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.”

TIME Senate

Ted Cruz: We Must Amend U.S. Constitution to Defend Marriage

Conservatives Gather For Voter Values Summit
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at the 2014 Values Voter Summit, Sept. 26, 2014 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

The Texas senator called the Supreme Court's rejection of appeals to uphold same-sex marriage bans in five states "judicial activism at its worst"

Senator Ted Cruz (R—Tex.) announced Monday that he will introduce a constitutional amendment barring the federal government and the courts from overturning state marriage laws.

The announcement follows the Supreme Court’s decision Monday to reject the appeals requests of five states seeking to outlaw same-sex marriages, permitting gay unions to go ahead in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin.

“By refusing to rule if the States can define marriage, the Supreme Court is abdicating its duty to uphold the Constitution,” Cruz said in a statement. “The fact that the Supreme Court Justices, without providing any explanation whatsoever, have permitted lower courts to strike down so many state marriage laws is astonishing.”

Cruz described the court’s denial of appeals, which paves the away for an expansion of legalized same-sex marriage to as many as 30 states, as “judicial activism at its worst” and “a broad interpretation of the 14th Amendment” guaranteeing equal protection under the law, with “far-reaching consequences.”

The Texas Republican isn’t the first to propose amending the constitution over same-sex marriage. In 2013, following the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R.-Kan.) introduced legislation for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (formerly R-Va.) proposed a similar amendment back in 2006.

TIME National Security

Secret Service Watchdogs Raise Questions About DHS Oversight

Updated at 10:26 a.m. on October 7, 2014

A week after Secret Service Director Julia Pierson resigned amid multiple reports of breaches in White House security, congressional watchdogs are asking whether the Secret Service agency needs more than just mild reform. Among the more drastic proposals are shrinking its mandate to just protecting the president and removing it from within the Department of Homeland Security.

The latter move could brighten the spirits of the agency’s 6,500 employees by removing it from a department that has struggled from its inception after 9/11. But they’re likely to be less enthusiastic about splitting the Secret Service’s dual mission of combating counterfeiting and protecting current and former presidents, vice presidents and visiting heads of state.

“Long-term, the 60,000 foot view, there are some who are very critical of the switch that the Secret Service went through after 9/11,” says Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a top member of the House Oversight Committee. “That seems to have changed the dynamic and made it much more political as opposed to security-driven. And I think long-term that’s something we might explore is the structure of having it within Homeland Security.”

Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, another member of the House Oversight Committee, agrees that moving the Secret Service from DHS is a debate worth having. Connolly believes there is a morale problem at the Secret Service, citing the Partnership for Public Service’s 2013 study on the best places to work in the federal government. In the report, the Secret Service ranked 226 out of 300 agency subcomponents. The Department of Homeland Security ranked last—19th—of large agencies.

“I think the counterfeiting role really probably belongs in Treasury,” says Connolly. “The protection and investigation role I think might make sense in DHS but I do think we have to have a thorough review about the missions and whether they continue to make sense. Are they compatible? Do they detract from one another?”

Some Congressmen and former Secret Service agents believe that other, relatively minor reforms—like increasing funding to boost personnel levels—would help solve the cultural problems plaguing the turnover-ridden agency. Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has pushed back on the idea of spinning off the Secret Service to another agency, and has established internal and external investigations to examine potential reforms. House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul believes that the Secret Service will “regain the trust” of the country by implementing the new independent commission’s recommendations.

“The first step to correcting the deficiencies at the Secret Service is to conduct a comprehensive, top-to-bottom independent review—before we start discussing other options,” says McCaul. “The Secret Service is a law enforcement and protection service organization, with missions concerning everything from protecting the first family to cybersecurity. Because of this, its missions complement the missions of DHS.”

Some former Secret Service agents agree that there are less drastic, but still effective alternatives to finding the Secret Service agency a new home.

“I don’t know if moving it out of DHS [would work],” says Mickey Nelson, a 28 year-veteran of the Secret Service who retired in 2012. “Then where would you move it, logically speaking? But I think that should be part of the review.”

“I do think the Service could use some additional funding and resources and I think that will be the central focus of the committee and the review,” he adds. “Look at the current training. Look at the way they’re aligned. I think the Secret Service will quite frankly welcome that.”

“I think the agency needs to look at manpower, staffing, cultural issues, try to restore or insure consistency between the agency’s mission and its day to day practices,” says Sam Shaus, a former Secret Service special agent who now sits on the St. Louis University Criminal Justice and Security Management Industry Advisory Board. “I think all of those things need to be looked at before any dramatic change that might involve removing the agency from the Department of Homeland Security or redefining its mission.”

