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In Texas and Beyond, Some Watch Mexican Presidential Campaign with Free Trade Concerns

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — On a recent evening in this sprawling border city’s downtown, Alfredo Santiago treated passers-by to an electric, instrumental version of Santana’s cover of “Oye Como Va,” the famous Tito Puente standard. That was before he launched into the unmistakable riffs of ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”

It was just another day’s work for Santiago, 65, who started playing guitar for money when he was no longer able to work in the construction industry, where he toiled for decades. He likes his current gig, he said, but it’s also the only way he can make a living these days. On a good day, he said, he’ll collect about 100 pesos.

That’s one reason why, like the rest of his fellow Mexicans, Santiago is now paying closer attention to the field of candidates vying to become Mexico’s next president, who will be chosen July 1. Santiago said he’s more concerned about the country’s economy than security, although the latter is a close second.

He’s pulling for former Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, as he’s known in this country. A poll conducted last month showed the outspoken populist and candidate for the National Regeneration Movement, or MORENA, with an 11-point lead over the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI’s, Jose Antonio Meade. President Enrique Peña Nieto, also a PRI member, cannot run again because of term limits.

Some business leaders in Mexico, Texas and elsewhere in the United States are nervous about what a potential victory by López Obrador could mean for international trade, the bread and butter for several border economies. Texas is Mexico’s No. 1 trade partner. From January to November of 2017, the Laredo and El Paso customs districts saw $270.2 billion and $85.5 billion in two-way trade with Mexico, respectively, according to WorldCity, a Florida-based economics think tank that uses U.S. Census data to track trade patterns.

“He has tapped into a growing nationalist sentiment in Mexico, perhaps due to President [Donald] Trump’s rhetoric [about Mexico],” said Jon Barela, the CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit focused on promoting business and economic development in Ciudad Juárez, El Paso and New Mexico. In September, Barela compared López Obrador to former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, a socialist and American adversary who was highly critical of U.S. economic and foreign policies.

Obrador has initially said the North American Free Trade Agreement is a bad deal for Mexico and called for the delay of talks to rework the trade pact until after the Mexican elections. When coupled with the anxiety that Trump’s view of NAFTA has caused some Texans, the Mexican elections have sounded alarm bells for border industries who have thrived since the pact’s inception in the early 1990s.

“I do think if he wins, it will be a very different presidency and administration, and it will be one that fundamentally questions Mexico’s model of the last three decades,” said Shannon O’Neil, the vice president, deputy director of studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. “And that’s a model that’s very closely tied to Texas and to trade back and forth with Texas, to companies that exist on both sides of the border — that is a model that he will question.”

Barela said he was encouraged by recent statements the front-runner has made on NAFTA, indicating he’s softening his stance and open to a dialogue on the trade pact.

According to his campaign platform, López Obrador acknowledged that NAFTA was important to the Mexican economy and “a demonstrated useful instrument” Politico reported.

“There’s a long time between now and the Mexican election, but I am hopeful that should he be elected that a level of pragmatism certainly would be in order,” Barela said. “He seems to have tempered some of this remarks on free trade.”

But O’Neil said that might have more to do with messaging and a more sophisticated campaign style than when López Obrador ran for the presidency in 2006 and 2012.

“He has some people around him who have a different communication style, and he’s set out a proposal that’s more broad,” she said. “But when you see him out on the stump, he really hasn’t changed.”

Meanwhile, Meade, who was polling at about 20 percent, is considered the candidate that would keep Mexico’s current economic policies largely unchanged. That’s why O’Neil thinks Texas business and political leaders might pull for him or Ricardo Anaya, a former National Action Party, or PAN, leader who has aligned with the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD. Anaya is also supportive of Mexico’s current institutions and was polling at 19 percent. Two other major candidates — Margarita Zavala, the wife of former President Felipe Calderón, and Nuevo Leon Governor Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez — polled at 10 and 2 percent, respectively.

“I think the challenge Meade has is that PRI legacy, and it’s a legacy of increasing violence, it’s a legacy of high-profile corruption,” O’Neil said.

Meade, a former economic and foreign affairs minister, is a familiar name in Texas political circles. In 2015, he visited Austin and met with Gov. Greg Abbott, where the two talked about several issues, including security, trade and infrastructure.

O’Neil said Meade could have momentum because he isn’t an elected official. But as the PRI’s current choice, he must also push back against that party’s legacy of corruption and ineffectiveness in combating violence, she added.

For Santiago, the street musician, the violence and the PRI’s inability to effect change on that issue is a reason he’s aligning himself with the populist candidate.

“It’s gotten better, but not by a lot,” he said. “It’s been a disaster” overall.

Once known as the deadliest city in the world, Ciudad Juárez has enjoyed some relative calm since a cartel war was responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 people from 2008 to 2011. But 2017 was the deadliest year since 2012, with more than 770 homicides, and 25 people were murdered in just two days there last week.

That failure to sustain peace in the country will ultimately be part of current President Enrique Peña Nieto’s legacy, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute. And that could sink that party’s chance at re-election.

“The Peña administration failed fully in its key security promises,” she said. “One must say [it failed] in all of its promises regarding security.”

Though El Paso remained one of the safest cities in the country during the mayhem across the Rio Grande, it didn’t stop people who didn’t know any better from assuming the violence was spilling over into Texas, Barela said. He’s always worried about what a repeat scenario could mean for investment in Texas.

“I think people are frankly fed up with a lot of talk and no action when it comes to the violence and the threats of violence [in Mexico],” he said. “And because of violence, businesses people are sometimes skeptical to invest in our region.”

O’Neil said that with so many candidates, the eventual winner could only need to secure about 30 percent of the vote, as only a plurality is needed to win the office.

“That isn’t much of a mandate,” she said.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A number of Texas-based business groups have teamed up to prevent a reversal of the good trade relations with Mexico that Texas has enjoyed since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect 23 years ago. [Full story]
  • Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Thursday left the tough talk on immigration in Austin while he held a historic press conference on one of the country’s busiest international bridges to Mexico. [Full story]

Author –  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

After Years of Seeking Asylum in U.S., Mexican Reporter, Son Just Narrowly Escaped Deportation

Mexican reporter Emilio Gutiérrez and his son Oscar have been fighting to stay in the United States for nearly a decade.

