TIME Congress

Lawmakers Grill Obama Administration Over Ebola Outbreak

Frieden and Fauci testify before a House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, in Washington
From Left: Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Anthony Fauci testify before a House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis, in Washington D.C. on Oct. 16, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

Suggest travel restrictions as a potential solution

Updated at 8:36 p.m. ET

Republican lawmakers pushed for stricter travel restrictions Thursday, firing questions at Obama Administration officials after revelations that a health care worker infected with the disease flew on a plane shortly after treating a patient who had died of the virus.

Amber Joy Vinson worked to help treat Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who died on Oct. 8, at Texas Presbyterian Hospital but rode on an airplane on Oct. 13, just a day before she developed a fever. It was revealed late Wednesday night that the CDC had actually cleared Vinson to fly; she was diagnosed with Ebola on Tuesday.

Shortly after the hearing, President Barack Obama signed an executive order allowing the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security to call up any military and Coast Guard reservists needed for the Ebola response effort in West Africa, where up to 4,000 American troops are preparing to deploy. He also thanked the CDC for dispatching an additional team of 16 people with experience in Ebola to Dallas where they will train and assist in hospital infection control procedures.

“None of us can understand how a nurse who treated an Ebola-infected patient, and who herself had developed a fever, was permitted to board a commercial airline and fly across the country,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman. “It’s no wonder the public’s confidence is shaken.”

Upton joined other lawmakers, including Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and House Speaker John Boehner, who want the Administration to consider travel restrictions between the U.S. and West African countries, where the outbreak has killed more than 4,500 people. “It needs to be solved in Africa but until it is, we should not be allowing these folks in, period,” Upton said at the hearing.

Embattled Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden countered that the Administration can better track people from the most vulnerable countries in West Africa without restrictions on travel.

“Right now we know who’s coming in,” said Frieden. “If we try to eliminate travel… we won’t be able to check them for fever when they leave, we won’t be able to check them for fever when they arrive, we won’t be able—as we do currently—to see a detailed history to see if they’ve been exposed.”

When pressed by Murphy if the Administration would ever consider changing its mind, Frieden said it would “consider any option to better protect Americans.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said that he didn’t believe travel restrictions would be an effective protection measure, since people will find other avenues of travel. Waxman shifted blame from the CDC and the Obama Administration, instead focusing ire on Congress for “irrational budget cuts” that have dropped CDC’s funding by 12% when adjusted for inflation since 2006.

“We have our share of responsibility,” he said.

Obama said Thursday evening that he is considering appointing an Ebola czar. “It may be appropriate for me to appoint an additional person,” he said, quickly adding that it wouldn’t be because people like Frieden “haven’t been doing an outstanding job working hard on this issue.”

“They are also responsible for a whole bunch of other stuff,” he said. Like flu season.

Read next: Here’s Who’s Blaming Who for Ebola

TIME 2014 Election

On the Road with Rand Paul

Can he fix what ails the GOP?

The tattooed and pierced longhairs never showed up to see Senator Rand Paul speak with students at the University of South Carolina in Columbia last month. Those in attendance drew instead from the preppy set, with brushed bangs, blue blazers and proper hemlines, some wearing sunglasses on neck straps like jock jewelry. They mostly hailed from college Republican circles, and the room where they gathered, a wood-stained memorial to the state’s old power structure, was named for the politician who led the fight to protect school segregation in the 1960s.

You could call them activists, even rebels in their way. But this was not a gathering of losers and outcasts. Paul knew this. And that was the whole point…

Read the full story here.

TIME Congress

Record Number of Black Candidates Seeking Office

Cory Booker
Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker visits a campaign center Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014, in Willingboro, N.J. Mel Evans—AP

(WASHINGTON) — More than 100 black candidates will be on the ballot in statewide and congressional races next month, a post-Reconstruction record that some observers say is a byproduct of President Barack Obama’s historic presidency.

At least 83 black Republicans and Democrats are running for the U.S. House, an all-time high for the modern era, according to political scientist David Bositis, who has tracked black politicians for years. They include Mia Love in Utah, who is trying to become the first black Republican woman to be elected to Congress.

Four other black women — Bonnie Watson Coleman in New Jersey, Brenda Lawrence in Michigan, Alma Adams in North Carolina and Stacey Plaskett in the Virgin Islands — are expected to win seats as Democrats, Bositis said. If they all win, and no black female incumbents lose, there should be 20 black women among House members, an all-time high, Bositis said.

There are at least 25 African-Americans running for statewide offices, including U.S. senator, governor or lieutenant governor, also a record number.

The previous record for black candidates seeking House seats was 72 in 2012, the year Obama, the nation’s first black president, was re-elected to a second term. The previous record for statewide contests was 17 in 2002, said Bositis, formerly of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank in Washington that focuses primarily on issues affecting African-Americans.

Those statewide numbers include Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, the U.S. Senate’s only black members.

Booker is seeking a full term next month, having won a special election last year to replace the deceased Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Scott, appointed last year, is seeking to finish out the two years remaining in the term of former Sen. Jim DeMint, who resigned from the Senate in 2013.

An Obama “coattails effect” is partly responsible for this large candidate pool because it spurred blacks to vote, and encouraged them to pursue offices they might not have sought in the past, said political science professor Fredrick C. Harris, director of Columbia University’s Center on African-American Politics and Society. America’s blacks voted at a higher rate than other minority groups in 2012 and by most measures surpassed the white turnout for the first time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It may be that this is a reflection of political opportunity,” Harris said. He noted a similar increase in black candidacies in 1988, when Jesse Jackson made a second, unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Bositis said the increase may also be a result of changing political demographics in regions like the South. “The fact is that many of the increases are occurring in states (especially in the South) where most whites are withdrawing from Democratic Party politics — leaving black candidates the nominations by default,” Bositis said.

