U.S. to ramp up rapid deportations with sweeping new rule

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle parks near the border fence between Mexico and U.S. as seen from Tijuana, Mexico July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Monday it will expand and speed up deportations of migrants who enter the United States illegally by stripping away court oversight, enabling officials to remove people in days rather than months or years.

Set to be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, the rule will apply “expedited removal” to the majority of those who enter the United States illegally unless they can prove they have been living in the country for at least two years.

Legal experts said it was a dramatic expansion of a program already used along the U.S.-Mexican border that cuts out review by an immigration judge, usually without access to an attorney. Both are available in regular proceedings.

“The Trump administration is moving forward into converting ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) into a ‘show me your papers’ militia,” said Vanita Gupta, the president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, on a call with reporters.

It was likely the policy would be blocked quickly by a court, several experts said. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed suit to block numerous Trump immigration policies in court, has vowed to sue.

President Donald Trump has struggled to stem an increase of mostly Central American families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to overcrowded detention facilities and a political battle over a growing humanitarian crisis.

The government said increasing rapid deportations would free up detention space and ease strains on immigration courts, which face a backlog of more than 900,000 cases.

Nearly 300,000 of the approximately 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally could be quickly deported under the new rule, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said 37%, or 20,570, of those encountered by ICE in the year to September, had been in the country less than two years.

People in rapid deportation proceedings are detained for 11.4 days on average, according to DHS. People in regular proceedings are held for 51.5 days and are released into the United States for the months or years it takes to resolve their cases.

Legal experts said the rule shreds basic due process and could create havoc beyond immigrant communities.

“ICE has been detaining and deporting U.S. citizens for decades,” said Jackie Stevens, a political science professor at Northwestern University. That policy came at a great cost to U.S. taxpayers in terms of litigation and compensation, she added.

    ICE in 2003 became a successor agency to Immigration and Naturalization Services.

U.S. citizens account for about 1% of those detained by ICE and about 0.5% of those deported, according to Stevens’ research.

“Expedited removal orders are going to make this much worse,” she said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco in March ruled that those ordered deported in the sped-up process have a right to take their case to a judge.

Previously, only those immigrants caught within 100 miles of the border who had been in the country two weeks or less could be ordered rapidly deported. The policy makes an exception for immigrants who can establish a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Richard Chang and Rosalba O’Brien)

Trump administration sets ‘new bar’ for immigrants seeking asylum

Migrants cross the Rio Bravo to enter illegally into the United States, to turn themselves in to request asylum, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Becerr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Monday said it would take steps to make it more difficult for immigrants arriving on the southern border to seek asylum in the United States, putting the onus on them to ask for shelter in other countries.

The Department of Homeland Security, in a statement issued with the Department of Justice, said the interim rule would set a “new bar” for immigrants “by placing further restrictions or limitations on eligibility for aliens who seek asylum in the United States.”

The proposal would make it tougher for applicants who did not apply for protection from persecution or torture where it was available in at least one “third country” through which they traveled en route to the United States.

The Trump administration wants to slow down a flow of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. Most are Central Americans who have traveled through Mexico and Guatemala on the way to the border, though some come from as far as Africa.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the initiative would “help reduce a major ‘pull’ factor driving irregular migration to the United States.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in the statement that while the “United States is a generous country,” it was being “completely overwhelmed” by the hundreds of thousands of “aliens along the southern border.” Many of them, he said, are seeking “meritless asylum claims.”

The measure is intended to take effect with the rule’s publication on Tuesday, according to the statement.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Heavey; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Rosalba O’Brien)

Trump drops census citizenship question, vows to get data from government

U.S. President Donald Trump stands with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Attorney General Bill Barr to announce his administration's effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Jeff Mason and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump retreated on Thursday from adding a contentious question on citizenship to the 2020 census, but insisted he was not giving up his fight to count how many non-citizens are in the country and ordered government agencies to mine their databases.

Trump’s plan to add the question to the census hit a roadblock two weeks ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against his administration, which had said new data on citizenship would help to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, which protects minority rights.