That fight almost came to a grinding halt on Thursday after they were cuffed and hauled away by immigration agents during what his lawyer said should have been a routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The episode was the latest in what’s been a harrowing saga that predates President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration and asylum seekers. But it’s now taken a new – and possibly dangerous – turn, his lawyer Eduardo Beckett told The Texas Tribune Friday.

Gutiérrez fled the border state of Chihuahua in 2008 when his reporting on cartels and military corruption there led to a price being placed on his head. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents admitted Gutiérrez into the country — and immediately placed him in a detention center. He sat there for seven months, until January 2009, when he was released as a parolee. His son was held in a separate detention center for juveniles and released after two months.

Even though he had never committed a crime and followed all the instructions he was given while he waited on a judge to rule on the case, Gutiérrez and his son were eventually denied their asylum requests earlier this year. After the U.S. Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed Gutiérrez’s appeal of the decision last month, Beckett said that left only  one option – asking that same Board to reopen the case.

“So we filed a motion to reopen his case with the Board of Immigration Appeals, and then at the same time we followed an emergency stay [of deportation],” he said.

Beckett said he knew that checking in with ICE Thursday was a gamble – but one he was willing to take because it was a relatively routine matter and one that’s required when a request is made to halt a deportation order pending a decision by the review board.

“We had assurances yesterday that they would, at the very least, wait for the Board of Immigration appeals to adjudicate the stay,” Beckett said. “When we went to go report yesterday, ICE handcuffed him and took him away.”

While Gutiérrez and his son were en route to the border with ICE, Beckett was able to secure a temporary halt to their deportation. But they remain in ICE custody in Sierra Blanca, Texas – a remote outpost 90 miles east of El Paso. There is no timeline on their release but Beckett said he expects a decision on the request to the Board of Immigration Appeals within a few weeks. Until a decision comes however, Gutiérrez and his son can’t be deported – but they can remain locked up.

In a statement, ICE officials in San Antonio didn’t provide any additional details on why Gutiérrez was detained.

“On July 19, 2017, a federal immigration judge denied [Gutierrez’s] request for asylum and ordered him removed. On Nov. 2, 2017, the Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed his appeal of the immigration judge’s decision. Gutiérrez subsequently filed with the BIA for a stay of removal, which was granted Dec. 7, 2017,” the statement reads. “Gutiérrez remains in ICE custody pending disposition of his immigration case.”

Gutiérrez’s case has sparked international attention and led to media-advocacy groups to call on immigration officials to grant his and his son’s requests for asylum. Earlier this year, Gutiérrez accepted on behalf of his Mexican colleagues the National Press Club’s John Aubuchon Press Freedom Awards for their reporting in Mexico, currently considered one of the deadliest places in the Americas for journalists.

In an October press release, the National Press Club said Gutiérrez said “he and his Mexican associates ‘find [themselves] immersed in a great darkness,’ as reporters are killed, kidnapped and forced into hiding in retaliation for their reporting on drug cartels and government corruption.”

On Friday, Gutiérrez said by phone from the detention center that things in Chihuahua have changed since he first fled, but that they’ve become worse instead of better. He described trembling as he thought earlier this week that he was going to be left at the bridge and forced back into the country he fled.

“The [Mexican soldiers] are right there at the bridge,” he said in Spanish. “How can you be confident that they’re going to respect your life?”

Meanwhile, Beckett was more composed on Friday than he recalled being on Thursday after he saw Gutiérrez hauled off. He thought his client was going to think he had been set up because of how quickly ICE acted. He sought to allay any of those concerns on Friday.

“I don’t want you to think for one minute that I abandoned you,” he told his client in Spanish. “We will be with you until the end. But I need you not to give up.”

Beckett said that he thinks ICE could try to detain his clients for long enough that the experience breaks their spirits and they both give up and ask to be taken back to Mexico voluntarily. That happened earlier this year when Martin Mendez Pineda, who also fled Mexico after reporting on corruption, arrived in El Paso and sought asylum. But his detention eventually forced him to give up on the case and return to Mexico.

Despite several setbacks, Gutierrez said he’s not giving up. And even if he can’t stay in the U.S., he said, he hopes to find a way to be sent somewhere else because he refuses to return to Mexico.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A Mexican reporter who sought asylum in El Paso after receiving death threats has been detained by federal officials —despite having passed an initial test to determine whether he faces a “credible fear” back home, his attorney said. [Full story]
  • A growing number of asylum-seekers are asking for safe haven based on a factor that isn’t usually associated with a need to flee one’s homeland: gender identity. In the days before the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark gay marriage case, immigrant rights groups were drawing attention to the plight of LGBT immigrants. [Full story]

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

With Border Arrests Down, Some Question Trump Administration’s Push for More Agents

The Department of Homeland Security’s announcement this week that its border enforcement strategy had resulted in a sharp decline in illegal crossings has renewed questions as to why the Trump administration wants even more agents on the southwest border.

U.S. Border Patrol agents made 310,531 apprehensions of people trying to cross into the country illegally between ports of entry during the federal government’s 2017 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. And Customs and Border Protection officers recorded 216,370 “inadmissible” cases, which are defined as a person who tries to enter the country at a port of entry but is rejected, or a person seeking humanitarian protection under current laws.

Combined, the numbers represent a 24 percent drop from 2016, according to year-end statistics.

That has Democrats and immigrant rights groups asking whether or not President Trump’s order to hire thousands of more agents should be reconsidered.

“These numbers show that Border Patrol agents are stopping, on average, one or two people per month along the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Adam Isacson, the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and human rights watchdog organization. “Where’s the urgent need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on further expanding this agency?”

Through 2016, the Border Patrol had about 19,830 agents working for the agency across the country, including about 17,000 on the southern border, according to federal statistics. Both figures represent the smallest  amounts for the agency since the 2008 fiscal year, when there were about 17,500 and 15,440 respectively.

Just weeks after taking office, President Trump issued an executive order calling on DHS to bolster its ranks by 15,000 agents and spread out the new hires between Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As of May, not one of the Border Patrol sectors in Texas had staffing levels up to par with what its headquarters authorized, according to a Government Accountability Report. The Rio Grande Valley had the most agents, with 3,143. But that was short of the 3,201 recommended authorized positions. The El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, had 2,193 agents while 2,415 were recommended. And the Laredo and Del Rio sectors had 1,584 and 1,398 agents, which were also short of the sector recommendations of 1,852 and 1,642 agents, respectively.