“I think one of the dangers could be to try to initiate too many moving parts as a solution initially,” he adds.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 3

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. With 3D printing, prosthetic technology is poised to change millions of lives.

By Tom McKay in Mic

2. Dysfunctional oversight of the Department of Homeland Security undermines its mission.

By Daniel Kaniewski in The Hill

3. The web isn’t killing newspapers. Print readership has been in decline for 20 years.

By Whet Moser in Chicago Magazine

4. Skyrocketing drug traffic has deeply affected life on Indian reservations at the US-Mexico border.

By Shannon Mizzi in Wilson Quarterly

5. With Chinese elites joining the movement, the protests in Hong Kong could yield a partial win.

By Zack Beauchamp in Vox

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Congress

Top Lawmakers Demand Independent Review of Secret Service

Members of the US Secret Service arrive to escort President Barack Obama on a trip at Andrews Air Force Base on Oct. 1, 2014 in Maryland.
Members of the US Secret Service arrive to escort President Barack Obama on a trip at Andrews Air Force Base on Oct. 1, 2014 in Maryland. Brendan Smilowski—AFP/Getty Images

After the agency's director stepped down following security lapses

The top Republican and Democrat on the House’s government watchdog panel asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson Friday to conduct a comprehensive external review of the Secret Service, which has been rocked by recent White House security failures leading to the resignation of former Director Julia Pierson.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee respectively, wrote a joint letter to Johnson saying that Pierson’s resignation “by no means resolves” the questions they have regarding the agency. They asked the investigation to go “well beyond” the September 19 incident, in which 42 year-old Iraq veteran Omar Gonzalez jumped over the White House fence and ran into the President’s mansion wielding a knife.

“The panel should review not only recent security lapses, but the full range of management, personnel, training, and cultural issues that contribute to the root causes of these security failures,” wrote Issa and Cummings. “The panel should examine the process by which the Secret Service communicates with Congress, the press, the American people, and the President himself, to ensure that information the agency provides is accurate and timely.”

After Pierson resigned Wednesday following a brutal congressional hearing before the Oversight committee on Tuesday, Johnson announced that Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas would lead an internal review of the Secret Service. He also said that another panel of independent experts would be created to submit by mid-December a list of potential new directors and recommendations for reforming White House security procedures. In the interim, Johnson has named Secret Service veteran Joseph Clancy as acting Director.

TIME 2014 Election

Democrats Air Dissatisfaction With Majority Leader Harry Reid

Senate Majority Leader Democrat Harry Reid attends a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 18, 2014.
Senate Majority Leader Democrat Harry Reid attends a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 18, 2014. Michael Reynolds—EPA

"Sometimes that kind of criticism goes with the territory," Reid said

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faced blows from within his own party Thursday, amid an election year in which Democrats are struggling to hold the Senate majority.

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said in a private event last month that “the best thing that could happen” this election cycle would be if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got “beat” and Reid got “replaced,” potentially by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-Ny.), according to a recording reported by the Washington Free Beacon Thursday.

In Georgia, former Sen. Sam Nunn told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his daughter, Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, isn’t obligated to support Reid, who last year reportedly tried to discourage Michelle Nunn from running.

While Senate Majority PAC, the biggest-spending super PAC this cycle and an influential player in Arkansas and Georgia, is run by Reid confidantes, former Reid senior advisor Jim Manley says that Reid won’t take the comments personally.

“Everyone’s got to do what they need to do. I don’t expect it to have any impact on the relationships,” he said. “Sometimes that kind of criticism goes with the territory.”

Republicans saw the reports as another sign of Reid’s unpopularity, as well as a mark of discord within the Democratic party. National Republican Senatorial Committee strategist Brad Dayspring took to Twitter and called Pryor’s campaign “desperate.”

Both Pryor’s campaign against Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Nunn’s campaign against Georgia GOP Senate candidate David Perdue are between three and four points behind, according to aggregated polling data compiled by Real Clear Politics.

TIME Politicians

Tom DeLay Celebrates ‘New Life’ Following Court Win

Tom Delay
Former Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, talks with reporters after a lunch meeting of the Texas Republicans in the capitol on the day his conviction for corruption was overturned by a Texas appeals court. Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

He started by picking up a burger and fries

After former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay beat back money-laundering charges in Texas’ highest criminal court Wednesday, he drove with his family and friends to Willie’s Grill & Ice House in Sugar Land for a burger, fries and onion rings.

