Truthout Stories Sun, 14 Feb 2016 09:52:51 -0500 en-gb Why Wall Street Won Round One and We Might Win the Next

The question then is not if another financial bubble will burst, but when. To avoid further crises with huge tragic social costs, we have an urgent task to bring finance back under democratic control, to reconfigure society's relation to finance capital, indeed, to capital itself.

The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, New York City.The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street, New York City. The question is when - not if - the next financial bubble will burst. (Photo: Wall Street via Shutterstock)

When the ground from under Wall Street opened up in autumn 2008, there was much talk of letting the banks get their just desserts, jailing the "banksters", and imposing draconian regulation. The newly elected Barack Obama came to power promising banking reform, warning Wall Street, "My administration is the only thing that stands between you and the pitchforks".

Yet nearly eight years after the outbreak of the global financial crisis, it is evident that those who were responsible for bringing it about have managed to go completely scot-free. Not only that, they have been able to get governments to stick the costs of the crisis and the burden of the recovery on their victims.

How Wall Street Won

How did they succeed? The first line of defence for the banks was to get the government to rescue the banks from the financial mess they had created. The banks flatly refused Washington's pressure on them to mount a collective defence with their own resources. Using the massive collapse of stock prices triggered by Lehman Brothers going under, finance capital's representatives were able to blackmail both liberals and the far-right in Congress to approve the US$700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Nationalization of the banks was dismissed as being inconsistent with "American" values.

Then by engaging in the defensive anti-regulatory war that they had mastered in Congress over decades, the banks were able, in 2009 and 2010, to gut the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of three key items that were seen as necessary for genuine reform: downsizing the banks; institutionally separating commercial from investment banking; and banning most derivatives and effectively regulating the so-called "shadow banking system" that had brought on the crisis.

They did this by using what Cornelia Woll termed finance capital's "structural power". One dimension of this power was the US$344 million the industry spent lobbying the U.S. Congress in the first nine months of 2009, when legislators were taking up financial reform. Senator Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, alone received US$2.8 million in contributions from Wall Street in 2007-2008. But perhaps equally powerful as Wall Street's entrenched congressional lobby were powerful voices in the new Obama Administration who were sympathetic to the bankers, notably Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Council of Economic Advisors' head Larry Summers, both of whom had served as close associates of Robert Rubin, who had successive incarnations as co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, Bill Clinton's Treasury chief, and chairman and senior counselor of Citigroup.

Finally, the finance sector succeeded by wielding their ideological power, or perhaps more accurately, hitching their defense to the dominant neoliberal ideology. Wall Street was able to change the narrative about the causes of the financial crisis, throwing the blame entirely on the state.

This is best illustrated in the case of Europe. As in the U.S., the financial crisis in Europe was a supply-driven crisis, as the big European banks sought high-profit, quick-return substitutes for the low returns on investment in industry and agriculture, such as real-estate lending and speculation in financial derivatives, or placed their surplus funds in high-yield bonds sold by governments. Indeed, in their drive to raise more and more profits from lending to governments, local banks, and property developers, Europe's banks poured US$2.5 trillion into Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain.

The result was that Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio rose to 148 percent in 2010, bringing the country to the brink of a sovereign debt crisis. Focused on protecting the banks, the European authorities' approach to stabilising Greece's finances was not to penalise the creditors for irresponsible lending but to get citizens to shoulder all the costs of adjustment.

The changed narrative, focusing on the "profligate state" rather than unregulated private finance as the cause of the financial crisis, quickly made its way to the USA, where it was used not only to derail real banking reform but also to prevent the enactment of an effective stimulus programme in 2010. Christina Romer, the head of Barack Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, estimated that it would take a US$1.8 trillion to reverse the recession. Obama approved only less than half, or US$787 billion, placating the Republican opposition but preventing an early recovery. Thus the cost of the follies of Wall Street fell not on banks but on ordinary Americans, with the unemployed reaching nearly 10 percent of the workforce in 2011 and youth unemployment reaching over 20 percent.

Big Finance's Victory in the US and Europe

The triumph of Wall Street in reversing the popular surge against it following the outbreak of the financial crisis was evident in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections. The U.S. statistics were clear: 95 percent of income gains from 2009 to 2012 went to the top 1 percent; median income was US$4,000 lower in 2014 than in 2000; concentration of financial assets increased after 2009, with the four largest banks owning assets that came to nearly 50 percent of GDP. Yet regulating Wall Street has not been an issue in the Republican primary debates while in the Democratic debates, it was a side issue, despite the efforts of candidate Bernie Sanders to make it the centerpiece.

The political institutions of one of the world's most advanced liberal democracies were no match for the structural power and ideological resources of the financial establishment. As Cornelia Woll writes, "For the administration and Congress, the main lesson from the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 was that they had only very limited means to pressure the financial industry into behavior that appeared urgently necessary for the survival of the entire sector and the economy as a whole".

In Greece, the austerity policies provoked a popular revolt - expressed in the June 2015 referendum on the bailout in which over 60 percent of the Greek people rejected the deal - but in the end their will was trampled on as the German government forced Tsipras into a humiliating surrender. It is clear that the key motives were to save the European financial elite from the consequences of their irresponsible policies, enforcing the iron principle of full debt repayment, and crucifying Greece to dissuade others, such as the Spaniards, Irish, and Portuguese, from revolting against debt slavery. As Karl Otto Pöhl, a former head of Germany's Bundesbank, admitted some time back, the draconian exercise in Greece was about "protecting German banks, but especially the French banks, from debt write-offs".

Pyrrhic Victory

Yet, the victory of the banks is likely in the end to be Pyrrhic. The combination of deep austerity-induced recession or stagnation that grips much of Europe and the U.S. and the absence of financial reform is deadly. The resulting prolonged stagnation and the prospect of deflation have discouraged investment in the real economy to expand goods and services.

Meanwhile with the move to re-regulate finance halted, the financial institutions have all the more reason to do what they did prior to 2008 that triggered the current crisis: engage in intense speculative operations designed to make super-profits from the difference between the inflated price of assets and derivatives based on assets and the real value of these assets before the law of gravity causes the inevitable crash.

The non-transparent derivatives market is now estimated to total US$707 trillion, or significantly higher than the US$548 billion in 2008, according to analyst Jenny Walsh. "The market has grown so unfathomably vast, the global economy is at risk of massive damage should even a small percentage of contracts go sour. Its size and potential influence are difficult just to comprehend, let alone assess." Former U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt, the former chairman of the SEC, agreed, telling one writer that none of the post-2008 reforms has "significantly diminished the likelihood of financial crises".

The question then is not if another bubble will burst but when.

Winning the Next Round

Then the next question is, will it take this coming crisis to finally achieve what the reaction of the 2008 financial crisis failed to do - place finance capital under restraints? In his classic book The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi talked about the "double movement" whereby the excesses of capital create a counter-movement among the people, which forces the state to restrain and regulate it.

In this we can learn from Iceland's unique experience. In October 2015, Iceland's judicial system sent the heads of the country's biggest banks to jail, along with 23 of their lieutenants. The sentencing was the culmination of a process in which Iceland took a different course from the U.S. and the rest of Europe. It let the banks go under instead of bailing them out as "too big to fail". It did engage in bailout operations but these were to rescue ordinary citizens rather than bankers, forgiving mortgage debts that went above 110 percent of the actual value of the home linked to the loan.

The economy of Iceland did not collapse when its biggest banks were allowed to fail. As one article pointed out,

Iceland returned to economic growth much faster than skeptics expected after breaking from the conciliatory approach toward financial industry actors that most countries took in the wake of the global collapse. The tiny economy's growth rate outpaced the average for European countries in 2012. It halved its unemployment rate since the peak of the crisis.

That the country was able to tame the finance industry was perhaps due to several factors. One was the relatively small scale of its democracy. With a population of only 329,000 people, most of them in the capital city, Reykjavik, Iceland's elected officials were susceptible to very direct pressure from the electorate, many of whom had suffered massive losses. Another is that with finance having emerged relatively recently as the main driver of the economy, the financial elite had not achieved the massive structural and ideological power that finance capital had achieved in the U.S., the U.K. and the rest of Europe.

Iceland may have been the exception to the rule, but it shows that democratic control of the banks is possible.

To avoid further crises with huge tragic social costs, we have an urgent task to bring finance back under democratic control, to reconfigure society's relation to finance capital, indeed, to Capital itself.

Opinion Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Critics Say Proposed Sulfide Mine in Minnesota Threatens State's Watersheds

As the profitability of Minnesota iron declines, the state is looking to sulfide mining as a potential investment. Thousands of critics, however, have voiced concerns about the possible environmental impact of the proposed mines, including the danger of toxic contaminants leaching into waterways.