Republicans have been heavily courting minorities, spending millions to woo black voters and to recruit women and minorities to run for state and local office. “If elected, these candidates will be great representatives for all their constituents and will continue to play a major role in the party’s efforts to expand the electorate,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Orlando Brown.

While the GOP is building up its numbers, the Democrats have a record number of African-Americans running for statewide and congressional offices, according to Bositis. There are at least 65 Democratic nominees, surpassing the previous high of 59 in 2012.

“The historic number of black Democrats running for office at all levels this year once again confirms that the Democratic Party is a broad coalition of Americans from diverse ethnic and professional backgrounds, focused on expanding opportunity for all and building ladders to the middle class,” said Kiara Pesante, Democratic National Committee spokeswoman.

TIME 2014 Election

Democratic Group Goes Dark in Key Senate Race

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes in Lexington, Ky., on Monday, Oct. 13, 2014. Pablo Alcala—AP/The Lexington Herald-Leader

The DSCC is not airing TV ads in Kentucky, where Alison Lundergan Grimes in campaigning to unseat Mitch McConnell

The Democratic candidate in one of the most closely-watched Senate races in the country is entering the homestretch of her campaign without TV advertising support from a key party group.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is not airing TV ads in Kentucky, a DSCC official confirmed, where Alison Lundergan Grimes in campaigning to unseat Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The DSCC has now spent more than $2 million in Kentucky and continues to make targeted investments in the ground game while monitoring the race for future investments,” the DSCC official said. The committee, Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, could still announce a TV ad buy in the future.

The DSCC, which has outraised its Republican counterpart group, is on the air in many other competitive states, including Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and South Dakota, as the party fights to keep its Senate majority.

McConnell is leading Grimes by about three points, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polling data.

TIME

Iowa Senate Candidate Killed in Plane Crash

Dr. Doug Butzier, a Libertarian candidate running for Senate in Iowa, died in a plane crash in Dubuque on Monday night.

He died around 11 p.m. about one mile north of Dubuque Regional Airport, according to the local ABC affiliate. He was the pilot and only one aboard the aircraft. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash of the Piper PA 46-310P, a six-seater, single-engine aircraft.

Dr. Butzier grew up in Cedar Falls and lived in Dubuque working as the medical staff president at Mercy Medical Center, according to his campaign website. He had two sons, and was running against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst.

Several high-profile U.S. politicians have died in plane crashes while running for Senate, including Senator Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), Gov. Mel Carnahan (D-Mo.), Rep. Jerry Litton (D-Mo.) and Virginia GOP chairman Richard Obenshain.

TIME Congress

Montana Senator’s Degree Revoked Over Plagiarism Charges

John Walsh
Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) speaks on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on March 27, 2014 Charles Dharapak—AP

John Walsh is not seeking reelection

The Army War College revoked Montana Democratic Sen. John Walsh’s master’s degree Friday, almost three months after a report indicated he had plagiarized portions of a paper while enrolled as a student.

“Though I disagree with the findings made by the War College, I accept its decision with great humility and respect for the U.S. Military,” Walsh said in a statement. “I apologize to all Montanans for the plagiarism in my 2007 paper, and I am prepared to live with its consequences. I may not be a scholar but I am proud to have been a soldier who has served Montana and this great nation for 33 years in uniform.”

“As Montanans choose their next U.S. Senator over the next few weeks, I will continue proudly serving this state through the end of this term,” added Walsh, who isn’t seeking reelection. “I look forward to fighting for veterans and their families. I look forward to doing all we can for the small businesses that call our state home. I will keep fighting for the freedom of choice and equal pay for women, and for access to our public lands.”

Walsh dropped out of his race for another term in August. Montana Republican Rep. Steve Daines is favored to succeed him in the conservative state.

TIME 2016 Election

Rand Paul Visits Ferguson Ahead of Fresh Protests

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) while speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) speaks at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, Sept. 26, 2014. Doug Mills—The New York Times/Redux

Paul is the first potential 2016 contender to visit the city

Sen. Rand Paul met with civil rights leaders Friday in Ferguson, Missouri, the city torn apart by racial unrest following the August shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. During his visit, the Republican Senator, who is seen as a likely presidential candidate, stated his concerns about long prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, the loss of voting rights for felons and military programs to give unused equipment to local police departments.

“I wanted to find out what we could do to make the situation better,” Paul said of his visit Friday.

“Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them,” Paul wrote in an opinion piece for TIME this summer.

The meeting came just days after another young black man was shot by police in nearby St. Louis, after allegedly firing a stolen handgun at an officer. And it came on the eve of a weekend series of protests organized to keep national attention on the state’s issues.

Paul joined the leaders in the conference room of a real estate office across the street from an art installation Friday, where residents had tied ribbons to a metal fence with messages commemorating the protests that began in August after the shooting of 18-year-old African-American student Michael Brown. Paul arrived in town Thursday for a round table discussion at the Show Me Institute, a conservative think tank in St. Louis. That event, like the discussion with local and civil rights leaders in Ferguson, was not open to the press.

Friday’s discussion was free-ranging, less a speech than a question and answer session. People at the event said that they remained concerned about the GOP’s opposition to federal funding for job training and education and other social programs. Paul said that he would support increases in federal spending for job training in urban communities that could be paid for with cuts to the costs of incarceration. “I think there would be money for job training if you greatly lessened criminal sentencing,” he said.

