Watchdog: Thousands more children may have been separated
By COLLEEN LONG and RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR
Thursday, January 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — It seems likely that thousands more migrant children were split from their families than the Trump administration previously reported, in part because officials were stepping up family separations long before the border policy that prompted international outrage last spring, a government watchdog said Thursday.
It’s unclear just how many family separations occurred at the U.S.-Mexico border; immigration officials are allowed under longstanding policy to separate families under certain circumstances. Health and Human Services, the agency tasked with caring for migrant children, did not adequately track them until after a judge ruled that children must be reunited with their families, according to the report by the agency’s inspector general.
Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general for evaluations, said the number of children removed from their parents was certainly larger than the 2,737 listed by the government in court documents. Those documents chronicled separations that took place as parents were criminally prosecuted for illegally entering the country under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
“It’s certainly more,” Maxwell said. “But precisely how much more is unknown.”
Maxwell said investigators didn’t have specific numbers, but that Health and Human Services staff had estimated the tally to be in the thousands.
Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who sued on behalf of a mother separated from her son, said the separation policy “was a cruel disaster from the start. This report reaffirms that the government never had a clear picture of how many children it ripped from their parents.”
Most of the tens of thousands of children who come into government custody cross the border alone. But the report found that in late 2016, 0.3 percent of children turned over to Health and Human Services had crossed with a parent and were separated. By the summer of 2017, that percentage had grown to 3.6 percent, officials said. The watchdog did not have exact numbers, but the total number of migrant children who passed through the agency’s care during the 2017 budget year was 40,810. The separated children had already been released to sponsors, who are generally parents or other close relatives.
The inspector general did not say why the children had been separated before the zero-tolerance policy. Immigration officials are allowed to take a child from a parent in certain cases — serious criminal charges against a parent, concerns over the health and welfare of a child or medical concerns. That policy has long been in place.
Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for Homeland Security, said the report reinforced what officials have long said. “For more than a decade it was and continues to be standard for apprehended minors to be separated when the adult is not the parent or legal guardian, the child’s safety is at risk” or there’s a record of a “serious criminal activity by the adult,” she said.
In some cases, however, Homeland Security officials said a parent had a criminal history but did not offer details on the crimes, the watchdog reported.
The Administration for Children and Families, the division under Health and Human Services that manages the care of unaccompanied minors, said it generally agreed with the findings and noted the report did not find that the agency lost track of children under its care. It also noted new policies were in place to help track newly separated children. And the court never instructed officials to determine the number of children separated before the June 26 ruling.
Last spring, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said anyone caught crossing the border illegally would be criminally prosecuted. Families were brought into custody by U.S. Border patrol officials, then their parents taken to criminal court. If the parents were gone longer than 72 hours — the length of time Border Patrol is allowed to hold children — the children were transferred to the custody of Health and Human Services.
The practice prompted an outcry, with church groups and lawmakers calling the separations inhumane. Trump ordered an end to the separations on June 20. At the time, a federal judge who was already hearing the case of a mother separated from her son ruled that children must be reunited with their parents.
Despite “considerable” effort by Health and Human Services to locate all the children placed in its care, the report said officials were still finding new cases as long as five months after the judge’s order requiring reunifications.
“There is even less visibility for separated children who fall outside the court case,” investigators concluded.
They said it’s not clear the system put in place to track separated children is good enough. And the lack of detail from immigration authorities continues to be an issue.
The border remains a crucible for the Trump administration, with a partial government shutdown that has dragged on nearly a month over the president’s demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall that congressional Democrats are unwilling to provide.
The inspector general’s office was also looking into other aspects of the separations, including the health and mental well-being of the children who had been separated. It expects to have other reports on the topic.
Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would hold the government accountable in the matter. “The Trump administration, with its unique blend of incompetence, cruelty, and disregard for basic decency, misled the American public on one of its most heinous policies to date,” he said in a statement.
US shutdown stalls training, other prep for wildfire season
By GILLIAN FLACCUS
Thursday, January 17
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Just two months after a wildfire wiped out Paradise, California, officials are gearing up for this year’s fire season and fear the government shutdown could make it even more difficult than one of the worst in history.
The winter months are critical for wildfire managers who use the break from the flames to prepare for the next onslaught, but much of that effort has ground to a halt on U.S. land because employees are furloughed. Firefighting training courses are being canceled from Tennessee to Oregon, piles of dead trees are untended in federal forests and controlled burns to thin dry vegetation aren’t getting done.