A portion of the Hull-Rust Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, a 1.5 mile long open-pit iron mine. Minnesota is considering sulfide mining as a potential investment. Sulfide mines are notorious for producing highly toxic contaminants that easily leach into waterways.A portion of the Hull-Rust Mahoning mine in Hibbing, Minnesota, a 1.5 mile long open-pit iron mine. Minnesota is considering sulfide mining as a potential investment. Sulfide mines are notorious for producing highly toxic contaminants that easily leach into waterways. (Photo: Lars Hammar / Flickr)

Over the last century, Minnesota's "Iron Range" has produced billions of tons of iron ore, as well as its less pure counterpart taconite, both key ingredients for US steel manufacturing. Iron mining successfully bolsters the state economy and supports a large, unionized labor force.

Now, as the profitability of Minnesota iron is squeezed by a global oversupply and international competition, the state is looking into sulfide mining as a potential investment for the future. Thousands of critics, however, have registered concerns about the potential environmental impact of the proposed mines. Sulfide mines are notorious for producing highly toxic contaminants that easily leach into waterways.

Sulfide mining separates metals like gold, platinum, copper and nickel from ores containing sulfur. The minerals are used primarily to create wiring and electronics for everything from power plants to cellphones.

Minnesota has some of the largest deposits of copper and nickel in the world, according to Mining Minnesota, an advocacy group made up of lobbyists and industry leaders dedicated to promoting precious metal mining. The group is pushing hard for sulfide mining in Minnesota. Its website states: "Minnesota has a history of getting things right. Responsible copper and nickel mining is next on our list."

But Al Gedicks, environmental sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, is not convinced that sulfide mining is a responsible economic decision for the state. "There is no demand for either copper or nickel or any of the other metals that would be extracted from the [Minnesota] deposit," Gedicks told Truthout. In the past five years, both copper and nickel prices have dropped dramatically.

Bruce Richard, vice president of corporate communications and external affairs for PolyMet Mining Corporation, says proposed mines would still meet an international need. He wrote in an email to Truthout, "Worldwide inventories at the current time are not in balance with demand, but that's the cyclical nature of the industry, where supply and demand ebbs and flows. Overall, demand for copper continues to grow worldwide."

PolyMet Mining Corporation is set to build the first sulfide mine in northern Minnesota. The proposed mine, known as NorthMet mine, will span three open pits. A refurbished iron processing plant will perform new techniques that allow the extraction of copper and nickel from Minnesota's low-quality deposits.

While the Canadian-based PolyMet Corporation is new to mining, 33.8 percent of the company's voting rights are owned by Swiss commodity trading giant Glencore International, which has a long history in the international mining industry. In recent years, the Fortune 500 company has been criticized for unethical practices while promoting its interests around the globe.

Despite state tradition and economic incentive, 58,000 people raised concerns over the proposed mining project.

Traditionally, Minnesotans are pro-mining. Mining in northern Minnesota provides jobs to thousands of union workers at an average annual salary of $100,000, according to the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. A percentage of taxes levied on iron mining goes toward public schools and universities. Even some of Minnesota's conservation projects are funded by tax revenue from iron mining. Recent layoffs in the iron mines have devastated towns in northern Minnesota.

Despite state tradition, economic incentive and an unstable job climate, 58,000 people raised concerns over the proposed NorthMet mining project during the 90-day public comment period on the 2013 environmental impact statement.

The environmental group, Friends of the Boundary Waters, argues on its website that sulfide mining in the Iron Range will cause local lakes and rivers to become polluted. St. Louis County, where NorthMet mine will be located, is home to major tourist attractions and wilderness reserves, including Superior National Forest, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

In its final environmental impact statement, PolyMet predicted that NorthMet's containment system would "achieve complete capture of groundwater" close to the surface. This water will be treated and discharged, eventually flowing into Lake Superior. Their model shows the mine will meet state water quality standards.

However, a study of 25 sulfide mines by environmental consulting groups Kuipers & Associates and Buka Environmental found that 60 percent of sulfide mines exceeded state water quality standards, and in only 4 percent of project plans was water quality impact correctly predicted.

Tom Myers, an independent consultant with a Ph.D. in hydrology from the University of Nevada, prepared a report for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy that claims "the analyses of the [NorthMet] containment system rely on grossly optimistic assumptions."

In general, sulfide mining is more environmentally risky than iron mining. The process produces significant quantities of both sulfates and mercury, which, when combined, create the highly toxic substance methylmercury. This mercury accumulates to toxic levels as it moves up through the food chain, eventually posing a direct threat to humans. Past mercury contamination has led to fishing bans throughout Minnesota.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been protected since 1978 and attracts 250,000 tourists annually, many of whom are avid fishermen. While the Boundary Waters is in a different watershed than the NorthMet mine, Myers predicted that other mining activities in the area could cause contaminants from NorthMet to bridge the divide between watersheds and flow north toward the Boundary Waters.

PolyMet pledged its commitment for the protected areas in its "Water Quality Fact Sheet," which takes special note of the concerns over possible contamination of the Boundary Waters. It states: "The PolyMet project is in the Lake Superior watershed so none of the treated water that will be discharged from the site will ever enter the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness lakes or streams. PolyMet's commitment to protecting water quality and complying with all applicable water quality standards remains steadfast regardless of the watershed."

The Downstream Business Coalition, a group of 37 local businesses considered to be "pro-responsible mining," opposes the NorthMet mine on environmental and economic grounds. In an open letter to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, the group stated: "We believe the risk to the environment poses a long-term threat to the regional economy that far outweighs the short-term benefits."

PolyMet's project proposal assumes that the mine will create 360 jobs directly and 600 more indirectly - a total of 960 possible jobs. According to an independent study done by the University of Minnesota Duluth Labovitz School of Business and Economics, mining output, or sales, will generate around $515 million annually.

In contrast, tourism in St. Louis County alone generates a half billion dollars in gross sales and another $33 million for the state government in sales taxes. Minnesota's tourism industry generates thousands of jobs and has grown significantly in recent years.

"If you are going to invest state resources into generating jobs, then you get much more 'bang for the buck' by investing in tourism, recreation and sustainable agriculture and forestry, than you would by investing in a mining project," the University of Wisconsin's Gedicks told Truthout.

Beyond its potential effect on tourism revenue in the state, the NorthMet mine threatens wetlands in the area. Wetlands filter and regulate water flow and are one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, equal to the tropical rain forest and coral reefs.

According to its impact statement, the NorthMet mine is predicted to directly disturb almost 12.5 square miles of wetlands. By law, any wetland that has been harmed by the mining project must be replaced. Replacement systems often fall short, however. There are eight types of wetlands and each has a different function. Replacing wetlands of a different type or in a different watershed is less effective than protecting the original wetlands.

Paul Glaser, a research professor with the University of Minnesota's Earth Science Department, wrote that the wetland replacement sites chosen by PolyMet are "inadequate for fulfilling mitigation needs since these mitigation sites are located in an entirely different drainage basin and also contain wetlands that are quite different from those at the NorthMet site."

Additionally, the simulated water models for the NorthMet mine did not take into account the water passing between wetlands and groundwater. This interaction could cause wetland water levels to drop and toxin levels to rise, increasing wetland destruction.

"This is a failure to disclose potential impacts of the projects, including water quality impacts to wetlands. These are impacts that, if severe enough, could cause substantial mitigation to be required, including denial of the permit," Myers wrote in his report.

Noting the deficiency in PolyMet's wetlands plan, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that the US Army Corp of Engineers require PolyMet to monitor wetland impacts, develop an impact assessment and create a contingency plan.

Still, the EPA approved the final environmental impact statement for the NorthMet mine on December 21, 2015. Now, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources must approve the impact statement before the project can move on to permitting.

The official decision is expected in February, although Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr already said he plans to approve it. This decision will come amid an EPA investigation into allegations that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency failed to hold iron mining companies to the standards set by the Clean Water Act.

The NorthMet mine is not the only sulfide mine proposed in northern Minnesota. Twin Metals is about two years away from submitting their environmental impact statement for a mine to be located near the NorthMet site. The Twin Metals mine would fall within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area watershed. Any spill or leak from the Twin Metals mine would cause the Boundary Waters to become polluted with no feasible cleanup option. 

News Sun, 14 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Who Endorsed Hillary Clinton? The Congressional Black Caucus or Its PAC Filled With Lobbyists?