The court ruled, in considering the litigation by challengers, that the rationale was “contrived.” Critics of the effort said asking about citizenship in the census would discriminate against racial minorities and was aimed at giving Republicans an unfair advantage in elections by lowering the number of responses from people in areas more likely to vote Democratic.

Trump, a Republican, and his supporters say it makes sense to know how many non-citizens are living in the country.

“We will utilize these vast federal databases to gain a full, complete and accurate count of the non-citizen population, including databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. We have great knowledge in many of our agencies,” Trump said in remarks in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday. “We will leave no stone unturned,” he said.

Trump said he was not reversing course.

“We are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population,” he said.

But there could be more legal challenges ahead for the administration because the U.S. Constitution states that every person living in the country should be counted to determine state-by-state representation in Congress and that is done every 10 years in the Census, not by other means.

“We will vigorously challenge any attempt to leverage census data for unconstitutional redistricting methods,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute at the NYU School of Law.

Waldman said his group would also challenge “any administration move to violate the clear and strong rules protecting the privacy of everyone’s responses, including the rules barring the use of personal census data to conduct law or immigration enforcement activities.”

IMMIGRATION POLICIES

Trump, who has made hard-line policies on immigration a feature of his presidency and his campaign for re-election in 2020, said he was ordering every government agency to provide the Department of Commerce with all requested records regarding the number of citizens and non-citizens. The U.S. Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department.

“That information will be useful for countless purposes, as the president explained in his remarks today,” U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.

Barr cited a legal dispute on whether illegal immigrants can be included for determining apportionment of congressional districts. “Depending on the resolution of that dispute, this data may possibly prove relevant. We will be studying the issue.”

The approach announced by Trump on Thursday was similar to the one proposed by a Census Bureau official to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, according to a memorandum made public by congressional Democrats in 2018. It said the costs of adding a citizenship question to the Census would be high, but using existing administrative records would not.

Opponents called Thursday’s decision a defeat for the administration, but promised they would look closely to determine the legality of Trump’s new plan to compile and use citizenship data outside of the census.

Rights groups in citizenship-question lawsuits in federal courts in New York and Maryland have no plans to abandon the litigation, Sarah Brannon of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project, and John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said on a conference call with reporters.

They also see potential for future litigation over the Trump administration’s collection of data, as well as how those data are used in state redistricting.

“We will sue as necessary,” Brannon said.

The Census is also used to distribute some $800 billion in federal services, including public schools, Medicaid benefits, law enforcement and highway repairs.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and David Shepardson; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu, Makini Brice and Eric Beech in Washington and Andrew Chung and Lauren LaCapra in New York; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)

Special Report: The non-profits, startups and PACs seizing on Trump’s dream wall

FILE PHOTO: Heavy machinery moves a bollard-type wall, to be placed along the border of private property using funds raised from a GoFundMe account, at Sunland Park, N.M., as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico May 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

By Julia Harte and Joseph Tanfani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s signature campaign vow to erect a wall on the southern U.S. border with Mexico has been mired in cross-border bickering and opposition from Democratic lawmakers with power over the government’s purse strings.

But amid the political stalemate, a wave of only-in-America entrepreneurs, fundraisers and profiteers have taken the issue into their own hands.

Tapping into Trump’s outrage over immigrants pouring into the United States, several dozen citizens have created non-profit and for-profit organizations, started GoFundMe pages, and launched political action committees to raise money to fund the wall or support like-minded candidates. In all, more than $25 million has poured in, the vast majority to a venture led by an Air Force veteran who has become the most public face of the fundraising mission.

Who’s paying the bill? Americans such as Arlene Mackay, 80, a Montana cattle rancher who gave $1,000 in January to what she thought was a multi-million dollar fundraiser, dubbed We Build the Wall, to construct a border wall. In fact, her money went to a different venture with a similar name: Build the Wall.

“I thought I might be buying a piece of the wall, like an inch,” said Mackay, when informed her donation had not reached its intended target. The money, she said, could have gone instead to buy half a cow. I’m just going to say I better be very cautious from now on.”