But a July assessment by DHS’s Office of the Inspector General said CBP and ICE could not justify the need for the additional agents.

“Neither CBP nor ICE could provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the additional 15,000 agents and officers they were directed to hire,” the reports states. “CBP officials explained they had been working for 3 to 4 years already, but are still 3 to 4 more years away from implementing a process to obtain and analyze accurate operational needs and deployment data.”

On Tuesday however, the Border Patrol’s top brass said the agency was moving forward with the president’s request despite 2017’s apparent success.

“We had some challenges with the infrastructure here at CBP, we weren’t prepared to hire as many of the [positions lost to attrition] that we had going into the administration,” Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Ronald Vitiello told reporters. “We’ve now been handed another mandate to hire 5,000 more agents and we need to stabilize the workforce in the office of field operations.”

The federal government’s success comes as the state of Texas has recently allotted another $800 million for state-based border enforcement, despite Trump’s promise to make border security a federal priority.

The Texas Legislature approved an initial massive boost in border-security spending by the same amount in 2015. Gov. Greg Abbott and his Republican colleagues said then it was necessary for the state to act because the Obama administration was abdicating its responsibility to secure the border. They cited a recent surge of undocumented women and children from Central America as proof.

They opted to maintain that record funding level in May, months before DHS’s report came out. Lawmakers said during the 2017 legislative session that they couldn’t predict how the Trump White House would approach border security, which they said justified another $800 million in spending.

State Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, said Tuesday’s report from DHS means that taxpayers should demand that state lawmakers be more transparent with how the monies are being spent.

Blanco has for years accused the Texas Department of Public Safety of being less than forthcoming about how the agency, which receives the bulk of the state monies tied to border security, is using that funding. But he said he doubted the state would roll back its spending even when lawmakers return to Austin for their next scheduled legislative session in 2019.

“I think there’s a rush to spend money,” he said. “I think it does well during elections. As a border lawmaker who lives literally, a few feet from the border wall and who has been questioning what we’re doing with the money, I think we need to put some metrics and some numbers in [place] in order to be smart about our state dollars and not rush to conclusions.”

Other Democrats have added that DHS’ near-record enforcement should prompt federal lawmakers to rethink efforts to appropriate billions of  dollars for Trump’s promised border wall.

“The Administration can try to twist these numbers into whatever they please, but the fact remains that after unprecedented investments in border security over the last decade, the border has become harder to cross and fewer people are trying,” U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, said in a statement. “Focusing massive, new government resources on a campaign promise would be a foolish and irresponsible exercise.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Wednesday that recent achievement’s by DHS reflect a stronger emphasis on interior enforcement and sends a message to would-be illegal crossers that the Trump administration is tough on illegal migration. He told reporters during a conference call the results mean the administration should stay the course, and said legislation he filed earlier this year would address some of the staffing concerns as well as facilitate legitimate trade and commerce at the ports of entry. The Building America’s Trust Act would punish “sanctuary” jurisdictions that don’t enforce federal immigration laws and fund more agents.

But he reiterated that a physical barrier isn’t a reasonable solution along the entire border despite the Trump administration’s support for such a barrier.

“I think it’s like looking through a soda straw. This is a bigger issue  than just physical infrastructure,” he said. “It’s not a complete answer. We need technology, we need personnel and the right combination depends on where you are along the border.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Earlier this year, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced his office would start accepting sworn complaints against “sanctuary” jurisdictions that prohibit local police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. [Full story]
  • In August, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn unveiled a $15 billion border-security bill. The Building America’s Trust Act would fund parts of a wall or fence, add Border Patrol and ICE agents to current ranks, and punish “sanctuary” jurisdictions. [Full story]

Author: JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

Texas DACA Recipients Face Narrowing Window After Talks with Trump Fall Apart

The decision by two of the country’s top Democrats to pull out of a Tuesday meeting at the White House doesn’t signal the death knell for legislation to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation, lawmakers and policy analysts say.

But each day without a legislative fix means there are hundreds more undocumented immigrants who could be at risk of removal from the United States, they add – even if lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are eventually able to send a compromise bill to the president.

“It’s sending a very worrisome message to our communities about how serious are people in Washington to really provide a remedy,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights. “We were expecting a remedy or a solution by December and it doesn’t look promising that that will happen.”

On Tuesday U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — their respective chambers’ minority leaders — declined to attend a scheduled meeting at the White House after Trump took to Twitter to decry the duo as soft on illegal immigration, weak on crime and in favor of more taxes. “I don’t see a deal!” he tweeted.

Meeting topics were to include tax reform, federal spending and a possible legislative solution to protect young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, from deportation. Democrats had hoped to tie the immigration legislation to spending bills Congress is currently considering instead of voting on a stand-alone measure likely to get bogged down in partisan gridlock.

The lawmakers’ inability to even discuss the issue with the president has some advocates fearful of the path forward for nearly 800,000 recipients of 2012’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That program granted qualified applicants, including about 124,000 Texans, a work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings. Trump announced in October that the program would end in March.

“We’re frustrated by both parties — by Republicans for not taking this issue seriously and by Democrats for not being forceful enough and supporting an issue that should be easy for them,” Garcia said.

But Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based immigrant advocacy group the promotes immigration reform, said it’s wise to avoid over-analyzing what he called political chest-thumping.

“I think what happened [Tuesday] was a lot of your usual D.C. political posturing, with a subtle touch of a presidential tweet,” he said. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “know they can’t pass a budget without the votes of Democrats, much less a number of moderate Republicans. And both [groups] have called for the inclusion of a Dreamer fix in the budget.”

Even though Trump was propelled into office partly on his hardline stance on immigration, Noorani said the president could be the first leader in decades to move the needle on the issue.

“Trump has an opportunity to do something that neither Obama or [George W.] Bush could do, and that’s pass legislation that addresses some part of the immigration system in a constructive way” he said. “That opportunity is still there.”

Noorani agreed the clock is ticking, though. The National Immigration Forum said earlier this month that any legislation passed through Congress would take about seven months to implement; the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and other federal agencies would need time to craft rules, conduct background checks and vet potential applicants. That means that after March 5 — the date Trump has said the deferred action program will end — nearly 1,000 Dreamers will lose their protection from deportation every day until a new program is in place.