This week's endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president by the Congressional Black Caucus political action committee prompted some confusion due to a lack of familiarity with the PAC. We look at the many lobbyists who comprise its board, including those who work for Purdue Pharma, the makers of highly addictive opioid OxyContin, and others who represent Philip Morris and Walmart, the largest gun distributor in America. We also speak with the CBC PAC's chair, Rep. Gregory Meeks, who notes the PAC "also includes the labor groups, labor organizations," and argues, "We in the Congressional Black Caucus have to raise money so we can elect folks. But if you look at how the Congressional Black Caucus votes, no one can say that they don't vote in a very progressive way." Our guest Jeffrey Sachs, a leading economist, notes it is important to understand "what this endorsement meant" and adds, "Our politics has been corrupted by the money. That's why our policies are so bizarre."

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Fri, 12 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
How Do Police-Worn Body Camera Programs Actually Work?

The shooting death of Michael Brown last August in Ferguson, Mo., ignited a public debate about police video cameras. The incident was not videotaped. Two competing narratives emerged. In one, Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, was approaching officer Darren Wilson with his hands up, only to be shot six times. In another, ultimately supported by a Department of Justice investigation, Wilson shot Brown after Brown reached through the window of the officer's cruiser, struggled for Wilson's gun, retreated, and then appeared to lunge at him again. A grand jury investigation that brought no charges against Wilson did little to soothe the community uproar.

By contrast, former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing's fatal shooting of Samuel Dubose was captured by a body-worn video camera. Tensing pulled over Dubose for a routine traffic stop. Tensing told officers at the scene that he fired one fatal shot because "he was being dragged by the vehicle and had to fire his weapon," But the Hamilton County prosecutor said the dragging story was a lie.  When he announced Tensing's indictment for murder, he played Tensing's body camera video. "Every day now, I'm going to be marching for video cams," Dubose's sister said when the charges were announced.

The Cincinnati case shows the promise of body-worn cameras (BWC's). They have the potential to build community confidence and police accountability. Yet BWCs also raise difficult questions. When should police record an encounter? Must they tell the people involved? If the video is not used as evidence, how long should the police hold on to it? What are the privacy protections for civilians caught on camera? How much access should the public have to the video? And what are the implications of outfitting thousands of police officers with a surveillance device? The conversation has been hindered by a lack of publicly available information about how BWC programs actually operate.

The Brennan Center for Justice recently completed a comprehensive review of BWC policies from twenty-four police departments around the country. We created an interactive map and series of charts that allow detailed comparison of policies, to help police departments, city councils, analysts, activists, and academics. When it comes to whether BWC policies are more likely to promote accountability or to intrude on privacy, these documents show that the devil is in the details. We review here some highlights and common themes, and encourage you to dip - or delve - into the accompanying materials to learn more.

To begin with, when do the cameras record? Almost all departments require law enforcement actions, such as arrests or searches, to be recorded, while two - Charlotte and Ferguson - require all citizen interactions to be recorded. The majority permit recording at any other time at the officer's discretion, with some exceptions. Only five policies require officers to notify subjects that they are being recorded; six more encourage it.

When are officers prohibited from recording? In the absence of confrontation, most departments forbid recording in places such as bathrooms and locker rooms, and some limit recording in places such as hospitals and doctor's offices. While private homes traditionally receive the strongest constitutional protection against police intrusion, only four policies require a resident's permission to record in a home during a "consent search" (a search that takes place pursuant to the owner's consent, versus a warrant). One city, Charlotte, requires officers to cease a consent search altogether if the resident does not consent to recording. Fourteen do not address homes at all, and four explicitly say the resident's consent to record is not required. No city forbids recording in homes altogether. When it comes to victims of domestic violence, policies vary. Several allow the officer to exercise discretion not to record "sensitive" victims, whereas one - San Diego - specifically instructs officers to record domestic violence victims with serious injuries, to account for the possibility that these victims may not agree to testify later.

Even recording people in public raises concerns if it chills the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Six of the twenty-four departments have limits on recording First Amendment activity, such as protests, or using the recordings to identify law-abiding participants. The New York Police Department's latitude to record is limited by court-ordered guidelines because of a history of monitoring political activity and keeping files on activists. Other departments may wish to consider implementing similar rules as a preventive measure. Dallas and DC require police to record all First Amendment assemblies they attend in their official capacity, although DC prohibits use of the footage to identify law-abiding participants.

Of course, when to record is only half the picture - we must also look at what happens to the recorded video, both within and outside of the department.

First, can officers watch their BWC videos before making reports or statements? Public debate continues, with some expressing concern that police involved in misconduct will be able to tailor their stories to match the evidence, and others suggesting that prohibiting officers from watching their own videos will breed mistrust and discourage officer cooperation. Whatever the merits of each side, the policies show a strong trend. Fifteen departments guarantee officers the right to view their videos before writing reports or giving a statement to internal or criminal investigators, including after a use-of-force incident or a civilian death. Five allow viewing for reports, but require an officer to give a statement after a serious incident before seeing the video, or make viewing contingent on permission from an investigator or prosecutor. We also found that many departments sharply limit the ability of supervisors to view BWC video - some can only view if there is a complaint or if the officer flags a video - and to discipline officers based on it. To be sure, no one wants their boss peering over their shoulder as they work; at the same time, these policies highlight a potential tension between arguments that cameras will enhance police accountability and the actual guidelines in place.

Many have argued that release of BWC videos will help increase police accountability to the public. However, these recordings show sensitive moments in people's lives, and releasing them publicly can pose major privacy concerns. This makes it essential to examine the process for public release.

In theory, the process for releasing videos outside the department is determined by state or local law. At least four states we reviewed (which include six of the cities we survey), plus DC, have statutes that explicitly address the release of videos from body-worn cameras. Elsewhere, management of the videos is governed both by laws limiting release of evidence in an active criminal case and laws making government records accessible to the public. Where neither the law nor the department's policy specifically addresses videos, it may be unclear how these general laws apply.

Moreover, in practice, police departments have a lot of discretion. Videos have been released when they make the police look good; when they don't, they may still be released if there is intense public demand. Many departments have managed to avoid release despite media and activist pressure. Conversely, some cities have innovated to increase transparency; Seattle, for instance, releases videos online that have been blurred so individuals are not recognizable.

How long can the footage be kept? The ACLU recommends that non-evidentiary video be stored for as short a period as possible to minimize the risks to privacy, whether from hacking or from misuse or abuse by the department itself. On the flip side, some departments are opting to keep recorded video for multiple years, in case a citizen complaint or civil rights charge is filed. Eight departments keep videos that are not evidence and not likely to be subject to a complaint for 180 days or less. Seven keep them for one or two years. Ten of the departments do not say.

The above factors are only some of the considerations that enter into the public debate over body-worn cameras. Interested in the rules that govern facial recognition technologies, privacy protections for victims of sexual assault, procedures for auditing the videos, or others? Check out our map and five charts with twenty total categories to find the departments and trends that matter to you.

News Fri, 12 Feb 2016 10:53:32 -0500
Despite Stated Aims, Obama's New ICE Policy Targets Immigrants for Minor Offenses

A rally of undocumented youth and allies rally with Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago, Illinois on March 10, 2011. (Photo: Sarah Ji)Undocumented youth and allies rally with Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago, Illinois, on March 10, 2011. (Photo: Sarah Ji)

Hundreds of people have been rounded up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in 2016. The raids signal the Obama administration's shift from the Secure Communities initiative to the Priority Enforcement Program, which has emboldened immigration authorities to pursue even more aggressive deportation tactics.

A rally of undocumented youth and allies rally with Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago, Illinois on March 10, 2011. (Photo: Sarah Ji)Undocumented youth and allies rally with Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago, Illinois, on March 10, 2011. (Photo: Sarah Ji)

Four men in unmarked cars showed up at a local trailer park where many Latinos reside in the small Midwestern college town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. It was 8 am one cool morning in October 2015, and José was getting ready to go to one of his three jobs. He heard a knock at the front door and when he opened it, the men came inside. They never showed him a warrant. They wanted to know his name, and then put him in handcuffs. José noticed the badge on one man's belt and guessed it was immigration enforcement, or "la migra."

After being put in the back of a car, José was driven to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office in St. Louis, 180 miles west on the other side of the Mississippi River. He said that one of the worst parts of the experience was not receiving anything to eat during the first 24 hours he was in ICE custody. It was "very difficult," José said in an interview with Truthout. He currently has a deportation case pending, so he asked to be identified by a pseudonym to protect his identity.

Much like the earlier program, ICE is still going after people with relatively minor charges.