In all, Reuters found, more than 330,000 Americans have dipped into their wallets to bankroll emerging border wall campaigns. With their investments have come big promises, but few concrete results. The most noticeable impact so far: A half-mile of new bollard-style fencing in eastern New Mexico, built by the largest border wall fundraiser.

Even that project has been beset by regulatory concerns. Meanwhile, wall-themed novelty toy sellers and failed political action committees have left behind some disappointed customers and donors.

Yet even if these efforts don’t deliver a full border wall, some backers express no regrets.

“I don’t expect a private organization to actually finish it, but what I’m hoping is that it will resonate with other politicians and government, and show that we’ve got a movement,” said Richard Mills, 68, an Ohio information technology worker who gave $400 to two border wall fundraisers.

WALL CROWDFUNDING

U.S. government analysts have been skeptical about the need to seal off the Mexican border with 1,300 more miles of wall. Each new mile of fencing and barriers would yield diminishing returns while costing more in installation and maintenance, concluded a 2016 Congressional Research Service report.

And then there’s the cost to build: $21.6 billion, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security report.

The idea of sealing off the U.S. border with Mexico has been a Trump fixation, ever since his June 2015 campaign promise to build a “great, great wall on our southern border” galvanized voters angry over illegal immigration. Since his election, the wall plans have stalled. When Congress refused to meet Trump’s requests for billions in wall funding, he forced a 35-day government shutdown at the end of 2018, then declared an emergency in February, a maneuver hung up in federal court challenges.

Meanwhile, a handful of fundraising campaigns have sprung up to solicit cash from fervent believers who want more miles built. The groups are run by veterans, ex-government officials, even a seven-year-old Texas boy who raised wall money with a hot chocolate stand.

FILE PHOTO: Trump supporters hug after U.S. President Donald Trump's motorcade drove past them following his viewing of border wall prototypes in San Diego, California, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Trump supporters hug after U.S. President Donald Trump’s motorcade drove past them following his viewing of border wall prototypes in San Diego, California, U.S., March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

Ray Nurnberger, general manager at a Long Island lumber yard, has donated more than $300 to three different border wall fundraisers over the past year, even while saving up for a wedding and preparing to support his first child.

“I’ll keep giving because I don’t want my kid to not be able to find a job, or have to compete with people who didn’t come here legally,” said Nurnberger, 46.

His donations shed light on the circuitous path contributions can follow once they leave donors’ hands.

His first went to the Border Wall Foundation, a non-profit created in 2018 by Ken Downey, a veteran and former Border Patrol communications supervisor, who said he did it as a civics lesson for his teenage daughter. They created a website, set up social media pages – but raised just $2,450, which he holds in an account while continuing to fundraise.

“If someday we get too frustrated and decide to quit and throw our hands in the air and say ‘we’re not getting there, we’d donate it to another effort to build the wall,” said Downey, of Washington State.

Next, Nurnberger gave $100 to a border wall fundraiser launched by the National Sheriffs Association in March 2018, with a promise that “100% of your tax-deductible donation will go to secure America’s southern border.” But the logistics of collecting donations began to overwhelm the association, and some sheriffs argued against supporting Trump’s border wall.

In September 2018, the sheriffs decided to donate their funds, which totaled around $25,000 at the time, to another non-profit campaign, Fund the Wall. That effort was founded by a Maryland IT professional, Quentin Kramer, who had registered the web domain name before Trump ran for president. On the day the sheriffs’ donations started flowing into Kramer’s group, Bristol County, Massachusetts, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson appeared on Fox television to promote the sheriffs’ fundraising website. Donations poured in: $100,000 that week, Kramer said.

But the effort had already hit its own wall. Kramer’s plan was to send donations to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be used for wall construction. DHS said it couldn’t take the money, telling Kramer it “did not have the resources to process external donations at this time.”

Hodgson told Kramer the sheriffs had already been talking to DHS and could cut through the red tape. In November, Hodgson submitted a form on behalf of Fund the Wall, offering to donate $100,000 to DHS, stipulating that the agency “may only use this gift to construct border barriers (e.g. a wall) on the southern border of USA,” according to the form, reviewed by Reuters.