“They are also frustrated that things aren’t happening fast enough,” Paul said after the meeting, which was organized by the NAACP.

Paul’s trip to Ferguson—the first by a 2016 candidate—is a reminder of how his position on criminal justice reform can make a Republican more palatable to the African-American community. As riots turned violent in Ferguson, Paul distinguished himself among Republicans by striking a more forceful tone in addressing the root of the protesters’ anger and putting forth potential solutions.

“He is stumping like he should be trying to stump if he wants to run for President,” said John Gaskin II, who participated in Friday’s event.

The fatal police shooting of Brown on August 9 revealed a deeper crisis of trust between the authorities and Ferguson community and sparked a discussion about race relations in America. While the armored trucks are gone and the air free from tear gas, this weekend demonstrators are expected to continue calling for the arrest of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who has remained free but silent since killing Brown.

TIME 2014 Election

In Georgia, Perdue Counterpunches on Outsourcing

David Perdue, Michelle Nunn
Georgia Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Michelle Nunn, right, shakes hands with Republican candidate David Perdue following a debate, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, in Perry, Ga. David Goldman—AP

Facing a new and damaging attack on his jobs record a month before election day, Georgia GOP Senate candidate David Perdue and his allies have settled on a hard-knuckle strategy: accept the hit and strike back by talking about Obama.

Perdue defended recently unearthed comments he made during a 2005 court case that he spent “most” of his career outsourcing, saying this week that he was “proud” of his work as a businessman and politician. When his opponent, Democrat Michelle Nunn, bashed him in a new ad titled “In His Words” Tuesday, Perdue released one of his own soon thereafter saying that Nunn has been “hiding” her support of President Barack Obama’s “job-killing, big government policies.” That night in a rowdy debate, Perdue labeled Nunn’s moves on the outsourcing issue a “false attack” and said the government had “decimated entire industries.” On Thursday, the Nunn campaign created a new website and video dedicated to hammering Perdue over the outsourcing comments.

Georgia Republican strategists have provided Perdue cover, echoing the refrain that Nunn, if elected to the Senate, would be a proxy for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama. In a race that could determine who controls the Senate majority, that just might work.

“David Perdue is focused on making this election a choice about what direction the Senate and thus the country is going,” says Georgia GOP strategist Joel McElhannon. “With a Perdue vote, one opposes Obama and Reid’s agenda. With a Nunn vote, one supports it. That’s a very simple, focused choice he is presenting to the voters. It’s powerful and it works.”

“President Obama is about as popular as Ebola in Georgia right now,” he adds.

“The whole campaign is not going to focus on this particular [outsourcing] issue; I think you have to look at the whole picture,” says Eric J. Tanenblatt, who has helped raise money for Perdue, but also worked for Hands on Atlanta, a volunteer service organization, with Nunn. “I did think that David really drove home [in Tuesday's debate] what I believe is the key issue in this campaign—that we don’t need to continue down the path of Harry Reid and Barack Obama. Electing Michelle Nunn, while she claims to be independent…she is still a Democrat and will be a part of the Democratic caucus.”

Nunn’s campaign for its part sees that the tie-in to Reid and Obama is problematic. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won Georgia by nearly 8 points in 2012; Nunn has been around 3 points behind Perdue for months, according to Real Clear Politics. (Although, as the New York Times‘ Nate Cohen pointed out Wednesday, those polls could be underestimating black Democrats.) Gordon Giffin, the Nunn campaign chairman, calls the tactic “arrogant and dismissive,” but still recognizes the threat.

“I think that the only argument that the Perdue campaign seems to present is the notion that somehow Michelle is associated with President Obama and Harry Reid,” says Giffin. “They don’t address what she has to say about her own views, and that is in some ways arrogant and dismissive. She’s her own person; she’s got her own mind and thoughts.”

“That’s got to be responded to because she, like her father [former Georgia Democratic Senator Sam Nunn] was, is an independent thinker on behalf of Georgia,” he adds. “So that is an issue that has to be dealt with because it is distracting. It really doesn’t go to who she is or what she stands for.”

To counter the Obama drag, the campaign is pushing Nunn as a bridge between the two major parties, someone who understands that the president’s eponymous health care law, for example, needs to be reformed. Of course, they’re willing to use Perdue’s outsourcing comment to help her win.

“Mr. Perdue has made his business record the central qualification that he argues he has to be elected to the Senate,” says Giffin. “The more he’s out there saying you should elect me because of my business record and because I know how to create jobs the more you’ve got to say, ‘Yeah, you know how to create jobs in China and Singapore but not in the United States.’”

Independent analysts and even some Republicans agree that the outsourcing comments could pose a problem for Perdue. Andra Gillespie, an associate political science professor at Emory, says that Nunn’s attacks, in addition to the fact that Nunn and Perdue are “novices” running for an open seat, are “helping to keep the race competitive,” even though the historic voting trends give Republicans “the edge.” Todd Rehm, a GOP Georgia-based consultant, says that Nunn’s populist message has challenged Perdue to “connect his policies with the day-to-day lives of voters.” In such a tight race, Jennifer Duffy, a Senate election expert at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, says Democrats “have to hope” the outsourcing comments make Perdue look like “Romney 2.0—elitist and out for himself” to help fire up the base.

“In 2012, voters in Georgia decided that they disliked President Obama’s policies more than Romney’s shortcomings,” says Duffy. “In 2014, their choice is between Nunn, who Republicans have worked to portray as a proxy for the President and a less-than-ideal alternative in Perdue.”