“There’s an assumption on the part of policymakers that they pass a law and all of a sudden, by magic, the program is implemented,” Noorani said.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday that whatever the timeline is, any proposal set forth should include border security measures. He also praised Trump for tasking lawmakers with coming up with a fix instead of doing it on his own, and said he had personally told U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., he was ready to negotiate. Durbin is the author of the DREAM Act, a measure he’s championed since 2001 that would provide legal residency and an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented youth.

“We could do it before the end of the year, we could do it after the first of the year. We know that March is an important timeframe when the benefits of the DACA begin to go away, and so I think there’s a great opportunity for us,” Cornyn said. “I think it deserves its own consideration together with some enforcement and border security measures and I think that’s a good solution to the problem.”

But Garcia fears waiting until next year means more undocumented immigrants will wear a target on their backs.

“When a Dreamer is with no status they are not only in limbo but they are going to be subject to deportation,” he said. “The worst thing is that the federal government has their names and contact information. So we don’t trust the administration.”

Claire Allbright contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Non-starter. Dead on arrival. That’s how Democrats and Dreamers are describing a list of immigration policies the White House released. [Full story]
  • U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, has asked the Trump administration to clarify whether beneficiaries of an Obama-era immigration program should expect to be detained by Border Patrol officials even if they have current permits. [Full story]

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

Appeals Court Allows More of Texas “Sanctuary Cities” Law to go Into Effect

A panel of three appellate judges ruled on Monday that parts of the state’s immigration enforcement legislation, Senate Bill 4, can go into effect while the case plays out on appeal.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia halted the part of the bill that requires jail officials to honor all detainers. He also blocked other sections that prohibit local entities from pursuing “a pattern or practice that ‘materially limits’ the enforcement of immigration laws” and another that prohibits “assisting or cooperating” with federal immigration officers as reasonable or necessary.

While a hearing on the state’s appeal of that ruling is scheduled for Nov. 6, a panel of U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled Monday that the detainer provision can stand for now. The panel ruled, however, that based on its interpretation of the law, the part that requires local jails to “comply with, honor and fulfill” detainers does not require detention based on every detainer issued.

“The ‘comply with, honor, and fulfill’ requirement does not require detention pursuant to every ICE detainer request,” the panel wrote. “Rather, the ‘comply with, honor, and fulfill’ provision mandates that local agencies cooperate according to existing ICE detainer practice and law.” The court also ruled that jails do not need to comply if a person under a detainer request provides proof of lawful presence.

The appellate court also ruled that local and college police officers with “authority that may impact immigration” cannot be prevented from assisting federal immigration officers. It said the state was likely to win those arguments during a subsequent hearing and argued the issue has already been settled in an earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision, Arizona v. United States.

But the 5th Circuit also said that portions of the measure that prevent “materially limiting” cooperation with immigration officials were too vague. The court held that the word “limit” could be too broadly interpreted and left a decision on that up to the subsequent panel.

The court offered a mixed ruling on another controversial item in the bill, a section of the law that prevents local governments from “adopting, enforcing or endorsing” policies that specifically prohibit or limit enforcement of immigration laws. The judges kept that injunction in place, but said it only applies to the word “endorse.” The bill, as passed and signed, would have made elected and appointed officials subject to a fine, jail time and possible removal from office for violating all or parts of the legislation. Opponents keyed in on the “endorsement” provision as something that would open up most officials to possible fines and jail time.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the decision and said his office was confident the entire bill would subsequently be found constitutional.

“We are pleased today’s 5th Circuit ruling will allow Texas to strengthen public safety by implementing the key components of Senate Bill 4,” Paxton said in a statement. “Enforcing immigration law helps prevent dangerous criminals from being released into Texas communities.”

Democrats said the state was using delay tactics that would disenfranchise Texas’ minorities.

“Texans cannot wait nor afford another round of years-long litigation while this law tears families apart and sows distrust of and confusion among our law enforcement agencies,” said state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin. “If the court allows the state’s delay tactics to succeed, it will further normalize Texas Republicans’ dysfunctional one-party rule and condemn Texas Latinos to living under a cloud of uncertainty and fear.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Here’s everything you need to know about Senate Bill 4, a controversial immigration enforcement measure banning “sanctuary cities” across Texas. [Full story]

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

Trump Ending Immigration Program that has Impacted more than 120,000 in Texas

The Trump Administration made it official Tuesday: It will end an Obama-era program that has granted relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the announcement that the administration will phase out the initiative — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — program — over six months.

Started in 2012, the program has awarded more than 800,000 recipients — including more than 120,000 Texans — a renewable, two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings. It applies to undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 years old and were 30 or younger as of June 2012.

During a conference call Tuesday morning with reporters, James McCament , the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that any initial requests or requests for DACA renewals and accompanying work permits that had already been received before Tuesday would be “adjudicated on a case-by-case” basis.”

He added that any DACA recipient whose benefits will expire before March 5 will be allowed to apply for a renewal by Oct. 5.

In a statement released before Sessions’ announcement, Acting Department of Homeland Secretary Elaine Duke said the agency would no longer accept new applications and added the administration’s action was intended to prompt Congress to pass an immigration solution.

“With the measures the Department is putting in place today, no current beneficiaries will be impacted before March 5, 2018, nearly six months from now, so Congress can have time to deliver on appropriate legislative solutions,” she said. “However, I want to be clear that no new initial requests or associated applications filed after today will be acted on.”

On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated that he’s always believed the issue should be handled by Congress, not the president. Speaking with reporters in Austin, Abbott declined to offer any specific guidance for Congress now that lawmakers have six months to act.

“I expect Congress to address it,” Abbott said, calling it a “multifaceted challenge and issue” for legislators. “They want to tackle the issue. I think latitude needs to be given to Congress to tackle the issue.”

Asked how DACA recipients in Texas should prepare for the program’s end, Abbott said that’s up to the federal government.

Rumors had swirled since last month that President Donald Trump was leaning toward eliminating the program after he promised to do so while campaigning for president. His decision sparked immediate outrage from immigrants rights groups and their supporters.