DHS said its office that processes gifts had not seen the form and that it had “no information to offer on the status of a donation.” Hodgson said he would go back to DHS to figure out what happened.

Today, Nurnberger’s $100 sits in the bank account of Fund the Wall, along with $222,267 in other donations. Nurnberger said he had no idea where his money had landed until contacted by Reuters.

“I guess that approach wasn’t the right way to go about it, because they don’t seem to have the ability to get that money to DHS,” he said.

‘WE BUILD THE WALL’

Meanwhile, Nurnberger had already donated an additional $100 to another border wall fundraiser, this one launched on the online fundraising platform GoFundMe in December 2018.

That effort initially named “We The People Will Fund The Wall,” was spearheaded by Brian Kolfage. A triple amputee U.S. Air Force veteran, Kolfage formerly ran a company that made millions running right-wing media pages. His border wall fundraiser pulled in $20 million in donations within a month, promoted by prominent immigration skeptics such as Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

At first, Kolfage pledged to send donations to the U.S. government. But in January, he updated the GoFundMe site to say his team had decided to use the money instead to hire private contractors and build the wall themselves, rebranding the fundraiser as “We Build the Wall.”

Under GoFundMe rules, that meant the donors got their money back. But most of them, accounting for $14 million, kept their money with Kolfage. With more than $11 million in new donations, he’s now raised over $25 million.

Kolfage drew support from fundraisers such as Benton Stevens, the seven-year-old Texas boy who set up a hot chocolate stand to raise money for a border wall after watching Trump’s State of the Union speech. We Build the Wall contacted Stevens’ family after his stand made the news in February, and his parents eventually donated the funds to Kolfage’s effort, said his father Shane, who estimated his son raised $28,000. Benton still draws donations from Benton’s Stand, a website selling hot chocolate mix, powdered lemonade and Trump-themed products.

At the end of May, Kolfage unveiled the first fruits of his project: the steel bollard fence on private property near the U.S.-Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Benton Stevens and Kolfage jointly wielded the scissors during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The wall, which Kolfage said cost around $7.5 million, immediately hit resistance. Sunland Park city officials issued a cease and desist order, saying the project was not properly permitted. In turn, Kolfage told his thousands of supporters the city was in league with drug cartels, urging them to pressure local officials to allow construction to proceed.

Over the next two days, the city pushed through approvals, on condition Kolfage met all code requirements. Sunland Park city officials declined comment.

We Build the Wall ran into similar permitting problems with an agency called the International Boundary and Water Commission, which controls an access road into Mexico near the site. Kolfage’s team built a gate across the road. Kolfage and the commission worked out an arrangement under which the gate remains closed at night but open during the day.

Days before his team broke ground, Kolfage said, a White House official he would not name told the boundary commission “not to mess with” his operation.

The commission “looked into that claim and could not find anyone who had received that call,” said spokeswoman Sally Spener. The White House did not return calls for comment.

The half-mile of wall did not succeed in completely sealing the border near Sunland Park; video showed migrants running across the border a few miles away.

“You gotta start somewhere, that’s how we look at it,” said Kolfage, comparing the border to a leaky hose that must be patched in multiple spots.

A budget of estimated project expenses he submitted to the state of Florida, where his organization is registered, sets aside $690,000 for salaries and $350,000 for “professional and consulting” expenses in 2019. He said the salaries are for his eight or nine full-time employees, including his spokesperson and Kobach, his general counsel. Kolfage says he is taking no compensation.

After complaints to the Florida Attorney General, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services opened a review. The complaints noted that Kolfage was promoting a donor-only raffle to win a trip to visit the wall, but Florida law says charities must allow anyone, not just donors, to enter contests. Kolfage dismissed the inquiry as ‘smoke and mirrors.’ The department said the probe is ongoing and declined further comment.

Such controversy has concerned some fellow fundraisers. “You get too many black eyes like this and people are gonna lose faith,” said Jon Brimus, spokesman for Fund the Wall.

Kolfage said his success had bruised the egos of critics, but acknowledged his effort alone could never raise enough money to fund the entire wall. “Our end game is really just to keep the pressure on our government to fix this crisis from both sides.”