Stories like José's have become increasingly common since the beginning of the new Priority Enforcement Program (PEP). There was the recent announcement that ICE would be conducting a series of raids to begin in the first days of 2016 to target the thousands of families from Central America seeking refuge in the United States. But this was only the most visible campaign in the recent shift of policy.

Over the last year, the Obama administration has quietly stepped up efforts to stem immigration. The PEP is to replace the much-maligned Secure Communities policy, in which ICE was going after undocumented immigrants for minor offenses. Under the slogan "felons not families," Obama said his administration is now going after those who have broken immigration laws, and "especially those who may be dangerous."

Yet as Truthout has documented, much like the earlier program, ICE is still going after people with relatively minor charges, mostly DUIs. The wide majority are still undocumented immigrants from Mexico. In many ways, these aggressive new tactics are worse than the previous ones, and have set off a wave of fear in Latino communities. Family and friends are now asking one another if they have heard of anyone who has disappeared.

Shifting Priorities

By mid-2014, Secure Communities, the policy that won Obama the title "deporter in chief," had become unenforceable. In an interview with Truthout, Lena Graber, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center, explained how an April 2014 ruling in the case of Miranda-Olivares v. Clackamas County found holding someone on an immigration detainer, the key function of Secure Communities, to be illegal. After that case, detaining individuals for 48 hours constituted a warrantless arrest without probable cause. "Even many anti-immigrant sheriffs would not participate in Secure Communities because they could be sued," Graber said.

Eventually, more than 350 jurisdictions - from Washington, DC, to Santa Clara County, California - refused to hold people for ICE as required by Secure Communities. My hometown, Champaign-Urbana, was one of the first to withdraw. A community organization called the Immigration Forum came together to convince the sheriff to opt out. Several studies show that many of those caught in the dragnet are charged with low-level traffic offenses.

"The Priority Enforcement Program is Secure Communities in new clothing."

In response to the failure of Secure Communities, the Obama administration crafted PEP. On November 20, 2014, Jeh Johnson, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary, released a memo outlining guidelines for PEP. It places an emphasis on immigrants who were engaged in terrorism, participated in street gangs and had previously been apprehended for unlawful entry into the United States.

Listed under "Priority 2" are other offenses such as burglary, illegal gun possession, sexual abuse and drug trafficking, as well as more common charges like driving under the influence (DUI) and domestic violence. Most are being arrested in conjunction with these lower priorities, according to Graber. Some are even being picked up for DUIs from a decade ago. As Graber put it, "PEP is Secure Communities in new clothing."

In fact, under PEP, ICE agents have the authorization to take even bolder actions. Now instead of just picking people up at the jail, as they did with Secure Communities, ICE is going straight to people's front door, their place of employment or the county courthouse to find them. "We're definitely seeing more home arrests," Graber said.

Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago told Truthout that pushback against PEP will be much harder. ICE has done a good job of selling PEP to law enforcement, he said. Even sheriffs who had formerly been critical of Secure Communities believed PEP "strikes the right balance." Tsao stressed that any such "entanglements" with ICE sowed apprehension and fear that "undermined any trust" between the community and local police. Fortunately, he said, Chicago's Cook County maintains a policy of not communicating with ICE.

Immigration in the Midwest

The story of José is representative of what is happening not just at the border but also throughout the US heartland. Two hours south of Chicago, Champaign-Urbana is a typical college town with a population of around 140,000, which fluctuates during the school year with the large student body at the University of Illinois. There is a growing Latino community, many of whom have gained US citizenship, and some who remain undocumented, although how many is hard to know. The large number of international students drives up the census figures of those designated as foreign born.

Latino immigrants clean hotel rooms, mow lawns and cook in restaurant kitchens. Some come as seasonal workers who toil in the cornfields managed by multinational agribusiness giants like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).

This policy is spreading fear and anxiety in Latino communities, and ultimately separating children from their parents.

Because students drive up the cost of housing, many local immigrants like José live in trailer parks on the outskirts of the city. They also reside in small, economically depressed towns like Rantoul, just 20 miles from Champaign-Urbana, where the immigrant population has tripled in the last 15 years. Many work at the local pork plant, Rantoul Foods. Empty barracks and an abandoned hospital at a closed Air Force base provide housing. Some have been here long enough to save up for a house, which can be purchased for as cheaply as $40,000.

There are similar rural towns throughout the Midwest with large immigrant populations like Beardstown, Illinois, in the western region of the state. In 2007, the pork plant there was the site of an ICE raid that netted dozens of undocumented immigrants, one of many workplace raids at the time that made national headlines.

José first came to Champaign-Urbana from Mexico some 20 years ago and has never sought to gain citizenship. He has easily found work and been willing to labor long hours to provide for his family. José has two children, both of whom were born in the United States and attend local public schools. In the past year, José was arrested after police were called for a minor domestic incident involving one of his teenage children. He paid his fines and has been dutifully attending anger management classes. But his arrest put him on ICE's radar.

Jail Town

After spending three days in a jail cell in St. Louis, José had a hearing over a video screen with a judge in Kansas City, Missouri, who set his bond at $10,000. Customarily a person must post 10 percent of their bond, but in a federal immigration case, José had to pay the full amount.

José was then sent to the Tri-County Justice and Detention Center, or "Tri-Co" as it is known, in far southern Illinois, where three of the counties are so small that they chipped in to share the costs of operating the jail, which was built in 1997. It's located in Pulaski County, in the town of Ullin, with a population of less than 500 non-incarcerated residents, about 80 of whom work at the jail.

Many have heard of the "prison town," but this oddity may more aptly be called a "jail town." The counties have a few dozen people housed in the jail, and the majority of the 230 beds are rented out to ICE. The Tri-County detention center has been the subject of reported human rights abuses. For years, it was managed by the private prison company, the GEO Group, but it is currently run by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The immigration crackdown has long been a bipartisan effort.

José said that inside the jail there were "many Latinos," and several whom he talked to were there for DUIs. The expensive phone calls from the jail made it difficult for him to stay in contact with his family. It took him about a month to raise the bail before he was released. He currently has deportation proceedings against him, for which he had to spend another $5,000 to hire an attorney. Fortunately, he was able to return immediately to work after getting out of jail.

Hannah Sullivan, an attorney with the Catholic Immigration Law Project in St. Louis, has many clients in the Tri-County jail and was familiar with stories like that of José. ICE agents were driving a long way to find people, she told Truthout. They were traveling east from St. Louis throughout Illinois. "They're going west too," she said, into Missouri.

The Tri-County jail is part of a vast invisible network throughout the country of black sites, detention centers and private prisons. Many from Chicago are sent to the McHenry County Jail, 50 miles northwest of the city, where more than 300 immigrants are held. There is another large immigration jail to the north in Kenosha, Wisconsin. How many jails ICE operates and their locations are unknown.

Other signs indicate this is also an expanding network. There have been four attempts to build a jail to house immigrants from Chicago just over the state line in Indiana. The most recent effort came to a head at the end of 2015. When the GEO Group applied for a permit to build an 800-bed jail in the town of Hobart, Indiana, Latino activists from Chicago and the Black Lives Matter chapter in Gary, Indiana, descended upon the city council and convinced the mayor to reject the bid.

Fugitive Operations

A snapshot of the population at the Tri-County jail on October 1, 2015, was obtained through a public records request. It shows that on that day 118 people were being held for ICE. As expected, a number were from Chicago, others were from Illinois prisons and many were transferred from county jails. There were also people held there who were from St. Louis, the Missouri prison system and one person from the Kansas City area. Others were transferred from Indiana, Wisconsin and Kentucky, and even one person was from Texas.

Another category of what are called "Fugitive Operations" includes a total of 26 individuals who were swept up under the new PEP mandate. In these cases, teams of ICE agents traveled hundreds of miles to knock on the front doors of wanted individuals. Of these arrests, 15 people were from Mexico, eight were from Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), and there was one each from Ecuador, Poland and Kenya. The ages ranged from 22 to 48 years old, with an average age of 35.

Of the 26 missions carried out by ICE agents, 17 were for DUIs. One person had a DUI case from as far back as 2005. Four raids were for drugs. Three were for domestic violence. One was for failing to register as a sex offender. And only one person had charges of terrorism in a case that dated back to 2008. (There are no names provided, so it is impossible to investigate the charges.) The wide majority caught up in these raids are not those named as top priorities. This massive reinvestment in the police nation-state apparatus is aimed at capturing a fictional "illegal alien," who is "dangerous" to national security, but in reality is only spreading fear and anxiety in Latino communities, and ultimately separating children from their parents.

The Gloves Are Off

The PEP program also provides ICE with the legal authority to go after thousands of Central American families. The New Year's ICE raids were the first public unveiling of how this new policy is implemented. PEP is Secure Communities with the gloves off.