Although the furloughs only affect federal employees, the collaborative nature of wild land firefighting means the pain of the four-week-long shutdown is having a ripple effect — from firefighters on the ground to federal contractors and top managers who control the firefighting strategy.
State and local crews who need training classes, for example, are scrambling without federal instructors. Conservation groups that work with the U.S. Forest Service to plan wildfire-prevention projects on federal lands are treading water. Annual retreats where local, state and federal firefighting agencies strategize are being called off.
The fire season starts as early as March in the southeastern United States, and by April, fires pop up in the Southwest. Last year’s most devastating fire leveled the Northern California town of Paradise just before Thanksgiving, leaving just a few months to prepare between seasons.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand that while there’s not fire going on out there right now, there’s a lot of really critical work going on for the fire season — and that’s not getting done,” said Michael DeGrosky, chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
It’s especially important with climate change making wildfire seasons longer, deadlier and more destructive.
DeGrosky was supposed to be teaching a course this week for firefighters who want to qualify for the command staff of a fire management team. But the class was canceled without instructors from federal agencies.
Similar classes were called off in Oregon and Tennessee, and others face the same fate as the shutdown drags on. President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats are at odds over funding for a border wall.
A dozen senators from Oregon, California, New Mexico, Washington, Colorado, Nevada, West Virginia and Michigan sent a letter this week to Trump warning that the shutdown would put lives at risk this coming fire season. Classes necessary for fire incident managers, smoke jumpers and hotshot crews are in jeopardy in the near future, the senators said.
Smoke jumpers parachute into remote forests to battle blazes not inaccessible by firefighters on the ground and hotshot crews are small groups of elite firefighters trained to battle the most ferocious flames.
The winter is also when seasonal firefighters apply for jobs, get the required drug tests and move to where they will train and work. In many cases, there’s no one to answer the phone or process the applications, and some potential recruits may decide to work elsewhere to avoid the hassle.
“Even if the shutdown ends and we start hiring people, we will have missed the cream of the crop,” DeGrosky said.
The U.S. Forest Service said in an email that the agency was committed to hiring for temporary and permanent firefighting positions and would continue critical training “to the extent feasible.”
The first session of an apprenticeship program for wild land firefighters went ahead this week, Forest Service spokeswoman Katie O’Connor said.
“The agency is assessing and prioritizing the activities we are able to maintain while in shutdown status. We are unable to speculate on specific impacts while the government shutdown is ongoing and ever-changing,” O’Connor said in a statement.
Conservationists and fire managers say there are other concerns.
Clearing and thinning projects and planned burns on federal land that could lessen fire danger by weeding out flammable debris also are largely on hold in California, Oregon and elsewhere. Private contractors say they have received letters telling them to stop the work.
There’s already a backlog of such projects in federal forests in Oregon and Northern California, said Michael Wheelock, president of Grayback, a private contractor in Grants Pass, Oregon.
Intentional fires can only be set in a narrow winter window before temperatures and humidity falls — and that is rapidly closing, Wheelock said.
“Every week that goes by, it’s going to start increasing the impact,” he said.
Joyce McLean, who lost her and her husband’s home in Paradise last November, supports Trump’s push for a border wall but worries what will happen if firefighters aren’t prepared for next time.
“I hope there are no more forest fires,” said McLean, 74. “I wouldn’t wish that on nobody.”
Follow Gillian Flaccus on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/gflaccus .
Trump denies Pelosi aircraft for planned trip abroad
By MATTHEW LEE, CATHERINE LUCEY, ZEKE MILLER and LISA MASCARO
Thursday, January 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — It took President Donald Trump one day to flex his executive power back at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, denying her an aircraft for a planned trip abroad in apparent response to her attempt to delay his State of Union address amid their government shutdown clash.
The nation’s two most powerful leaders appeared to be engaged in a game of Constitutional one-upmanship, as negotiations to end the 4-week stalemate failed to produce results.
In a letter to Pelosi on Thursday, Trump said that due to the shutdown a trip to Egypt, Brussels and Afghanistan would be delayed, declaring: “In light of the 800,000 great American workers not receiving pay, I’m sure you would agree that postponing this public relations event is totally appropriate.”