“Are you kidding me,” asked DeLay, laughing, when asked how he’s doing. “I feel great.”

DeLay has waited a long time to be removed from the yoke of legal troubles. In 2005, DeLay stepped down from his Majority Leader post after a Texas grand jury indicted him on charges that he improperly funneled donations to Texas House candidates. On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld an earlier ruling throwing out his conviction in 2010. DeLay has also weathered various ethics charges raised against him by Democrats in 1996 and 1998 as well as and a federal lawsuit accusing the then-Majority Whip of racketeering in 2000.

DeLay told TIME that his legal fees for “all of that” is “well over $12 million.”

Unsurprisingly, DeLay blames the Democrats for his downfall, arguing that they exploited a “stupid” Republican Party law that requires members to give up leadership posts if they are indicted.

“This is part of the criminalization of politics that the left is very much involved in,” he says. “It’s not just me—They did it to [Texas] Gov. Rick Perry, I contend they did it to [Virginia] Gov. Bob McDonnell, they’re trying to do it [Wisconsin] Gov. Scott Walker and many others.”

The legal battles haven’t sapped his enthusiasm for politics, however. When asked if he would consider running for office, DeLay left the door open.

“I don’t know what the Lord has for me,” he said. “I’m just excited about my new life. And I can get on with it.”

TIME

Sen. Gillibrand Speaks Out on Secret Service Director

Kirsten Gillibrand and Nancy Gibbs speak at the TIME and Real Simple's Women & Success event at the Park Hyatt on Oct. 1, 2014 in New York City.
Kirsten Gillibrand and Nancy Gibbs speak at the TIME and Real Simple's Women & Success event at the Park Hyatt on Oct. 1, 2014 in New York City. Larry Busacca—Getty Images for Time Inc.

'If someone resigns, it's always the woman'

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said she wasn’t surprised by the resignation of Julia Pierson, the first woman to head the Secret Service, who stepped down Wednesday after the public learned of a number of potential threats that slipped past the President’s security detail.

“Obviously there was a massive failure that needed to be taken responsibility for,” Gillibrand said Wednesday during an interview with TIME managing editor Nancy Gibbs at the Women and Success event hosted by TIME and Real Simple. “But I do find that women are often eager to take responsibility for things… inevitably, if someone resigns, it’s always the woman.”

The junior Senator from New York has been speaking candidly about issues women face in the workplace and beyond since the release of her book, Off the Sidelines.

“I think for a lot of us, we feel deeply responsible for how our teams are run, how our businesses are run,” Gillibrand said.

Additional reporting by Eliana Dockterman and Charlotte Alter.

TIME Congress

Pelosi Says Secret Service Director Should Resign

Secret Service Congressional Hearing
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson is sworn in before testifying during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on "White House Perimeter Breach: New Concerns about the Secret Service" on Sept. 30, 2014. Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call

After White House fence-jumper incident

Updated at 2:38 p.m.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that Secret Service Director Julia Pierson should resign, a sharp rebuke from one of the top Democrats in Congress after a White House fence jumper made it inside the President’s home last month.

“If Mr. Cummings thinks that she should go, I subscribe to his recommendation,” Pelosi said, referring to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on a House committee investigating the security breach. “I am subscribing to his superior judgment and knowledge on the subject. But I’m also further saying that this is more than one person because there were problems before she went there.”

“Her leaving doesn’t end the need for us to know a lot more about what is happening,” Pelosi added. “There has to be an independent investigation.”

Pelosi’s office later clarified that she stopped short of calling outright for Pierson’s resignation.

Following a brutal congressional hearing on Tuesday, Pierson held a closed-door session with members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to discuss the Sept. 19 incident, in which officials say Iraq war veteran Omar Gonzalez made it all the way to the East Room before his arrest. The confidential meeting did little to assuage Cummings’ doubts in Pierson’s leadership abilities, however, and he told radio and television broadcasters on Wednesday morning that Pierson should go.

“I have come to the conclusion that my confidence and my trust in this director, Ms. Pierson, has eroded and I do not feel comfortable with her in that position,” Cummings said on MSNBC.

“I think this lady has to go,” he reportedly said during a radio interview on NewsOneNow. “The president is not well-served.”

A Cummings aide later added to those comments, saying that the Congressman believes Pierson should go if she can’t “restore the public’s trust” and address the cultural issues within the Secret Service agency. Pelosi’s office said the Minority Leader agrees with that sentiment.

Pierson said Tuesday that she takes full responsibility for the White House breach and that it won’t happen again. She also pledged a “complete and thorough” internal investigation and policy review.

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