In the first days of 2016, ICE rounded up 121 adults and children in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, and another 244 in Southern California. Subsequent deportations were reported in Boston. Some claimed ICE agents were forcing their way into homes without a warrant. One mother said an agent threatened her "not to make him mad."

The raids were focused on those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador seeking official refugee status. According to the DHS, some 10,000 families have arrived in the United States over the last two years. Two detention centers in Texas and one in Pennsylvania were opened to hold 1,700 refugees. In January 2016, a building at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico was opened to hold 400 children from Central America. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said there have been two flights a day sending refugees back to their countries of origin.

In the current era of mass incarceration, these raids represent what writer James Kilgore calls "The New Operation Wetback," invoking the US government's 1954 program to deport more than a million Latinos. Nearly half a million people are currently incarcerated in the United States on immigration violations.

University of Illinois professor of anthropology and Latino studies Gilberto Rosas, author of Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals of the New Frontier, said in an interview with Truthout that the reasons behind the flight of refugees from Central America were "directly tied to US foreign policy, particularly US counterinsurgency wars of the late 20th century." These recent efforts represented "the latest intensification of militarized law enforcement, punishing immigrants, their families and their communities that reaches from the US-Mexico border deep into the interior of the United States."

"Fuck ICE"

The raids have already been met by much resistance from immigrant advocates across the nation. In New York, activists held an "ICE-Free NYC" rally. Seven were arrested after shutting down an intersection outside of ICE offices. Others held signs that read "Fuck ICE."

In Minneapolis, students from 12 high schools across the city staged a walkout. Samantha Compean Morales, one of the student organizers, told Fight Back News, "We are doing this walkout to show solidarity with the families that are being ripped away from each other by ICE."

Outside the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, singer John Legend and Colombian musician Juanes performed in front of a small crowd. "Today we're focusing on how the immigration enforcement system intersects with our mass incarceration system," Legend said on Twitter.

In Champaign-Urbana, members of the Immigration Forum have been tracking the stories of José and others visited by ICE since the summer of 2015. They have identified more than 20 people who have been arrested. Most tell stories of ICE showing up at their front door looking for someone. ICE picked up one person at the nearby hog plant. In a couple incidents, they met people at the courthouse who were showing up for their hearings. Several have been picked up for DUIs. Representatives from the group have held workshops with concerned families in the local public schools to quell fears and teach people their rights.

Mixed Message

The Democratic candidates for president, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, immediately condemned the New Year's raids. Twenty-two Democratic senators have signed onto a statement calling on President Obama to put a stop to them. Given that this is an election year, many in the Democratic Party are surely concerned about how the raids will impact their Latino base.

Sulma Arias at the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a national network of grassroots organizations based in Washington, DC, told Truthout the raids "send a mixed message from the [Democratic] Party that will be calling on Latinos to vote for them in this coming election cycle." Her organization held a press conference in front of the White House calling for President Obama to end the raids.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump took credit for the raids on Twitter the day after they were announced, claiming they were "because of the pressure put on by me."

However, placing responsibility on either one of the major US political parties fails to recognize that the immigration crackdown has long been a bipartisan effort. As Rosas observed, "While Trump and his brownshirts represent the most vile white supremacist ant-immigrant bigotry, it is the neoliberal Obama administration that has deported millions of immigrants and is holding thousands in privatized detention centers, under the cover of bureaucratic operations of power. These dynamics capture how living statelessly is living on a racialized edge of death."

News Fri, 12 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Cracking Down on Abusive Debt Collectors

Have you ever picked up your phone to find an aggressive voice on the other end demanding payments on a debt you know nothing about? You're far from alone.

Once you're in the sights of a debt collector, the impact on your life can be devastating: Your wages can be garnished and your credit ruined. You might lose your driver's license, or even your job.

And it could happen over a debt you don't even owe.

In a recent analysis of 75,000 complaints about debt collection practices submitted to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - just a sample of the total number - this was the most common complaint by far. Over 40 percent of people being harassed by collectors said they didn't owe the debt in the first place.

Other complaints charged that the collectors made false statements or threats to coerce people to pay.

The government created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - or CFPB ­- to address abusive financial practices after the 2008 financial crash. This year, the bureau is considering strengthening rules to protect consumers from deceptive and aggressive collection practices.

Abusive collection tactics impact people with all kinds of debt - including credit card debt, medical debt, payday loans, student loans, mortgages, and automobile loans. Collectors often strike when people are most vulnerable, such as when they're recovering from illness or desperately seeking work. They aggressively target the poor, immigrants, and people of color.

About 77 million people - or 35 percent of adults in the United States with a credit file - have a report of debt in collections. That alone makes a compelling case for the bureau to crack down on abusive tactics.

When my organization, the Alliance for a Just Society, analyzed the complaints for our new report - "Unfair, Deceptive, & Abusive: Debt Collectors Profit from Aggressive Tactics" - we tallied the complaints in the database and built a list of the 15 companies with the most complaints.

The list is topped by heavy-hitting debt buyers like Encore Capital Group and PRA Group, whose business models hinge on buying portfolios of consumer debts for pennies on the dollar and then wringing payments out of alleged debtors. Both of these companies more than doubled their profits from 2010 to 2014.

Major student loan servicer Navient (formerly Sallie Mae) also makes the top 15 list for complaints about its debt collection tactics.

But it's particularly worth noting that six out of the top 15 offenders on this list are original creditors, not third-party collectors. They include Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, and Synchrony Financial (the largest issuer of private label credit cards).

This is important, because the primary protection most consumers have against unfair collection tactics - the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act - applies only to third parties, not original creditors. This is a troubling double standard.

The new rules must also to apply to the original creditors - including payday lenders, credit card companies, and big banks - along with third-party collectors and debt buyers.

The rules should limit phone calls to prevent harassment and require collectors to have complete documentation before attempting to collect. The rules should prohibit selling, purchasing, and attempting to collect old, paid, or expired "zombie" debt.

Finally, the bureau should toughen the penalties for collectors breaking the rules.

Living with debt isn't a personal failing - it's a national crisis. The bureau needs to stand up for everyday people and put a stop to abusive collection tactics.

Opinion Fri, 12 Feb 2016 10:32:37 -0500
Billionaire vs. Billionaire ]]> (Lauren Walker) Art Fri, 12 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500 US Refugee Crisis Raises Grave Human Rights Concerns

In the spring and summer of 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America's Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), crossed the United States' southwest border and sparked a political and humanitarian crisis.

Between March and June, 36,075 unaccompanied children were apprehended or turned themselves into US Border Patrol, making up more than half of the unaccompanied children (UAC) apprehended in all of fiscal year 2014. Although migration does usually increase in the summer months, the acuteness of the surge was unlike anything seen before on the US southwest border.

Migration from the Northern Triangle, rather than Mexico, accounted for the rise in unaccompanied alien children. In fiscal year 2014, Mexicans accounted for only 23% of apprehended UACs, down from 45% a year before, and 75% in 2011. Almost all other unaccompanied children migrated from the Northern Triangle.

Federal agencies responsible for border control struggled to find the resources to detain and process the children. President Obama allowed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to use funds allocated for other agencies to expand migrant detention and processing facilities, and border authorities were forced to house detained children in military bases and warehouses.

The nature of the migrants presented the US government with specific difficulties. A 2008 law guarantees undocumented children an appearance before an immigration judge to prevent them from being summarily deported by border authorities. Furthermore, because many of the children's countries of origin do not directly border the United States, authorities need to go through special logistic and administrative processes to deport them to their countries. The same law also mandates that the children be placed  in homes with sponsors or relatives and that there be a full investigation to determine if they qualify for refugee status under US or international law. These processes can take years.

In 2013, before the surge, the issue of unaccompanied child migration from the Northern Triangle had caught the attention of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The UNHCR surveyed unaccompanied Central American in the custody of the US government and found that at least 70% of them would qualify for refugee status under the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, of which the United States and Mexico are signatories. The children's motivations to leave included violence in society, exploitation by the human smuggling industry and abuse in the home.

Due to the conditions in the Northern Triangle, international pressure mounted from the UN and Central American governments for the Obama administration to classify the children as refugees and grant them international protection. Despite having initially proclaimed the surge a "humanitarian crisis" President Obama repeatedly made clear that he did not think the children qualified for humanitarian protection, and that his proposed immigration reform would not grant them legalization. Instead, he requested $3.7 billion from congress to "address the migrant problem" in other ways, most of which would go toward improving administrative mechanisms of deportation and capture.