TIME Immigration

Asylum in America: A High-Stakes Struggle for Border Crossing Kids

At dusk in Los Angeles, Maria, 15, waits for word on her plea for asylum from extortion and gang threats in El Salvador. Alexis Kenyon—Center for Public Integrity

The children fleeing violence in Central America are desperate, but are they refugees?

 

This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

While other kids enjoyed summer break, a teenager with more on her mind slipped into her only dressy jacket and traveled south to Anaheim, to a nondescript building housing the local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Lithe and athletic, the girl knew she’d be less than a mile from Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth.” But for Maria, a pseudonym, fun was a luxury she couldn’t afford that day in June.

At the tender age of 15, she faced an interview to plead, essentially, for her life — to ask for refuge from violence so chilling her family thought it better to smuggle her to the United States in the spring of 2013.

“Two years ago a friend of mine died in a very cold-blooded way. She died cut to pieces. My best friend,” Maria said in Spanish, beginning to recount what she told a U.S. asylum officer.

As she recalled the story again, Maria’s soft voice trembled, and tears spilled down her cheeks.

She said police in El Salvador asked her to identify body parts pulled from a bag dumped in a river. She recognized a birthmark on her friend’s leg. She said she also witnessed a boy shot and dragged off, after a soccer game—a boy later found hanged. And before she fled, Maria said, she’d been asking her father, a U.S. truck driver, for more and more money so she could pay murderous MS-13 gangsters $60 a month to leave her alone.

“I was traumatized,” Maria sobbed. “I still am from seeing that body split apart. That dismembered head. Those arms. … As time went by, I didn’t want to go out, or eat, or do anything. The only thing I wanted to do was to die. I told myself that the same thing could happen to me.”

After the 90-minute interview, the asylum officer told Maria she might know the outcome of her request in two weeks. More than three months later, after starting 11th grade this fall at an L.A. public high school, she was still waiting for an answer.

A test for U.S. asylum

In coming months, the American asylum system’s treatment of young people like Maria will be tested as never before — on U.S. soil and in Central America as well.

The challenge to the system’s integrity and humanitarian obligations follows an 88 percent increase in “unaccompanied minors” seized at the border this year. More than 66,000 kids traveling without parents were apprehended by the Border Patrol between October 2013 and the end of August.

News footage showed minors from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala simply walking up to agents to be taken in. Now a record number are expected to apply for asylum based on gang persecution, a basis for refugee status that’s becoming more common— and is a highly debated area of law.

The White House on Sept. 30 also approved a plan to allow a limited number of minors to apply for refugee status—the equivalent of asylum—from inside those three Central American countries if their parents are in U.S. with legal status, including, potentially, parents with temporary legal status.

The plan echoes in-country refugee screenings in the past inside Haiti and Vietnam. But just like Maria, who crossed the border illegally in 2013, children in home countries will face eligibility requirements for asylum refugee status that go beyond experiencing fear.

The asylum application system for minors on U.S. territory has been designed, over time, to be deliberative and compassionate, yet it is by no means a sure thing for kids like Maria.

In the court of U.S. public opinion, some have already reacted with unvarnished hostility to the flood of teens and preteens and their claims to be seeking a haven from relentless violence. “They’re going to be sucking us dry,” Cape Cod resident Mary Woodruff said, as Boston’s WBUR radio taped public debate over a proposal to shelter detained kids at a National Guard base in the popular vacation region.

Yet the public writ large seems to be conflicted. Fifty-two percent of respondents in an Associated Press-GfK opinion poll in late July said children claiming to be fleeing gang violence shouldn’t be treated as refugees in need of asylum. Yet a survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute the same month found 69 percent support for allowing minors to stay if U.S. authorities decided it was unsafe for them to be deported.

Unaccompanied minors have an indisputable right to request an immigration hearing and seek asylum, but immigration skeptics want these kids to be treated more like adults who are subjected to rapid “credible fear” tests that can lead to their “expedited deportation.” Refugee rights advocates, meanwhile, are trying to make sure these kids — who have no right to appointed counsel — have help from attorneys.

As federal officials rush to prioritize resolution of minors’ applications, members of Congress are aggressively attacking the current asylum system as well as children’s claims they actually face mortal threats. Meanwhile, pro bono lawyers are struggling to document horrors some teens have faced — while line-level asylum officers face decisions about matters children tell them could mean life or death.

Truth about terror not enough

To win asylum, or refugee status, even children have to go beyond simply proving that they’re being truthful about terrifying experiences.

“While age should be taken into account in making the persecution determination,” says an asylum officers’ training guide, “not all harm to a child, including physical mistreatment and detention, constitutes persecution.”

For her asylum hearing in late June, Maria wore a dark jacket and pants because she wanted to convey respect. Alexis Kenyon—Center for Public Integrity

The Department of Homeland Security declined a request to speak with an active asylum officer. But Christopher Manny, a former asylum officer in Chicago and Miami, explained the constraints of the law.

“As traumatic as it is seeing your friend or family member executed by a gang for refusing recruitment or refusing an extortion demand,” Manny said, “generally speaking that would not be considered grounds for a refugee definition.”

Officers must also be convinced, Manny said, that children’s suffering had a “nexus,” or was rooted in a persecutor’s intent to harm them because of one or more of five reasons: religious or political persuasion, race, nationality or because they belong to an identifiable “social group” that’s persecuted and unprotected.

Since minors, like adults, have no right to the appointment of counsel in deportation or asylum proceedings, they largely depend on nonprofit and pro bono attorneys who often need crash courses from colleagues because they’ve never studied asylum law.