Linda Kilgore, a Washington State retiree, donated $100 to both Kolfage’s GoFundMe and Downey’s Border Wall Foundation. Kilgore, 65, said her career as a school teacher showed her illegal immigrants were overwhelming public schools, so she began donating to the border wall after a lifetime supporting causes such as wildlife conservation. She was happy to hear of Florida’s scrutiny of Kolfage.

“If somebody is taking my money, and I don’t care if it’s for polar bears or penguins, I’m hoping you’re above board, and if somebody’s looking over your shoulder, that’s great, “she said.

Georgia Hostetler, 89, of South Carolina, has sent Kolfage’s group $30 a month since December. “When I see that man that lost two legs and an arm, I just love what he’s doing,” she said of the veteran.

PAC POLITICS

Trump’s border wall has become a magnet for political PACs, independent committees that operate with far fewer rules than campaigns on contributions and spending. At least four committees geared toward supporting the wall and like-minded political candidates were launched after his election.

All four failed to generate much if any, money. They did confuse some donors.

“I thought it was going to go right to the wall,” said Chris Kilsdonk, 63, who runs a small business boarding and grooming dogs in rural Montana. She gave $400 to Raise the Wall, a committee started by a Republican political consultant in suburban Washington, D.C.

Kilsdonk gave after reading “a lot of articles on Facebook.” She said she was not aware she was giving to a political committee.

Raise the Wall Treasurer Chris Marston said he created the PAC in 2017 for a client, Mike Khristo, a web designer and Internet marketer from California. Donors were supposed to receive engraved bricks, but Marston said that proved to be too expensive.

“Fundraising costs ate up the whole amount that they raised,” Marston said. Raise the Wall received $13,246, but gave no money to support candidates before it was terminated six months later. Khristo declined to comment.

Another PAC, Build the Wall, began in January 2018, before Kolfage’s similarly named fund drive, by two California political consultants, Tommy Knepper and Briana Baleskie. Knepper said the plan was to raise funds for Republican Senate candidates in 2018, but his committee didn’t gain traction, raising $14,764 but giving nothing to support campaigns.

Knepper said he didn’t make any money from Build the Wall, and Baleskie, the treasurer, said she refunded a couple of misdirected contributions. They said they intend to shut it down. “We’re not out to frustrate people,” Baleskie said.

Political professionals weren’t the only ones getting involved. Daniel Schramek of St. Petersburg, Florida, is a Trump campaign volunteer once sanctioned by the Florida Supreme Court for practicing law without a license. Schramek started the Great Wall of America super PAC in 2017. The committee raised $700, which Schramek said he intends to refund to donors.

“It’s a lot of work getting people to donate money,” he said.

Another committee, the American Border Protection PAC, started in January. “There are greedy individuals who are raising enormous amounts of money to build the wall for personal gain and fame,” the committee’s website warns, saying all money would go to DHS for wall construction.

American Border Protection was the brainchild of Chrysalis Johnson, 43, a now-unemployed Arizona software designer who launched an earlier venture in cryptocurrency and an anti-Facebook campaign. He said his effort might help Americans living in border towns.

But, Johnson said, “No one wanted to buy into it.” He reported no contributions received.

(Editing by Ronnie Greene and Jason Szep)

Trump administration to hasten officer deployment to U.S.-Mexico border: statement

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen speaks beside Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez (not pictured) during a multilateral meeting at the Honduran Ministry of Security in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera/File Photo

By Yeganeh Torbati

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration will speed up the deployment of hundreds of officers on the southern border of the United States and will dramatically expand a policy of returning migrants seeking asylum to Mexico, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said on Monday.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency first announced the redeployment of 750 officers to process a surge of migrant families entering the United States last week.

In a written statement, Nielsen said she had ordered CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to undertake “emergency surge operations” and immediately speed up the reassignment.

CBP also has the authority to raise the number of redeployed personnel past 750, and will notify Nielsen if they plan to reassign more than 2,000 officers.

The agency will also “immediately expand” a policy to return Central American migrants to Mexico as they wait for their asylum claims to be heard by “hundreds of additional migrants per day above current rates,” Nielsen said.