“This spiteful executive action runs counter to what has made America and Texas great,” said Ann Beeson, the executive director of the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “While the Trump Administration will use the six month delay to point the finger at Congress, make no mistake that it is the President who is dashing the hopes and dreams of young people protected by the DACA program. Ending the DACA program is contrary to Texas values and bad for the Texas economy.”

This summer, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged the U.S. Department of Justice to end the program, claiming it was an unlawful overreach by former President Barack Obama. Paxton and nine other state attorneys general wrote in a June 29 letter to Sessions that should the program stay intact, they would amend a 2014 lawsuit filed in Brownsville to include a challenge to DACA.

The 2014 lawsuit was filed in response to a separate Obama administration initiative, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, that would have expanded the eligible population of the DACA program and lengthened work permits to three years. That program was never implemented after the state of Texas sued the Obama Administration and successfully convinced a district judge and an appellate court that Obama overstepped his executive authority. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court split on the matter, upholding the appellate court’s decision.

In a statement Tuesday, Paxton applauded Trump’s announcement.

“As the Texas-led coalition explained in our June letter, the Obama-era program went far beyond the executive branch’s legitimate authority,” Paxton said. “Had former President Obama’s unilateral order on DACA been left intact, it would have set a dangerous precedent by giving the executive branch sweeping authority to bypass Congress and change immigration laws.”

The issue has prompted lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to file legislation to maintain the program in some form, including the bipartisan BRIDGE Act in the U.S. Senate that would extend protections for certain undocumented immigrants for three years. Economists have also cited DACA’s benefits to the economy as a reason it should remain intact. Even Trump has stated before that deciding to end the program would be “very, very hard.”

But immigration hardliners argue that despite the “deferred action” title, the program is nothing more than amnesty for people who have violated the country’s laws – no matter how old they were when they first entered the U.S.

Jackie Watson, an Austin-based immigration attorney who represented some of DACA’s earliest Texas-based applicants, said last month that attorneys are already discussing what, if any, legal action they could take should the program be axed — and whether rescinding it might “light a fire under Congress to make DACA a permanent statute.”

But she also said all of those options would be uphill battles. “It will be a total Hail Mary,” she said.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Protesters were arrested near the state Capitol on Wednesday in a demonstration designed to challenge the state’s position on an Obama-era immigration program and test Travis County’s immigration policy. [Full story]
  • Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and officials from nine other states on Thursday urged the Trump administration to end a program that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to work in the country without fear of being deported. [Full story]

Author: JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

Judge Temporarily Blocks Immigration Enforcement Law

A federal district judge on Wednesday ruled against the state of Texas and halted major provisions of a controversial state-based immigration enforcement law just days before it was scheduled to go into effect.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia granted a preliminary injunction of Senate Bill 4, one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s key legislative priorities that seeks to outlaw “sanctuary” entities, the common term for governments that don’t enforce federal immigration laws.

As passed, SB 4 allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and seeks to punish local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation. Punishment could come in the form of jail time and penalties that exceed $25,000.

Garcia halted the part of the bill that required jail officials to honor all detainers, and another that prohibits “a pattern or practice that ‘materially limits’ the enforcement of immigration laws.”

The detainer provision, he said, would violate the Fourth Amendment

Garcia did let stand one of the most controversial portions of the law — allowing police officers to question the immigration status of people they detain.

Because the inquiry into status isn’t a prolonged detention, he said, it wasn’t enjoined. But he explained that officers who make the inquiry are limited in what they can do with the information.

“If during a lawful detention or arrest an officer obtains information that a detained or arrested individual is undocumented he may not arrest the individual on this basis,” he said, adding that the officer is not required to ask the question. But he said if the officer feels like they should, they can only share the information.

“In sum, SB 4 gives local officers discretion to inquire and share information, but it does not provide them with discretion to act upon the information that they may obtain,” he wrote in a footnote to his 94-page ruling.

The bill was scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1, but opponents of the legislation, including the cities of Houston, Austin, San Antonio and El Cenizo, as well as Maverick and El Paso counties and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, argued the bill violates several provisions of the Constitution. Garcia’s decision means the bill is on hold until that issue is decided or until the preliminary injunction is appealed.

His decision is a temporary but significant blow to Abbott and other Republican backers of the bill who said it would help keep Texans safe from undocumented immigrants that have been arrested on criminal charges but released from custody by sheriffs or other elected officials who refuse to hold the alleged criminals for possible deportation.

Abbott on Wednesday night promised an immediate appeal.

“Today’s decision makes Texas’ communities less safe,” he said in a statement. “Because of this ruling, gang members and dangerous criminals, like those who have been released by the Travis County Sheriff, will be set free to prey upon our communities. U.S. Supreme Court precedent for laws similar to Texas’ law are firmly on our side. This decision will be appealed immediately and I am confident Texas’ law will be found constitutional and ultimately be upheld.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton added: “Texas has the sovereign authority and responsibility to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens. We’re confident SB 4 will ultimately be upheld as constitutional and lawful.”

In his ruling, Garcia also noted the injunction would serve the public and cited the overwhelming opposition to the bill during public testimony at the Capitol.

“The public interest in protecting constitutional rights, maintaining trust in local law enforcement and avoiding the heavy burdens that SB4 imposes on local entities will be served by enjoining these portions of SB4,” he said.

In another footnote, Garcia said that placing the law on hold would also benefit the state due to the sheer number of subsequent lawsuits that would likely follow if the legislation stood.

“If SB4 is implemented the state will begin spending public funds to enforce SB4 against local entities that will also spend public funds to defend themselves,” he said. “Both state and local entities will also need to expend public funds to defend against spin off litigation.”

Opponents of the law cheered the injunction.

“The court was right to strike down virtually all of this patently unconstitutional law. Senate Bill 4 would have led to rampant discrimination and made communities less safe,” said Terri Burke, the executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “That’s why police chiefs and mayors themselves were among its harshest critics — they recognized it would harm, not help, their communities.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed the state of Texas’ lawsuit against Travis County and other defendants over the state’s new immigration enforcement law. [Full story]
  • Monday was the first day of what could be a lengthy legal battle over Senate Bill 4, which has been billed as the toughest state-based immigration bill in the country. [Full story]

Author:  JULIÁN AGUILAR – The Texas Tribune

State Senator Rodriguez Statement on Court Ruling that Blocks S.B. 4

Austin – Sen. José Rodríguez, Chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, released the following statement regarding the preliminary injunction granted by the federal court in the Western District of Texas finding that provisions of S.B. 4 are preempted by federal law and unconstitutional:

Senate Bill 4, also referred to as the “show me your papers” bill, the racial profiling Bill, and the sanctuary cities bill, is a signal to law enforcement throughout Texas that it is okay to ignore the orders and policies of your local police chiefs and Sheriffs and profile folks by asking anyone they detain if they have immigration papers. 