State bar associations have put out calls for members to volunteer — beginning with initial appearances the kids make before immigration judges. Kids are also showing up for help at advocacy groups like Los Angeles’ Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Chicago’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Washington D.C.’s Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, among others.

Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit in the nation’s capital, is scrambling to match Central American minors with counsel from a pool of 8,000 potential pro bono lawyers nationwide that the group has developed at law firms, corporations and law schools.

In September, as part of the budget process, Congress rejected a White House request for $64 million to hire more immigration judges to clear backlogs that delay cases for years and to provide other legal support, including $15 million in direct representation for kids.

The Justice Department, though, is pressing ahead with $1.8 million in grants to groups to bolster legal representation for kids under 16. The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs shelters for the minors, announced in late September that it’s providing $9 million in grants for two years to fund nonprofit legal aid groups that provide counsel.

It’s unclear exactly how many kids will get counsel, but it can clearly make a difference. A recent analysis of a decade’s worth of immigration court records showed that 43 percent of about 100,000 juveniles in the courts had counsel. About half of those kids were ultimately allowed to stay for various reasons, asylum among them. Only one in 10 without counsel was successful, according to researchers at Syracuse University.

“An attorney is so, so central,” said Lisa Frydman, managing director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

“How does a child begin to understand what kinds of evidence they have to put together,” Frydman said, “or begin to understand what the definition of a refugee even means?”

Comprehending the intricacies of the law is just one challenge; lawyers also face the daunting task of figuring out how to gather statements and relevant evidence from foreign countries where people are often terrified to hand over records.

Under current federal law — laws some in Congress now want changed — minors who arrive on their own must be released from Border Patrol custody and placed in shelters within 72 hours. They receive basic child-friendly legal briefings. And if they are from “non-contiguous” countries, like those in Central America, they must be given a date to appear before an immigration judge before they can be deported.

If a child decides to seek asylum, immigration judges transfer their cases for judgment to the U.S. Asylum Office system, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

If asylum officers don’t subsequently find children eligible for asylum, their cases return to immigration courts, where they can again argue for asylum in a hearing that can be more adversarial, with a government attorney cross-examining them.

Sorting it out

As images of minors crossing the border began to dominate news programs and talk shows, the issue quickly morphed into a political football laced with confusing accusations and misleading statistics.

Between October and the end of June, more than 1,500 asylum requests were filed by unaccompanied minors. They added up to only 4 percent of all asylum applications nationally during that time. But minors’ requests did more than double in less than a year. By the end of June, about 2,180 cases — including Maria’s, in Anaheim — were pending resolution nationwide, according to data provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

During the first nine months of the 2014 fiscal year, 65 percent of kids interviewed by asylum officers were granted refuge — a rate criticized as excessive in a widely covered press release issued in July by House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who opposes federal expenditures on counsel for unaccompanied minors. He declined to comment further.

Goodlatte’s July release alleged that too many kids were being rushed to undeserving asylum status on the basis of “proven or possible fraud,” citing an internal report from the Department of Homeland Security.

What the release didn’t say was that the overall numbers of kids approved during that time frame was modest: just 108 minors.

About 60 other cases were sent to immigration judges for what amounts to an appeal. Thirty-eight additional cases were closed for reasons that included failure to appear. Only two of the 108 minors approved were new arrivals who came in during the nine-month time frame; the rest were kids who had arrived earlier.

U.S. government reports on brutal gangs

In that recent nine-month period, some 90 percent of the kids interviewed by asylum officers were represented by counsel. On average, up to now, most minors have taken more than 300 days to file formal application forms. Because kids are kids, and are frightened, lawyers say, it can take weeks, even months, to fully understand what happened to them.

Asylum officers attempt to resolve cases within a few months of receiving an application. Kids’ lawyers say the process is accelerating now that the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency handling border and immigration matters, has made minors’ cases a priority.

To help frame minors’ stories, lawyers say they routinely submit, with applications, U.S. government reports acknowledging the pervasive, brutal control organized-crime rings now exert in Central America.

In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the notorious MS-13 gang — which Maria said preyed on her — as a “transnational crime organization” involved in global narcotics smuggling and other crimes. A U.S. State Department report also warned in 2006 that kids as young as 8 were targets for gang recruitment, extortion and retaliation in some countries.

Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have some of the highest per capita murder rates in the world.

A Congressional Research Service paper issued in July took note of a United Nations survey of about 400 Central American minors in U.S. custody in the fall of 2013. About half said they had experienced “serious harm or threats by organized criminal groups or state actors,” references to gangs and to corrupt police.

But these claims are controversial. San Diego-area GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, downplayed the role of gang violence in creating the recent surge among children.

“What you’re seeing is a flood of illegals coming here prepped to say whatever they need to say to get to stay here because the President of the United States has told them, in no uncertain terms: If they get here, he won’t enforce the law,” Issa said at a June congressional hearing. Reports of “cheat sheets” composed by smugglers hired by parents fueled the idea that kids were making stories up.

Maria said it was her idea in 2013 to flee El Salvador, not her father’s, and she implored him to help her.

“The majority of my friends that have stayed in El Salvador are terrified. Some tolerate beatings; others, threats. Others are in the gangs now. Waiting to see when it’s their day to die,” Maria said, her voice shaking.

“It’s a country where no one can even play safely, nor think. Nothing,” she said. “The police are dominated by the gangs. You go to complain about a gangster and a little while later, they know about it.”

Lawyers have argued with mixed success that girls who face rape and servitude to notorious criminal bands in Central America constitute a persecuted social group.