The political right used the crisis as an opportunity to attack President Obama, claiming that the surge in child migration was due to a rumor that changes in immigration law by the Obama administration would give child migrants legal status in the United States. Mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and the Associated Press, ran stories that echoed the claim that the children thought they would be allowed to stay, and even blamed parents for sending their children north. These media accounts largely ignored the extreme poverty and violence in the Northern Triangle that had driven the children to migrate in the first place.

The Obama Administration launched a public relations campaign in Central America, urging parents not to send their children to the United States. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Central America to clarify that the United States has no "open arms" policy for child migrants, and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson wrote an "open letter" to Central American parents. "The long journey is not only dangerous;" Johnson's letter warned, "there are no 'permisos,' 'permits,' or free passes at the end." The Department of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) even commissioned a pop song called "La Bestia" about the perils of the trip through Mexico to discourage migration. The song became popular on Central American radio.

And then, even more quickly than it had begun, the surge ended. In July 2014, apprehensions of unaccompanied minors declined by almost 50%, and by August they fell below 2013 levels. The surge did not return the next summer - the total number of apprehensions in fiscal year 2015 was only 1,000 higher than it had been in 2013.

Had the public relations campaign worked? Had public disapproval and warnings to potential migrants that they would not be allowed to stay dissuaded them from coming?

What Happened to the Migrants? Mexico's Southern Border Plan

To whatever extent that analysis - that families believed that Obama was handing out "permisos" to children who arrived at the border - is true, it can only partly explain the phenomenon. The children are leaving a region plagued by poverty, insecurity and the highest murder rates in the world. United States policy towards Central America has contributed to the situation of insecurity. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), ratified by the Northern Triangle Countries in 2006, has displaced farmers, driven wages down and contributed to gang violence in the region, while the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a security agreement between the US and Central American countries, has empowered security forces to repress populations and contributed to rising homicide rates by training and funding abusive security forces and implicitly condoning impunity for their actions.

The child migrant crisis presented the United States with a significant political problem. To continue denying potential refugees protection and sending them back to countries that the United States itself had made insecure would have a huge political cost. The United States found a solution, not in changing its own policy, but in pressuring Mexico to crack down on Central American migration.

In July 2015, after meetings with US officials, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced the Southern Border Plan, a vast initiative overhauling immigration enforcement in Mexico. Although the Plan's stated goal, according to President Peña Nieto, was to "protect the human rights of migrants as they pass through our country," it has actually amounted to a brutal crackdown on Central American migration. Mexico sent hundreds of extra border agents to its border with Guatemala in July 2014, and began to crack down on "La Bestia," the freight trains that Central Americans ride through the country. Some migrants may have become discouraged and returned to their dangerous homes, but others have been forced to take even more perilous routes.

Since the inauguration of the Southern Border Plan, deportations of Central Americans in Mexico have risen on an unprecedented level. In the first seven months of 2015, Mexico deported more than twice as many people as it had deported in the same period in 2014. Also, for the first time in 2015, Mexico has deported more Central Americans than the United States.

According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, 2015 was the first year in which Mexican immigration authorities apprehended more Central American children than the US. However, the US only ended up deporting 3% of the Central American children it apprehended in 2014, while Mexico deports 77% of the children it apprehends. In terms of actual deportations, Mexico has deported more children to the Northern Triangle than the United States every year since 2010.

International and US legal protections and procedures for refugees guarantee basic rights and safety for asylum-seekers. Mandatory hearings, and placement with sponsors during often long wait periods prevent the US government from instantly deporting unaccompanied minors. Mexican immigration authorities, while subject to similar legal protections, are less accountable to national or international law. In effect, with the Southern Border Plan, the United States is paying Mexico to deal with its refugee problem.

CAFTA and CARSI: The United States' Role in Creating Insecurity in the Northern Triangle

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which went into effect in 2006, has exacerbated the already endemic poverty in the Northern Triangle. Small Central American farmers, forced to compete with subsidized US agriculture, face dispossession and displacement. As food security has decreased, Central American countries have become net food importers, while rising food prices have led to growth in hunger and poverty. Nor have promised apparel manufacturing jobs compensated for the displacement of farmers; apparel exports from the Northern Triangle to the United States have actually fallen 21% since CAFTA. The result has been staggering poverty rates: 64.5% of Hondurans, 53.7% of Guatemalans, and 34.5% of Salvadorans are living in poverty. Neighboring Nicaragua, however, which has a poverty rate of 42.9% and was also a signatory of CAFTA, has not been a major sending country for recent migrants.

What explains the divergence between Nicaragua and the Northern Triangle? Each of the Northern Triangle countries have homicide rates that register among the ten highest in the world, while Nicaragua has a lower homicide rate than Washington DC. The graph below shows a positive correlation between homicide rates and unaccompanied child emigration to the United States.

The high levels of violence in those countries is generally attributed to conflicts between the 18th Street gangs and Mara Salvatrucha, gangs that were founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s and expanded to Central America after their members were deported there.

The Northern Triangle has struggled with high rates of violence since its civil wars in the 80s, but the problem has been exacerbated by US drug war policy in recent years. Major US support for Central American governments battling drug cartels began in 2008 with the Mérida Initiative, and increased further in 2010, when the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), until then the Central American component of Merida, became an independent program. The tens of millions of dollars that Central American governments received under CARSI did little to weaken the drug trade, but much to exacerbate violence.

In Honduras, for example, drug trafficking has thrived since the 2009 US-backed coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, becoming, in the words of one writer, a "drug traffickers' paradise." Homicide rates also have climbed, increasing by 50% between 2009 and 2011, and winning Honduras the title of the country that is not at war with the highest homicide rate in the world. The annual murder rate climbed alongside the annual security aid that Honduras received from the United States. Both the murder rate and US security aid peaked in 2012.

In December of 2015, the United States Congress approved the Alliance for Prosperity, an aid package that allocates $750 million over the rest of fiscal year 2016 to improve security conditions in the Northern Triangle. The Alliance for Prosperity will rejuvenate many of the failed strategies of CARSI with a larger budget. Before the Alliance had passed congress, the MesoAmerican Working Group, a coalition of Latin American civil society organizations including the Americas Program, published a statement of opposition to the Alliance for Prosperity. They predicted that the economic measures in the Alliance will exacerbate inequality and poverty, while its provisions for border militarization will lead to increased human rights abuse towards migrants.

The Ongoing Crisis: A Longer View

The unaccompanied minor migration crisis of the summer of 2014 was in fact several years in the making. It and can be better understood by looking at patterns of Central American migration over longer time periods. Large scale Central American migration to the United States started during the civil wars of the 1970s and 80s. The immigration continued after the civil wars ended in the 90s: the population of Central American immigrants in the United States nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000, and grew by 50% between 2000 and 2010. A large majority (85%) of Central American immigrants are from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

The rise in the number of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the southwestern border of the United States began in 2011. Beginning in October of 2011 the US government reported a significant rise in the number of underage migrants coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from 4,059 in fiscal year 2011 to 10,443 in fiscal year 2012 to 21,527 in fiscal year 2013, culminating with the surge of 51,705 in fiscal year 2014.

Although the acute surge in the spring of 2014 brought the migration crisis to the public awareness, the situation had already reached crisis proportions in 2011, and shows no signs of stabilizing. The crisis better reflects the increased levels of child migration that started in 2011 and continue today than the surge of mid-2014.

The Southern Border Plan is not a long-term solution because it does not address the root causes of the problem. The number of migrants reaching the United States lulled immediately after the crackdown on La Bestia and deportations from the Mexican border, but migrants are finding new ways to reach the US border. New statistics suggest that the crisis could intensify in 2016. Border Patrol reported a concerning rise in the number of unaccompanied children detained at the border in October and November 2015. More than twice as many children were detained at the southwest border in those two months than in the same period in 2014.

These numbers are particularly alarming because illegal immigration usually decreases in the winter months, but the October-November two month period actually shows growth relative to the August-September period. Border Patrol has opened new detention centers to house the migrants that have come in recent months and expects the rise to continue into 2016. Even if there is no surge in 2016 like there was in 2014, the crisis continues and will not end as long as the Northern Triangle countries remain in situations of desperate poverty and violence.

As his term ends, President Obama has taken a stand on refugees, arguing that people fleeing the Syrian Civil War should be accepted into the United States. Even though polls show the position is unpopular, the president has defended it on moral grounds. On Nov. 18, he tweeted, "Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values. That's not who we are. And it's not what we're going to do."