This bill not only undermines public safety, it raises serious constitutional and legal questions that I and my colleagues brought up during the numerous debates leading to the enactment of S.B. 4. Thankfully, today a federal judge found that Texas violated the U.S. Constitution — the latest in a long line of legislation aimed at minorities — and enjoined all provisions of S.B. 4 from going into effect on Friday.

This is only the first step to stopping this harmful, immoral, and illegal legislation. Law enforcement, civil rights leaders, students, municipal and county leaders, and residents will continue the fight until all the harmful provisions are fully repealed.   

Hurd Introduces 21st Century SMART Wall Legislation

Thursday, U.S. Representative Will Hurd (R-TX) introduced the Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology (SMART) Act with Representatives Henry Cuellar (D-TX), David G. Valadao (R-CA), Steve Knight (R-CA), Steve Pearce (R-NM), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and Keith Rothfus (R-PA) to ensure that the United States implements the most effective and fiscally-responsible strategy to achieve operational control of our southern border.

“Violent drug cartels are using more modern technology to breach our border than what we are using to secure it. We can’t double down on a Third Century approach to solve 21st Century problems if we want a viable long-term solution,” said Hurd, who represents over 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, more than any other Member of Congress.

“We need a Smart Wall that uses high-tech resources like sensors, radar, LIDAR, fiber optics, drones and cameras to detect and then track incursions across our border so we can deploy efficiently our most important resource, the men and women of Border Patrol to perform the most difficult task — interdiction. With a Smart Wall, we can have a more secure border at a fraction of the cost – that can be implemented and fully operational within a year. It’s time to harness American innovation on this most important National Security challenge and I look forward to working with my colleagues to make this a reality.”

Under the SMART ACT, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be mandated to deploy the most practical and effective border security technologies available to achieve situational awareness and operational control of our border.

The Secretary would also be required to submit a comprehensive border security strategy to Congress that lists all known physical barriers, technologies, tools, and other devices that can be utilized along the southern border, including a detailed accounting of the aforementioned measures selected for each linear mile of the border and a cost justification for each such measure.

Additionally, the SMART Act authorizes $110 million to increase coordination and collaboration between Customs and Border Patrol and State, county, tribal, and other governmental law enforcement entities that support border security operations.

Lastly, in response to the dire need to upgrade communication technology along the border, the bill creates a two-year grant program to improve emergency communications in the southern border region, including multi-band radios and upgrades from outdated or poorly functioning communication networks.

The National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), the exclusive representative of approximately 18,000 Border Patrol Agents supports the SMART Act. President of NBPC Brandon Judd stated, “To secure the border and keep America, we need technology, infrastructure, and manpower.” He added, “The Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology Act will help our agents counter the sophisticated international drug cartels that poison our communities with meth, heroin, and other dangerous drugs. We thank Representative Hurd for his leadership on this issue and encourage Congress to pass this important piece legislation without delay.”

“This bill provides a pragmatic approach to secure our borders,” said Congressman Henry Cuellar (TX-28). “It calls on DHS to deploy the most effective security technology – such as sensors, aerostats, and cameras – and rather than building walls to meet campaign promises, it takes a measured approach by directing DHS, in conjunction with state and local agencies, to conduct a comprehensive study and analysis of the different tools and solutions available to provide security on our borders. I live on the border and know personally the needs of our U.S. Border Patrol and our Homeland Security agents. A giant wall is nothing more than a 14th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. Further, this bill calls on DHS to take a greater role in controlling the invasive Carrizo cane along our river which presents a huge security risk for our border agents, as well as presenting grave environmental impacts. I thank my colleagues for working with me on these issues.”

“Enhanced border security is an issue fundamental to our national security. We need to know who, and what, is coming across our border. Improving border security is vital to preventing drugs, diseased crops, and weapons from being smuggled into the United States illegally. It is also essential in keeping known criminals and suspected terrorists from entering the United States. The SMART Act will ensure we utilize the most innovated technology to secure and protect our nation,” said Congressman David G. Valadao (CA-21).

Amistad Not Impacted by Trump Decision to End ACA Enrollment Assistance in 18 U.S. Cities

Amistad’s Consumer Health Insurance Marketplace Enrollment Services (CHIMES) will not be impacted by a Trump Administration decision to end health insurance enrollment assistance under provisions of the Affordable Care Act of 2013 in 18 U.S. cities including El Paso.

“We will continue to provide the same enrollment services that we’ve been providing since the health care law was implemented in 2013,” said Marisol Vela, Amistad’s CHIMES Lead Navigator. “Persons who wish to access health insurance plans through the Health Insurance Marketplace may continue to count on us to provide enrollment help for the foreseeable future,” she said.

Under its contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Amistad will continue to provide enrollment assistance, public outreach and education services through 2018 to 23 counties in Far West Texas including El Paso County.

The termination of assistance services applies to assister programs administered by private companies including Cognosante, LLC and CRSA, Inc.

Amistad, a non-profit social services and transportation agency, is a Navigator Program that is not included in the Trump Administration’s move to terminate enrollment assistance services across the U.S.

Open enrollment for 2018 coverage will commence on November 1, 2017 and conclude on December 15, 2017.

For information, consumers may contact Amistad at 915-298-7307.

AUDIO: Dreamers Grateful Efforts to Repeal In-State Tuition Benefit Never Materialized

Houston is the only place Samuel Cervantes considers home. His parents brought him to the United States from Monterrey, Mexico, at the age of five.

As an undocumented immigrant, Cervantes, a rising junior at the University of Texas at Austin, said he never thought college was in his future until he learned of the in-state tuition benefit afforded students like himself.

“It quelled a lot of fears that I had because for a good percentage of my time in high school, I felt that I wasn’t going to be able to go to college because I wasn’t documented, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to afford it,” Cervantes said.

