS

7. Migratory birds again protected

We’ve reported previously about Trump administration attempts to weaken protections for migratory birds established in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The administration attempted to eliminate penalties for “incidental” killing of migratory birds. Thus, a company or individual might kill any number of migratory birds without repercussions, if the birds’ deaths resulted from an action not intended to kill them. For example, a major leak of oil or toxins that resulted in bird deaths would not have carried penalties because the oil or toxins would not have been released for the specific purpose of killing those birds. Now the National Resources Defense Council is celebrating a federal court ruling overturning this weakening of the MBTA. The ruling noted that the language of the MBTA makes killing of migratory birds “by any means whatever or in any manner” unlawful. S-HP


7. Children of color are 5-8 times more at risk of hospitalization from COVID-19

Black, Latinx and Indigenous people are four and a half to over five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19, with Indigenous people being the most likely, according to the CDC (such as it is). Children of color are even more vulnerable; they are five to eight times more likely than white children to be hospitalized with COVID, and more likely to develop the most severe complication of the disease, multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C. Most of the children who have died from COVID are children of color, according to the New York Times. The reason for this disparity, the Times speculates, is that their parents are more likely to be front-line workers in health care or to have other jobs that cannot be done in person. They are less likely to have paid sick leave. Children of color are therefore more likely to have to attend school in person and to be more at risk as a result. RLS

8. Trump COVID body count: 193,723

We now know what Trump knew (about how dangerous the coronavirus was) and when he knew it, thanks to Bob Woodward’s unconscionably delayed reporting. We also know what the costs of that delay and Trump’s inaction have been. Many travelers returning to the US from China to Washington State around February 1 launched the virus into the US, according to a new study published in the journal Science. Exhaustive study of the genomics of the virus, travel patterns and computer models of the epidemic have definitively established this date and this route of transmission, according to Science Daily. Those outbreaks were contained by prompt testing, contact tracing and quarantining, Science Daily reports, and subsequent outbreaks could have been contained as well if rigorous responses had been in place. Trump’s interview with Woodward in which he revealed he knew how dangerous the virus was took place on February 7. 193,723 people have died in the US since February 23, according to Johns Hopkins.

PBS interviewed a number of public health experts at the end of July who said that deaths and hospitalizations could have been dramatically reduced if proper containment measures had been followed: Testing, adequate PPE and masking in public. The Johns Hopkins site has a wide range of resources on COVID-19. RLS


The Americans of Conscience checklist is determined to get out the vote. They offer clear, focused actions you can take.

Susan Rogan has her pulse on the issues. See Rogan’s list for ways you can weigh in on the need for COVID relief, speak out against Trump’s ban on anti-racism training, support Black Lives Matter.

Future Now has a list of eight critical Senate and House seats that you can help defend or flip.

If you want to find out what the government is proposing and how you can comment for the public record, Martha offers you a list of tracking sites.

Heather Cox Richardson analyzes the news from a historian’s perspective almost every night.