The president should make his political positions consistent and follow international refugee law by providing full and fair refugee hearings with legal representation for migrants from the Northern Triangle and assuring that the Mexican government does the same. The conditions the migrants face in their home countries, in large part as a result of past and present US policies, make them subject to refugee status and international protection.

Assuming responsibility for the policy errors that led to those conditions, rather than cracking down on the victims, is the only ethical and compassionate response to a refugee crisis with no end in sight.

News Fri, 12 Feb 2016 10:06:31 -0500
Tyson Foods Accused of Dumping More Poison Into Waterways Than Exxon, Dow and Koch

(Photo: Factory Farm via Shutterstock)(Photo: Factory Farm via Shutterstock)

The environmental advocacy group Environment America has released an analysis that concludes meat manufacturer Tyson Foods is a bigger polluter of American waterways than Exxon, Dow, Koch and pretty much anyone else - with the sole exception of AK Steel Holding Corp (and AK Steel only wins by a hair).

The animal-slaughter mega-power is the world's biggest processor of chicken, beef and pork, and is said to be the second largest meat producer in the world. While Tyson Foods' website maintains it "[works] with thousands of family farmers every day to provide safe nutritious food for people all over the world," animal rights and environmental groups paint a different picture of the company entirely.

Environment America's summation notes that Tyson, like other behemoth polluters, is required to report certain emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) program. When Environment America "crunched the numbers," it concluded the transnational meat marketer was responsible for "104 million pounds of pollutants into [US] waterways from 2010 to 2014" - and that's excluding emissions in Tyson's food-production footprint not required by the EPA for inclusion in TRI. Only its processing facilities are reported as part of the program. 

"The company's pollution footprint includes manure from its contract growers' factory farm operations, fertilizer runoff from grain grown to feed the livestock it brings to market as meat, and waste from its processing plants," the analysis states. In 2014 alone, the company dumped 20 million pounds of toxins into US waterways - a number that remained fairly consistent over a five-year period.

In Tyson's case, much of that pollution includes nitrates from agricultural runoff, and water with high nitrate (NO3) and/or nitrogen (N) content is dangerous for wildlife, fish and humans.

Nitrate-tained water is known to cause several health problems for people including methaemoglobinemia and "blue baby syndrome" in infants - diseases that hinder the blood's ability to carry oxygen to the cells. Babies are most susceptible and severe cases can be fatal.

Additionally, when nitrogen compounds from agricultural runoff make their way into lakes and reservoirs, algae blooms can result - devastating aquatic events that can swallow up the water's oxygen, leading to fish-kills that can include hundreds-of-thousands, or even millions of fish.

Environment America's analysis, and the ensuing media coverage, certainly don't represent the first time the company has taken heat over bombing American waterways with poison. Natasha Geiling of Climate Progress reports:

Tyson's pollution has been the subject of several legal challenges over the years, with the company paying more than $25 million in legal settlements and fines since 2001. Most recently, the Attorney General of Missouri filed a lawsuit against Tyson Foods accusing the company of illegally discharging untreated wastewater that led to the death of up to 100,000 fish. Tyson settled with Missouri in 2015 and agreed to pay.

Tyson Foods has been under high-level scrutiny as of late - not only for screwing up waterways, but for screwing up the lives of poor factory farm animals as well.

A shocking undercover video investigation carried out by animal rights group Mercy For Animals first surfaced in late August of 2015 - and what those recording showed left viewers stunned worldwide, and led to criminal charges being filed against six plant workers.

Those bombshell revelations were followed up by a hard-hitting, gruesome, and downright difficult-to-watch campaign video, narrated by Alec Baldwin - and that short film set the world on fire over Tyson's blatantly egregious treatment of chickens.

Tyson's website states, delivering safe healthy food "starts with ensuring the health and well-being of those [animals] by taking care of them properly – treating them responsibly and with respect. It's simply the right thing to do" - a statement made almost laughable when pitted against Baldwin's narrative.

Also noteworthy in regards to this story is the fact that Tyson's shareholders recently failed to adopt a resolution to more responsibly address how the company tracks its water pollution. The company is set to vote on another resolution in 2016. Citizens concerned with the company's operational track-record are now left to wonder if the myriad blows the company has been suffering in the media, both for its shady environmental and animal rights practices, will be enough to pressure Tyson's Board to make a change.

News Fri, 12 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Why Hillary Clinton Doesn't Deserve the Black Vote

Governor Bill Clinton and wife Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in McAllen, Texas, in 1992. (Photo via Shutterstock)Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in McAllen, Texas, in 1992. (Photo: Joseph Sohm /

Hillary Clinton loves black people. And black people love Hillary - or so it seems. Black politicians have lined up in droves to endorse her, eager to prove their loyalty to the Clintons in the hopes that their faithfulness will be remembered and rewarded. Black pastors are opening their church doors, and the Clintons are making themselves comfortably at home once again, engaging effortlessly in all the usual rituals associated with "courting the black vote," a pursuit that typically begins and ends with Democratic politicians making black people feel liked and taken seriously. Doing something concrete to improve the conditions under which most black people live is generally not required.

Hillary is looking to gain momentum on the campaign trail as the primaries move out of Iowa and New Hampshire and into states like South Carolina, where large pockets of black voters can be found. According to some polls, she leads Bernie Sanders by as much as 60 percent among African Americans. It seems that we - black people - are her winning card, one that Hillary is eager to play.

And it seems we're eager to get played. Again.

The love affair between black folks and the Clintons has been going on for a long time. It began back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president. He threw on some shades and played the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show. It seems silly in retrospect, but many of us fell for that. At a time when a popular slogan was "It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand," Bill Clinton seemed to get us. When Toni Morrison dubbed him our first black president, we nodded our heads. We had our boy in the White House. Or at least we thought we did.

Black voters have been remarkably loyal to the Clintons for more than 25 years. It's true that we eventually lined up behind Barack Obama in 2008, but it's a measure of the Clinton allure that Hillary led Obama among black voters until he started winning caucuses and primaries. Now Hillary is running again. This time she's facing a democratic socialist who promises a political revolution that will bring universal healthcare, a living wage, an end to rampant Wall Street greed, and the dismantling of the vast prison state - many of the same goals that Martin Luther King Jr. championed at the end of his life. Even so, black folks are sticking with the Clinton brand.

What have the Clintons done to earn such devotion? Did they take extreme political risks to defend the rights of African Americans? Did they courageously stand up to right-wing demagoguery about black communities? Did they help usher in a new era of hope and prosperity for neighborhoods devastated by deindustrialization, globalization, and the disappearance of work?

No. Quite the opposite.

* * *

When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, urban black communities across America were suffering from economic collapse. Hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs had vanished as factories moved overseas in search of cheaper labor, a new plantation. Globalization and deindustrialization affected workers of all colors but hit African Americans particularly hard. Unemployment rates among young black men had quadrupled as the rate of industrial employment plummeted. Crime rates spiked in inner-city communities that had been dependent on factory jobs, while hopelessness, despair, and crack addiction swept neighborhoods that had once been solidly working-class. Millions of black folks - many of whom had fled Jim Crow segregation in the South with the hope of obtaining decent work in Northern factories - were suddenly trapped in racially segregated, jobless ghettos.

On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton made the economy his top priority and argued persuasively that conservatives were using race to divide the nation and divert attention from the failed economy. In practice, however, he capitulated entirely to the right-wing backlash against the civil-rights movement and embraced former president Ronald Reagan's agenda on race, crime, welfare, and taxes - ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did.

We should have seen it coming. Back then, Clinton was the standard-bearer for the New Democrats, a group that firmly believed the only way to win back the millions of white voters in the South who had defected to the Republican Party was to adopt the right-wing narrative that black communities ought to be disciplined with harsh punishment rather than coddled with welfare. Reagan had won the presidency by dog-whistling to poor and working-class whites with coded racial appeals: railing against "welfare queens" and criminal "predators" and condemning "big government." Clinton aimed to win them back, vowing that he would never permit any Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime than he.

Just weeks before the critical New Hampshire primary, Clinton proved his toughness by flying back to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally impaired black man who had so little conception of what was about to happen to him that he asked for the dessert from his last meal to be saved for him for later. After the execution, Clinton remarked, "I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I'm soft on crime."

Clinton mastered the art of sending mixed cultural messages, appealing to African Americans by belting out "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in black churches, while at the same time signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.

Clinton was praised for his no-nonsense, pragmatic approach to racial politics. He won the election and appointed a racially diverse cabinet that "looked like America." He won re-election four years later, and the American economy rebounded. Democrats cheered. The Democratic Party had been saved. The Clintons won. Guess who lost?