They’ve also argued that kids who resist gang recruitment and face brutal retaliation are a social group, along with kids who witness crimes where police are either incapable or too corrupt to protect them from retaliation.

Lawyers for Maria at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project submitted a legal memo arguing that the teenager is a witness to crime who requires protection because she is vulnerable to retaliation.

Patricia Ortiz, Esperanza’s managing attorney, is confident that the kids whose cases she’s taken are truthful.

Patricia Ortiz poses for a portrait near her office win Los Angles, CA, Wednesday Oct 1,2014. (Photo by Annie Tritt)
Patricia Ortiz near her office win Los Angles, CA, Wednesday Oct 1,2014. (Photo by Annie Tritt) Annie Tritt—Center for Public Integrity

“Just because all of them are telling similar stories does not mean that they are lying,” she said. “It just means that they’re living in a country where they are not safe, and they’re in a country where they can’t walk out into the street without being afraid of being murdered or hurt or facing some kind of harm.”

Former asylum officer Manny said officers are trained to spot stories that raise suspicions. They receive bulletins if details in multiple applicants’ stories seem oddly similar.

“What to look for,” he said of children, “is basically the consistency of their testimony, whether they seem like they believe it or whether they seem to be speaking vicariously through someone else.”

Gang refusal a reason for asylum?

The outcome of a case may also depend on how higher-level federal courts have ruled on asylum cases.

In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, upheld an immigration board’s denial of an asylum claim based on arguments that young Honduran males who had refused to join a gang — and reported harassment to police — were a distinct persecuted group.

Opposition to gangs and resisting recruitment is too much of an “amorphous characteristic,” the court said, for determining group membership.

But in 2013, the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, reversed an asylum denial for a young girl based on arguments she lacked status within an obviously persecuted social group.

The case involved a 12-year-old who had testified in open court in El Salvador that she saw gang members assault her father and heard shots that killed him. She also said she was threatened for testifying and fled to the United States.

Her case had previously reached the Board of Immigration Appeals, the BIA, the highest review body within the immigration system. The BIA rejected the argument the girl, as a witness to crime, met the threshold of “social visibility” needed for a social group argument.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, finding that witnesses to crimes were a distinct social group, even if they were not visible to “the naked eye.”

In Chicago this summer, lawyers for a 15-year-old from Guatemala framed his asylum bid by describing him as a member of two social groups: minors who resist gang recruitment and kids who are witnesses to crime.

Francisco, as he asked to be called, came north more than a year ago and was interviewed by an asylum officer in August. His voice still sounds like a young boy’s.

In detail, Francisco recounted what he told an asylum officer. Gangsters gave him and a friend messages warning them to join up, or die. Francisco’s friend mocked the gangsters, who were also children, when he tossed a written message he’d been given to the ground. His friend was shot in an ambush on the street that sent Francisco running for his life. “I saw a bullet hit near me,” he said.

Francisco said he spoke to a police detective at his friend’s wake, and he and his mother tried to shield themselves from reprisal by moving. But Francisco said hoods younger than he found them, and his father in Chicago, fearing his son would be killed, arranged to have him smuggled up to the United States.

The asylum officer asked Francisco details about various parts of his story, and showed particular interest in his interactions with the detective and concerns about retaliation, the boy’s lawyers said.

The social group “rubric” is one of “the most common types of asylum claims nowadays — and it’s also one of the most complex,” said Ashley Huebner, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Immigrant Children’s Protection Project, which represents Francisco.

Huebner said she can’t imagine minors without lawyers trying to sort out what parts of their story are more relevant than others. Former asylum officer Manny agreed. “An attorney’s brief can shed light on a lot of things that may not be expressed clearly by the child.”

Huebner said she doesn’t expect an answer on Francisco’s request for months.

Lawyers’ quests to find documents

Gladis Molina, a nonprofit attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, said she feels an awesome responsibility taking on kids’ cases. But she says she’s also had to turn away kids whose stories simply don’t meet the threshold for asylum or some other type of relief from deportation.

A first-generation Salvadoran-American, Molina, 34, manages the children’s program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Program. Her father left El Salvador during its bloody civil war in the 1980s and received amnesty in 1986, during the Reagan administration.

She warns her clients that they must expect “for their story to be turned upside, downside, inward and outward because you get asked so many details.”

Some kids’ stories are so horrible, Molina said, she weeps as she listens. She’s also had agonized clients call her in the middle of night and say, “Lawyer, I don’t feel like living anymore. Life is just not worth living. I’m not happy. I feel lonely.”

Molina recently prepared a complex case on behalf of a Salvadoran girl, who was 17 when she filed her application. She recently turned 18. In mid-September she underwent an interview with an asylum officer for 2 ½ hours.

The girl claims she was raped by a gangster in what may have been an initiation rite. The girl’s mother, who lived in Fresno, California, is now deceased. The young woman came north to join relatives, was detained and is now terrified to return to El Salvador because the alleged rape was reported to child-welfare services. The rapist is in jail, but like many behind bars in El Salvador, the girl says, he has the ability to order a hit on her.

Up until the girl’s interview, Molina was trying to get child-welfare records from El Salvador to bolster her argument that the girl qualifies as a member of a social group — women exploited by gangs — who would face deadly retaliation if deported.

“I want those records,” Molina said.

Molina and another attorney called and emailed a child-welfare administrator and were told the girl would need to give someone in El Salvador power of attorney to release the records. Molina tried her own family connections as well to see if she could get someone on the ground to get the documents.