While the shutdown dragged on, the State Department on Thursday instructed all U.S. diplomats in Washington and elsewhere to return to work next week with pay, saying it had found money for their salaries at least temporarily despite the ongoing government shutdown.
In a notice to staff posted online and sent to employees, the department said it had found money to pay most of its employees beginning Sunday or Monday for their next pay period. They will not be paid for time worked since the shutdown began in December until the situation is resolved, said the notice, which was signed by William Todd, the deputy undersecretary of state for management.
It was not immediately clear where the money was found, but the department said it would use “existing funds as well as other available fiscal authorities to shift existing balances to restart payroll funding.”
Salaries cannot be guaranteed beyond the next pay period, which ends on Feb. 14, if the shutdown does not end by then, the department said. However, it said it would “review its balances and available legal authorities to see if other flexibilities may be available.”
The department said it was taking the step because it had become clear that the lapse in funding is harming essential diplomatic and national security objectives.
“While the department has done its best to address matters essential to achieving U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives during the ongoing lapse, it has become clear as the lapse has continued to historic lengths that we need our full team to address the myriad critical issues requiring U.S. leadership around the globe and to fulfill our commitments to the American people,” it said.
It added that the department’s leadership was “deeply concerned” about the financial hardships faced by its employees.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had raised eyebrows among the U.S. diplomatic corps last week when he proclaimed that morale at the State Department was “good” despite the shutdown and the fact that 40 percent of its employees in the U.S. and nearly 23 percent overseas had been furloughed and the rest were working without pay.
His comments also touched a nerve as he said he planned to go ahead with a previously scheduled conference of all U.S. ambassadors in Washington this week despite the funding constraints affecting employees.
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan announced the return to work with pay instructions to that conference on Thursday and was greeted with two rounds of sustained applause, according to one diplomat who was present.
Outside the State Department other agencies continued to operate under the shutdown constraints.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says President Donald Trump has yet to respond to her request that he postpone his State of the Union address until the government is reopened so workers can be paid for providing security for the grand Washington tradition.
“We haven’t heard — very silent,” she told reporters on Thursday. “Let’s get a date when government is open. Let’s pay the employees. Maybe he thinks it’s OK not to pay people who do work. I don’t.”
The president’s planned Jan. 29 address became a potential casualty of the four-week partial government shutdown after the Democratic leader cited concerns about whether the hobbled government can provide adequate security. Republicans cast Pelosi’s move as a ploy to deny Trump the stage.
Trump declined to address the stalemate over the speech Thursday during a visit to the Pentagon, simply promising that the nation will have “powerful, strong border security.”
The uncertainty surrounding the annual address also underscored the unraveling of ceremonial norms and niceties in Trump’s Washington, amid the shutdown over the president’s demand for money to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. The impasse is draining the finances of hundreds of thousands of federal employees going without paychecks.
Pelosi reiterated she is more than willing to negotiate money for border security once the government is reopened, but she said Democrats remain opposed to Trump’s long-promised wall, one of his signature campaign promises.
“I’m not for a wall,” Pelosi said twice, mouthing the statement a third time for effect.
Pressure on Trump intensified, as lawmakers from both parties scrambled for solutions. The shutdown, already the longest ever, entered its 27th day Thursday.
While Trump’s own advisers said the shutdown was proving a greater drag on the economy than expected, Trump showed no signs of backing off a fight that he views as vital for his core supporters.
For AP’s complete coverage of the U.S. government shutdown: https://apnews.com/GovernmentShutdown
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Chris Rugaber, Darlene Superville, Matthew Daly, Jonathan Lemire, Alan Fram, Colleen Long, Andrew Taylor, Laurie Kellman, Elana Schor and Ken Sweet contributed to this report.
Man convicted of killing 2 women gets life sentence
HAMILTON, Ohio (AP) — A man convicted of fatally shooting two women before shooting himself after a police standoff has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole.
Authorities said James Geran (GEHR’-uhn) killed a woman they described as a business associate in a “criminal activity” and dumped her body in Madison Township hours before killing his girlfriend’s mother during a standoff with Butler County sheriff’s deputies in Trenton in June. He then shot himself.
The 45-year-old Middletown man had pleaded guilty to a murder charge in the death of 27-year-old Maegan Motter and to an aggravated murder charge in the death of his girlfriend’s mother, 63-year-old Sharon McCleary. Geran released his girlfriend and her sister unharmed.
No motives were given.
Geran said in court that he constantly regrets his actions.