That would be a dramatic expansion of the policy, dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols, put in place in January. As of March 26, approximately 370 migrants had been returned to Mexico, a Mexican official told Reuters last week.

Asked about the numbers, a DHS spokeswoman declined to confirm them and said the policy “is still in the early stages of implementation.”

The policy is aimed at curbing the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States. Trump administration officials say a system that allows asylum seekers to remain in the country for years while waiting for their cases to move through a backlogged immigration court system encourages illegal immigration.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups sued the Trump administration over the policy, claiming it violates U.S. law.

But following a March 22 hearing on whether the program should be halted, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco ordered both sides to submit further briefing on the question of whether or not the California court has jurisdiction to preside over the case, likely prolonging any decision on the policy.

(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Grant McCool and Meredith Mazzilli)

U.S. Congress advances border security bill without Trump border wall

A visitor walks by the U.S. Capitol on day 32 of a partial government shutdown as it becomes the longest in U.S. history in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jim Young

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress on Thursday aimed to end a dispute over border security with legislation that would ignore President Donald Trump’s request for $5.7 billion (£4.45 billion) to help build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border but avoid a partial government shutdown.

Late on Wednesday, negotiators put the finishing touches on legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, along with a range of other federal agencies.

Racing against a Friday midnight deadline, when operating funds expire for the agencies that employ about 800,000 workers at the DHS, the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and others, the Senate and House of Representatives aimed to pass the legislation later on Thursday.

That would give Trump time to review the measure and sign it into law before temporary funding for about one-quarter of the government expires.

Failure to do so would shutter many government programs, from national parks maintenance and air traffic controller training programs to the collection and publication of important data for financial markets, for the second time this year.

“This agreement denies funding for President Trump’s border wall and includes several key measures to make our immigration system more humane,” House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat, said in a statement.

According to congressional aides, the final version of legislation would give the Trump administration $1.37 billion in new money to help build 55 miles (88.5 km) of new physical barriers on the southwest border, far less than what Trump had been demanding.

It is the same level of funding Congress appropriated for border security measures last year, including barriers but not concrete walls.

Since he ran for office in 2016, Trump has been demanding billions of dollars to build a wall on the southwest border, saying “crisis” conditions required a quick response to stop the flow of illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants, largely from Central America.

He originally said Mexico would pay for a 2,000-mile (3,200-km) concrete wall – an idea that Mexico dismissed.

Trump has not yet said whether he would sign the legislation into law if the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and Republican-led Senate approve it, even as many of his fellow Republicans in Congress were urging him to do so.

Instead, he said on Wednesday he would hold off on a decision until he examines the final version of legislation.

But Trump, widely blamed for a five-week shutdown that ended in January, said he did not want to see federal agencies close again because of fighting over funds for the wall.

Senator Richard Shelby, the Republican negotiator who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a Twitter post he spoke to Trump later on Wednesday and he was in good spirits. Shelby told Trump the agreement was “a downpayment on his border wall.”

‘NATIONAL EMERGENCY’

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is in regular contact with the White House, said Trump was “inclined to take the deal and move on.”

But Graham also told reporters that Trump would then look elsewhere to find more money to build a border wall and was “very inclined” to declare a national emergency to secure the funds for the project.

Such a move likely would spark a court battle, as it is Congress and not the president that mainly decides how federal funds get spent. Several leading Republicans have cautioned Trump against taking the unilateral action.

Under the bill, the government could hire 75 new immigrant judge teams to help reduce a huge backlog in cases and hundreds of additional border patrol agents.

Hoping to reduce violence and economic distress in Central America that fuels immigrant asylum cases in the United States, the bill also provides $527 million to continue humanitarian assistance to those countries.

The House Appropriations Committee said the bill would set a path for reducing immigrant detention beds to about 40,520 by the end of the fiscal year, down from a current count of approximately 49,060.

Democrats sought reductions, arguing that would force federal agents to focus on apprehending violent criminals and repeat offenders and discourage arrests of undocumented immigrants for minor traffic violations, for example.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which is run by Republicans, said there were provisions in the bill that could result in an increase in detention beds from last year.