“I remembered that a cousin of mine knew a doctor whose wife worked for the government agency that oversees real estate taxation,” Molina said. “So I sent her an email and said, ‘I’m an American attorney. You don’t know me, but my cousin knows your husband. Can you please help me get these documents?’ ”

If her client is rejected by the asylum officer and has to go on to an immigration court hearing, Molina said, she intends to redouble efforts to get the records.

Asylum officers will not reject a child’s claim solely because adults failed to generate documentation of abuses. But officers can ask to see certain documents, and lawyers must provide a reason, in writing, why records could not be obtained.

If you can obtain them, Molina said, records can show that a child’s terrible story is “in fact what happened and not something that she’s just conveniently recounting in America to avoid deportation.”

“An unbelievable story”

In 2009, Damion Robinson was just two years out of the University of California at Los Angeles’ law school and a young L.A. business attorney when his firm took on an asylum case, pro bono, that required extraordinary effort — and money — to pursue, and ultimately win in November 2010. Robinson led the effort, and among the key pieces of evidence he chased down was a trove of records related to a Guatemalan girl’s story of sustained abuse at the hands of a local crime boss.

Damion Robinson poses for a portrait near his office in Los Angeles, CA, Wednesday Oct 1,2014. (Photo by Annie Tritt)
Damion Robinson near his office in Los Angeles on Oct 1, 2014. Annie Tritt—Center for Public Integrity

Robinson got involved when Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND, approached the firm he worked for at the time, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. The firm enthusiastically embraced the case as a pro bono service, Robinson said.

Today, at 31, Robinson handles clients that run the gamut from start-up companies to Fortune 500 firms at Van Vleck Turner & Zaller, also in L.A. He’s eager to represent another minor.

“It was hard to say no, frankly,” the Seattle native said when he began to gather facts about the Guatemalan for what turned out to be a nearly 18-month case.

A Spanish-speaking female assistant helped Robinson slowly unravel the history of the girl, who was living with a relative in L.A. after release from a shelter. At times, Robinson would have to leave the room to let the girl first disclose privately to the woman assistant details of being repeatedly raped, held captive, giving birth at 14, held captive again and beaten and threatened with weapons.

“Her story was unbelievable in a way,” Robinson said. “It was just something I couldn’t even imagine happening …. There was a long, long history of sexual assault and violence, physical violence, against her that was just horrifying.”

The girl said she was first kidnapped by an older man when she was 12 years old. She said the man ran a gang with impunity in a small city. Robinson was amazed to learn that the girl’s mother had persistently filed criminal and civil complaints and obtained restraining orders that local justice officials did not enforce.

The girl’s mother finally sent her daughter out of Guatemala with a smuggler to remove her from the clutches of the man.

A tale that initially felt like it might be exaggerated became vividly real after Robinson and others labored four months to track down copies of the civil and criminal complaints and restraining orders.

“In the U.S., you would just call the clerk and have them send over the court records,” Robinson said, spreading on a table copies of documents in Spanish emblazoned with official stamps.

It was a struggle, he said, with some hired hands demanding exorbitant rates — and then failing to come through. His firm eventually spent at least $9,000 locating and hiring various law groups and services in Guatemala that work to retrieve documents from archives and agencies.

His teen client, he said, “wouldn’t have been able to pay to have that happen. And I think it was pretty instrumental to our case to have those records and have that proof, rather just being her word about what happened.”

And Robinson ultimately went even further.

At the suggestion of Kids In Need of Defense, he contacted Patrick Atkinson, an American who works with exploited minors in Guatemala. Eventually Atkinson, who runs a children’s welfare group called God’s Child, flew up on his own dime for the girl’s hearing in 2010.

Robinson’s client turned 18 after filing for asylum. At that time, the assigned asylum officer said the law didn’t grandfather her into the asylum office as a minor — it would now — so her case was sent back to a judge.

She ended up having a trial-like hearing, testifying for more than two hours with a government attorney opposing her claim for asylum. At one point, Robinson said, the government lawyer argued that the restraining orders showed law enforcement was capable of protecting the girl back in Guatemala.

Atkinson, the expert witness, said he testified at the hearing because he was convinced the gangster would have seized the girl immediately had she been deported back and killed her with impunity.

“The mother did a number of reports about rape, about assault, about domestic violence, and the police reports are there,” Atkinson said. But it’s common, he said, for authorities to be frightened into doing nothing.

“There’s different ways of blackmailing the judges and the police,” he said. “Fear is by far the most powerful.”

That’s the kind of scenario that frightens the Salvadoran girl Maria and her father, who asked to be called Miguel.

Miguel has lived and worked legally in the United States since 2001. That’s when natural disasters that devastated Central America led to the U.S. government to grant temporary protected status, still in effect today, to undocumented immigrants from the region: about 212,000 Salvadorans and 64,000 Hondurans.

Miguel speaks fluent English now and has a good job driving long-distance trucks. His temporary legal status provides stability. But it’s officially temporary. And it didn’t allow him to rescue Maria from El Salvador by sponsoring her to come here legally.

Miguel felt Maria was at risk for being killed in El Salvador, and he feared the local thugs extorting her would demand ever-increasing payments until he simply couldn’t afford it.

So he scraped together $7,500 with help from family and paid it to a smuggler to get Maria out. He didn’t intend for her to get caught. But he was overjoyed when a Border Patrol agent called and said she was in custody after a harrowing raft ride over the river in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

Maria spent months in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-run shelter in Houston, Texas, after her detention. Then she was transferred to a foster family in Los Angeles while federal officials vetted Miguel.