The 2001 state law allows noncitizens, including some undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges if they can prove they’ve been Texas residents for at least three years and graduated from a Texas high school or received a GED. They must also sign an affidavit promising to pursue a path to permanent legal status if one becomes available.

Every session, a handful of Republican lawmakers attempt to rescind the long-standing offer. This year, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland filed House Bill 393, which would have eliminated the program by spelling out in statute that a person “not authorized” to be in the country can’t be considered a Texas resident.

The Bedford Republican told The Texas Tribune in January that he considers the benefit a lure for undocumented immigrants and that his constituents “want the magnets turned off.”

Asked why the legislation never even got so much as a committee hearing, Stickland blamed House leadership, including Speaker Joe Straus.

One big immigration measure did pass and become law: Senate Bill 4 is the controversial anti-“sanctuary cities” bill, which includes a provision allowing law enforcement to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest. The law is tied up in the courts, but just the prospect of it leaves undocumented students like Cervantes fearful.

In the meantime, the proud Longhorn says he’ll try to focus on his studies. He said he’ll fight the next round of bills he expects lawmakers to file in subsequent sessions so his younger sister can also take advantage of in-state tuition.

“Undocumented students will go on to have the ability to contribute to the Texas economy by utilizing their college degrees, and I think that having a more educated population benefits the Texas society as a whole,” Cervantes said.

Live chat: Talk to our reporters about bills that didn’t make it out of the regular session — and what’s ahead in the special — Friday, July 14 at noon. Ask a question

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Will Texas legislators repeal in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants? One Republican lawmaker is determined to make it happen. [link]

Author:  ALANA ROCHA – The Texas Tribune

U.S. Rep. McCaul Urges Trump to Call out Putin on Election Meddling

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, publicly pressed President Donald Trump Friday morning to forcefully call out Russian President Vladimir Putin for his country’s meddling with the 2016 U.S. elections.

Trump met with Putin on Friday as part of a major conference of the world’s economic powers in Hamburg, Germany.

“It’s not on their agenda, but I do think the president should bring this up,” McCaul, an Austin Republican, said on MSNBC. “It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s an important issue to the American people, and it’s important for the American president to raise it with him to let him know that we know it happened, and we’re not going to stand for that, and there will be consequences.”

McCaul, who was a top adviser to Trump during the presidential race and was a contender to lead Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, made his remarks in a series of Friday morning cable news interviews.

McCaul on Friday left no room for debate on whether Russians were at fault.

“The intelligence reports I’ve received and briefings — very clear and convincing evidence it was a nation-state, attack by Russia,” McCaul said on MSNBC. “I don’t think you can really dispute that. … Everybody who’s had the briefing has [been] consistent in saying that.”

Trump has drawn criticism from members of both parties for his comments on Russia going back to his time as a candidate. He created controversy anew back home when he cast doubt on Thursday in Poland over who committed the cyberattacks and the U.S intelligence community’s capacity for accuracy.

“I think it was Russia, but I think it was probably other people and/or countries,” Trump said. “I see nothing wrong with that statement … Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”

When asked on CNN why the president continues to raise doubts, McCaul suggested Trump continues to be concerned about whether the outcome of the 2016 election is viewed as legitimate.

“I think he, perhaps, thinks it undermines the credibility of his election, possibly,” McCaul said of Trump.

McCaul also said that ahead of last year’s election, he urged former President Obama to more forcefully criticize Putin on the cyberattacks.

McCaul is among those in the House pushing to strengthen sanctions against Russia. Such a measure passed the Senate in June by a near-unanimous vote. The push has stalled out in the House — and has met resistance from within the Texas delegation — but McCaul said he hopes to pick the issue up in the coming weeks.

McCaul said on Fox News that any sanctions measure passed should avoid “unintended consequences” to American businesses. When asked about a statement from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office that tied the House GOP’s slow walk on sanctions to “complicity in the Trump White House’s weakness toward Trump,” McCaul responded by urging House Democrats to stop “playing politics”

“I think we’re going to get there,” he said. “It’s too important of an issue.”

Trump did end up raising the issue in his meeting with Putin Friday, but did not emphasize any potential consequences, according to news reports. The American and Russian accounts of the meetings diverged, with the Russians suggesting Trump accepted Putin’s denial of the attack.

“There was not a lot of relitigating of the past,” recounted U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who attended the meeting, to the New York Times.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas Republicans would lose seven committee chairmanships if their party loses control of the U.S. House. [link]
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Author:  ABBY LIVINGSTON – The Texas Tribune

Bishop Seitz: I Can Hear Jesus’ Indignant Response to AGs who Want to Deport ‘Dreamers’

Not many things made Jesus angry. He was the picture of patience and forgiveness even in the face of many serious human faults. But one thing often caused Jesus to fly off the handle — legalistic leaders.

While Jesus’ life and ministry may have taken place 2,000 years ago, now in my home state of Texas, legalists are placing the letter of the law ahead of the well-being and dignity of children and families.

On June 29, attorneys general from 10 states including Ken Paxton of Texas threatened in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to sue the Trump administration if it does not eliminate Obama-era protections that shield “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

The letter called on the administration to stop accepting new or renewing existing applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Obama created during his first term.

If these upholders of the law have their wish, Dreamers will no longer be protected from deportation.

The scribes and the Pharisees of his time drove Jesus to distraction. As he put it, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes … and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. These you should have done, without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). And as he told his disciples, “but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (Matthew 23:3).

Are the roles of the scribes and Pharisees being played out again today? Paxton and the nine other attorneys general argue that it’s not enough to exercise our country’s legal prerogatives regarding immigration with the adults who have sought refuge within our borders. Must we go even further and also lay the heavy burden of the law on the children they brought with them? Will we wrench Dreamers from their schools, communities and the only homes they have ever known? Will we send them away because they are not “legal”?

Around 220,000 young people in Texas will be out of school and out of productive work: a classic formula to create the desperation that makes drug dealing and other crime appear to be the only option.

The leaders of Jesus’ day thought by fulfilling the minutiae of the law they could be righteous before God and, more importantly for them, appear righteous before human beings. Jesus answered that they should have practiced a higher law, that of justice and mercy and faithfulness. They should have imitated God’s compassion toward those forced by life’s circumstances to carry heavy loads. They should not have added to those loads with self-righteous insistence on the smaller points of the law.