Lowey said the bill would improve medical care and housing of immigrant families in detention and expand a program providing alternatives to detention.

The wide-ranging bill also contains some important domestic initiatives, including a $1.2 billion increase in infrastructure investments for roads, bridges and other ground transport, as well as more for port improvements.

With the 2020 decennial census nearing, the bill provides a $1 billion increase for the nationwide count. Also, federal workers, battered by the record 35-day partial government shutdown that began on Dec. 22 as Trump held out for wall funding, would get a 1.9 percent pay increase if the bill becomes law.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Robert Birsel and Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. says foreign meddling didn’t affect 2018 election systems

People fill out their ballots during the midterm election at Philomont Fire Station, in Purcellville, Virginia, U.S., November 6, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top U.S. officials said on Tuesday that foreign actors did not have a significant impact on computer systems and other equipment underpinning the November, 2018 congressional elections, despite reports of hacking attempts.

The statement by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security contrasted with U.S. officials’ view that the 2016 presidential election was the target of a sophisticated Russian hacking and propaganda campaign to help Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hilary Clinton.

The two agencies said the U.S. government has found no evidence that foreign governments or agents had an impact last November, when Democrats won control of the House of Representatives.

Neither political campaigns nor electronic voting machines or other infrastructure was significantly affected, they said in a joint statement. They declined to provide further details.

U.S. prosecutors are investigating whether President Donald Trump’s campaign worked with the Kremlin to win the 2016 election. Trump has denied any collusion, and Moscow has also denied involvement.

Security experts have warned for years that U.S. election infrastructure — voting machines, voter registries and other computer systems — could be manipulated to change vote tallies or prevent people from casting ballots.

The 2016 election also illustrated how hackers can compromise candidates by releasing internal emails and other sensitive documents, and by working to sway public opinion through social media.

Ahead of the November 2018 election, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials warned that foreign actors were continuing their manipulation efforts. Prosecutors charged a Russian national with participating in a Kremlin-backed plan to interfere in the election.

Some state and local governments reported attempts to access their networks ahead of the November 2018 election, but U.S. officials said they were able to prevent or limit access.

On the night of the Nov. 6 election, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said there were no signs that voting systems had been breached.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect Republican candidates, said it was the target of a hacking attempt last year. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, running for re-election in West Virginia, also said his social-media accounts had been hacked.

U.S. intelligence officials warned last week that Russia and China are already targeting the 2020 presidential election.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham and David Gregorio)

Trump to lawmakers: Don’t waste your time, deal needs wall

U.S. President Donald Trump announces a deal to end the partial government shutdown as he speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With little time to craft a deal over funding security operations on the U.S.-Mexico border, a bipartisan group of lawmakers was to meet in a public work-session on Wednesday even as President Donald Trump maintained a hard line on constructing a massive wall.

Congressional negotiators are up against a Feb. 15 deadline for agreeing on funding through Sept. 30 for several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and its border operations.

Realistically, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have about a week to settle differences and still give the full House of Representatives and Senate time to debate and vote on any deal.

A 35-day partial shutdown of agencies was triggered on Dec. 22 when Trump refused to sign funding bills that did not contain $5.7 billion for a wall along the southwestern U.S. border.

Faced with steadfast opposition in the Democratic-majority House, Trump relented on Friday, agreeing to re-open federal agencies temporarily without his $5.7 billion request. In return, Congress agreed to a special panel to negotiate a border security deal.

Trump has threatened a resumption of the record-long shutdown if the panel fails to find common ground or produces a plan he does not like.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Trump warned: “If the committee of Republicans and Democrats now meeting on Border Security is not discussing or contemplating a Wall or Physical Barrier, they are Wasting their time!”

Physical barriers have long been installed on parts of the border to keep out illegal drugs and undocumented immigrants and more are underway.

It was unclear whether Trump, who views the current arrangement as insufficient, would accept a simple continuation of such installations. Building a wall on the U.S. southern border – with Mexico paying for it – was one of Trump’s most often repeated promises during the 2016 presidential campaign. Mexico has refused to pay for a wall.