Now father and daughter live together in a South Central Los Angeles bungalow, where they’re getting to know each other. He always had a long-distance relationship with her but left when she was an infant. Maria’s mom is in El Salvador. Miguel has a new wife and a young son in Los Angeles.

To strengthen Maria’s asylum claim, attorneys were able to persuade teachers and a pastor in El Salvador to provide written statements about her character and history. Lawyers also submitted a news article about her friend’s killing, and United Nations and U.S. government reports about dangers in El Salvador.

“Gang intimidation and violence against witnesses contributed to a climate of impunity from criminal prosecution,” said the State Department’s 2013 El Salvador Human Rights Report.

Lawyers were also hoping to submit Maria’s murdered friend’s death certificate. But when Miguel persuaded a relative in El Salvador to approach the dead girl’s father to obtain the confidential report, the father declined.

“He said, ‘No, I can’t help you guys because I have more kids in my house, and I don’t want them to get killed like my daughter,’ ” Miguel said.

Miguel said he doesn’t fault the father for refusing to help.

Dissolving into tears, Miguel said, “I can’t even imagine how he is suffering now or the kind of life he is living because he’s afraid for his other kids and knowing he cannot search for justice for his daughter.”

The Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project has turned away other Central American minors who’ve asked if for help in obtaining asylum. The attorneys won’t take on cases they don’t believe have merit, managing lawyer Patricia Ortiz said. But their work is exploding, with more than 60 cases involving minors seeking asylum.

The responsibility, Ortiz, 30, said, “is a little bit terrifying.”

Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity

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TIME

Audience Drowns Out Candidates in Georgia Senate Debate

The one-hour debate at Georgia National Fair between Senate Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn and Republican candidate David Perdue was a rough and tumble affair, as the audience punctuated each sound bite with the vigor of crazed sports fans.

The candidates’ supporters began to scream twenty minutes before the 7 p.m. start time, provoking surprised smiles and excited looks from the debate panelists.

“We’re going to begin to start but we’re going to need to hear the candidates,” said CBS affiliated reporter and moderator Frank Malloy, who fiddled with his earpiece to better hear the cue to begin. “Alright we’re going to have to start,” he continued. “We appreciate your enthusiasm and your passion very much.”

Nunn in her opening statement praised the “raucous” and “enthusiastic” crowd. It was an understatement. After Nunn’s question to Perdue regarding how high the minimum wage should be, one panelist, Jeff Hullinger of NBC’s Atlanta affiliate, tweeted out that “no one can hear each other including us.” Before the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway asked Perdue an Obamacare question, Galloway half-joked, “You’re going to have to pardon me if this question has been asked already, but I’m kind of deaf at this point.”

Even the candidates couldn’t hear each other well on stage, especially in the segment where one candidate asked the other a question.

“Could you say it for me one more time, I’m sorry,” Nunn asked Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford, who was pushing the Democrat on gay marriage. “David, I didn’t hear all of that, but I think I got the gist of it,” said Nunn in response to Perdue, who questioned Nunn’s agriculture credentials.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the noise, no candidate really got off his or her talking points. Perdue didn’t really answer Nunn’s question about where he would set the minimum wage. (He said “unilaterally” increasing the minimum wage is a job killer.) Nunn sidestepped the question by Perdue asking where she ranked farmers in compared to other priorities.

“You know Michelle, back at you, you didn’t answer that question at all,” said Perdue. “How do you justify to the farmers that in your list of priorities there are 17 items more important than the farmers in this state?”

“There’s no plan that has that listed,” responded Nunn, who talked about her desire to be on the Agriculture committee and her support of the Farm Bill, which Perdue opposes but both current Republican senators support.

The election between Nunn and Perdue (and the libertarian Swafford) is one of the closest in the country. If no one captures 50 percent of the vote, a run-off election occurs on January 6. And for those that could hear, the debate reiterated that there is a clear delineation between the two major candidates on some major issues, including health care and immigration reform.

Nunn says that the Affordable Care Act needs to be reformed by adding a more affordable tier of health care coverage, extending tax credits to small businesses and repealing cuts that threaten rural hospitals. Perdue says it needs to be repealed and replaced, claiming that the law has led to rising health care costs, jobs destroyed, and less access to health care. He believes that aspects of the law should be delayed and that there should be a referendum in 2016 on the law. The law is “one of the worst laws that has ever been passed in the United States’ history,” according to Perdue.

Nunn supports the Senate’s bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill; Perdue opposes it since the bill “did not define amnesty properly” and gave the Department of Homeland Security “discretion” about securing the southern border, which is not acceptable to Perdue, he said, due to the threat of radical Islamic terrorists from Syria and Iraq.

“I’m not sure that he recognizes that he is not running against Harry Reid or Barack Obama,” Nunn said of Purdue. “He’s running against me.”

Perdue might realize who is opponent is, but he’s firm on running against the unpopularity of the president instead of Nunn, whose father, Sam Nunn, is a well-respected former Georgia senator. “Michelle I have a lot of respect for you, but you’re dead wrong,” said Perdue. “I’m absolutely running against Barack Obama and Harry Reid.”

“You’re first vote will be for Harry Reid as Senate Majority Leader,” he added. “We cannot stand two more years of his and possibly 10 more years of this direction….You will not bite the hand that feeds you.”

Those words were at least heard. Earlier in the debate, the moderator Malloy had found himself at a loss. “Look, I can’t even hear what they’re saying,” he said to the crowd. “And in order for me to be able to find out whether there’s time for rebuttal, I need to be able to hear if they’re attacking one another. And I think our panelists are having alittle trouble hearing right now too. So we’re going to have to move on but I love your passion.”

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