When I hear this legalistic insistence upon every letter of our broken immigration law being carried out to this cruel degree, I can hear Jesus’ indignant response: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.

Author Mark J. Seitz is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese El Paso  | Article via Religion News Service 

Doña Ana County Formally Submits Letter Supporting Organ Mountains National Monument

Doña Ana County has formally submitted Resolution 2017-61 supporting the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“My colleagues and I listened to hours of emotional and impassioned input before reaching our decision,” said Doña Ana County Commission Chairwoman Isabella Solis. “Reaching the decision was both challenging and informative. We ask Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and President Trump to support the commission’s decision to keep the Organ Mountains/Desert Peaks National Monument protected as it is today.”

“Our communities have worked for decades to protect nationally significant resources on federal lands in our area, while continuing our multiple use tradition on those lands.  The Organ Mountains/Desert Peaks National Monument designation does that, and has greatly benefited the residents of Doña Ana County,” Garrett said

In addition to supporting the monument, the resolution also opposes “any reduction, rescission, or attempt to harm the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument” and supports the continued protection under law of valid existing rights including private property rights within the monument.

The Doña Ana County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 on June 27 to support the resolution, which was drafted by District 1 Commissioner Billy G. Garrett. District 3 Commissioner Benjamin L. Rawson cast the lone dissenting vote.

The Department of Interior is taking public comments until July 10 as part of President Trump’s review of 27 national monuments.

Russia, Health Care, Debt Ceiling on Summer Agenda for Texans in Congress

WASHINGTON — After a sour spring, Congress is prepping for the summertime blues.

With the August recess just a few weeks away, there is one question on everyone’s mind on Capitol Hill: Can Republicans move any major legislation this summer? Or if not that, can they even move basic, must-pass bills to keep the government functioning normally?

That the answers to those questions are not clear shows how things have changed for the Republican-controlled Congress since the high hopes of January.

Internal GOP divisions and general chaos coming from the White House have translated to meager legislative accomplishments so far.

Republicans are increasingly backing off timelines to wrap up any of the items high on their agenda by August.

A rolling stream of evidence about the 2016 Russian cyberattacks and connections to allies of President Donald Trump continues to undermine public relations efforts to focus on other issues. So much so, that Republicans who used to roll their eyes at Democratic concerns are now beginning to wonder what the future holds on the Russian front.

Why does any of this matter, given that we are barely six months into the new administration? Because sooner rather than later, the pressure of the 2018 midterms is likely to further paralyze Congress.

And then there is the unknown: Members are increasingly bracing for more curve balls coming from an unpredictable White House.

Nonetheless, five issues remain the most likely to dominate Congress’ summer. Texans are well-positioned to potentially play key roles in all of them:

Russia Investigations

While members spent the week back home, Congressional subpoenas were flying around Washington. Upcoming hearings are likely to only increase attention on the investigations. And it all starts Thursday with former FBI Director James Comey set to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The notion that a fired FBI director is postured to reveal possibly incriminating evidence against a sitting president of the United States has members of both parties stunned and concerned.

There are likely to be plenty of other hearings on both sides of the U.S. Capitol, even as special counsel Robert Mueller continues his own Justice Department investigation.

Texans to watch: Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, and Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, all serve on their respective chambers’ intelligence committees and will participate in hearings. But no one will be closer to the storm than U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway of Midland, who is the Republican leader of the House-side investigation.

Raising the debt ceiling

Ever since Republicans took control of the U.S. House in 2011, the concept of increasing the government’s ability to borrow money has become a game of chicken between the two parties. Most economists say a default would be economically catastrophic, but such brinksmanship can translate into the opposition exacting major demands.

Congress was bracing for a fall fight. But some Trump administration officials suggest the need to raise the limit could come sooner and are urging Congress to address the issue before they let out for the August recess.

Texans to watch: House Freedom Caucus members like Republican U.S. Reps Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Randy Weber of Friendswood, combined with Texas Democrats who tend to fall in line behind House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, will undoubtedly squeeze the House Republican leadership from opposite directions amid debt limit negotiations.

Health care overhaul

Cornyn predicted Republicans will pass a repeal and replace of former President Obama’s 2010 health law by the August recess. Few others on Capitol Hill are that optimistic.

The House passed a bill in early March that has drawn strong opposition from the Senate, which is expected to craft its own version of the legislation.

Previous efforts to pass an overhaul unleashed tumult within the House GOP and ate up most of the winter and spring.

Republicans are worried about more town hall backlash over the August recess over health care. Such scenes dogged Democrats in the summer of 2009 amid their push for a health care overhaul during Obama’s first term.

Texans to watch: Both Cornyn and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz are participating in a Senate working group to hash out health care policy. Cornyn, as the Senate majority whip, will be the lead vote-counter on any legislation; and Cruz is influential among House conservatives. Additionally, U.S. Reps. Kevin Brady of the Woodlands and Michael Burgess of Lewisville, have committee assignments that make them key players on this issue. Freedom Caucus members like Gohmert and Weber could be pivotal votes if the House and Senate ever aim to reconcile different versions of a bill. If that came to pass, Hurd, who is expected to face a tough re-election race in 2018, will also be one to watch amid the vote-counting efforts of GOP House leaders.

Tax code overhaul

Rewriting the tax code is so difficult that it is typically addressed only once in a generation. Hopes were high at the dawn of the Trump administration. But a tax code overhaul was tied to the success of passing of a health care overhaul — which hasn’t happened yet.

Initially, the hope was to move tax legislation by the August recess. House leaders have scaled back those ambitions and are now hoping it will pass by the end of the calendar year.

Texans to watch: Brady, the U.S. House Ways and Means chairman, can be spotted regularly racing through the capitol to meetings and television interviews to champion this cause.

Financial Regulation Overhaul

There is, possibly, no bill House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarlinghas worked harder to move than an overhaul of Dodd-Frank, a Democratic-led legislation to rewrite Wall Street regulations in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

He’ll likely have some success in the next week, as the U.S. House is expected to vote on a Hensarling-crafted bill.

But like so many other conservative dreams, this one could wind up choked in the U.S. Senate. Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky downplayed expectations the legislation would make it through his chamber, although he said he supported the concept. Several GOP congressional sources agreed with this assessment.

Texans to watch: Hensarling.

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: ABBY LIVINGSTON – The Texas Tribune

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