Democrats, arguing a border wall is ineffective, say they want a mix of security tools: drones, sensors, scanning devices and fences, along with more border patrol agents.

Wednesday’s committee meeting might be the only public session since behind-the-scenes negotiations are the stage for the real bargaining.

The session is expected to mainly allow the seven Senate negotiators and 10 House negotiators an opportunity to make opening statements. The committee is headed by House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat, and Republican Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

With a mix of wall supporters and opponents, it is unclear whether the panel will reach agreement.

Republican Representative Kay Granger was optimistic, telling reporters she and Lowey “have worked together well” over the years.

If Congress denies his request, Trump has threatened to declare a “national emergency” in order to take existing funds appropriated by Congress for other purposes – possibly from the Defense Department, for example – to build his wall.

There is bipartisan opposition in Congress to that plan, which likely would spark legal challenges since the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to appropriate funds and direct their use.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bill Trott)

U.S. to return first Central American asylum seekers to Mexico

A migrant man and woman, part of a caravan of thousands from Central America tying to reach the United States, carry their belongings during the closing of the Barretal shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Julia Love

TIJUANA (Reuters) – The United States will send the first group of Central American asylum seekers back to Mexico on Tuesday, a U.S. official said, as part of a hardened immigration policy to keep migrants south of the border while their cases are processed in U.S. courts.

Tuesday’s return of migrants was to be carried out under a policy dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Katie Waldman said. Mexican officials had said on Friday that the transfers would happen that day.

MPP was implemented “once the appropriate field guidance was issued,” Waldman said.

A Mexican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said the first group would be sent across on Tuesday.

Under MPP, the United States will return non-Mexican migrants who cross the U.S. southern border back to Mexico while their asylum requests are processed in U.S. immigration courts.

Asylum seekers have traditionally been granted the right to stay in the United States while their cases were decided by an immigration judge, but a backlog of more than 800,000 cases means the process can take years.

U.S. authorities are expected to send as many as 20 people per day through the Mexican border city of Tijuana and gradually start sending people back through the other legal ports of entry, Mexico’s foreign ministry said on Friday.

The U.S. policy is aimed at curbing the increasing number of families arriving mostly from Central America to request asylum who say they fear returning home because of threats of violence there. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump says many of the claims are not valid.

(Reporting by Julia Love in Tijuana, Yeganeh Torbati in New York and Dave Graham in Mexico City; Writing by Delphine Schrank and Anthony Esposito; editing by Grant McCool)

Congress to push stop-gap funding bill with no border wall money

FILE PHOTO: Workers on the U.S. side, work on the border wall between Mexico and the U.S., as seen from Tijuana, Mexico, December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Congress, aiming to avoid a partial government shutdown at the end of this week, began advancing legislation on Wednesday to temporarily fund several federal agencies through Feb. 8, but without money for a U.S.-Mexico border wall that President Donald Trump demanded.

“We’ll soon take up a simple measure that will continue government funding into February so that we can continue this vital (border security) debate after the new Congress has convened” in January, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

A Senate Democratic aide said the appropriations bill, which would keep the Department of Homeland Security and several other agencies operating on a temporary basis, was expected to pass the Senate either on Wednesday or Thursday.

The House of Representatives would then have to pass the bill and hope that Trump signs it into law, avoiding a shutdown because existing funding for the agencies will expire at midnight on Friday.

By postponing decisions on spending for the agencies that also includes the departments of Justice, Commerce, Interior and Agriculture, Democrats will be in a somewhat stronger bargaining position next year when they take majority control of the House.

Democrats and many Republicans have challenged the wisdom of giving Trump $5 billion this year, and ultimately a total of at least $24 billion, to build a wall that they argue would be less effective in securing the border than building on a mix of tools already in place.

In a last-ditch attempt to resolve the impasse this year, Trump and McConnell on Tuesday proposed giving Trump a $1 billion fund that he could use at his discretion for border security.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer labeled that a “slush fund” that would lack the votes to pass Congress.

On Wednesday, McConnell attacked Democrats for rejecting it, saying, “It seems like political spite for the president may be winning out over sensible policy.”

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bernadette Baum)