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Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. Clinton did not declare the War on Crime or the War on Drugs - those wars were declared before Reagan was elected and long before crack hit the streets - but he escalated it beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible. He supported the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine, which produced staggering racial injustice in sentencing and boosted funding for drug-law enforcement.

Clinton championed the idea of a federal "three strikes" law in his 1994 State of the Union address and, months later, signed a $30 billion crime bill that created dozens of new federal capital crimes, mandated life sentences for some three-time offenders, and authorized more than $16 billion for state prison grants and the expansion of police forces. The legislation was hailed by mainstream-media outlets as a victory for the Democrats, who "were able to wrest the crime issue from the Republicans and make it their own."

When Clinton left office in 2001, the United States had the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison, even though they were no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs. Prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983. All of the presidents since 1980 have contributed to mass incarceration, but as Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson recently observed, "President Clinton's tenure was the worst."

Some might argue that it's unfair to judge Hillary Clinton for the policies her husband championed years ago. But Hillary wasn't picking out china while she was first lady. She bravely broke the mold and redefined that job in ways no woman ever had before. She not only campaigned for Bill; she also wielded power and significant influence once he was elected, lobbying for legislation and other measures. That record, and her statements from that era, should be scrutinized. In her support for the 1994 crime bill, for example, she used racially coded rhetoric to cast black children as animals. "They are not just gangs of kids anymore," she said. "They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators.' No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel."

Both Clintons now express regret over the crime bill, and Hillary says she supports criminal-justice reforms to undo some of the damage that was done by her husband's administration. But on the campaign trail, she continues to invoke the economy and country that Bill Clinton left behind as a legacy she would continue. So what exactly did the Clinton economy look like for black Americans? Taking a hard look at this recent past is about more than just a choice between two candidates. It's about whether the Democratic Party can finally reckon with what its policies have done to African-American communities, and whether it can redeem itself and rightly earn the loyalty of black voters.

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An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn't have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.

Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: "Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America's prisons and jails." When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren't looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars - out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics.

To make matters worse, the federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to "end welfare as we know it." In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that "the era of big government is over" and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed - which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008 - replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).

Experts and pundits disagree about the true impact of welfare reform, but one thing seems clear: Extreme poverty doubled to 1.5 million in the decade and a half after the law was passed. What is extreme poverty? US households are considered to be in extreme poverty if they are surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person per day in any given month. We tend to think of extreme poverty existing in Third World countries, but here in the United States, shocking numbers of people are struggling to survive on less money per month than many families spend in one evening dining out. Currently, the United States, the richest nation on the planet, has one of the highest child-poverty rates in the developed world.

Despite claims that radical changes in crime and welfare policy were driven by a desire to end big government and save taxpayer dollars, the reality is that the Clinton administration didn't reduce the amount of money devoted to the management of the urban poor; it changed what the funds would be used for. Billions of dollars were slashed from public-housing and child-welfare budgets and transferred to the mass-incarceration machine. By 1996, the penal budget was twice the amount that had been allocated to food stamps. During Clinton's tenure, funding for public housing was slashed by $17 billion (a reduction of 61 percent), while funding for corrections was boosted by $19 billion (an increase of 171 percent), according to sociologist Loïc Wacquant "effectively making the construction of prisons the nation's main housing program for the urban poor."

Bill Clinton championed discriminatory laws against formerly incarcerated people that have kept millions of Americans locked in a cycle of poverty and desperation. The Clinton administration eliminated Pell grants for prisoners seeking higher education to prepare for their release, supported laws denying federal financial aid to students with drug convictions, and signed legislation imposing a lifetime ban on welfare and food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense - an exceptionally harsh provision given the racially biased drug war that was raging in inner cities.

Perhaps most alarming, Clinton also made it easier for public-housing agencies to deny shelter to anyone with any sort of criminal history (even an arrest without conviction) and championed the "one strike and you're out" initiative, which meant that families could be evicted from public housing because one member (or a guest) had committed even a minor offense. People released from prison with no money, no job, and nowhere to go could no longer return home to their loved ones living in federally assisted housing without placing the entire family at risk of eviction. Purging "the criminal element" from public housing played well on the evening news, but no provisions were made for people and families as they were forced out on the street. By the end of Clinton's presidency, more than half of working-age African-American men in many large urban areas were saddled with criminal records and subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and basic public benefits - relegated to a permanent second-class status eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow.

It is difficult to overstate the damage that's been done. Generations have been lost to the prison system; countless families have been torn apart or rendered homeless; and a school-to-prison pipeline has been born that shuttles young people from their decrepit, underfunded schools to brand-new high-tech prisons.

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It didn't have to be like this. As a nation, we had a choice. Rather than spending billions of dollars constructing a vast new penal system, those billions could have been spent putting young people to work in inner-city communities and investing in their schools so they might have some hope of making the transition from an industrial to a service-based economy. Constructive interventions would have been good not only for African Americans trapped in ghettos, but for blue-collar workers of all colors. At the very least, Democrats could have fought to prevent the further destruction of black communities rather than ratcheting up the wars declared on them.

Of course, it can be said that it's unfair to criticize the Clintons for punishing black people so harshly, given that many black people were on board with the "get tough" movement too. It is absolutely true that black communities back then were in a state of crisis, and that many black activists and politicians were desperate to get violent offenders off the streets. What is often missed, however, is that most of those black activists and politicians weren't asking only for toughness. They were also demanding investment in their schools, better housing, jobs programs for young people, economic-stimulus packages, drug treatment on demand, and better access to healthcare. In the end, they wound up with police and prisons. To say that this was what black people wanted is misleading at best.

To be fair, the Clintons now feel bad about how their politics and policies have worked out for black people. Bill says that he "overshot the mark" with his crime policies; and Hillary has put forth a plan to ban racial profiling, eliminate the sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine, and abolish private prisons, among other measures.

But what about a larger agenda that would not just reverse some of the policies adopted during the Clinton era, but would rebuild the communities decimated by them? If you listen closely here, you'll notice that Hillary Clinton is still singing the same old tune in a slightly different key. She is arguing that we ought not be seduced by Bernie's rhetoric because we must be "pragmatic," "face political realities," and not get tempted to believe that we can fight for economic justice and win. When politicians start telling you that it is "unrealistic" to support candidates who want to build a movement for greater equality, fair wages, universal healthcare, and an end to corporate control of our political system, it's probably best to leave the room.

This is not an endorsement for Bernie Sanders, who after all voted for the 1994 crime bill. I also tend to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates that the way the Sanders campaign handled the question of reparations is one of many signs that Bernie doesn't quite get what's at stake in serious dialogues about racial justice. He was wrong to dismiss reparations as "divisive," as though centuries of slavery, segregation, discrimination, ghettoization, and stigmatization aren't worthy of any specific acknowledgement or remedy.

But recognizing that Bernie, like Hillary, has blurred vision when it comes to race is not the same thing as saying their views are equally problematic. Sanders opposed the 1996 welfare-reform law. He also opposed bank deregulation and the Iraq War, both of which Hillary supported, and both of which have proved disastrous. In short, there is such a thing as a lesser evil, and Hillary is not it.

The biggest problem with Bernie, in the end, is that he's running as a Democrat - as a member of a political party that not only capitulated to right-wing demagoguery but is now owned and controlled by a relatively small number of millionaires and billionaires. Yes, Sanders has raised millions from small donors, but should he become president, he would also become part of what he has otherwise derided as "the establishment." Even if Bernie's racial-justice views evolve, I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.

Of course, the idea of building a new political party terrifies most progressives, who understandably fear that it would open the door for a right-wing extremist to get elected. So we play the game of lesser evils. This game has gone on for decades. WEB Du Bois, the eminent scholar and co-founder of the NAACP, shocked many when he refused to play along with this game in the 1956 election, defending his refusal to vote on the grounds that "there is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I do or say." While the true losers and winners of this game are highly predictable, the game of lesser evils makes for great entertainment and can now be viewed 24 hours a day on cable-news networks. Hillary believes that she can win this game in 2016 because this time she's got us, the black vote, in her back pocket - her lucky card.

She may be surprised to discover that the younger generation no longer wants to play her game. Or maybe not. Maybe we'll all continue to play along and pretend that we don't know how it will turn out in the end. Hopefully, one day, we'll muster the courage to join together in a revolutionary movement with people of all colors who believe that basic human rights and economic, racial, and gender justice are not unreasonable, pie-in-the-sky goals. After decades of getting played, the sleeping giant just might wake up, stretch its limbs, and tell both parties: Game over. Move aside. It's time to reshuffle this deck.

Opinion Fri, 12 Feb 2016 00:00:00 -0500